THOMPSON, Conn. — Sunday’s Sunoco World Series 150 for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will see one driver celebrate the championship at the end of the 150-lap distance, but the race will also see one driver make his long-awaited Tour debut.
Current NEMA Lites points leader Dan Cugini has been given the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of the No. 20, a car normally piloted and owned by Max Zachem. Since Zachem is sidelined due to injury, he has given Cugini, a family member, the opportunity to drive the car in his place for the season-finale.
“We are making good of a bad situation, I’m putting a family member in the car, he is my girlfriend’s brother and it’s a really good opportunity for him,” Zachem said. “I’m killing two birds with one stone with this. I get to see him get his opportunity and my car gets to go on the track at the Sunoco World Series at Thompson.”
Cugini had originally planned to enter the upcoming three-day Thompson race weekend with only one ride. He currently holds an 83 point advantage at the top of the NEMA Lite driver’s point standings. He also leads the owner’s title by 13 points. A phone call from Zachem changed all of that.
“This is huge for me,” Cugini said. “I got the phone call from Max and we are really close, he told me he wanted me to drive his car at Thompson and I thought he was kidding. I’m still floating on cloud-nine that I even have this opportunity. This is definitely the most exciting opportunity I have had in racing before.”
Cugini doesn’t have much experience in a modified, but he isn’t letting that dictate what will happen on Sunday. He has driven Zachem’s old car in practice before and also competed in the Modified Touring Series event at New London-Waterford Speedbowl earlier this year.
“The fast feeling is the same in any race car, whether it’s a midget or a modified. The difference between them is the physical racing,” Cugini said. “The modified is wider and much more stable down the straightaway.”
“Practice [will be] really important to get me comfortable in the car. Thompson is probably my favorite track by far in the Midgets anyway — I have a lot of experience there. The speed isn’t going to be the factor, it will be how deep I can drive it in and how soon I can pick up the throttle.”
Of course there will be an adjustment period for the Marshfield, Mass. driver, but he is hoping some of his past Thompson experience will help him out.
“A midget at Thompson is quite the ride. Going to a modified I’ll really be able see the true speed of a modified. It’s going to be a pretty awesome ride. I think my experience definitely helps, it’s a bigger track. You are in the throttle a lot longer,” Cugini said.
Although he normally works on Zachem’s pit crew, Cugini didn’t want to see his opportunity to get behind the wheel come this way. With Zachem sidelined because of injury, he has been given the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It’s really difficult for the whole team,” Cugini said. “The fact that I have to see him miss races when he really stepped things up this year is horrible. It’s truly devastating.”
“There is nothing more that he wants than to be in that car. If he told me on Friday he was ready to race, he would be in the car. It’s just huge for me to be able to take that spot and help him. He puts so much work and time into it. That car is his pride and joy. The fact that he is letting someone else drive it is huge.”
Getting set for 150 laps, Cugini knows it’s going to be a test for him, but he does have a few goals he wants to accomplish on Sunday.
“Every race car driver sets the goal to win, but we want to stay on the lead lap and run the best we can out there,” Cugini said. “It’s one of those deals where we want to run towards the front — Max has put me in the best equipment that you can get.”
For Zachem, the frustration of not being able to compete has given him opportunity to give Cugini the chance he needs.
About The Writer
When not writing, Souza works at the Seekonk Speedway as the track’s Friday night public address announcer. Souza also works for Area Auto Racing News, based in Trenton, N.J. and is a freelance reporter for NASCAR Home Tracks, covering the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
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