January 8th, 2005
BINGHAMTON, NY - At a table near the dance floor, Don Sr. and Cindy Hart sat proudly. And their delight was justified. While Saturday night's Five Mile Point Speedway Awards Banquet honored numerous top point-getters and special award winners from the 2004 season, the Hart family basked in the limelight.
For the first time in the 54-year history of the facility, brothers dominated the point standings in the headline classes at FMP. Don Hart Jr. copped the Modified title, while younger sibling Rodney Hart earned the Sportsman championship. Both received their hardware before a crowd of 400 racers, crew members, sponsors, media members and race enthusiasts at the classy Binghamton Regency.
Following a delicious dinner, Tom Cummings and Brett Deyo took the stage for the awards presentation, culminating a historic season at FMP that began with Andrew Harpell taking over the reigns from brother Dan, who served as the promoter for 15 years. It was a year of resurgence for the venerable track, with increased counts in the pits and larger numbers in the grandstands.
For the Hart brothers, based in Bainbridge, N.Y., the year 2004 was equally memorable. It produced their first-ever open-wheel championships. In the Modified battle, Don Hart Jr. utilized a three-win season to earn the title by 82 markers driving his Enders small-block powered Bicknell No. X1. En route to the championship, he scored a pair of extra-distance victories, including the Season Opener on May 15 and the Heath Memorial on June 26.
"It's an honor to be in the league of drivers who have won the championship here," said Hart, whose previous best was a second to Mitch Gibbs in 2002. "To join names like Worthing, Colsten and Akulis is great. And really, I have to thank Andrew Harpell for giving us a place to race. He's put a lot into Five Mile Point."
Predictably, Hart was more than enthused with the opportunity to share some glory with his little brother. "It's great to be able to do this in the same year as my brother - and we both can't thank our parents enough," he said, adding that they acted as car owners in '04. "If we needed something for the cars, it was just a matter of asking. We didn't lack anything." The 31-year-old also stressed the camaraderie between he and his brother that resulted in on-track success.
"We work together (at the family business, Hart's Logging) and we only live 100 yards apart," Hart said. "We shared information all year long and it helped us both. If he found something that helped his car, he'd tell me and if I hit on something, I'd tell him." Hart asserted that he will be back to defend his championship in 2005, but did say it would be tough to repeat the success of '04. "Our standards are already set when we get there (for the opener)," he said. "Second or third is going to seem like nothing, like we're backing up."
For his efforts, Hart - and all divisional champions - received a handsome trophy, cash award, Five Mile Point clock and wall decorative, along with an embroidered jacket from Hoosier Race Tires. Rich Keehle Jr., Dana Wagner, Brian Malcolm and J.R. Crouse were second through fifth, respectively. Jim Crawn, Glenn Knapp Jr., Bobby Puckett, Dan Vauter and James Cornell rounded out the top 10.
While his brother's championship ended with a comfortable margin, Rodney Hart's Sportsman run came down to the final night, as he bested Brett Tonkin by only 25 points. Hart won three races during the season, wheeling his No. 10X Bicknell equipped with a Harry Cook engine. He clinched the title with a win on Season Championship night.
"First off, I have to thank the track for bringing the Sportsman back," Hart, 27, said. "I sat out a couple years because I wanted to race at the same track as my brother. Having both classes here worked out. "This was a good experience for us and Five Mile Point," he continued. "It's something to be the first brothers ever to win championships in the same year."
Rounding out the top five were Tonkin, Ricky Rutt, Brandon Buck and Shawn Olenski. Garth Tonkin Jr., Brad Grim, Tim French, Brian Decker and Jeremy Holt filled out the top 10.
One year ago, Gary Dence returned to action at Five Mile Point after an absence from driving. In 2004, he drove to the UMP Modified track championship, off the strength of three straight victories to conclude the point season. The Candor, N.Y., racer, a former tech inspector at the track, earned the title by 14 points over K.C. Cole.
Cole, Scott Bennett, Joe Cole and Brad Shaffer finished in positions two through five, ahead of Mike Stolarcyk III, Mike Stoddard, Jay Conroy, Dave Stalker and Joe Novak.
Having driven numerous different types of cars, Binghamton, N.Y.'s Darl Ellis found a certain comfort level in the Street Stock division. He was so comfortable, in fact, that he shelved his Modified and raced to the track championship in the full-fendered ranks. Ellis picked up two feature wins and collected the title by a mere eight markers after a year-long tussle with Bill Trego. The personable Ellis says he is building a new car, and "is coming to take another championship" in 2005.
Behind runner-up Trego were Chris Strohl, Les Gillette, Dan Pompey, Brett Spoor, Carl Heater, Nick Petrilak, Jason Bartsch and Kurt Decker.
Charlie Gilbert defines the word "veteran" in Pure Stock competition, having achieved success at Five Mile Point and throughout the region. Gilbert, of Binghamton, N.Y., attained his second championship at the Kirkwood quarter-mile in 2004, winning two races while finishing the year with a scant six-point edge.
Walt McClenon finished second, ahead of Art Darling Jr., Mahlon Shoemaker and Jeremy Shaw. Sixth through 10th were Shane Wolf, Mike Codington, Darl Ellis Jr., Corey Bond and Jonathan Carpenter.
Following the top 10 presentations, a plethora of special awards were handed out, including:
Best Appearing Car - Bobby Puckett (Modified); Brad Grim (Sportsman); Brett Spoor (Street Stock); Mike Stolarcyk III (UMP Modified) and Shane Wolf (Pure Stock).
Hard Luck Award - Dan Hineline (Modified); Archie Myers III (Sportsman); Nick Petrilak (Street Stock); Mike Stoddard (UMP Modified) and Jeremy Shaw (Pure Stock).
Rookie of the Year - James Cornell (Modified); Jeremy Holt (Sportsman); Chris Strohl (Street Stock); Jay Conroy (UMP Modified) and Jonathan Carpenter (Pure Stock).
Most Improved Driver - Rich Keehle Jr. (Modified); K.C. Cole (UMP Modified) and Walt McClenon (Pure Stock).
The first annual Pit Steward Award, presented by Brian Cochardo, went to Shawn Olenski for his cooperation all year in lining up when called for events.
Roger Batzel picked up the prestigious Glenn Knapp Sr. Car Owner of the Year Award. Batzel fielded three cars in 2004 - a Modified driven by nephew Joel Batzel, a Sportsman driven by Jeremy Holt and a Pure Stock driven by Chris Wood.
2004 Special Contribution Awards were presented to Dave French and Tom Cummings. French is vital to the tire sales and distribution for FMP and the Race of Champions Modified Tour, while Cummings served as the track announcer for the past 16 years, while working tirelessly behind the scenes.
Andrew Harpell offered some closing remarks, thanking all those who supported FMP in '04 and citing "fun" as a number one priority for the speedway in 2005 and beyond. He is planning an April 9 East Coast Sprint Car program, accompanied by Sportsman and Pure Stocks, to open year 55 of competition at Five Mile Point. Music and dancing completed the festive evening.
Earlier in the day, teams from each of the five weekly divisions met with Harpell and track officials to discuss rules and procedures for the upcoming season. 2005 rules will be announced in the coming weeks.