Column By: JUSTIN SNYDER / RPW – HELLERTOWN, PA – Following the tragic passing of Heffner Motorsports driver Greg Hodnett on Sept. 20 as a result of injuries sustained in a crash at BAPS Motor Speedway, many in the racing community were left to pick up the pieces.
Few were affected deeper than the owner of the race team Hodnett drove for, Mike Heffner. As the season in Central PA winded to a close and the focus in the racing scene transitioned from making laps to preparing for 2019, many race fans wondered if they had seen the last of the Heffner #27.
After months of thinking and a lot of encouragement the answer was yes and no.
With the blessing of Hodnett’s wife Sherry and after much support from the racing community, Heffner made the decision to return to the track for his 11th season as an owner. In an announcement posted to the team’s social media pages Monday, he named Kunkletown, PA standout Ryan Smith as the pilot of his entry for the 2019 season.
However, not everything would be the same. First and foremost, the team is switching from the now iconic #27 to a number 72. A tribute Heffner noted as allowing the team to continue on while continuing to honor Hodnett.
With a new number also comes a new sponsor and a new look. While the Heffner car has always been known to appeal to the eyes with some of the coolest paint schemes over the years, this year’s car will appease to another one of the senses….taste!
Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group (LVRG), a regionally owned and operated Red Robin franchisee the serves the Lehigh Valley, Northeast PA, Southeast PA and Harrisburg communities, will be the primary sponsor for the Heffner Racing Sprint Car in 2019.
“I’m really excited and honored that they chose us to help publicize their brand and business in their venture into the sprint car racing,” said Heffner. “With a brand like Red Robin and their great food, I really think this will be a successful pairing for a long time to come.”
LVRG, which was formed in 1991 by late founder and former CEO, Stephen J. Hanzlik and a group of friends, opened their first Red Robin restaurant in 1992 at Tilghman Square in Allentown, PA. Now that group owns and operates 21 Red Robin franchises throughout the Pennsylvania footprint.
Last year, the Mechanicsburg location held multiple fundraisers for the family of Hodnett during the weekend of the Champion Racing Oil Williams Grove National Open. After seeing the outpouring support of the local race fans and an admiration of their tight knit nature, plans were set into place to enter the sport in a sponsorship capacity.
“We decided to get involved with the local racing community due to the passion of the fans,” said Chris DeFrain, Chief Financial Officer of LVRG. “We’ve always made ourselves a part of our communities and this is another way we can get more involved.”
“We look forward to merging the passion of Sprint Car fans and the PA Posse with the passion Red Robin has for its great food, fun atmosphere and exquisite customer service,” added DeFrain.
One of the first drivers the team interviewed in their hunt for the perfect driver to represent their brand was Smith. At the time, Smith was making plans to possibly travel with the Ollie’s Bargain Outlets All Star Circuit of Champions presented by Mobil 1 along with local shows sprinkled in.
Once Heffner, who DeFrain had met following their fundraising efforts in 2018, made the decision to continue racing and Smith was chosen as his driver, the ‘family like’ connection was too much to pass up for LVRG and they settled on the Heffner Racing car.
“We believe the Heffner Racing team mirrors the LVRG family atmosphere and we’re really looking forward to pairing the bottomless fun of the sport of racing to our delicious Bottomless Fries,” said DeFrain.
Smith relishes the opportunity to race for a fully-funded race team and is really looking forward to representing a brand that is not only known in the Central PA surrounding area, but nationwide.
“It’s really amazing to have this kind of support behind me as I continue my racing career behind the wheel of the Heffner Racing entry,” said Smith, who has wins against the Craftsman World of Outlaws and ASCoC on his resume. “To be a part of bringing a well-known company like Red Robin to Sprint Car racing and its fans, it’s truly a sign of the times and shows just how healthy our sport is right now.”
“I’m looking forward to doing my part to get race fans eating at Red Robin and being an ambassador for them in our sport. Red Robin is known to be all about fun and between making an impact on social media and appearances at the restaurant away from the track, I think fun is exactly what this season is going to about,” added Smith.
While an exact schedule outside Pennsylvania has not been planned just quite yet and a paint scheme has not yet been completed, Heffner is already dreaming about the possibilities of representing the brand not only in the Central PA region, but across the country.
“From the outside looking in it is very easy to say that this just helps Mike Heffner and Ryan Smith,” said Heffner. “But I believe that this is a lot bigger than just our car carrying their name and that it benefits the racing scene as a whole.”
“They’re making a big commitment to our sport and I hope racing fans in Central PA are as excited as we are to welcome them to racing. This is not just a sponsor agreement, but a partnership. While we’re excited to carry that banner for them here in Central PA, with their brand recognition we have an opportunity to attract a whole new audience wherever it is we decide to race on any given night. This is a deal where I think everyone including the fans can get involved and I can’t wait to get started!”