Column By: RUSTY RHOADES / RPW – PORT ROYAL, PA – Rapidly ascending through the dearth of damn good modified driving talent drenching today’s dirt tracks is an extremely daunting task to say the least. Yet young Anthony Perrego’s ever-growing resume of high-profile wins continues to demand recognition and respect throughout the modified community.
His Sunday afternoon exploits at Pennsylvania’s “Speed Palace” will do nothing but brighten that spotlight already shifted in his direction by the dirt racing community.
A textbook early Spring afternoon at Port Royal Speedway already shed a few beams well-deserved sunlight upon the great crowd of race fans prior to Perrego taking control of the crowd pleasing duties. Perrego exhibited an exceptional amount of poise all day long considering this was his first ever competitive experience on the expansive Port racing surface, not to mention only his second show behind the wheel of the potent and sharp #12 Gary Simpson-owned modified.
He systematically picked his way through lapped traffic while powering through the top five and then to the front of an absolutely loaded Short Track Super Series feature field.
Furthermore, he accomplished such a feat without the benefit of one caution over the final 35 laps, on a slick daytime surface no less, en route to banking more of Brett Deyo’s big bucks as this year’s 40 lap Speed Showcase winner!
A star studded field of 34 mighty modifieds were on hand Sunday in hopes of adding their names to the list of winners at the sprawling facility most know as a mainstay of open wheel sprint car racing. The feature redraw produced a difficult 11th starting position for the Montgomery, NY hotshoe. That would have him lining up at least one row behind big guns such as Stewart Friesen, Brett Hearn and Matt Sheppard coming to the green.
Friesen, who arrived at Port Royal fresh off of another NASCAR Truck Series pole and top 5 finish at Martinsville that also made him the current point leader, wasted no time in rocketing from his 3rd place start into the lead and rapidly developing a several second advantage on the field within a couple circuits. The large crowd on hand may have already started anticipating the superstar and his potent DKM Halmar 44 heading to another dominant STSS victory (myself included), but that all ended just as quickly as it began, when Friesen’s machine went up in smoke and created the event’s only caution flag after a handful of laps.
Dan Bouc would inherit the lead following Friesen’s issues. Perrego was now into the top 8, but more importantly would have an outside starting position heading back to green.
He absolutely launched his Gary Simpson-owned #12 onto the cushion into turns 1 and 2 and stormed around a group of low side victims lacking the same amount of grip he had. When Matt Sheppard took the runner-up spot on lap 9, Perrego had already landed inside the top five. When Sheppard put his #9s around Bouc and into the lead on lap 11, Anthony had already wheeled his way into third place. He then took possession of second only a few laps later.
This set the stage for an all-out war for the win that would end up being waged back and forth over a dozen or so laps. Sheppard’s almost 3 second lead on lap 14 was practically gone by the halfway point due to a high volume of racy lapped traffic also battling for position and using multiple lanes in front of the leader. At lap 22, Perrego powered his new ride alongside “Super Matt” for the first of several attempts to overtake the 9s while both simultaneously tried any and everything in their arsenal to negotiate the back markers. Perrego led lap 22, Sheppard led lap 24, then Perrego again led lap 26. But Sheppard wasn’t about to give in, and took the lead again on lap 27, pulling away from the Simpson Racing #12 just a bit.
The relentless Perrego knew he was a little better than Sheppard at this juncture of the epic battle however, and the opportunity to make the winning pass again presented itself three laps later. This time Perrego wasn’t wasting any more valuable time or space trying to be patient. He took his closing momentum down the backstretch right to Sheppard’s bumper and this time they both went low into 3, with Perrego staying in the gas longer and wedging the 9s off his line just a bit, successfully bringing the highly entertaining mano-e-mano to a close with 7 laps remaining.
Perrego would gradually drive away from Sheppard and the rest of the field from that point, ultimately cruising under the twin checkered flags with a 2 second victory over Sheppard.
I caught up with Anthony post-race and his intital comments make this win stand out even more now in my eyes. “We showed up last year here, broke a water pump shaft and never turned a lap,so my first laps here were earlier today in practice,” Perrego explained. “I found something on the outside of turns one and two on that restart after Friesen broke that really helped us alot,” he continued. “We were kind of even with everyone in three and four, but had pretty good runs coming off down the straightaway too.”
I couldn’t help but notice the pride emanating from Perrego as he praised the sky high level of talent he basically just dominated outside of the few lead changes throughout his awesome battle with Sheppard. “There was a lot of good competition here today. Obviously driving past Sheppard in any race anywhere it’s pretty impressive. I’m pretty sure I probably surprised everyone here when that happened too,” he added as we both enjoyed a laugh in realizing how true that statement probably was! “But Matt is a total class act, and it’s always great to race against him.”
NEWS & NOTES FROM THE TOP 5
Mat Williamson also continues to put together standout performances since branching out on a more aggressive travelling schedule, as he rounded out the podium in 3rd after starting way back in 19th!
Dan Bouc once again proved to be “The Horse Whisperer”, as he managed to get every last bit of power and then some out of the open 358 small block motor residing in his backup Pondish #6 ride. Their season got off to a terrible start last weekend at Georgetown in the form of a burned-up motor shelving their primary car right out of the gate. What a great way to rebound Sunday! He led the main early, faded just a bit as the young talent gained valuable seat time and a better feel for what was the first Bicknell car he’s ever raced before! Bouc hung in there as always, working hard to keep with the top five over the the long green flag period that slicked off the track surface and made his eventual fourth-place finish look even more impressive considering all the different things already thrown at driver and crew in 2019.
Another snippet of interest related to the 5th place finisher in this may come as a surprise, as it did to me. Arguably the greatest to ever wheel a dirt modified, Brett Hearn, made a late decision to join the ground-pounding party at the Palace. What shocked me wasn’t necessarily him rolling to victory in his heat race,, but rather his post-race admission that this was indeed his very first time at the Central PA facility. I’m well aware Port hasn’t had a modified presence for several decades until recently, however small block modifieds were a staple here back in the late 1980s, with a few drivers present on Sunday actually having Port Royal victories to their credit. His second comment should seem familiar, however, when asked of his initial impression of the place. “Holy Mackerel! What an awesome facility and track they have here!” Now that is most definitely a recurring description given by practically every person I’ve talked to or heard!