RPW Exclusive: Time To Shake The Rust Off; Lebanon Valley Holds Pre-Season Test Session

Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – WEST LEBANON, NY – Usually, there is one blaring topic that comes out of the pre-season test session at the Lebanon Valley Speedway. This year, it was the track conditions…in a positive way.

From the drop of the first green flag, the surface looked as if it was in mid-season form. Smooth and racy was the name of the game on an absolutely gorgeous spring day in the Valley.

Near 70-degree temperatures aided the racing surface which showed very little wear in regards to holes and started to blacken up in the groove as the session went on.

Brian Berger couldn’t have been any happier with how his Saturday night went at the Valley. Berger was unofficially fastest in the first two sessions of the day and shut it down after that.

“We are extremely happy with how this car feels right now,” Berger said. “I’m really excited about how the engine is too. My guys worked their tails off all winter and it’s showing with how good this car is.”

For Berger this season, it’s all about having fun and enjoying racing. For many years, he’s put pressure on himself to perform. While the pressure is still there, the direction is a little different.

“I’ve always felt the pressure to do well for our sponsors,” he said. “This year, I want to do my best for my guys. They are so dedicated to our program that it makes me want to do the best I can for them. They give their all and I will do the same.”

Berger was also busy on Friday night, as he’ll be calling the Albany-Saratoga Speedway home this season. Berger was happy with this car at the test two nights ago and said it felt good to shake the rust off.

“It was awesome to get back out there Friday,” Berger said. “We were tight on the first set so the crew went to work and made some adjustments. We were better for the second set and I think we would have been better for the third but rain cut the night short.”

He also feels that running at Malta will help his Saturday night program greatly.

“Friday we got the cobweb’s out and just had some fun,” he said. “Tonight, we were ready to go from the drop of the first green. I made sure not to put any expectations on what we do up there. We’re just going to have fun and hopefully learn a lot that will help our stuff here at Lebanon.”

LJ Lombardo’s someone who has a new piece he’s sitting in this season. After racing for many years in Teo Pro Cars, LJ and company have decided to run PMC Race Cars for 2019.

Near the end of last season, the driver from Danbury, CT took over the controls of Frank Harper’s 358-Modified. He immediately had success and got very comfortable in the car, so over the off-season, the decision was made to switch.

Saturday was the first time on track for the new #35 and Lombardo was extremely happy.

“We’re very happy with our piece,” he said. “The car is really good and having Pete (Chuckta) helping us with it is a huge asset to our operation. The entire team is working together perfectly.”

Most drivers use the test session to get the rust off. Others use it to make sure the car turns left and nothing falls off. Lombardo is no different.

“We wanted to shake the new car and our engine down to make sure we’re set for the opening night $5,000-to-win show,” he said. “We’re leaving the track with more speed than we originally thought. I’m excited.”

Another driver who’s excited is young Olden Dwyer. Dwyer, the second-generation driver for the Green Mountain State, had his couple-race old HigFab Chassis on track with the new Big Block Modified engine that was developed by promoter Howard Commander and Tech Inspector Mike Petrucci over the past season.

Dwyer’s engine was built by Bedell Racing Engines, and he’s happy with the speed he’s got.

“This thing has everyone on the team really excited,” Dwyer said. “The engine is extremely smooth and drivable. I think I’m going to like it a lot here this year and it seems like it’s got good power.”

Dwyer also reported that his test session at Albany-Saratoga on Friday night went very well, but may have gone a tad bit better with a different tire selection on the front of his Teo Pro Car. All in all, he was very happy.

“The whole weekend went really well for our team,” he said. “The Teo we’re running at Malta that Terry Stacy and his family are maintaining went really well. Friday was my third time up there with a Big Block and it went well. The track was in great shape but the only issue we saw was that there wasn’t a cushion to run the top lane. It was straight dirt to marbles, but I’m sure next week will be better. I can’t wait to see how things go.”

On Saturday, more excitement and good feelings for Dwyer about his Valley car.

“Having Peanut Pierce as part of this team has been great so far,” he said. He’s really helped get us up to speed and it’s already been fun for our team. We had some good speed here today and I can’t wait for opening night.”

Last year, Kyle Armstrong and his team made a change with their engine program and went with Billy the Kid. This year, they switched chassis manufacturers. Armstrong debuted a new Bicknell chassis on Saturday. This is the first time since his rookie Modified season that he’s run something other than a Teo Pro Car.

“We’re happy with the first runs on the Bicknell,” Armstrong said. “We tried a lot of things with it and it seemed to get better. We’ve got some work but we’ll get there. The car reacted differently in turns one and two than it did in three and four. My guys worked hard today and I know we can get this thing as close to perfect for this season, but for the first time out, I’m happy.”

Paul Gilardi is running his 2018 HigFab Chassis this season at the Valley. The car has roughly eight races on it and, due to a myriad of issues, never really got its fair shake last season.

Unfortunately for the team, the 87x only made it one lap before issues set in and they left the track. However, that was only to drive back to the team race shop which was 5-1/2 miles into the center of New Lebanon.

The team, which already had their back-up car ready to go (even scaled), unloaded the HigFab and loaded up their Bicknell entry.

They were able to get back for the third set of hot-laps for the Big Blocks and the car seemed pretty decent and Gilardi finished the day with it.

The Chris Curtis team has a whole lot of change for this season. Saturday, they had two cars at the track. One was a PMC but the other was a brand-new DKM Chassis. Oh, did I forget to mention, they both had Small Block Modified engines bolted between the frame rails.

Assisting the team with the test on Saturday was former track champion Jeff Watson. In 2019, Watson will return to the racing wars at the Valley (stay tuned this week for a story about his return) but on Saturday he was helping a team he once drove for.

“I’m here to help them shake both of these things down,” Watson said. “With having limited practice time, it’s hard to do all that you want and with the new car, they wanted to make sure there aren’t any problems with it so they can be ready when opening night comes around.”

Can’t forget the fact that Watson just loves getting behind the wheel, too.

“I’ll drive just about anything, even for a test,” he said. “It’s always good to get some seat time and it was good to get a feel for the new DKM. They had the DIRTcar Rev Box in it so it didn’t show the speed the other car had the session I drove it. However, I’m here knocking the rust off as it’s been a long time since I drove one of these things.”

JR Heffner also had his new DKM Chassis at the Valley on Saturday. Assisting with the practice was one of the car’s builders, Kyle Hoffman. The 74 team threw several things at the car that they hope will make it better so they can contend for the track title this season.

In speaking with JR after practice, he reports that he’s very comfortable in the car but said it is all about learning the new car to see what it likes and what I like. He did tell me he’s happy with it after the maiden voyage.

Nathan Johnson had an eventful first set of hot laps on Saturday. Over the winter months, the New Hampshire driver and his team decided to set their car up with the left side panhard rear suspension with a J-Bar. This is something that most of these car builders started to toy with over the last 18 months.

Well, it made Johnson’s car have an extra amount of roll in the corners…actually, too much. The force broke the threads off the end of the J-Bar.

“They knew I was a smooth driver, but told me this set-up would be very touchy at first,” Johnson said. “The piece failed on the front stretch and I thought that I hit a hole. Come to find out, the bar broke and the rear was loading and unloading violently.”

The enjoyment was short-lived, however, for Johnson who put his #5 in the third turn wall in the fourth set of hot laps, pushing the right front wheel back about five inches.

Ten laps. That’s all Chris Lynch was able to put on his brand new car on Saturday as smoke billowed out of the 74 of Lynch in the second set. Not only was it a brand new car, but also a fresh 602 Crate Engine.

“I heard what I thought was a valve train noise when we got here,” Lynch said. “Nobody else heard it so we went out. It’s aggravating because my team worked so hard all winter to get this new car together only to get 10 laps on it. Even with this, we’ll regroup and be back for opening night ready to rock.”

Ted Teal, who will be running his own car this season in the Sportsman division, thought he had a cooling issue during the second session. At first, the team thought it was a radiator cap issue. Come to find out, the top radiator hose had sucked the stiffening spring completely out and the hose was collapsing.

He’s Back!!! Chad Jeseo is back in the Pro Stock division this season, driving the car that won the championship last year. His plan is to compete in the class all season, even though it’s still not 100% if this will be the only thing he’s driving on the high banks.

Another driver who’s making a return to the Valley high banks is former DIRT Legal Street Stock champion Gary Silkey. After spending several years racing go-karts with his family, the Massachusetts native has returned to run in the Pro Stock ranks this season.

The Casey family is back this season to compete for the Pro Stock championship. Both father Jay and son, Jason, had their beautifully-prepared cars in the pits and made several laps.

The younger Casey had a fluke problem in one session of hot laps which necessitated a new set of brake pads in his #324.

“First time I’ve ever had that happen,” Casey said. “One of the brake caliper pins came out and I lost one of the brake pads on the track. Went to go in the corner and the pedal went to the floor.”

The Steven Larochelle team fought problems all night on Saturday. First off, the team had to change a fuel pump in the #178 machine to try and get the fuel pressure back to where it needed to be.

The team was able to get that straightened out but still had problems getting the engine to build RPM’s. According to Steven’s dad, Paul, they may have the problem diagnosed but it wasn’t something that could be fixed at the track. They’ll be ready for opening night.

Paul Halsteadt, who has owned cars for the late Tom Harkins, Chad Arsenault and most recently Chuck Towslee, said that he is completely out of the ownership game. This off-season, Towslee decided to step out of the driver’s seat to focus more time on his son, Scott, who races at Albany-Saratoga in the Pro Stock division.

“I asked him a couple times if he wanted to race and he said he couldn’t put the dedication in,” Halsteadt said. “I had five cars and sold them all. We even sold the trailer. I am done and just going to enjoy the races.”