By Dino Oberto

(LEHIGHTON, PA 10-21-10) In the ranks of eastern Pennsylvania short track asphalt racing, time and again Lehighton’s John Bennett continues to prove his worth as one of the undisputed best as the 32-year old drove to his third straight Mahoning Valley Speedway Modified title and seventh overall.
“It’s still hard to think that we were able to pull off that kind of consistency three years in a row. It is something just to get one (title) but to go three straight years, especially at a place like Mahoning, it’s hard to believe,” said Bennett.
When Bennett won his first two mod titles it was a situation in which he controlled the points early on and made it his to lose but for 2010 it was a much more intensified.
Don Wagner, who finished runner-up the past two seasons, was able to do something no one else had in Bennett’s previous title runs. He unseated him for the point lead with just a few shows left which made for one of the most exciting championship battles in several years.
“We weren’t overly concerned with us slipping back. It wasn’t in our opinion from our performance. We got caught up in our competitors problems like being taken to the back from a wreck that someone else started. At that stage our car’s competitiveness was still there it was just racing bad luck and you really can’t do much about it except for grin and bear it.”
Bennett did regain the lead prior to the final race of the year, a 100-lap showdown, but it was by a mere five points. It seems however that in the face of adversity is when he shines his best.
Heading into the last race Bennett made the best of his third starting spot. Early on he hung with the leaders, led a slew of laps and eventually motored home to a title clinching sixth place finish. Wagner in the meantime ran into trouble early on and struggled to a 12th at the end of the race, once again having to settle for the bridesmaid spot.
“That was a hectic day. First of all we had some problems with the track conditions which the management was able to get worked out and get the race in,” recalled Bennett.
“During the race itself we were running up front with Matt Hirschman and Rick Kirkendall and we led some. We had been really struggling with our 100-lap shows and just couldn’t get to where we wanted to be. We were pretty content with the amount of advance we had made from the beginning of the year to the end in the 100-lappers though.
“I had seen that he (Wagner) was involved in a wreck early on and I figured as long as I didn’t see him anymore I was content to just ride it out and take the best finish I could. Obviously towards the end of that race our car drifted back a little bit and we had nothing for the leaders. By then it was a matter of just trying to hold positions and finish off the championship run.”
Wagner, the ’06 track champ, was indeed a worthy opponent. He along with several others put together a solid year that made the points and racing tight and no doubt made Bennett earn every bit of the crown.
“Donny is always a good guy to race with and for the most part he runs you clean and very seldom you’ll have run-ins with him. You know what to expect with him and you can run with him side-by-side. He’s fast almost all the time. It’s always good to race against someone you know you can trust,” noted Bennett.
“We had some problems getting into the mid part of the season with the performance where we wanted it to be and it really made the competition level a lot closer the whole year. Donny and I where neck and neck the whole while and Chip (Santee) was in for a bit also. This was one of the closest battles that I’ve been involved in.”
Bennett won four times which tied him with Matt Hirschman for best in class. It was the fourth time since 2006 that he was the top feature winner and fifth time since his rookie year with the Modifieds that he has been part of the title chase. His career feature win total is now 55 and remains Mahoning’s all-time leader, 24 of them coming in a Modified.
“Our main intention is to win races. The only time points start to come into play is if you have an off night and you just try to look at what you can do to salvage the best finish you can.”
Within in the tight confines of Mahoning Valley you will find some of the toughest asphalt racers in the business. Along with the regulars there are always some of the top Modified aces in the northeast that come to test their skill. Bennett, who has been dubbed ‘The Kingpin’ thanks to his keen expertise of the quarter-mile oval, is the driver they know is the one to beat.
“It’s a lot of patience and you have to have trust in your competition. You have to run them as clean as they run you. It all comes down to trust. That place just has real clean racing. No one wants to wreck equipment. Everyone knows what it costs to fix the car and that is the main emphasis with how people want to run clean,” explained Bennett.
“It’s some of the best side-by-side racing you will find anywhere in the northeast. It’s more of a handling track, more of a finesse track. You don’t have the long straight-aways like you do at places like Oswego or Chemung or Shangri-La. You have to have more control of the car at Mahoning because you are almost always running side-by-side and that puts things more into the drivers’ hands.
“There’s a lot of very good racers in this area and you can’t take that away from them. A lot of guys have put their time in just as much or even more than I have. It’s just fun to get out there and race.”