New England Racing Hall Of Fame Modified Team Owner Mario Fiore Passes

Mario Fiore celebrating his 2000 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship (Photo: Mary Hodge)

Mario Fiore celebrating his 2000 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship (Photo: Mary Hodge)

Former NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship team owner and New England Racing Hall of Fame member Mario Fiore passed away Thursday of an undisclosed illness.

Fiore was 65 years old.

Fiore was widely known across the Modified racing scene for the immense success of his No. 44 teams in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.

Known for being flamboyant and outspoken – even long after his career was over as a team owner – Fiore was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.

“He was an incredible car owner,” New England racing historian and journalist Pete Zanardi said. “He represented that era, kind of a free wheeling kind of guy that really, whatever he was and whatever he did, he really really loved the Modifieds. That’s what his whole life was about. … He had an incredible sense of history of the sport. He really knew the history of the sport. I think that was a factor in how he acted and protected certain things.”

Fiore, a Springfield, Mass. native, got involved in race team ownership for the first time in 1969. He won track championships at the former Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Mass., Stafford Speedway, New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway and Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, N.H.

He won his first and only NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship in 2000 with driver Jerry Marquis.

“He played a really really major role in what the sport was all about,” Zanardi said. “He was such a major part of what Modified racing was. And as an owner, kind of ahead of the game really. They talk about Modifieds – and all of racing living in the gray area – and he was very good at that. He was very good at finding every advantage he could.”

Fiore was most known for his relationship with driver Reggie Ruggiero, though over the years he fielded cars for a who’s who list of the best of Modified drivers including, Mike Stefanik, Rick Fuller, Greg Sacks and Marquis, to name a few.

In 1976 Fiore partnered for the first time with Ruggiero, the all-time winningest Modified driver at Riverside Park and the second-winningest driver in the history of the Whelen Modified Tour. Twenty-one of Ruggiero’s 44 career Whelen Modified Tour victories came driving for Fiore.

Over decades, the relationship between Fiore and Ruggiero proved equal parts successful and stormy.

Fiore first put Ruggiero in his Modified Tour car in 1986. The team clicked, with Ruggiero finishing second in the standings for three consecutive years from 1987 to 1989. They split amicably after the 1990 season, but got back together in 1996.

After two seasons together finishing outside of the top-10 in the Whelen Modified Tour standings, Ruggiero decided once again to leave Fiore to start his own team after the 1997 season, but the decision ended up sparking a fiery division between the two when Fiore alleged that Ruggiero tried to get his team’s main sponsor, Gulf Oil, to go with him to his new team. Gulf stayed with Fiore.

“The end result was that I came out all right on what our problem was,” Fiore said in 2000. “And he went on to do his own deal. But that’s where the whole problem came from.”

In 2000 the Whelen Modified Tour championship chase came down to what seemingly looked like scripted theater between Fiore’s team and Ruggiero’s team.

Marquis sat just eight points ahead of Ruggiero heading into the 2000 Whelen Modified Tour season finale at Thompson Speedway. Despite both being a part of the Whelen Modified Tour since it’s inception in 1985, neither Fiore nor Ruggiero had won a series championship as a car owner or driver. And for the then bitter rivals, winning was just as much about ensuring the other did not win.

“Jerry is just another competitor,” Ruggiero said days before the final event that season. “It’s Mario’s race car and I want to beat Mario to that championship. I don’t want him to get that. I like Jerry. It would be great to see Jerry win his first championship, but I don’t want Mario to win it.”

Asked then if he would congratulate Fiore should Marquis beat him Ruggiero said: “Of course I would. I’m a better man than he is because if I was to win I know that he wouldn’t congratulate me.”

Asked the same question, Fiore said: “No, I wouldn’t. We don’t speak. That’s not going to change.”

Marquis would finish fifth that day at Thompson and Ruggiero 12th, giving Marquis a 36-point advantage in the final series standings to give Fiore’s team its first Whelen Modified Tour title. Marquis won five of 17 Whelen Modified Tour events that year and finished in the top-10 14 times.

“You think about in Modified racing, the [Bob Judkins/Ed Flemke Sr.] team or the [Len Boehler/Fred DeSarro] team or the [Bob Johnson/Ron Bouchard] team, you can put Mario and Ruggiero in the same league,” Zanardi said. “They were a devastatingly good team. Reggie and Mario were that. It came apart, it came apart horribly I guess. But when they were together it was great.”

The reign of Fiore’s team as Whelen Modified Tour champions came to an abbreviated conclusion early in the 2001 season when Fiore shockingly shut his down team because of sponsorship issues after the first Whelen Modified Tour event of the year.

“We’re not doing anything,” Fiore said in April 2001. “I have some sponsorship problems and we can’t do it without enough money. That’s basically where it’s at.”

After more than a decade away from the racing scene, Fiore returned to the pits regularly at tracks locally about six years ago and became best known for his staunch support of former Whelen Modified Tour and Valenti Modified Racing Series regular Tommy Barrett Jr.

“He really was huge in Modified racing,” Zanardi said. “At Riverside Park it was sort of a badge that you could wear if you knew Mario. When you went to the garage at Riverside Park, if you went in there and hung around and talked to him a little bit that was such a big part of being part of the sport. … And his sense of loyalty to his friends was just unquestionable. He was truly loyal to the people that were loyal to him. I think that was a Riverside Park thing.”

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Comments

  1. Mike Ray says:

    Prayers for family, friends and fans…R.I.P. Mario

  2. Tom pistone says:

    Too young an all ways the good ones

  3. Bill Greco says:

    My heart is broken by the news of Mario’s passing. He will be terribly missed. Condolences to his family.

  4. So glad I got to know him (HE IS A LEGEND) just like you “Wild Bill” #43. I’m so sad. the winningest car owner in Riverside Park History. Mario and Reggie(The Dream Team) GOD BLESS!

  5. Richey foisy says:

    Have a safe ride home moe.God bless.

  6. Bill Emhoff says:

    I had a chance to spend a lot of sat nights at Abdows Big boy on Rt 5 in Enfield with Mario and the crew of the 44 with Mario holding court there. Many good times good races and times were there. After my son was old enough Mario was right there and gave my son a tour of his race shop in Agawam. Just as we were leaving he gave my son a body panel of the car and made a young boy a life long fan of the 44. Mario was a class act and his passing is leaving a void in the Modified World. Up in heaven there is a big mod race with all the drivers up there with jack Arute running the race! Rest in peace, Mario

  7. only official met him 5 years ago around the modified garage Was a nice man and from what i have heard from many very smart on a race car.rip

  8. Mike Slattery says:

    Mario was one of the good guys and anyone who knew him as a friend should consider themselves lucky.
    Some of the best memories in my entire racing career were working on the Wilsberg 5 modified and racing against Mario’s 44 one of the strongest competitors we ever faced.

  9. Didnt know Mario,but knew of him from racing modifieds..The man amazed me.His knowledge of the modified and always a top contender,you couldnt help but respect him if you knew him or not.
    When I heard of his passing I was in shock..Like I mentioned I didnt know him but always would check his F.B.page,because of all the “nostalgia” he would post.. Wish I would have gotten to know him.
    R.I.P. Mr.Modified

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