Memories: On Ted’s Tail: A 4-day, 5-race, 3-track Run With Ted Christopher

Short track racing legend Ted Christopher would have celebrated his 61st birthday today. Happy Birthday to Ted and his twin brother Mike Christopher Sr. We look back today on a weekend of chasing the man that few could keep up with in short track racing.

Republished from RaceDayCT from Sept. 17, 2017

Ted Christopher (Corey Sipkin/NASCAR)

In June of 2005, as a reporter for the Hartford Courant, I pitched to my editors the idea of following Ted Christopher around for a few days and making a feature story about the adventure. It seemed the perfect weekend to pull it off was arranged by a special NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour makeup event scheduled for Sunday July 3 at Stafford Motor Speedway. It meant Christopher would be racing four consecutive days at Connecticut’s short tracks. And off I went to shadow Ted Christopher, from Thompson Speedway on Thursday June 30, 2005, to Stafford the next night, to the New London-Waterford Speedbowl the next night and then closing out the weekend with a return visit to Stafford on Sunday. Below is the result, reprinted from the Hartford Courant.

On Ted’s Tail: A 4-day, 5-race, 3-track Run With Ted Christopher
July 7, 2005
By Shawn Courchesne – Courant Staff Writer
Republished from the Hartford Courant

He’s considered a throwback to a time when drivers competed in as many races at as many tracks as possible. At 47, Ted Christopher is not slowing down and neither are the opinions about him. Drivers and fans either love him or hate him. No middle ground seems to exist.

Christopher, from Plainville, has been racing Modifieds at the state’s three NASCAR-sanctioned short tracks since the early 1980s. Last season he competed in more than 100 events, from Nextel Cup on down. He expects to do the same this year, which means weekends like this past one. Over four days, Christopher raced in five features at three tracks.

THURSDAY: Thompson

Mike’s Stand is the unofficial starting point for most of Christopher’s race weekends; the roadside stand on Route 12 in Putnam is a few miles from Thompson International Speedway.

Christopher pulls up at 2:30 p.m. driving a black Chevy Silverado pickup with a 44-foot trailer containing his SK Modified.

Crew members Ryan Plourde and Tommy Heslin jump out of the truck with Christopher.

“This is the place to go for lunch,” says Christopher, who doesn’t even look at the menu before ordering a grilled Italian chicken breast sandwich and fries. “It’s always fresh here. Food is always good, good people here. We stop here all the time. Hopefully we can come back here for ice cream at the end of the night.”

Plourde, from Waterbury, and Heslin, of Plainville, quietly eat while Christopher rattles on with racing stories.

Twenty minutes later they are headed for Thompson, and by 3:45 the SK Modified is off the trailer. Minutes later, Christopher is tinkering with the engine. Crew members Rick Rotondo and Mike O’Sullivan have been caught in traffic on Interstate 84.

“I wouldn’t be doing this myself, normally,” Christopher says. “But with those guys late, I can figure things out. I don’t worry, really. I always just tell my guys all they have to do is get the car to 80 percent. I’ll make up the other 20 percent.”

At 3:50, Plourde comes over with four new American Racer tires, a quick $600 purchase. The next four days, the team will spend more than $4,000 on tires.

Christopher says the tire budget is the biggest drain on any local racing team.

“I wouldn’t do this if I was paying for them,” says Christopher, who relies on team owner Jim Galante to cover racing expenses. “You come to places like this and Stafford [Motor Speedway] and even [Waterford Speedbowl] and you have to get new tires every week. I could probably run these tires for a few weeks with no problems, but everybody else, all the good teams, they’re all buying new ones every week so you have to do it, too.”

Ten minutes later, Christopher starts the engine, the coughing rumble sounding more like a lawn mower than a racing machine. Christopher is still tinkering at 4:10 when engine builder Mike Pettit arrives, takes a quick look at the distributor and walks away. Christopher is shaking his head. His SK Modified competitors are on the track practicing while he waits to get his motor fixed.

Ten minutes later, Pettit returns with a new distributor, which proved to be the problem.

Heslin, 51, leans on the massive, rolling toolbox that goes to the track for races. He has been going to races with Christopher for 15 years.

“We knew each other a little from Plainville High School,” Heslin says. “He was a freshman when I was a senior. I was never really into racing, but 15 years ago I was at the track one night and we ran into each other. He said, `You should come help me out.’ I’ve been at his side ever since then. I watch his back for him.”

At 4:45, Rotondo, of Cheshire, and O’Sullivan, from Canton, arrive as crew member Tony Mottola of Burriville, R.I., walks up to the car.

Fifteen minutes later, Christopher slides into a fireproof driver’s suit. Unlike many garishly colored and designed suits, Christopher’s is white and adorned with numerous sponsor patches. The one difference between his and most of his peers: “National Champion” runs down each leg.

Christopher, recognized across the country as one of the best short-track drivers of his generation, won NASCAR’s Weekly Series National Championship in 2001.

On the belt line, where a Velcro pull tightens at the waist, is “Ted Christopher” embroidered in script. It’s a nametag not needed around Connecticut short tracks. Everybody knows him and most either love him or hate him. Christopher seems to revel in the image.

At 5:05, Christopher squeezes through the passenger-side window and begins snapping into the six-point harness that secures him in the car. He gets in about five laps of practice, enough to know he’s not happy with the car.

“This freaking thing is horrible,” Christopher says. “It’s washing up in the corners, Ricky. We gotta do something.”

As Rotondo offers possible changes, the pit announcer calls for the drivers meeting. Christopher tells Rotondo to do what he has to and heads to the meeting.

Along the way, Christopher’s antagonistic nature comes through as competitor Adam Norton walks about 5 feet away. Christopher and Norton had problems on the track the week before.

“Hey Adam, you’re inside of me in the heat, you going to be playing around out there?” Christopher says.

Norton doesn’t respond.

“Hey Adam, I’m talking to you. You’re not going to screw around out there, are you?”

Norton tells Christopher he doesn’t want any trouble. Christopher starts laughing and puts his arm around him.

“I’m just joking with you, buddy,” Christopher says. “Just don’t do anything stupid out there.”

At 6:25, Christopher is on the track for his heat, taking the lead on lap 2 and eventually winning the eight-lap qualifier. It’s two hours until the feature, and Christopher uses the time to chat with crews, watch some races and do a little shopping. Christopher goes to the parts truck and spends $100 on a new pair of fireproof racing shoes.

“I’d rather spend that than have burned feet,” he says.

At 8:25, he’s back at his trailer as the pit announcer calls for SK Modifieds to line up for the feature.

“Hopefully Ricky got this thing adjusted right and I can win,” Christopher says.

“I did last week and you wrecked it,” Rotondo says.

“I didn’t wreck it, I got wrecked,” Christopher says.

The adjustments do exactly what is expected. Christopher starts fifth, working his way to the lead on the race’s first lap. He leads all 30 in winning $1,200.

By 9:25, the car is in the post-race inspection line and Christopher is walking by himself back to the trailer.

Along the way, he talks about the investment of time and money.

“It doesn’t pay for what we put into things, but whatever it takes we’ll spend it,” Christopher says. “Jimmy wants this team to win and I’m a fool for it. I know that over the years I’ve spent over three-quarters of a million dollars racing, but this makes it all worth it.”

By 9:44, the car is cleared. Inspection official Mike Kun asks Christopher if it’s still early enough for ice cream.

“Hell, yeah,” Christopher tells Kun. “Plenty of time. You want to go? I’m buying.”

So it’s back down Route 12 through Thompson and Putnam to visit Mike’s Stand.

“A night like tonight, most guys that do this kind of thing, they’d be going for beers and partying,” Christopher says. “We go for ice cream. People think we’re weird.”

Christopher delivers the car to Rotondo’s shop, R&R Fabrication in Cheshire, by 11:30. Rotondo works on the car until 2:30 a.m., getting it ready for the next night’s race in Stafford. Christopher heads home to Plainville, calling it a day at 12:30 a.m.

FRIDAY: Stafford

The day begins early for Christopher. By 8 a.m., he’s catching up on work at the business he owns, M&T Transmission in Plainville, pulling a transmission out of a garbage truck.

“It was hot and it stunk,” Christopher said. “You think we get hot [racing], try that.”

At 3:40 p.m., Christopher pulls into the paddock at Stafford Motor Speedway. O’Sullivan pulls in next to the Silverado with another trailer carrying a second SK Modified. Christopher usually brings two cars to Stafford on Friday nights in case of problems. Joining Heslin, Plourde, O’Sullivan and Rotondo tonight are Barry Kuhnel of West Springfield, Mass., and A.J. Perry and Mark Hosmer, both from Westfield, Mass.

Five minutes after arriving, both cars are off the trailers.

Christopher is returning to Stafford after a one-week suspension stemming from a fight track officials accused him of having June 17 with Stash Butova, crew chief for Frank Ruocco.

Walking through the paddock 45 minutes after arriving at the track, Christopher sees Butova working on Ruocco’s car.

“Hey Stash, how you doing, buddy?” Christopher yells in Butova’s direction. “I missed you last week. Did you have a good week without me?”

Butova just looks over and shakes his head.

By 4:45, Christopher is back in his familiar firesuit. An hour later he is on the track for his qualifying heat. He starts 10th in the 11-car race and finishes fifth in the 10-lap shootout.

Back at the trailer, Christopher chats up crew members while he relaxes before the feature, where he’ll start 14th in the field of 22. Clouds darken by the minute as it approaches 8:30.

An accident early in the race sends Christopher through the infield grass, but he’s able to save the car and comes out in sixth place. On the restart, he passes two cars to move to fourth before the caution flies again.

When the race resumes, the leader doesn’t go, allowing second-place Keith Rocco to jump to the front with Christopher following to second. It’s the student leading the teacher. Rocco, 21, spent five years on Christopher’s crew. Now they compete against each other at Stafford.

Christopher looks as if he has found a way around Rocco to take the lead going into Turn 3, but a crash behind them puts the race under yellow again. Because a lap wasn’t completed under green, the restart order will return to what it was for the previous restart. But before the race can go green again, rain begins falling.

At 9:45, the cars are taken off the track and less than 3 minutes later, the announcement is made that racing is over for the night. The feature will resume where it stopped this Friday night.

“I was going to win that race,” he says. “On the restart, I saw the three cars in front of me I knew I could beat. I was going to win that race.”

Christopher brings the car to Rotondo’s shop and is home by 11 p.m. Rotondo works until 1:30 a.m. changing the car over for racing at Waterford Speedbowl on Saturday.

SATURDAY: Waterford

Christopher and Heslin arrive at the Speedbowl at about 2 p.m., more than two hours before the first practice for SK Modifieds. Rotondo and Heslin are there with Ryan Bergenty of Plainville joining the crew for the night.

The Speedbowl is where Christopher spent his formative years in an SK Modified and the first track where he won a championship. But he’s hardly considered a home-track hero. While each of the state’s three short tracks have contingents who don’t like Christopher, the disdain is clearly heartiest at Waterford, where some fans refer to him as Darth Vader.

Christopher starts fifth in his heat and finishes second to five-time track champion Dennis Gada.

Back at the trailer, a crew member for another team tells Christopher that Stafford driver Lloyd Agor was complaining after Friday’s race that Christopher wrecked him during one of the accidents. Christopher and his crew share a laugh.

“I should get a Kleenex sponsorship,” Christopher tells the crew. “Then we can have a big box of Kleenex out on the trailer every week so all the drivers crying about me after every race can come get some. I want to know what they’re going to cry about when I’m gone.”

At 6:25, Speedbowl owner Terry Eames comes to the trailer for a visit. Eames shakes Christopher’s hand and congratulates him. Christopher, who finished second in two Modified races at Waterford June 25, looks perplexed.

“What are you congratulating me for?” Christopher asks.

“I heard you got engaged,” Eames says.

“Oh, OK, thanks Terry,” Christopher says.

“Did you think I was congratulating you for all your second-place finishes here?” Eames asks.

With that, Christopher jokingly throws a water bottle at Eames and walks away.

“Don’t worry, Terry,” Christopher says as he walks away. “I’ll get your money.”

At 7:50, the green flag is thrown, with Christopher starting 11th in a 25-car field. Four laps in, there’s a multicar crash in Turn 2. Christopher, behind the wreck when it started, ends up avoiding it, but two drivers in front of him, Frank Mucciacciaro and Dennis Charette, think Christopher pushed them into the crash.

Behind the Turn 3 wall, where crew chiefs and spotters watch the race, a member of Mucciacciaro’s team angrily approaches Rotondo. A short, expletive-laced tirade follows. Rotondo just shakes his head. He tells Rocco to go get him a big wrench.

“If they get on me, I show them this,” Rotondo says, holding up the wrench. “This is all I do. I just work on the car. I don’t drive it. That guy’s mad because someone else [slowed] up and everybody got in the mess and Teddy ended up in there. I know Teddy’s no angel, but if he’s in the vicinity of a wreck, he gets blamed for it and then they yell at me.”

With 11 laps left in the 35-lap race, Christopher passes Kurt Lenahan to take the lead. Christopher is holding that spot with the race under caution with three laps left with Ron Yuhas Jr. in second. Christopher gambles his soft right rear tire will make it the final three laps. On the restart his car spins in Turn 2, giving the lead to Yuhas and bringing the caution back out.

The sparse crowd of about 1,000 in the grandstand sounds like more like 10,000 as it cheers at the sight of Christopher spinning out of the lead.

Christopher goes to the pits, gets the tire changed and returns to the track, eventually finishing sixth. Christopher pulls off the track at 9 p.m.

He returns to his trailer to find a pile of parts sitting at the rear. Crew members from Charette’s team have left a bent rim, suspension pieces and bumper parts from their wrecked car.

“I had about eight guys coming after me in the pits from that team after the wreck,” Heslin says. “They were pretty hot.”

Christopher is talking to his crew when a woman walks up.

“How’s it feel to get treated the way you treat people out there, Teddy?” the woman says. Christopher asks her what team she is with.

“Don’t worry about it,” she answers.

“Then I don’t want to talk to you,” Christopher tells her and walks away.

By 9:20 the car is loaded, the trailer is closed and Christopher and the crew are ready to get out of the hostile environment.

Christopher visits his twin brother Mike’s house in Wolcott for a Fourth of July party briefly before getting home at about 11:30.

After washing his firesuit, he heads to bed at 1:30 a.m.

SUNDAY: Stafford

After an early breakfast with Heslin at the Track Nine Diner in Willington, Christopher arrives at Stafford at 10 a.m. He will compete in two races, a 40-lap SK Modified feature and 150-lap NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour feature, on a card postponed from May 27 by rain.

The crew has swelled to about 12, with the focus for most of the morning being on the Modified Tour car. Christopher leads the standings, having won two of the first four races.

With two cars competing, Christopher spends much of the early afternoon jumping from one to the other for practice sessions. At 3 p.m., Christopher makes his way to the infield where all the competing cars are parked for a pre-race pit party. Fans line up for the entire hour of the party to get Christopher’s autograph or a photo with him, or just to shake his hand.

Christopher smiles graciously under the baking sun, happily signing everything from flags, cars and pictures to T-shirts and even the chests of some women.

When Christine Dobrydnio reaches Christopher, the 62-year-old from the Bronx can barely hold back.

“I am an ex-nun and I’m your biggest fan,” Dobrydnio tells Christopher. Before walking away, Dobrydnio blesses Christopher.

“I discovered NASCAR and now I understand what addiction is,” says Dobrydnio, a nun for 30 years before leaving in 1991. “Ted Christopher, he’s aggressive, but that’s what racing is about. People get mad at him, but they got mad at Dale Earnhardt, too.”

Tour driver Rick Fuller has some fun at Christopher’s expense. A young boy walked up to Fuller asking him to autograph his T-shirt. When Fuller saw it was a Christopher T-shirt, he yelled out loud enough for Christopher to hear: “This kid must have run out of clean shirts today.”

After the pit party, Christopher finds time to relax before his two races, which will run consecutively. Modified Tour media relations director Mark Mockovak walks up to Christopher and has a joking reminder for him. After the last Tour event, Christopher accused competitor Donny Lia, whom he finished second to, of cheating.

“Please be nice to Donny,” Mockovak tells Christopher.

“At my age, I don’t have to be nice to anybody but my parents,” Christopher tells Mockovak.

Christopher finishes third in the SK Modified feature and immediately jumps into his Tour Modified. That race begins at 6:25 p.m. with Christopher starting 12th.

He is in fourth when a crash in Turn 2 on lap 27 sends him to the pits with left side damage. His team gets him back on the track without losing a lap, but the car is not good. Christopher struggles to get around the track, a half-lap behind the leaders, before the caution flies again on lap 32. Under caution, Christopher brings the car in three times and the crew gets it back into decent shape.

With 25 laps left and Christopher sitting fifth, he decides to gamble under caution and go to the pits for four new tires. He comes back out on the track in 11th and begins one of the marches to the front he has become famous for during the last two decades.

With 10 laps left he is up to sixth. From lap 140 to 144 he moves from sixth to second. The crowd that booed him during introductions is now cheering as he picks off cars one by one. On lap 147, he goes under race leader Chuck Hossfeld in Turn 2, going side-by-side for half a lap before coming out of Turn 4 with the lead.

The weekend of racing ends in victory lane with a kiss from his fiancee, Quinn Wazorko, 25.

“I don’t ever give up,” Christopher says. “I’ve never had that in my vocabulary.”

At 8:15 p.m., Christopher makes his way through the paddock back to his trailer. Along the way, fans pat him on the back or scream his name — or maybe just his initials.

“You rock, TC, don’t listen to what anybody else says,” one fan yells.

“It’s funny,” Christopher says. “They hate me, they boo me, all that, but at the end there they were all cheering for me. No matter what happens, I put on a show for them, and they know it.”

Arriving back at the trailer, looking to squirm out of his firesuit and hit the road for a couple days’ vacation at Cape Cod, Heslin stops Christopher and shakes his hand.

“You are unbelievable,” Heslin says.

Says Christopher: “That’s right, Tommy, I am.”

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  1. It is great to read this again.The loss of T.C. has left a wound in Modified racing that has not yet healed. Here’s to “The King”.

  2. Shawn, thanks for running this story again. TC was one of the best, if not the best driver to ever come out of the northeast. His tragic death left a giant hole in the heart of short track racing, a home I feel may never be filled. Ted was successful in every type of race car he drove, not many drivers can say that. Even a the ripe young age of 59 he was still winning races, again not many drivers can say that. So thank you for the memories. Happy Birthday to Mike Christopher.

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