Digging Deep With Denise: Visiting With Ken Barry

“Digging Deep With Denise” is a semi-regular question and answer feature with local racers and racing personalities produced by RaceDayCT’s Denise DuPont

Ken Barry – Once you are hooked you are hooked

Ken Barry not only was born into a racing family, but he was set up to be involved in Modified racing in the SPAFCO Racing garage before he could walk. His father, Art Barry, is a NEAR Hall of Famer and has been building race cars for 60 plus years. Ken has raced Modifieds, built Modifieds and is now his own son’s crew chief. This visit with Ken was more about Ken the racer and crew chief, but like any dad, he could not help talk about his son. Ken started his racing career later than most Modified drivers today. After his time spent behind the wheel, Ken concentrated more on car building and supporting Modified teams. Ken has taken his own career path, created his own niche and continues to use his passion for modifieds to make his mark in the sport. 

What made you interested in racing?

“I just grew up around racing. It has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. My parents actually have a picture of me as a little baby in the garage. My mom had to go somewhere and my dad was out working in the garage that night on a car. He had set me on top of a new fuel cell that they were building. He looked over a little bit later and he said that I had wrenches in my hand and I was pulling parts apart even though I could barely hold onto the wrenches. So I guess it was going to happen.

“When I first started driving it was necessary for me to figure things out because my dad was off racing. He was always there during the week for any questions that we had and to help with the race car. He helped me get the car together but on race day he was usually off running the tour. So there were not a lot of Friday nights that he could come to Stafford with me. It was figure it out or not run good. So we figured things out in a hurry. He would come home late Saturday or Sunday and look under the car cover to see how our night went.

“So between my dad and Phil Moran is how I learned how to setup a race car. I started building race cars since the year I graduated from high school. You were forced to learn how and keep up as it evolved over the years. It is funny to see how racing is headed with new technology. Now if you do not have an engineering degree you are behind the eight ball. “

Which do you like better, turning the wrenches or turning the wheel?

“I like them both. I enjoyed racing and driving. But now it’s a young man’s sport. I have tried it in the last few years and the brain dead part of racing is gone. I start thinking about it so much that my head hurts the next day. So you tend not to stick the car in situations, if you want to win. If I can’t win, I do not want to do it.  If I cannot afford to run upfront, I just do not want to be in that division. I will drop down a division. That is one of the reasons that we are going to stay with the SK Lights for next year. Our budget allows us to be a front runner in the SK Lights. If I move [Tyler] to the SK [Modifieds], between his learning curve and the budget, he has no shot. So I would rather keep doing what we are doing and be able to do some other stuff with my dad’s car rather than just running an SK.”

Do you ever wish you moved to a different division?

“No, I was asked a long time ago and I did not. I won an entrance into a Buck Baker’s Racing school thing. I finished second or third in the essay portion. I think it was because one of the questions in the essay asked if you planned on going and further than you were, my answer was: ‘No I like the Modifieds’. I could care less about fender cars, I do not even like working on them. Very few fender cars come into our shop because I just do not enjoy them.”

Which division or series of Modified racing do you like the best?

“I do not know, they are all pretty cool. As I get older, I like coming back to my roots and Stafford for Friday night racing. It is close to home and no major traveling. And to me short track racing is more fun than the touring divisions. There is a lot less BS and expenses to it.”

Would you say racing is your hobby?

“Racing started as a hobby that turned into a job which makes it hard to be a hobby now. With Tyler racing, it has put a little bit of the hobby back into it. Before that, when I was racing, it only put a lot more hassle with work than it was worth.

“For the crew chief side of my life, racing is my hobby. I still support our customers the way that we do. As far as working four or five nights on a race car, if it were not for Tyler I would not do it. That side of my career is gone. I am not a car owner that would just put anybody in the car because I enjoy working on the cars 24 hours a week more than I need to.”

What makes your dad’s No. 21 car different that all the other cars?

“I am a history buff when it comes to racing. When I used to work on Matt Swanson’s car, I would pick on him and say: ‘If you do not know who Richie Evans was you do not belong driving a Modified.’ Growing up around racing with my dad and Phil Moran, along with all the drivers over the years that have driven my dad’s stuff from George Summers, George Kent, Jeff Fuller … the list is huge. To have your name on that car is pretty special even though your last name is the same as his. Anyone would kill to have driven that car in its heyday.”

What stands out as your most memorable race experience?

“I would say that there are two of them. I was pretty proud of myself at Nazareth. When we went to there for the first time in my dad’s car on the [Whelen Modified Tour]. We qualified fourth and finished second after my fourth start in the tour. That and winning with my dad’s car at Beech Ridge in the [Modified Racing Series]. That was pretty special. The look on my dad’s face was the same that he has when Tyler drove his car. So that sticks in my head pretty good.”

What stands out as your son Tyler’s most memorable race experience?

“Probably when he won his world championship with his Legend car. That was pretty big in my book. He went to Atlanta and we had the championship wrapped up already but we went anyone to run and give him the experience. He ran against people from all over the world and was in speed charts in the top seven in his class. I told him that was something to be pretty proud of. There were kids that were running against him that were already signed up for development contracts with Indy Car, Busch and other teams. And us we were just a little two man operation out of Preston that borrowed a ride down to Atlanta.”

What challenges do you believe drivers have racing at Stafford Speedway?

“This is the hardest place that you are ever going to race. Every corner is different. It takes a lot of patience but you have to be aggressive. It takes all the traits of a good race car driver to win here. I have always said that is you can win a race at Stafford, you can go anywhere in the country and win a race, you will adapt. It is kind of funny but as you are building your racing career you find yourself playing a role out. You will go to a track that you never have been to and someone will ask you what it is like. You will say: ‘Turn one drives a lot like turn three at Stafford Speedway or turn one drives a lot like Stafford’s turn two.’ So you end up relating everything that you learned at Stafford.”

What challenges do you have as a crew chief

“The biggest thing, and you hate to sound like every other racer, but it is the budget. If you had an unlimited budget and you could just throw tires at it and spend money everywhere it would be great. We do not have that so we make due with what we have. We build everything that we possibly can ourselves. Tyler is learning how to weld and fabricate bumpers and nerf bars. Each one on the No. 18 SK Light car he has built himself. Body panels – after the wreck last week we had to take the front clip off ourselves. We did not pay anybody to do it and it took a lot of hours, but the three or four thousand dollars we saved from that wreck lets us race the rest of the year. That could have been a season ending wreck if it were something that we have to come up with every dime for.”

What is your goal for 2021?

“I would like to see Tyler get a top ten in points. He is flirting right around that point right now. On coming into the season that was what we wanted a top ten in points and to get the Rookie of the Year. The Rookie of the Year he currently has a decent lead in it. But you never count your chickens with things here. There is too many races to go. I would like to see him finish the year strong, hopefully get a win and get that Rookie of the Year. You only get to race for that title once. He has won three or four heat races and even with just that, I told him: ‘The list is not very long on who has won heat races in an SK Light Modified.’

“I have two SK Modified wins at Stafford and I would like to see him get up on the list. But it is what it is. It is a hard division to get a win in your first year.”

Thoughts on the 2021 race season as it winds down?

“We are pretty good with rookie standings. If we could wrap that up at Stafford and maybe get a top ten in points that would be good. It has been a great year at Stafford even though we have not got a win yet. Hopefully it will come soon. We have had a couple of top fives and top tens so it has been a pretty good year overall so far.”

Do you think that SK Lights should have a spotter?

“I do not want radios. I think that Waterford’s SK Light Division is a perfect example of why they do not belong in these cars. There they have radios and they wreck twice as many times as everybody else does here. I personally think that a spotter is supposed to be an aid only. And I think some spotters have turned into half of the driver. And with the kids not having that aid, the good kids will go to the front because they know how to use their mirrors and their spatial area. Tyler could not use them in Legend cars so he is more than comfortable without a radio. Only time I do not like having a radio is in situations like rain where I would tell Tyler not to go out bring the car back. Or when he wrecks and I have to wait like everybody else to find out if he is alright. I personally think that they should take them out of all the cars myself.

“Radios are a sore subject here at Stafford. People think that they need them. But my own personal opinion is I do not think any division at Stafford should have them. I think drivers should learn how to drive without them. Super [Modifieds] and Midgets do it and they are the fastest race cars in the Northeast. So why do we need them?”

If you had to do it all over again would you?

“Probably. As much as an aggravation it is, it is like a drug. Once you are hooked, you are hooked and you just cannot get away. I say it all the time when we are working in the garage all winter long: ‘What am I doing? I am starting this whole mess all over again.’ But then I turn around and look at my dad at 86 years old and he is still out in the garage every day working on his race car so his 15-year old grandson can go race it in a few weeks.

As a crew chief: “Oh yeah, Tyler has put the fun back in racing for me. Doing it for a living 30-plus years now took the hobby out of it. With him, once he got out of the Go-Karts and he went with the Legend car racing, he showed that he had it enough to do this. Now it makes you want to work harder and let him get developed. We work really hard with driver communication because I know as a business how hard that is. For most people they cannot give you that feedback. We spend a lot of time stressing that the driver has to be a part of it.

What would you have done different?

“Knowing what I know now, I would have started earlier. I kind of gave up racing a little bit as I got to my teenage years because being a teenager was more important. Once I got out of high school and decided racing was what I wanted to do, I went back and started doing it myself again. I found out that those six or seven years would have been very valuable. Tyler has been in a race car since he was six years old. He will be 16 in December and he already has 10 years of experience under his belt. I never drove an SK Modified until I was 22 or 23 years old.”


  1. No radios, hmmm, that would make it interesting. I have to say, with the spotters involved, sometimes I wonder who is actually driving the car and making the decisions. The Daddies, the frustrated guys living through their kids?

  2. DR Robert Neville says

    I’m in full agreement with Ken on radios, with the addition that it goes beyond Stafford to all other northeast tracks except Loudon.

  3. I agree if supers can do it without radio’s and no mirrors , you don’t need a wannabe driver in the stands telling you what to do

  4. So they build their own equipment do they. Why wouldn’t they they’re SPAFCO aren’t they? It’s a multi generational business and Ken Barry is the owner isn’t he? SPACO is certainly not TFR or Fury but they sure seem to do a very nice business in parts and chassis work for all kinds of teams. They need to win in the SK Lights to help sell more parts and do more setup work I would think. In the top 10 Lights at Stafford there are 4 CD, 3 Troyer, 1 Chassis Pro, 1 SPAFCO and 1 unlisted. Winning can’t hurt business.

  5. Spotters at Waterford cause more crashes than they prevent. Ken is spot on!

  6. Dr Robert Neville says

    Dirt modifieds, super modifieds, IMCA modifieds don’t have radios or spotters and they run the same type of containment seats and have the same visibility issues and open wheels as pavement modifieds. If a driver doesn’t learn how to see, feel, and hear when someone is around them, as well as maintaining a line, before moving up to a modified they shouldn’t be there. Add in the spinner spinnee rule and over aggressive drivers won’t last long. Used to be the two dumbest guys on a crew got the jobs of spotter and measuring tires because they were useless to work on the car, but they figured out how to turn those into paying jobs when everyone else is still volunteer. Raceivers are ok, not real good at speed because of noise but work good under pace or caution laps. Be interesting to get the Stafford race director’s take on radios and spotters since he runs shows for many car types at multiple tracks and series, but also moonlights as a spotter for a team when available.

  7. no experience necessary says

    forget radios. unfortunately many young “drivers” would never get near an oval like Stafford ,Waterford or Thompson without many, many laps under their belt. the feeder divisions are essentially gone with teenagers operating vary fast very dangerous open wheel cars on big tracks almost out of the gate . what do you expect is going to happen? add the parent, owner, crew chief factor to most of these young entitled kids and its a recipe for disaster. I say “entitled” because of the cost factor. no one aside from people in equine sports are spending thousands every year on their child even with travel… young berry made a real time decision to attempt a three wide pass and it bit him, caused damaged to other cars and just looks bad. take ownership. so what if he has driven MRS ..whats next a truck ride ? c’mon already… if I am not mistaken there were three caution’s in three laps in that feature. PS Charland who is the “grandfather” of the group is no better at using his head than the young whippersnappers ! promote patience and common sense although that was alot easier to do back in the day in a 1/4 midget ,go cart ,bando or legend car than a modified.. heck require these kids to drive full fendered cars til they are 18 .cars can be fixed, people, drivers, children are a little harder

  8. Hi All,

    Dr. Robert Neville is correct. Spotters lead to wrecks and it leads to more assets used, and more assets built. I am assuming this was a creation of the suppliers. You need to fix the problem of people telling people what to do. If the Atomic Punk is my spotter at Stafford, I would say Hell No, well not really, stay on the bottom! Honestly, SK Lights have been running much better in recent years. No spotters. The drivers must have gotten better. Before they were a wreck fest with no spotters. It has been really a lot better recently.

  9. 40 years ago there was an attempt to take the mirrors out our Streets. It failed because there was a lot of push back from the drivers.
    I surely don’t know if spotters cause more wrecks of not. Seems like it would depend on the division. I’d hate to be running in a pack in the SK’s lap after lap with no spotters. What I know is if you start taking things away drivers are used to it will not be appreciated. Conversely if you add spotters to a division like the Lights it would burden a lot of teams with another layer of asset commitment.
    I wish there was a way to look up the number of wrecks in the Lights this year. My recollection is a lot of clips have been changed and some from really bad wrecks. Improvement is relative so it could be improving but I doubt many SK Light drivers would agree with that. Debbis showed a picture of his car at Chassis Pro getting a new front clip. The amount of work involved is burdensome to say the least. Yet they turn it around routinely race ready for the following week and frequently as good a handling car as before the wreck. A testament to the skill of the people working on cars now.

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