The inaugural Superstar Racing Experience event on Friday at Stafford Motor Speedway delivered on each of its promises -- especially those intending to introduce short track culture to the mainstream.
Driving the Rocky Balboa car reserved for a local legend at each stop on the six-race summer series, Doug Coby delivered too. He dominated at his home track in northern Connecticut, outdueling NASCAR legends Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle over the final laps.
The six-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion arguably has bigger victories over his decorated career -- but the 41-year-old conceded that Saturday may have been his most meaningful.
"I’ve got a big mouth and I talk about short track racing a lot on social media," Coby said. "I kind of felt like if I’m going to run my mouth, I had to make this decision to back it up and be there to represent short track modified racing. It was a no-brainer to me. Opportunities like this one don’t come around often for someone my age."
His competitors showered him with praise over the past week, too.
"Some of the guys I raced with called me," Coby said. "Willy T. [Ribbs] left me a voicemail [Tuesday]. Paul [Tracy] and Marco [Andretti] reached out on Instagram in private messages. That’s awesome because they don’t have to do that. Everybody has been asking me about the drivers. They were all amazing. They cared about Stafford Speedway and the SK [Modifieds] and the Tour Type Modifieds that were racing there Friday night. … They were genuinely interested in the local racing that they were partaking in.
"To have a guy like Mark Martin post congratulations for winning [on Twitter], they know how important it is for a guy like me to get that kind of respect and have people talking about it and tagging me. It’s stuff that I never in million years would have happened."
It wasn’t so much that winning a race against Stewart and Biffle, both in their 50s, was a big deal. It wasn’t even about defeating reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
His appearance was about making a statement that short track racing was more than just a minor league or some development platform -- the worst stereotypes about the discipline. He wants short track racing to become something to aspire to again.
Coby felt so justified on his convictions that he skipped the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at Oswego Speedway on Saturday to race with Superstar Racing Experience. As a result, he likely gave up a chance to earn a seventh championship later this season.
He entered the weekend in third place, and just seven points behind championship leader Patrick Emerling but fell to seventh and 47 points back. A seventh championship would tie Coby with Hall of Famer Mike Stefanik with seven in the Tour Era that began in 1985.
"I’ve come from much deeper back, so maybe we can make it interesting with some good finishes," Coby said. "If those guys have problems, it’s still early enough in the season that we can scratch and claw our way back. We’re capable of making some noise. As far as I’m concerned, it just makes our season a lot more interesting."
But again, Coby wanted to make a statement that short track racing features underexposed talent.
"This is a huge deal," Coby said. "I always get questions my whole career, ‘Could you do it? Could you run a [NASCAR Cup Series] car? An Xfinity [Series] car? Could you do something like that or would you be good?’ And it’s hard to say because you just never have the opportunity. And at least now I can say ‘Well I beat those guys at Stafford.’
"Maybe it opens people’s eyes around the industry to make different decisions on who they choose to hire for some of their rides that are open. I’m not just talking about NASCAR, this goes to all of motorsports. Sometimes you have to look in undiscovered places to find some really good things. I’m super excited that the Modifieds, our brand of Modified racing in the Northeast, the Tour Type Modifieds and the SK Modifieds that run weekly at Stafford, that we’re getting people to talk about us. If 100 people who were at Stafford last Saturday show up for the next [Whelen Modified] Tour race, then that’s a win for me.
"It’s all about exposure and it’s all about keeping the discussions going through all of motorsports that there are just some really smart people out there, good people. And I’m not only talking about drivers, I’m talking about spotters that work with us, crew chiefs, tire carriers, tire changers. They’re out there. It’s an unlimited pool of talent as far as I’m concerned. I’m overly excited about the spotlight on short tracks."
While Coby conceded that he wasn’t going to suddenly receive phones calls from Roger Penske or Rick Hendrick, he did receive one from GMS Racing president Mike Beam (who served as his celebrity crew chief on Saturday) offering him a chance to make his Truck Series debut in September at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Coby accepted and it was yet another victory for a short track lifer who otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford a national touring appearance.
CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said before the debut event that his network would view it as a win if they could elevate new stars using the Superstar Racing Experience platform.
"From the CBS standpoint I think that’s a great story," McManus said. "That’s Rocky Balboa if that turns out to be the story and some of the great legends in the history of motor racing are being bested by the local hero. That’s a pretty darned good story."
It's a story that's set to continue this weekend when two-time Knoxville Raceway 410 Sprint Car champion Brian Brown takes over the Rocky Balboa car. He has much bigger shoes to fill after Coby emerged victorious.
"The pressure has been on me since I met Doug at the CBS production day," Brown said. "To us three other [local drivers] he said ‘Hey, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m winning round one so don’t worry about that.’ That was his exact words and I was like ‘Man, who is this guy?’ And then he backed it up. I guess it’s not cocky if you can back it up. How awesome for Doug to be able to do that?"
Coby will get another chance to call his shot at Bristol in a couple of months.