Ted Christopher, killed in a plane crash, never modified his behavior 

  • Ted Christopher is honored on the 82 Whelen Modified Tour car as seen at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Woody Pitkat (82) walks around his modified car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • A sign honoring Ted Christopher, known as T.C., is seen on the side of a van at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday. Christopher was killed in a plane crash last weekend on his way to a race on Long Island. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Ted Christopher is honored on the 82 Whelen Modified Tour car as seen at NHMS on Friday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour driver Woody Pitkat (82) talks with his crew at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Friday, September 22, 2017

To know NASCAR driver Ted Christopher was to love him.

And hate him.

And respect him.

And fear him.

His biting humor could strip the chrome from an exhaust pipe. His competitive fire could ignite strong emotions in other drivers on the Whelen Modified Tour. His shirt-off-his-back selflessness endeared him to those lucky enough to have gotten past his gruff force field, an outer exterior that masked his kindness and fit nicely into the edgy world of racing.

In short, the Modified Tour has lost some of its horsepower after the death of Christopher, killed in a plane crash last weekend while flying to a race on Long Island.

He was 59. He was known as one of the best short-track racers

in the business. He owned racing in Connecticut, his home state, setting records for wins there, and he was a big draw here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, combining his New England roots with star power.

He once won five Modified races at NHMS in a 10-year span. For years, he was announced before races here as T.C.

That was enough.

“It’s hard to talk about,” said Aaron Kuehn, a shock specialist for Monster Energy Cup Series driver Danica Patrick. “He would help you any day of the week, even if he raced hard against you. A lot of drivers just looked at him and never tried to get to know him, and he was not an easy person to get to know. When he put that helmet on he was there for one thing, and that was to win. A lot of guys didn’t like the mentality of how he drove.”

Kuehn spoke in Patrick’s hauler, parked in the speedway’s infield with the rest of the Cup teams. He tried to keep his emotions in check.

That’s hard to do, though, when you grew up in Connecticut, one town over from Christopher’s hometown, and loved racing.

He showed me a cell photo of himself at 9-years-old, 30 years ago, posing with one of his heroes – Christopher – in Victory Lane.

And Christopher smuggled a 15-year-old Kuehn into the pit area at Thompson Speedway one year before Kuehn was eligible to be in there.

And so Kuehn, a grizzled NASCAR crew veteran, hard-boiled and deeply immersed in this tough world, paused before his voice cracked as he continued to relay his feelings just days after losing his friend and mentor.

“It sucks this weekend, seeing the Modifieds over there,” He told me. “My dad retired and Ted took him onto his team. My dad is 68 and they would hang out on Friday nights, an old group of guys. My dad had a great time, and I was thankful. He kept my dad doing stuff.”

Jet Zarrella, another longtime member of the NASCAR community, also grew close with Christopher.

Now a tire specialist for driver Kurt Busch and Stewart-Haas Racing, Zarrella dates back to the 1980s, when he worked in the pit crew for Modified star Reggie Ruggiero and saw drivers like Richie Evans, killed in a crash in 1985, give the tour name recognition and heated rivalries.

In fact, Zarrella saw the Christopher fire up close.

“We had a run-in in ’95 I think in Florida,” Zarrella told me. “We tangled on the race track and it poured over into the pits and we had a scuff-up and a week later we were fine. That’s how racing was back then, and the amount of respect I had for Teddy was great because he was the last real connection to that golden era of Modifieds, and it was sadly taken away. I don’t think those shoes can be filled.”

Zarrella, like Kuehn, spoke to me from a Cup hauler. Like Kuehn, he described the many moods and emotions Christopher pulled from other drivers. And, like Kuehn, his calm, controlled demeanor eventually was swept aside, replaced by long pauses and watery eyes.

So moved, in fact, was Zarrella by his friend’s death that he added “TC 13” onto Patrick’s 40 Cup tires last weekend in Chicago, written with a pink marker and a wounded spirit. Zarrella never forgot his roots.

“I’m a modified guy working in Cup racing right now,” Zarrella told me. “When you do something like that, it hurts like a family.”

Thankfully, there was fun to be had here as well. Christopher mercilessly taunted those he cared for, and those stories were needed for the full flavor of the man to come through.

“He’d say you suck as a joke,” said JJ Vece,” who worked on Christopher’s 2017 crew and is a family friend. “And his other favorite thing was calling me Chubby 2. His crew chief was Chubby 1, and I was Chubby 2.”

And then there was the competitive aspect to all of this, the part that didn’t exactly endear Christopher to other drivers.

Woody Pitkat is driving in Christopher’s place in Saturday’s NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour 100. He’s been driving for 20 years. He’s driven against Christopher. He’s seen and felt the fire.

“I loved the way he raced and I loved the controversy he brought and the aggressiveness,” Pitkat told me in his hauler. “I’d compete against him and had good moments and bad moments. He would do things that would piss you off, take your line away or trap you. Instead of listening to his spotter, he was good at sticking through a hole that was barely there, and he would tap you, cut you off a lot of times.

“He was good at clearing himself, especially at Stafford (Motor Speedway).”

Stafford was considered Christopher’s “home track,” the one near his home in Connecticut, the one where he kicked butt. He had a division-leading six wins there this year.

Overall, Christopher boasted 131 wins at Stafford since 1986, the most ever. Pitkat is second, 54 wins behind. He had 99 wins at Thompson Speedway, also No. 1. And he claimed the 2001 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series short track national championship, and the Whelen Modified Tour title in 2008.

Cup drivers, most of whom are from the south, knew all about the New England boy.

“A great wheel man and a great man,” said seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “He was such an icon in the area.”

“He was well known across the country,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “I know all the Modified guys up here looked up to him. Just a huge loss this week, especially something tragic like that.”

Christopher and his pilot were killed when their plane crashed on Sept. 16 in Guilford, Conn. Kristen Lestock, NHMS’s communications director, said a moment of silence will be held before Saturday’s Modified race. Something else will be included at race time, Lestock said.

Christopher will be buried Tuesday in his hometown of Plainville, Conn. Kuehn, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., will be there.

“He’d pick on me and bust my ass,” Kuehn said. “But Teddy was always really good to me.”