FONDA, N.Y. – If you walk around the dirt modified pit area in the Northeast long enough, you’ll come across a young, tall, red-headed driver who is always smiling and enjoying his time at the race track.
That young kid is Jack Lehner, or as his nickname notes, the ‘Ginja Ninja.’
Anyone who asks around about him will hear nothing but praise from his competitors. From Matt Sheppard to Stewart Friesen, the Ballston Spa, N.Y., hotshoe is well-liked, but he had not yet won in a dirt modified yet.
That changed last Saturday at Fonda Speedway, as Lehner took the checkered in the iconic Erik Nelson-owned No. 85. He became the second driver to get his first dirt modified win while driving for Nelson and his team, joining Demetrious Drellos in 2019.
The emotion was evident on Lehner’s face as he exited the car and waved the checkered flag in victory lane. All his hard work, long hours and time spent had finally paid off.
“The first win is huge.” Lehner said Monday evening. “The simplest way to put it is, there’s a huge difference between thinking you can win and knowing you can win. To get the first win and know you can do it gives me a lot more confidence within myself and with the team going forward.”
Lehner ran the 602 Crate Modified division for a year locally before making the jump to big-block modified racing full time in 2018. While it was a struggle at first getting used to the power difference and running with a higher level of competition, Lehner never questioned the move.
“I don’t think I switched early at all.” He noted. “Our whole goal as an organization and mine was to be a really strong modified team and driver, and never a really good Sportsman team. For us, the Sportsman class was more of a stepping-stone. Once I felt more comfortable with these cars and driving them and being able to compete as a mid-field team with the [big-block] modified, it was time to move up.
“We wanted to get into the mix with the big dogs and learn from them.”
Lehner’s first modified win was not a cakewalk. With only one caution in the 30-lap main event, it was about who could get through traffic, and he had the likes of Jessica Friesen, Craig Hanson and Tim Fuller all chasing him down.
“I don’t know if I got nervous. I definitely knew we had to go,” Lehner recalled. “We closed on the lap cars pretty damn quick. There was a cluster of them and it was nuts. I rode around for a lap or two behind them and thought, ‘Man, they have to be right there.’
“I didn’t know it was Jess [behind]; I thought it was Rocky (Warner) as he started right next to me. But I knew we had to get going, and once we got through that little snag there, we had a clear track and I thought we were alright.”
After Lehner got past slower traffic, he had clear sailing and kept focused ahead.
“When I was by myself and able to look up at him [flagger Joe Kriss], he was giving me the signal we were pulling away and the car felt awesome,” Lehner said. “Sometimes as a driver, when you’re in the car and everything feels right, you’re confident and that’s how I felt. As the race started to wind down, I would look up at the board every couple of laps. I felt like I was really calm the entire time and it didn’t even sink in we were going to win.
“Once we got the white flag it did … and after I got through (turns) one and two and down the back into three is when it set in that ‘Man, this is happening; we are about to do it.’ Obviously taking the checkers was just awesome.”
Lehner admitted that getting the win for Nelson, his car owner, meant more to him than it did personally.
“Getting Erik the win was the biggest thing. It was really awesome to get a win for myself, but it’s even more awesome for all of them,” Lehner said. “Erik, Bill, Tucker and I have built a great relationship and we all feel the same about racing. We put everything we got into it and revolve around racing.
“During the off season when we were building the car and shooting the breeze, we would talk about the upcoming season and getting excited. To get a win on the second night out is incredible. Erik put himself out there and spent a lot of money to build us a nice car and it shows.
“Hopefully, we can keep the ball rolling.”
To win at Fonda was important to Lehner and his family. It was the culmination of a long-held dream.
“Fonda has always been really special to me,” he said. “Fonda is where we got our start in these cars. To win at Fonda is huge. The family business is right there in Fulton and Montgomery County, and to see all the fans and stuff, it feels like home when we come race there. I couldn’t think of a better place to get my first win at.
“Fonda is a staple in Northeast modified racing and always has been.”
Now that Lehner has his first weekly win under his belt, he wants to chase victory in a big-money touring show. What that entails, however, he’s not sure of just yet.
“We were really close to winning a few races at Malta (Albany-Saratoga Speedway) and close to winning a couple Super DIRTcar Series races, but some things didn’t go our way late in the races,” Lehner tipped. “We can always do better to put ourselves in the [right] position more often.
“A little luck and a good night is all we need, really. But we’re excited and believe we can do it now.”