It was obvious early on that Matt Hirschman was going to be a race car driver.
“That’s what I always said I was going to do when they asked you in elementary school, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ I always said I was going to be a race car driver,” Hirschman said.
The 39-year-old from Northampton, Pennsylvania, grew up in and around the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. His father Tony Hirschman Jr. is widely considered one of the best Modified drivers of his generation.
The elder Hirschman won five NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championships during a career that stretched from the mid-1980s through 2007. During that time, he won 35 races with a variety of race teams at tracks like Oswego Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park and Stafford Motor Speedway.
For the younger Hirschman, whose brother Tony Hirschman III works as a spotter in the NASCAR Cup Series for Kyle Busch, Modified racing is practically all he’s ever known.
Some of Matt Hirschman’s earliest memories are of his father racing and winning at many of the aforementioned race tracks.
“My dad could name the year and I was probably only 2 or 3 years,” Hirschman said. “Some of that was just when he was just starting to venture out and race some of the NASCAR races.
“I’d say Stafford, Thompson, Oswego, Martinsville, I remember going to places like that. That was before he was full time, because that didn’t come until the late 80s when he started running the Tour full-time. That was when he was just going to some of those places in the earlier part of his career for the first time.”
His father won his first NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race in 1989 and claimed his first of five championships in 1995. He added his second a year later, followed by a third title in 1999. He collected his final two championships in 2004 and 2005. His last race win came in 2006.
It was during the later part of his father’s career that Hirschman began to find his own place in Modified racing. It started with the father-son pairing working together, with dad driving the car and son serving as crew chief.
The pairing was incredibly successful, with Hirschman guiding his father to his final two NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championships for the Kehley family.
“His two championships, again back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, I was actually playing the role of the crew chief,” Hirschman said. “I was setting up the cars for him and calling the races when I was there, because at that time I had already started racing, so I didn’t attend every race. The Kehley’s, they’re like family, that team that he finished his career with.
“I really learned a lot working with my dad and working with their car. That’s stuff that still applies to what I’m doing today.”
At the same time, Hirschman began his own driving career that would eventually make him one of the top Modified competitors in the United States.
While he’s rarely raced the full NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour schedule during his career, Hirschman has still earned Tour victories at Oswego Speedway, New Smyrna Speedway, the Chemung Speedrome and Spencer Speedway.
Away from the Tour, Hirschman is known for showing up when a lot of money is on the line. He’s one of the best to ever race a Modified during the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway, where he has claimed three championships and countless victories.
He’s also won big races like the Race of Champions, the Spring Sizzler and the North-South Shootout, just to name a few.
There’s a reason fans call him ‘Big Money Matt,’ a nickname from which Hirschman admits he initially shied away.
“I’ve always been confident in myself. To say that I knew I could achieve this or do this is hard to really answer or say yes to,” Hirschman said. “I’ve always had the confidence, but it’s a lot of hard work and a group effort to make it happen.
“In the beginning I think I shied away a little bit from the nickname, not trying to put added pressure to myself. But I believe I’ve lived up to it and kind of now I’ve more embraced it. I think I’ve earned it and I continue to prove that.”
When you look around the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour garage at any given race, the odds are high that you’ll see crew members, team owners or drivers whose father, mother, or grandparents were also involved in Modified racing.
It takes a certain amount of dedication, according to Hirschman, to live and breathe Modified racing for nearly his entire life.
“Modified racing is deep roots. If you look at the generations of the same names and families and things and crew members in the pit areas, it’s something that once it’s in your blood, it’s like a disease,” Hirschman said. “It’s really hard to get away from it.
“From a very early age, this is all I’ve known and all we’ve ever done. I’ve spent my entire life, except for a very short time when my dad went racing in the Busch North Series, Modified racing has been our life. That same thing can be said for many families.”
So will there be a third generation of Hirschman’s racing Modifieds? It’s possible, but Hirschman says he won’t force any of his children to get involved in racing.
He wants it to be their choice.
“I do have two children of my own. I have a son who is 7, Matthew, and a nine-month-old daughter, Violet,” Hirschman said. “Being that I’ve lived it and realized it, I know how tough it is. I’m not going to put that pressure on or push for that to happen. I didn’t start myself until I was 17, but what I learned by going racing and being involved first as nothing more than just watching, and then being more involved as I got older, those lessons learned were very valuable.
“Right now, my son goes to a majority of my races, and we’re into racing big time. We watch racing all the time on TV and the streaming that is now available to us. That’ll be his choice. I won’t make that choice for him.”