Mark Wertz (19) races alongside Shawn Balluzzo (48) during a Modified race at Langley Speedway on July 11. Balluzzo would lose his life in an accident during the second Modified feature, but Wertz hopes to take home a checkered flag in Saturday's Hampton Heat 200 in honor of his late friend. (Photo: WRT Speedweek-Burnett)

The Hampton Heat 200 at Langley Speedway on Saturday will be an evening filled with emotion for all of the track’s workers and competitors, who are returning to the facility following the fatal crash of 11-time Modified champion Shawn Balluzzo last weekend.

Mark Wertz was running behind Balluzzo in the second of two Modified features when the accident unfolded and has been grieving the loss of his close friend, but his focus has now turned towards moving forward and preparing for one of the most prestigious Late Model races of the season.

“This will help put some closure to everything,” Wertz said. “The racing community needs to press on because that’s what we do. It’s a sad loss to see a fellow driver and a friend get killed in an accident, but it’s times like this that remind us all to sit back and appreciate those who help us, our families and the sport.”

The friendship between Wertz and Balluzzo began back in 1992 while the former was still competing in Street Stocks. Wertz often worked on Balluzzo’s car after he was done preparing his own, which eventually resulted in him becoming a crew member on Balluzzo’s team.

Wertz and Balluzzo eventually parted ways as both of their careers developed, but the two stayed in touch over the years and regularly discussed ongoing events in their lives that revolved around their families or a new hobby.

“He had just bought a new gun and he didn’t know anything about it,” Wertz said. “My father and I have a huge background in competitive shooting and Shawn would ask me questions about how to load the dang thing. The off-track conversations that didn’t have anything to do with racing and everything to do with life are what I’ll miss the most.”

Although the past several days have been mentally challenging for Wertz, he has been working hard in the shop to prepare his #55 Donuts Chevy for its first Late Model appearance of the 2020 season.

Along with competing in the Modified division at Langley Speedway, Wertz’ busy start to a delayed 2020 campaign has seen him compete in a Dirt Late Model race at Dixieland Speedway while simultaneously continuing his role as Connor Hall’s crew chief after the two formed a partnership last year.

Wertz has also utilized his availability during the COVID-19 pandemic by logging laps in his Late Model at Langley, and is hoping that extra time at the track will yield a strong qualifying effort on Saturday that will enable him to run his own pace until the Hampton Heat’s closing stages.

“As I’ve gotten older and wiser, my mindset is now more centered on taking what you can get from qualifying,” Wertz said. “I work on long runs during practice and I like to see where my car is on old tires so we can figure out a gameplan on when we’ll pit for tires and fuel. I’m going to pace myself because it’s a long, grueling race, but hopefully I can turn the heat up with 20 to go and compete for the win.”

In Wertz’ first six Hampton Heat starts, he regularly found himself at the front of the field and managed to bring home Top 5 finishes in 2009 and 2013. Wertz’ fortunes in the Hampton Heat have taken a downward spiral since a 10th place showing in 2014, with his best finish being a 19th last year.

With several strong competitors making the trip up to Langley for the 2020 Hampton Heat, Wertz knows that he will have to drive a smart race if he wants to get out in front and take home a checkered flag in honor of Balluzzo.

“A win would be epic,” Wertz said. “I’m getting old and you’re never promised tomorrow. I’ve been fortunate to win quite a few races and even some big races, but [the Hampton Heat] is one I would like to put a bookend on. It would rank right there with those two back-to-back NASCAR Regional Championships.”

Wertz admitted that he would not be competing in Late Models today without Balluzzo’s advice and influence, and knows that the void left by his passing will be felt by everyone at Langley Speedway and the Virginia short track community for the foreseeable future.

The green flag for the 2020 Hampton Heat is expected to fly at approximately 9:00 p.m. on Saturday evening.