Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day Classic at Thunder Road Notebook

After driving four hours through varying degrees of rainfall, we were more than delighted to see the clouds depart and sunshine prevail last Sunday afternoon at Thunder Road.
Oxford’s regular Saturday night program ran as clean as we hoped, capped by a huge fireworks display for the holiday weekend crowd. That put us in a favorable frame of mind as we headed west, and the action at T-Road sure didn’t disappoint.
Along with David Pembroke’s thrilling win in the ACT 100, the big story of the day was obviously the tremendous heartbreak suffered by Joey Polewarczyk and team when he spun out of the lead at lap 82.
Fresh from his victory the previous Sunday at Oxford, Pole was working his way through traffic like a seasoned veteran. The 19-year-old New Hampshire native was using the outside lane to stay out front, much as he did the previous week at Oxford.
Yet this time, he got a little too far out carrying a whole lot of speed into Turn 3. The resulting spin and crash cost him a second straight win, one he dearly wanted at ACT’s toughest track. Pembroke took his gift from above and ran with it — straight to Victory Lane.
Another big attraction beyond the great racing Sunday at Thunder Road was the classy memorials that have been constructed at the speedway. Six large pieces of polished Barre granite are inscribed with the names of track champions and major event winners.
The three pieces put up in front of the track entrance feature track champions, from Ronnie Marvin in 1960 to Eric Williams in 2008. Located right behind the officials’ tower at the base of the banking is a new display featuring three more pieces. These are pink granite inscribed with the names of winners in T-Road’s three major races; Memorial Day Classic, Vermont Milk Bowl and the famed Labor Day Classic.
I took some time to look over these displays and must say they are very nicely done. Since Barre is the undisputed Granite capitol of the world, these memorials are quite fitting.
There are even two new signs welcoming fans onto the property made out of granite. The whole place looked absolutely outstanding in the bright sun Sunday afternoon. My compliments to Ken Squire and Tom Curley for these world-class tributes to the drivers who made Thunder Road one of the nation’s finest short tracks. I’d love to see more tracks follow suit now to recognize their own rich history.
I was a little disappointed to see the True Value Modified portion of Sunday’s holiday doubleheader turn so ugly. Twelve cautions and a red flag in a 100-lap race is a bit excessive. Yet I don’t get to see these ground-pounding machines often any more; not like the old days when the NASCAR Mod tour ran alongside the old Busch North Series at certain tracks. So I enjoyed the chance to see Chris Pasteryak, Kirk Alexander and eventual winner Steve Masse do battle.
One comment on the Tiger Sportsman division at Thunder Road. That is, without question the nicest-looking support class I’ve ever seen. Most of the cars are well-maintained and look a lot like a Late Model. The crews all wear nice uniforms and some even have digital wraps on their enclosed trailers. It’s a hot division that puts on a great show of its own. It’s the modern-day version of the old Flying Tigers, I guess, and they really are an added attraction.
After attending four of the first five ACT Late Model tour shows in 2009, it’s time to get focused on Oxford’s weekly action. We’ll have some terrific battles up there all season, and not just with the Late Models, either. Strictly Stock, Mini Stock, Outlaw, Rebels and even the Ladies all provide fans with plenty of pop. Get out and support your local short track this summer.

Monday, May 18, 2009

New England Dodge Dealers 150 Notebook

Whenever the Vermont-based American-Canadian Tour (ACT) rolls into Oxford Plains Speedway, one safe bet is that the ongoing rivalry between ACT’s touring invaders and Oxford’s regular weekly teams will provide ample entertainment.
Sunday’s New England Dodge Dealers 150, Round 4 on the 2009 ACT schedule, continued that tradition in fine fashion as Oxford veteran Timmy Brackett battled eventual winner Joey Polewarczyk Jr. for the lead. Brackett led for eight laps (99-107) but settled for third at the finish behind “Irish”John Donahue.
Known affectionately as “Joey Pole” in racing circles, 19-year-old Polewarczyk is ACT’s poster boy for the “new guard” of northeastern short track racing.
Former Oxford champion Ricky Rolfe, the man who dominated this race in 2008, was also a factor Sunday until carburetor trouble took him out of contention. Rolfe led twice for a total of 57 laps and finished 17th on the lead lap.
Turner, Maine resident and Aroostook County native Shawn Martin earned the pole Sunday and led the first 29 laps in his No. 94 BRP-Oxford Networks Chevrolet. Martin’s car tends to fade on long green runs, and Sunday was no different. He did, however hang on for a solid 10th-place finish.
Brackett has done just about everything a guy could do at Oxford over the years. He’s won in several divisions and is definitely one of the good guys. Like ageless Al Hammond, who will return to action at Oxford on July 4, Brackett converted his old Pro Stock machine over to a Late Model for 2009. I knew he was fast on practice day, and he sure was impressive in the ACT race.
Looking at the geographical breakdown from Sunday’s 150, we had only six drivers from New Hampshire (but led by a pretty sharp kid from Hudson) in the final rundown; 13 from Vermont and 11 Maine natives. The Pine Tree State can boast four drivers in the top 10; led by Brackett (third); Shawn Knight (fourth); defending Late Model champion Travis Adams (sixth) and Martin (10th).
One consistent thing we’ve seen through the first four ACT races in 2009 is plenty of long, green-flag racing. Sunday’s 150-lap tilt at Oxford was slowed by only two cautions, both for minor spins. In fact, 30 cars sprinted for the first 85 laps before fill-in flagman “Magic” Marvin Galarneau needed to unfurl the yellow.
Thanks to a rain-out on Saturday night in Quebec, the ACT staff was divided into two locations on Sunday. Galarneau does an excellent job providing information to the media at most races and will return to his normal duties this coming weekend at Thunder Road.
It was tough to see young Tyler Cahoon of St. Johnsbury, VT, struggle Sunday at Oxford. Cahoon is an up-and-coming sophomore on the ACT Late Model tour and is the son of veteran short track ace Stacy Cahoon. Tyler needed a provisional to get into the 150 Sunday and limped his way to a 29th place finish. Things will get turned around for the No. 38VT gang soon, but after not making the show on May 3rd at Thunder Road I can’t imagine he’s too confident about going back for the Mekkelsen RV Memorial Day Classic.
Interesting to note on Sunday was the fact veteran Bobby Dragon was driving Pete Duto’s No. 55 Subway Ford. Bobby’s son Scott piloted the No. 71 machine that he usually drives, and wheeled it to a solid seventh-place finish. Bobby finished 15th in the car Brad Leighton drove to victory in the season-opening NH Governor’s Cup 150 at Lee USA on April 19.
When teams and fans arrive at Barre, Vermont’s famed Thunder Road International Speedbowl, they’re all in for as special treat. ACT president Tom Curley told me what he an Ken Squire have invested in memorials and capital improvements, and I’m impressed. I can’t wait to see these tributes to the men who helped build Thunder Road’s rich 50-year history.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Next up: ACT New England Dodge Dealers 150 at Oxford

As the 2009 short track season shifts into high gear here in the northeast, there are ample reasons for fans to be excited.
When the American-Canadian Tour (ACT) kicked off its new campaign at Lee USA Speedway on April 19, we saw some great side-by-side racing. And when we got to Thunder Road to begin its star-filled 50th anniversary season, we saw more of the same.
Thanks to an open-minded arrangement between ACT and officials at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS), the excitement level is at an all-time high within ACT circles this season. Thus far, Brad Leighton (Lee), Eric Williams (Thunder Road) and Scott Payea (Airborne) have all earned the right to compete in the ACT Invitational at NHMS on September 19. The desire to win an ACT race this year and qualify for “The Big Dance” is visible in driver’s eyes.
Next up for the ACT warriors is a trip to the famed Oxford Plains Speedway on Sunday, May 17. The New England Dodge Dealers 150 will feature all the same ACT hot-shoes we’ve seen the last few weeks, plus a host of Oxford regulars hoping to defeat the invaders. What can we expect when this battle begins? More great side-by-side racing is pretty much guaranteed.
If this is one of the eight races Leighton is going to run for owner Pete Duto, expect the No. 55 NH to contend for the win. Leighton, of Center Harbor, NH, knows his way around the tricky 3/8-mile oval and is coming off a strong run last Sunday at Airborne. After battling with fellow Granite State native Randy Potter all day, the two-time NASCAR champion finished third.
Potter is my pick to win at Oxford, and not just because he had a solid run last time out. The veteran from Groveton blew us all away on April 28, 2007, when he won the ACT race at Oxford. Potter is a guy with good equipment, a smart crew chief (Pete Knights) and the talent to get the job done. If he doesn’t get caught up in somebody else’s mess, he’ll be a factor.
Scott Payea has finished second the last two years in ACT final points. The easy-going driver from Milton, VT (a pretty famous town for racers) fell just one point shy of Patrick Laperle in 2008, and was runner-up to Jean-Paul Cyr in 2007. This season, Payea has made his intentions clear with a win (Spring Green 100 at Airborne) and two third-place finishes. Payea finished 17th (he started 30th) in last year’s season opener at Oxford on April 26, and will be gunning for a much better outcome this time around.
Glen Luce is a Maine native now competing full-time on the ACT Late Model tour. In the season opener at Lee, the Turner native started 29th and finished in the 20th position. At Thunder Road, he rolled off in the eighth spot and was 10th at the finish (one lap down). Last spring at OPS, Luce had a dismal outing and came home 25th. Luce has the skills and experience to race up front at Oxford, proven by his second-place finish in last year’s TD Banknorth 250.
Looking at the rundown from Airborne, there are a half dozen names that could be up front when we get to Oxford. Veterans like Brent Dragon, Brian Hoar, Mike Olsen and Jamie Fisher all have great equipment and experience on the western Maine oval. Young Joey Pole is another driver that could be a factor at Oxford, having won there on June 21 last year. Pole (short for Polewarczyk) finished third behind NASCAR superstar Kevin Harvick and Luce.
And let’s not forget the Oxford regulars like Shawn Martin (two ACT wins), Tim Brackett, Tommy Ricker, Shawn Knight, Nick Brown and a host of others who were all fast in last Saturday’s open practice session.
Also in action when Oxford’s gates swing open on May 17 will be the Strictly & Mini Stock divisions, along with the Outlaws and Rebels from Oxford’s Wednesday night program. It promises to be another action-filled day of racing alongside Route 26.
As the Oxford beat writer for the Sun Journal, I’m ready to set up the laptop and see that green flag wave.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Merchants Bank 150 Notebook

Sunday’s 11th annual Merchants Bank 150 at Thunder Road delivered some of the best green-flag Late Model racing I’ve had the pleasure of watching in quite some time.
While some fans prefer a caution every 20 laps or so to stir up the mix, I’ve always loved long green-flag runs because it shows you two big factors in racing - car preparation and driver skill. To run up front or work your way there (like Patrick Laperle did last Sunday) during a 106-lap sprint takes a well-prepared machine and a driver that doesn’t lose his cool in lapped traffic.
In addition to the clean race we enjoyed, there were a number of other stories worth noting from the second ACT Late Model Tour event of 2009.
First up on my list was the big crowd at Thunder Road. I know, a big crowd for an ACT race at T-Road isn’t a surprise, but for that many fans to turn out during tough economic times is remarkable. Especially since Vermont has been hit hard by this financial downturn.
When teams showed up for the first practice session of 2009 on Tuesday, April 14, Nick Sweet was fast on everybody’s stopwatch. The sophomore driver from Barre backed that up in the season opener, easily qualifying for the 150 (unlike 12 drivers who did not) through his Heat (he was third in Heat 2 behind Joey Pole and Cris Michaud) and racing to a solid sixth-place finish in the feature. Sweet pilots the St. Jay Auto No. 88 Chevrolet and is one of the brightest among many rising stars in ACT competition.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is young Tyler Cahoon, of St. Johnsbury, Vermont. His 17th place finish at Lee USA on April 19 doesn’t really reflect his improvement over 2008. Cahoon won his qualifying heat earlier in the day and appeared to have the car dialed in. Yet last Sunday, the R&R Fireworks/Alomax Technologies No. 38 entry failed to qualify for the 150. In three tries (Qual. Heat, Consi and B Feature), Cahoon could not get the car into a transfer position and had to load it up early along with 11 other teams. I hope this coming Saturday at the all-new Airborne Speedway goes a lot better for the dedicated team from the Northeast Kingdom.
Going in to the 2009 ACT season, Groveton, NH, veteran Randy Potter was on my short list for drivers to contend for the tour championship. Potter has matured a great deal the last few years and is now a legitimate title contender. On Sunday at Thunder Road, the No. 02 P&R Excavating/JML Trucking Chevrolet was on a rail as Potter finished fourth in Heat No. 2 to transfer into the feature. After starting 16th on the 30-car grid, Potter smoothly wheeled his way up to eighth at the finish, the first car one lap down to the leaders.
Other drivers of note in Sunday’s Merchants Bank 150 include Brian Hoar, who drove from 13th to fifth in the Goss Dodge/RPM Racing Engines Dodge; Maine native Glen Luce, who piloted his TK & Sons Concrete Chevrolet to a solid 10th place finish; former Oxford Plains Speedway champion Ricky Rolfe, who finished 23rd after struggling all day; and seven-time ACT champion Jean-Paul Cyr, now driving his own No. 11 Chevrolet, who wound up 27th after completing just 114 laps. While he isn’t chasing tour points in 2009, I really expected a better outcome for Cyr in the season opener.
And last but certainly not least, I was interested to learn about the memorials that will be in place when we all get back to Thunder Road on Memorial Day weekend. During the Driver’s Meeting last Sunday, ACT president Tom Curley talked about plans he and Ken Squire have to erect some very classy memorials (remember, Barre is the Granite Capital of the World) to recognize some of the pioneers and stars from Thunder Road’s 50-year history.
Having attended races at Thunder Road since 1976 and studying its rich history for years, I am very excited about these planned memorials. To me, any track with that much history is right on target when they recognize the men who laid the foundation for the sport we enjoy today.