Curley said the reason for the change was threefold: first, to help grow car counts in both divisions; secondly, to begin the integration of foreign-made cars into the Street Stock division and create opportunities for its drivers in the future; and thirdly, to re-energize the four-cylinder classes and give fans and potential racers a new flavor of excitement for Thunder Road's upcoming 50th anniversary.
While car counts are relatively healthy for both divisions - the Street Stocks averaged about 33 cars weekly, with the Warriors drawing around 20 cars at each event - Curley believes that one field of 50 or more cars is better than two fields divided. While divisions of 33 and 20 cars might be something many race track promoters would envy, Curley reminded the crowd that as recently as five years ago, each division drew 40 or more cars weekly. He jokingly likened the merge to the TV show Survivor: "When the tribes start to get whittled down, they merge, so here we are."
Curley thinks a new format will encourage more would-be racers to get involved. The Streets and Warriors will run in the same qualifying heats and feature events, and those that fail to qualify for the feature will run in a points-paying "B" feature that will offer the same number of laps as the main event. The hope is that less-experienced drivers will get the same experience as the more successful veterans, speeding up the learning curve.
With every driver in both four-cylinder divisions virtually guaranteed a starting berth in each week's main event during the last two seasons, the pressure to perform over recent seasons - and more importantly, fan interest - had begun to wane. Curley hopes the new format will change that. "You look at racing 25 years ago, or at today's Tiger division at Thunder Road, and it's tense from the moment you walk in the gate," he said. "That's the way racing is supposed to be - the way the big (American-Canadian) Tour races are, when half of the field goes home without qualifying. You see everyone working harder in the pits, and the fans are in the stands with their pencils checking off numbers, watching their favorite driver to see if he makes it in. We're hoping to bring that back to the Streets and Warriors."
Curley also pointed to the fact that since its introduction in 1993, the Street Stock division has only permitted American-made cars to compete. Nearly every other track in the northeast allows foreign manufacturers like Honda and Volkswagen to race against the Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Cavaliers that populate four-cylinder classes, and Curley hopes that a "Nationals" type of event - like the one held at Maine's Beech Ridge Motor Speedway - would be a viable option for a Thunder Road competitor to attempt in the coming years. The Warrior division currently allows foreign and domestic automobiles to compete, and the merging of the divisions will begin the transition of foriegn cars, and eventually more technology, into the Street Stocks.
Reaction from the standing-room-only crowd was mostly positive.
"I trust Tom," said Street Stock driver David Greenslit of Waitsfield. "He's the best promoter around for a reason. I actually want to race with some of the (Warrior) guys, I think it will be fun."
"The 'B' feature is good for someone like me," said Street Stock rookie Mike Ducey of Williamstown, who ran the last two seasons as a Warrior driver. "I put in my two years, and I was looking forward to stepping up and racing only the more experienced drivers, but as long as I get some seat time and keep learning I'll be happy. I totally understand the concept of putting the divisions together. Realistically, what do we have to worry about? We're still going to get in and race our cars just like we always have, there's just more of us out there."
(Photos courtesy Thunder Road)