To lose a championship is one thing, to lose it by a single point is another. To do it twice is unreal. And to have your team undergo huge changes and leave the future hanging in doubt tops it all off. Scott Payea has lived through that nightmare, but isn't letting it affect him.
Payea led the ACT Late Model Tour point standings for nearly the entire 2008 campaign, winning twice and leading nearly 25% of the laps run during the year, only to get caught up in a late-race incident at the season-finale Milk Bowl and eventually lose the championship to Patrick Laperle by one point. Four years earlier, the same thing happened to Payea in the NAPA Tiger Sportsman class at Thunder Road; a crash in the final event of the year dropped Payea from the point lead and handed the title to Reno Gervais by, again, just one point.
"I'm over it. Last year is last year," he said. "It could have been a hundred points and it wouldn't have mattered. We finished second the year before, too."
But following the loss of the ACT crown last season, Payea's family team hit a major road block. Long before the end of the season, his father, Jim, had made it known that he was looking for other options for the team, as fielding a championship-caliber Late Model operation had become too challenging financially. With just two months before the start of the 2009 season, the Milton racer was without sponsorship, without money, and without a ride. After a lot of hard work, however, Payea and crew chief Chris Companion were able to attract their main sponsors to return for another season, and together purchased the race car they had seen so much success with.
"Things were challenging during the winter, there's no question about that, but we ran well yesterday. It's proof positive that we're still strong," Payea said. Despite the fact that there was tension during the off-season, he scoffs at the notion that his team is getting a new start this year. "I don't know about (calling it) 'rebuilding'. It's basically the same team. Some people are in some different roles, but it's the same equipment and we've got some good people in place. And we wouldn't be able to do it without Ouellette Plumbing & Heating, AC Sports, and Leahy Press. Thankfully, they came back with us. I'm responsible for the finances now and getting the sponsorship was a challenge, but Dad is still helping out with talking to sponsors, and my parents were at Lee cheering me on.
"I have nothing to prove, people know how good we are. I just want to win races and try to go for it again this year."
In Sunday's season opener at Lee USA Speedway, Payea led a handful of laps, had an exciting 30-lap door-to-door fight for the lead with Joey Polewarczyk, and finished in third place. Last year he finished fourth in the race - a difference of two points from Sunday's finish - and began another run at the ACT championship.
"Last year's (championship outcome) was tough to take, but we started this year off strong with a third place. It's one spot better than last year, so hopefully at the end of the year we're one spot better."
In two weeks, Payea will head to a place he knows well, and to a race he has an incredible record at -- Thunder Road and the Merchants Bank 150. Since his rookie season in 2005, Payea's worst finish in the event is fourth place, and he will try for his third straight victory in the race on May 3.
"We're going to Thunder Road, and we want to get three in a row," he said. "We're strong, we're firing on all cylinders."
(Photo 1: Scott Payea (#89) and Joey Polewarczyk( #97) put on a show at Lee USA Speedway on Sunday. Gene Gagne photo. Photo 2: Payea and Polewarczyk's duel went on for over 30 laps. Leif Tillotson photo)