Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Juice: New Track, New Seasons, and Nothing's Wrong at Talladega

-by Justin St. Louis

The 2009 season may have opened for us two weeks ago, but this weekend is THE big one! We've got action on both sides of the lake, don't miss it!


The off-season hype about Airborne Speedway's facelift took a giant leap toward justification on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons this week, as many teams and fans got their first look at the redesigned Plattsburgh, N.Y. track. A practice session scheduled for Tuesday was rained out, but fans were still encouraged to come to the track and take a slow lap around the new progressively banked (and smartly striped) corners. On Wednesday, the practice went off without a hitch, and reportedly, the results were outstanding for all divisions.

"We had a pit area full of cars, it was like an actual race there were so many people there," said Airborne Promoter Mike Perrotte. "A lot of guys were having a hard time finding a line, but once they find their way around it's going to be great."

Perrotte was particularly impressed with Modified champion Patrick Dupree and Renegade veteran Rob Gordon (car #H20 above - Leif Tillotson photo), who were the class of their respective divisions.

"Pat Dupree moved up the track at the end of the day, and he picked up two or three tenths (of a second per lap)," said Perrotte. "Once we get some rubber on the track, especially in the top groove, they'll really start to venture up there. Rob Gordon has his same old car in the Renegades, and he moved to the high side right from the first practice and almost lapped the field. If you're nuts enough to stick it out there, you can really go.

"Everything was great."

VMM took a ride across the lake on Tuesday to check it out (only to arrive mere minutes after the plug was pulled), and made a lot of mental notes about the place. While walking the track and taking some photos, it became very obvious that the new banking and slightly redesigned radii of the corners will create infinitely more multi-groove racing than the old surface. The pinch and 'natural push' in Turn 2 seem to have been elimintated, while a Thunder Road-like narrowing of the track out of Turn 4 will likely create some excitement, and at least judging from the race track side of the fence, may remind fans of the racing at Canaan Fair (N.H.) Speedway or the old Catamount Stadium, where it feels like the race cars are coming straight at you before turning at the last minute to head down the frontstretch. The entrance to Turn 3 having been moved out a few feet will allow for a more sweeping line, similar to Oxford Plains (Me.) Speedway or the totally circular Adirondack Int'l (N.Y.) Speedway. The multiple grooves and downhill momentum out of the corners is akin to Kawartha (Ont.) Speedway or Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.).

Speaking personally, having driven two laps around the place (albeit at 25mph), I got that seat-of-the-pants feeling that there was really something special going on with the new surface. It compares in almost no way to the track I competed on for the better part of three years as a kid, and while I miss that old layout, I could very quickly warm up to what I saw on Tuesday if I was still racing there. In fact, I'm quite jealous of the guys and girls that will get to spend their summer behind the wheel at The Big A.

Aside from the track itself, the facility's physical improvements are remarkable: a new media tower, new walls, a new, much more rigid catch fence, a new infield pit road, and a new lighting system should nicely compliment the recent improvements to the outer pit area and concession buildings. Basically, the entire Airborne Speedway property has all of the best elements of some of the finest short track racing facilities in the country, and its owner, promoter, and staff should be complimented by all racers, fans, and sponsors involved in the racing there this year and beyond.

I've said it before, and am confident that it will become fact: Airborne Speedway should prove to be a showpiece in the region for years and years to come. Can't wait for the opener on Saturday.


Also can't wait for the opener on Sunday. Thunder Road, of course. Not sure there's anything that can be said in this column space that could make a race fan want to go to Thunder Road any more than all the recent news to come out of the place, but here's a shot at it: Four divisions with anywhere between 120 and 140 race cars, all of which will be paraded through Barre City on Saturday morning and then again through the infield at the track on Sunday afternoon for the traditional 'Class Day' ceremonies, the excitement of the NHMS qualifier from ACT's Merchants Bank 150, the likes of racers from around the region like Laperle, Cyr, Hoar, Payea, Polewarczyk, and Rolfe, local guys like Michaud, Williams, Scott, Pembroke, Fisher, and Donahue, and the true heroes in the Tiger Sportsman, Street Stock, and Warrior divisions.

Thunder Road's season openers are always special, but it's the 50th season this year, so you know it'll be special-special. Be there.


If you're in Central Vermont, you know that 107.1 Frank-FM is the #1 spot to turn your radio dial. VMM HQ is a little too far north for the reception to come in all the time, but it's always been a favorite when we're in the right range. Frank-FM has graciously added "The Juice" to the racing page on its website, and will update its page weekly with each new column. Thanks, Frank, and rock on!


According to a few folks in the know, Twin State Speedway's season opener went pretty well last Friday night. In its first year running with a Late Model rulebook that is 100% ACT-legal, 14 cars showed up for the opener, including Thunder Road rookie Dylan Smith of Randolph, who is driving for Pete Fecteau this season. Mike Parks, race director at the Claremont, N.H. track, said he felt the racing was good and the division's potential at the track is really beginning to take shape. "Tom Curley was at the track, and the fact that he was there supporting our program adds an instant credibility to what we're trying to do," said Parks. "I think if we had anywhere between two and four Thunder Road cars there each week this year, it would help the division a lot, and give our guys something to work on." Curley, the American-Canadian Tour and Thunder Road President/Promoter, awarded Twin State Speedway a date on his ACT Late Model Tour this season, and the race, of course, is a qualifying event for the ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September. (Photo: #44 Dennis Stange, #29 Aaron Fellows, and #25 Dallas Trombley get after it at Twin State on Friday night - Alan Ward photo)

One of Twin State's top dogs, Guy Caron of Lempster, N.H., won the opening night feature, followed by Ascutney's Chris Riendeau and Mark Merrill of Newport, N.H. Sixteen year-old Smith finished last, 14th, in his first career Late Model start.

Dana Smith of Goshen, N.H. won the Modified main over Arthur Heino, Jr. and second-generation Ascutney racer Joey Jarvis. Mendon's Chris Wilk won the Super Street feature. Other winners included Ben Poland (Strictly Stock), Hartland's Cody Small (Wildcats), and 14 year-old Shawna Wallace (Sportsman).

From the This-Guy-Must-Really-Love-What-He-Does File, Croydon, N.H. standout Aaron Fellows raced in three divisions on Friday, finishing eighth in both the Late Model and Modified features, and finishing second to Wilk in the Super Street event.


ACT's Ford engine is still awaiting official approval, and may get it following this weekend's Merchants Bank 150 at Thunder Road. Tom Curley said that representatives from Ford will be at the Merchants Bank 150 to get a first-hand look at the performance of the engine in Cris Michaud's Late Model.

"Hopefully, (the Ford engine) will be optioned into the rule book next week following this weekend," Curley said in an email this week.

Michaud, who has now tested the engine at Thunder Road, White Mountain Motorsports Park, and Airborne Speedway, and finished 15th in the ACT Late Model Tour event at Lee USA Speedway two weeks ago, said he is optimistic about the engine's future.

"We went out and tried some new stuff at Thunder Road (last Sunday), played with the gears, and we picked up a little time on the stopwatch, and Airborne went well (on Wednesday), so that's all good," he said. "We ran well against Brent Dragon and Pembroke and Williams. I've heard that there people waiting to buy the Ford motor as soon as it gets approved."


Usually, this website won't cover or even discuss the upper levels of NASCAR's national touring series, but we have formed an opinion about the Carl Edwards crash at Talladega Superspeedway: NASCAR has done exactly what it was morally and legally required to do, and Talladega Superspeedway and its parent company, International Speedway Corp., have done exactly what they needed to do. (Photo: #99 Carl Edwards flies through the air at Talladega as #39 Ryan Newman grinds downt he track - Rainier Ehrhardt/AP photo)

Essentially, everyone that was at the Aaron's 499 on Sunday walked away perfectly safe, except for 17 year-old Blake Bobbitt, who suffered a broken jaw when a piece of debris hit her during the crash. When Edwards' car took a horrifying mid-air turn toward the grandstands at 180+ miles per hour on the final lap of the race, two things could have happened -- hundreds or even thousands of people could have been injured or killed, or Edwards' car could have been kept inside the racing surface and everyone could have walked away basically unharmed.

Thankfully, it was the latter.

Folks, the catch fence did its job, and Carl Edwards' race car did its job. A complete holocaust could have happened and it didn't. Had that race car gone into the crowd, it could have meant an instant end to motorsports as we know it. But it didn't. As recently as five years ago, Carl Edwards at the very least would likely have been killed given the speed and the strange angle at which he impacted the wall and fence, but advancements in driver safety and car construction certainly saved his life. And had NASCAR, ISC, and Talladega not taken measures to provide their fans with the best possible known protection against the variable that is 43 cars traveling at 300 feet per second for four hours, there would have been a major disaster.

Bobby Allison's Talladega wreck in 1987 was bad, way worse than Edwards'. Richard Petty's barrel roll against the fence at Daytona the next year (photo left, courtesy NASCAR), or Dale Earnhardt's crash at Talladega in 1996 could have had tragic consequences for sepctators. Those races were certainly eye-openers in terms of catch fence technology. And when Carl Edwards landed safely back on terra firma on Sunday, rather than in a 140,000+ seat grandstand, it was proof positive that the fence engineers had done their jobs correctly.

Now, what if Edwards' car had been 10 or 12 feet higher in the air? Then we'd have a problem. But if the fence was 12 feet higher, what if Edwards' car went 13 feet higher? There are all kinds of questions that can be asked, answered, then asked again. Nobody ever expected Tracie Bellerose to end up in the parking lot at Thunder Road, but she got there, and now there's a fence in Turn 3 that may likely never be used to keep a race car in-bounds, simply because it takes a lot of things to wrong (or right, if you want to scientific) all at the same time to get a stock car flying through that space.

Can everyone learn from the crash on Sunday? Absolutely, and the fence will certainly be rebuilt stonger, better, and safer for competitors and spectators before the Sprint Cup Series returns in October. But the fact is, there are always unforseen variables that cannot be prevented at automobile races -- three fans were killed at an IRL IndyCar event at Michigan Int'l Speedway in 1998 when an errant tire flew many rows up into the grandstands; a tragic crash at LeMans in 1955 killed 82 people; loose hoods from Cup cars have flown 40 feet above the track and into the grandstands at Daytona Int'l Speedway (Ernie Irvan, 1998, Robby Gordon, 2003), although neither incident was fatal -- and race fans, like drivers and crew members, attend events at their own risk.

Edwards was quick to blame NASCAR's 'yellow line' no-passing rule and the requirement of restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona for the cause of the crash. "We'll race like this until we kill somebody," he said Sunday, "then [NASCAR] will change it."

Allison, whose '87 wreck was mostly responsible for the implementation of restrictor plates, pooh-poohed Edwards' comments.

"(Racing is) as safe as we see modern entertainment," Allison said in an Associated Press article. "If you're at a hockey game and the hockey puck comes into the grandstands and hits you in the head and kills you, it's not safe. If you're at the football game and the football hits you in the head and kills you, you're not safe. If you're at a baseball game and the baseball hits you and kills you, you're not safe."

Amen to that, Mr. Allison, and kudos to NASCAR and ISC for keeping their fans and drivers as safe as they can.

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