We're one race down, about 60 to go, give or take a few. And we couldn't be any happier about it! Here's this week's "Juice"...
Brad Leighton winning the first starting spot for the ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway has its positives and negatives. The pros are that Leighton is a top-name driver, a proven winner at NHMS, has first-class equipment, and will represent ACT, northeastern Late Model racing, and NHMS well. The cons -- there are far fewer cons than pros -- are that Leighton (right, Eric LaFleche/VLFRacing.com photo) is just a part-timer with ACT, that he is one of the guys that everyone expects to dominate at NHMS, that now the "little" teams that make it in will have to work that much harder to beat him, and that as ACT-type race teams go, his is one of the few "superteams" that sort of -- sort of -- makes the purist, underdog-loving race fan go, "Oh, well, Leighton's in, so guys like (name a 5th-place driver at your local track) might as well not even show up."
But actually, thinking further about it, how is that possibly a bad thing? A little team should have to work harder to beat the champions and the proven winners. It should be a motivation piece, not a deterrent. Imagine this: Timmy Jordan from Waterford Speedbowl gets into the ACT Invitational, or how about young Brandon Watson up at Kawartha Speedway, or Ryan Vanasse at Seekonk Speedway, and one of those guys actually breaks into the winner's circle at Loudon. And say Brad Leighton, the guy no one is supposed to be able to beat, finishes second. Would that not be a major victory for short track racers everywhere?
The more we, as nitpickers, try to find something wrong with the ACT Invitational at NHMS, the more we simply can't find anything wrong with it.
We noticed a lot of things at the ACT season opener last weekend, and here are ten of them in no particular order:
1. The concentration of top-tier Vermont-based teams is shrinking. In fact, there were only three native Vermonters (Scott Payea, John Donahue, Brian Hoar) to finish inside the top-ten in the NH Governor's Cup 150. The same thing happened twice at Oxford Plains Speedway last year, and there were only four Green Mountain racers in the top-ten at Lee USA (and a few other tracks) last year. In the grand scheme of it all, that's a very good sign.
2. Is there no more ACT partnership with Toyota? The pace car on hand was the Dodge Charger, and the Toyota logos are now gone from the ACT website and the official Race Report. Maybe we answered our own question, we'll have to see at Thunder Road.
3. The number of drivers known for their success in other areas now participating in ACT is growing more and more. You can add former Busch North Series standout Mike Johnson and southern New England stars Fred Astle and Jeff Zuidema to the list.
4. When announcer John Spence asked the crowd if anyone was cheering for the Montréal Canadiens, I was the only person that stood up. And now I know why.
5. Two big surprises -- Joey Laquerre showed up, and Claude Leclerc didn't. Kinda weird.
7. Why isn't J.R. Baril a stronger force to be reckoned with when the ACT guys come to his house? Larry Gelinas, Wayne Helliwell, Ricky Wolf, Jeremy Harclerode, and occasionally Bryan Kruczek have run well against the Tour teams, but when ACT is at Lee USA, multi-time champion Baril (also a multi-time winner of long distance events at various tracks and a former PASS North regular) has sort of... just... been there.
8. You know, Cris Michaud really wasn't that far off on Sunday. It was only the first race with the Ford engine, and really, 15th isn't bad after a 150-lap show with an unraced, unproven combination. We're hoping that ACT's decision to hold off on approving the engine for competition won't last too much longer. Michaud admits that his driving style hasn't adapted yet to the different power curve of the Ford engine, and that changes in setup, like adding more gear (Michaud said his team ran 20 more points than normal in the gear ratio at Lee to try and make the car better) might help. It's a work-in-progress, just like the Chevrolet engine Michaud helped to develop in 1999 and 2000. Give it a few weeks, and you'll see a front-running Ford, just like when Phil Scott won in his second start with the Chevy engine against the "big motors" in 2000.
9. Tyler Cahoon could really surprise some people this year.
10. God bless those weekly guys that came to Lee from places like Oxford and White Mountain and Wiscasset and Waterford to just have a chance at sniffing an invite to Loudon, N.H. and the 1-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Guys like Shawn Martin, Travis Stearns, Glenn Martel, Mark Anzalone, and Corey Morgan. And God bless the guys that are giving the touring thing a shot for the same reason, like Miles Chipman and Rowland Robinson. That's what the whole NHMS event is about, and the race fans are going to be the big winners because of it.
VMM: "That was quite a battle you had with Quinny."
Eddie MacDonald: "Who's Quinny?"
MacDonald was surely not the only one asking that question after the NH Governor's Cup 150 last Sunday. Quinny Welch, in case you hadn't heard, is one of the top Late Model racers at White Mountain Motorsports Park, having won the track title there in 2007, and finishing a close second last year, but he doesn't get out much. Welch made a surprise visit to Lee USA to see how well he stacked up this year, and went home with a fine fifth-place finish, the first ACT top-five of his career. He ran either nose-to-tail or side-by-side with home-track hero MacDonald for the final 75 laps of the race, tha pair swapping the fourth and fifth positions several times. (Photo left: Welch (#78) and MacDonald (#17) going at it. Alan Ward photo)
"It was a helluva run, I wasn't expecting it," said Welch. "We started out really tight (but) were just a little better than all of the guys in front of us, and all of a sudden it kicked in and got some wicked good bite on the top side. Then we got to MacDonald, we battled with him for the whole race and it was very good, it was clean. To race with him here is pretty impressive for us. It's pretty cool. The guys did a great job, and all weekend long we were pretty good, we made the right choices, and there we were."
With a shoestring budget, Welch put a plan in place for the season -- and he, just like virtually everyone else with a Late Model, wants to race at NHMS -- but may have to change his direction if he keeps running well with ACT.
"I want to run White Mountain full-time to try to get to Loudon, but if we keep running like we are right now we might get a shot at Loudon before we have to run a whole season to do it," he said. "My goal was to start the first three (ACT races). If we made it here we could go to Thunder Road, and we made it, so we'll go to Thunder Road in two weeks, and then I'd really like to go to Plattsburgh (Airborne Speedway). I think that's a track that's suited for me, and nobody else has been there yet so I think we'll have a good shot at that one."
In his rare ventures outside his home track, Welch has run very well; last year, he finished eighth in the Milk Bowl at Thunder Road, and won a 100-lap Late Model open at Riverside Speedway. Those results, plus the top-five finish at Lee and the battle with MacDonald -- one of the hottest things on east coast short tracks these days -- should give Welch the confidence he will need to go with the skill his team has displayed so far. A great candidate, in our opinion, for one of the "at-large" bids for the ACT Invitational at NHMS, should he not earn a guaranteed starting berth otherwise.
Danville's Steven Legendre, as we had reported a week or so ago, is now racing with the PASS North Series. Legendre made his debut in the Super Late Model ranks at Speedway 95 near Bangor, Me. on Sunday, finishing a respectable 15th, the final car on the lead lap.
Defending PASS North Champion Johnny Clark won the NAPA 150 after passing Richie Dearborn and Cassius Clark with less than 15 laps remaining to take the opening day victory, the 17th of his PASS North career. Cassuis Clark capitalized after contact with Dearborn moved him up to second place; Scott Chubbuck also slipped by for third. Dearborn, who led much of the race, finished fourth ahead of Adam Bates. Derek Ramstrom, Chris Staples, John Flemming, Ben Rowe, and Donnie Whitten completed the top ten in order.
How cool is this?
Dan Bowes (silver #25), Justin Belfiore (black #98), and defending Lee USA Speedway champion Eddie Witkum, Jr. (white #39) raced here for the lead just inches apart near the halfway point. Bowes would hold off Belfiore for the victory.
You have got to respect anyone that can wrestle a 700-horsepower bullet around a 3/8-mile track, averaging laps about 100 miles per hour, and not wreck the guy outside of him. Too bad we didn't get any footage when they were THREE wide.
Brett "The Jet" Hearn of Sussex, N.J. won the 35-lap season opening 358 Modified event at Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta, N.Y. on Friday, ahead of Ronnie Johnson and Matt DeLorenzo. Middlebury's Todd Stone finished in fifth place, with Dave Camara of Fair Haven in seventh. Airborne Speedway promoter Mike Perrotte of Elizabethtown, N.Y. finished 10th.
Derrick McGrew of Ballston Spa, N.Y. won the 25-lap Budget Sportsman race with rookie Tim Hartman second in his first-ever open-wheel race. Manchester's Frank Hoard, III finished third. Rob Yetman of Castleton, N.Y. won the Pro Stock feature for his first career victory, while Dan Petronis of Mechanicville, N.Y. won the Limited feature.
The True Value Modified Racing Series kicks off its sixth season (sixth, already?) at Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, N.H. on Saturday with the Bond Auto Parts Spring Dash 100 beginning at 6:00pm.
Kirk Alexander of nearby West Swanzey, N.H. is among the expected entries for the event, and has taken 14 of his series-leading 31 victories at the high-banked 1/4-mile. Les Hinckley of Windsor Locks, Conn. and Ascutney's Dwight Jarvis are also expected for the race; Hinckley has three TVMRS wins at Monadnock, while Jarvis has won twice there in TVMRS competition, including the Spring Dash in 2006. Jarvis is also a five-time Monadnock Speedway track champion.
Along with the TVMRS troops, the "Mad Dog" will see its Outlaw Pro, Super Stock, Mini Stock, and 4-cylinder and full-size Enduro divisions open the curtain on their 2009 seasons.
Speaking of the True Value Modifieds, the series has cancelled its May 16 event at All-Star Speedway in Epping, N.H. All-Star promoter Bobby MacArthur had been in some hot water with the Town of Epping, and seems to have sorted the situation out in time to open his season as scheduled, but will not see the TVMRS cars at his track this year.
The Town of Epping initially refused MacArthur's operating license application due to several unaddressed issues, including the storage of between 300 and 400 used tires on the speedway's grounds. MacArthur's permit to hold stock car racing events has since been granted, but not in time for the powers that be in the TVMRS office to keep their faith in those at the All-Star Speedway office.
Andy Seuss of Hampstead, N.H. took his second NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour win in four events this year, beating George Brunnhoelzl at Lanier National Speedway in Georgia... and again, the car count was deplorable. While Seuss had plenty of tough competition from top drivers Brunnhoelzl, Ted Christopher, and L.W. Miller, there wasn't much else. A dismal 14 cars showed up to compete at Lanier.
The WSMT is off until July 3 at Caraway Speedway, when it makes its second of six trips to the Asheboro, N.C. half-mile. If the number-one Modified division in the southern United States is going to survive, it's going to need to a little better than fields of 16, 20, 26, and 14 cars. We'll see if the early summer vacation will help the some of the missing teams get some legs underneath them and help the struggling series finish the year strong.
Okay, okay, okay, the Burger King likes square butts and he cannot lie. We get it.
We'll see you at the races!