Victory lane at Lee USA Speedway is generally one of the nicer places for an American-Canadian Tour driver to visit; the spoils at the New Hampshire seacoast oval usually include nice trophies, a bottle of champagne, and a few beauty queens. But for the first time on Sunday afternoon, the winner was greeted with one more prize: An invitation to the big dance.
And that's just where Brad Leighton is headed.
Leighton won the ACT Late Model Tour's season opener at Lee, and becomes the first driver to earn a starting berth in September's inaugural ACT Invitational at the 1-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in nearby Loudon, N.H. From 19th starting position, he steadily marched his way toward the front of the field, won a long and physical battle for the lead with young hotshoe Joey Polewarczyk, and drove into victory lane to accept the spoils as the winner of the New Hampshire Governor's Cup 150.
With nine career wins at NHMS in NASCAR Camping World Series East, Leighton, of Center Harbor, N.H., is the all-time victory leader there. He won Camping World championships in 1999 and 2000, and was the 1995 title winner on the former ACT Pro Stock Tour. For the last few seasons, he has split his time between ACT Late Models, Camping World, and Pro All Stars Series races, running strictly for wins rather than points. ACT announced last November that it had reached an agreement to run a Late Model invitational event at NHMS, New England's only superspeedway, with the winner of each of its races earning a starting spot at NHMS. Immediately, Leighton made the ACT Invitational his first priority.
"That's what I wanted, that's my baby," he said following the Governor's Cup win. "We actually added a few extra races on my calendar in order to give us a better opportunity to qualify, so it's nice to get that out of the way."
For the first two-thirds of the race, it looked like young guns Polewarczyk and Scott Payea might have decided the win among themselves. After early leader Mike Olsen spun to bring out the caution flag on lap 52, Payea and Polewarczyk ran side-by-side inches apart for the next 30 circuits, trading the lead no less than five times. But as the leaders began to negotiate lapped traffic, Leighton sliced through the field and was able to catch and pass Payea on lap 90. While lapping cars at a rate of one or more per lap, 19 year-old Polewarczyk, of Hudson, N.H., ran the high groove, using the backmarkers as picks to keep Leighton at bay.
Leighton bumped Polearczyk in Turn 4 on lap 111, but slowed to allow the leader to regroup. After Leighton dived underneath Polewarczyk on the backstretch on lap 123, the two made contact again - this time with Polewarczyk as the aggressor - and traded the lead twice in Turns 3 and 4. But as Polewarczyk caught the cars of Larry Gelinas and Randy Potter nine laps later, Leighton executed another inside move to make the winning pass. He cleared Polewarczyk's car on lap 135 and ran to the checkered flag for his second career ACT Late Model Tour victory.
"He's pretty good, huh? He's real good, he just used his stuff up maybe a little bit early," Leighton said of Polewarczyk. "He started closer to the front (eighth), I started, what, nineteenth. It's easier to pass a slower car than it is a good car. He had to pass Payea, Brian Hoar, Olsen, good cars, fast cars. He used a lot of stuff up doing it. I got up to ninth place and I didn't really use the car much, because I just waited for opportunities where a guy slid up (the track) and I took off. And frankly, I'm typically not that patient, I can't believe I held back that long. I usually just get it done."
"That was rough," said Polewarczyk. "(Brad) got into me once, so when he went by me I figured I'd give him a shot. But it was fun, and I had a lot of fun racing Scott, too. This was a good race."
Leighton and Polewarczyk seemed to enjoy the battle, shaking hands and sharing a laugh in victory lane. "The only thing different is when I got into the back of Joey, I allowed him to continue to lead," Leighton said. "He got into the back of me and he took the lead and ran. That's alright, I give it and I take it. I'm not a whiner. As long as you're willing to be giving it, you had better want to take it, because you're getting it. It was good stuff. Good show."
Payea, of Milton, finished in third place ahead of Rowley, Mass. driver Eddie MacDonald and Quinny Welch of Lancaster, N.H. Forty-five cars attempted to qualify for 30 starting positions.
Polewarczyk took losing the race - and losing the New Hampshire Motor Speedway qualifier - in stride. "I wanted it bad. I really, really, really wanted it, but you know, there's always next week," he said. "We're gonna have a good year this year."
Leighton, who will share his Peter Duto-owned Irving Oil/Subway #55NH Ford with Phil Scott this season, complimented his crew on the win. "These guys deserve it, they worked their butts off all winter long. You know, we didn't qualify for this race last year. They're going to run the full (ACT schedule) with Phil Scott filling in some shows, I think I'll end up running eight. I guess Peter will go try to run for the car owner's championship. To me, I've been there, done that."
Nearing the end of his career, Leighton has made it known that he has no interest in running for championships, and that winning events like the ACT Invitational at NHMS are his main focus.
"That's why we came. It's (all about) wins, because it won't be long that I won't be doing this anymore."
But for now, Brad Leighton is still doing it. And he better get those dancing shoes ready.
(Photo 1: N.H. Governor's Cup 150 winner Brad Leighton. Photo 2: Leighton (#55NH) and Joey Polewarczyk (#97) fight for the lead behind the lapped car of Brent Dragon (#55VT). Photo 3: Leighton's car shows signs of battle following the ACT Late Model Tour season opener. Photo 4: Leighton and Polewarczyk (right) share a light moment in victory lane. Photo 1 by Leif Tillotson; Photo 2 by Alan Ward; Photos 3, 4 by Justin St. Louis/VMM)
Unofficial Results - New Hampshire Governor's Cup 150
ACT Late Model Tour - Lee USA Speedway, Lee, N.H.
Sunday, April 19, 2008
1. Brad Leighton, Center Harbor, N.H.
2. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., Hudson, N.H.
3. Scott Payea, Milton
4. Eddie MacDonald, Rowley, Mass.
5. Quinny Welch, Lancaster, N.H.
6. Ricky Wolf, Jr., Northwood, N.H.
7. John Donahue, Graniteville
8. Wayne Helliwell, Jr., Dracut, Mass.
9. Brian Hoar, Williston
10. Mike Olsen, North Haverhill, N.H.
11. Randy Potter, Groveton, N.H.
12. Larry Gelinas, Gorham, Me.
13. Eric Chase, Milton
14. Brent Dragon, Milton
15. Cris Michaud, Northfield
16. J.R. Baril, Haverhill, Mass.
17. Tyler Cahoon, St. Johnsbury
18. Donald Theetge, Boischatel, Que.
19. Jeremy Harclerode, Newmarket, N.H.
20. Glen Luce, Turner, Me.
21. A.J. Begin, Merrimac, Mass.
22. Mark Anzalone, Jr., Malden, Mass.
23. Pete Potvin, III, Graniteville
24. Miles Chipman, Epping, N.H.
25. Bryan Kruczek, Newmarket, N.H.
26. Bobby Dragon, Milton
27. Jeff Zuidema, Brookfield, Mass.
28. Fred Astle, Jr., Westport, Mass.
29. Jamie Fisher, Shelburne
30. Corey Morgan, Lewiston, Me.
Heat winners: Zuidema, Welch, Gelinas, Cahoon
Consolation winners: Kruczek, Leighton
"B" Feature winner: Helliwell