-by Justin St. Louis
This weekend, Vermont Motorsports Magazine heads to waters unfamiliar to this asphalt junkie. Like the guppie in a pool of sharks. Like the lone Junkyard Warrior in a Street Stock feature. Yep, I'm going dirt racing.
It's off to beautiful Bradford and the rustic Bear Ridge Speedway dirt on Saturday night for the track's season opener. Now, I feel like The Ridge might be a good way for me to ease into this whole dirt racing thing, because I've been there as recently as five years ago, and I feel like I've done a fair-to-middlin' job of keeping up with the weekly happenings there over the last few seasons. What's particularly odd to me, though, is that I spent a huge amount of my childhood and early teens growing up in West Newbury, maybe five or ten miles from the track, and I've been there maybe -- maybe -- five times in my life.
I can think of going once or twice as a kid, including the night my father "raced" his pickup in a three-lap Run-What-You-Brung fiasco that bounced that poor sack of bolts around so bad that the battery literally fell out of the thing. I'm talking about the truck, of course. I went one night on a whim in 2001 with a Street Stock buddy from Thunder Road, Kerry Henry, when we brought his car over just for fun. I pretended to be the crew chief, and we earned ourselves a Top 10 that night, thank you very much. My last trek over there was for the opener in 2004, and other than the 35-degree temperatures, I remember thoroughly enjoying my evening there. Good pizza, as I recall. I'm looking forward to returning on a regular basis this season and getting to know one of Vermont's best-kept secrets a little better.
Sunday, it's down Route 7 for what feels like an eternity from the Burlington area, to Fair Haven and the glitz and glam of the 1/2-mile Devil's Bowl Speedway. This is where I get totally lost. I went to Devil's Bowl once. I was five years old. It was 19-eighty-freakin'-eight. Other than driving by it on the way to Albany, N.Y. for the NCAA American East basketball tourney in March, I haven't seen the place in a decade. And I haven't been nearly as diligent, until the last year or so, at keeping up with Devil's Bowl and the CVRA. So this'll be fun.
Luckily, I've been extended an invite into the Todd Stone pit for, as it was put to me, the "nickel tour." But see, I know Todd Stone and a couple of his crew guys from their ACT days, so that should help. Plus, I hear they won the Devil's Bowl title last year, so who better to help me get familiar with the place than them?
I'll be relying heavily on instinct, help, and driver rosters this weekend, so bear with me. And please keep in mind that if the word "cushion" is used 162 times too many, it's just because, really, I've never had the chance to use the word before and I just want to sound like I know what I'm talking about.
Rest assured, I don't.
For the first time on Sunday, maybe in his career, Scott Payea showed an absolute killer instinct. Since his debut in a Late Model in 2005, and especially for the last two years, it seems like more often than not, Payea has had the best car on the track for the first 50 or 75 or 100 laps and spends a lot of time out front leading the race, only to finish second or third or sixth. Sunday at Airborne Speedway's ACT Spring Green 100, it was completely different.
Payea started ninth and easily worked his way up through the field, then waited like a spider in the web for Randy Potter and Brad Leighton to dispose of themselves. For 90 laps, the show was entirely Leighton-Potter, Potter-Leighton.
But then with ten laps to go, the fly begins to buzz around the web: Leighton fades... Payea moves up.
At lap 92, a slight breeze begins to blow, and the fly is off course: Randy Potter begins to show signs that he'd used his car up... the eight-legged Payea inches closer.
At lap 94, that's it! The fly is in the web! Potter washes up the track in Turn 2 and Payea pounces!
By lap 95, it's over. Potter's back to second, and there was Scott Payea, wrapping up that juicy fly in a coccoon, ready to have some Spring Green dinner.
Listen, Payea is as good as it gets, but for him, that exhibition on Sunday was a totally different kind of good. He's won races, but until Sunday it's always been in the Cale Yarborough style -- drive hard every lap and bury them all. Here is a breakdown of his ACT career win tally:
1. Thunder Road, May 2007: Payea leads the final 59 laps going away for his first win.
2. White Mountain, August 2007: Payea battles Ben Rowe throughout the race and leads 27 laps early, but inherits the lead as Rowe loses a tire with 18 laps to go.
3. Thunder Road, May 2008: Payea leads three times for a total of 84 laps, including the final 41, save for three tours after a lap-127 restart when Dave Pembroke noses ahead.
4. Waterford, June 2008: After a five-lap duel at halfway with Bruce Thomas, Payea leads the final 46 circuits and cruises to an easy win.
And now, after being up front at Lee and Thunder Road this year, only to finish third in both races...
5. Airborne, May 2009: Payea waits, and waits, and waits for the leaders to make a mistake. When they do, he steals the win with five laps remaining.
Prediction: If Payea can find a solid mix between the two styles of dominance and patience, it'll be a long, long year for everyone else on the ACT Late Model Tour.
As a kid in the granstands, you always choose your favorites. Putting my integrity as an unbiased writer on the line here, I'll admit that at Airborne, Bucko Branham was always one of mine. When I began racing there weekly in the early 2000s, I also helped out on Jerry Winch's Tiger Sportsman team. Jerry and Bucko raced together and knew each other pretty well, and although I had never met Bucko, I still marveled at his skills behind the wheel.
One day in September 2002, Jerry loaded up his Tiger car on one trailer, his new Late Model on another, and along with Mike Wells, Brian McGinley, their cars, and a total of just four additional crew members to work on the whole fleet, myself included, we made the long haul down to Adirondack Speedway. Bucko happened to be there with his car, too.
Jerry decided that as a reward for our help during the year, the four of us crew guys -- Jeremy, Chris Cayea, me, and this kid Junior -- each got a turn in the Tiger car. Junior had never been in a race car, so he only got a few laps of practice before he brought it in. Jeremy had driven a handful of Street Stock races, so he got a few more practice laps. I had been racing for three years, so I got to drive in the heat race. Chris had wrapped up the Rookie of the Year title in the Tigers at Airborne that year, so he got to race the feature. I did shockingly well, racing from 14th on the outside in eight laps to just miss the win by a bumper to Andy Heywood. Cayea was runing third in the feature when he was spun by someone and ended up, I don't know, seventh or something.
Well, on opening day at Airborne in 2004, almost two years later, I was working as an official at Airborne doing some announcing and whatever else was needed of me. And as I walk by Bucko Branham's pit, he waves me over. By now, we'd met a few times and had a friendly relationship, though we still didn't know each other that well outside of me interviewing him in victory lane.
"You drove Jerry's car at Adirondack, right?" he asks.
"Yeah, why?" I say.
"You did a good job that day. Would you want to try my car out?"
Now, I was still a way-too-excitable 20 year-old kid, still racing a Street Stock at Thunder Road while working the events at Airborne. Of course I wanted to try Bucko's car out. So, shirking my official's duties for about 15 minutes during practice, I climb in through the window of the fastest race car at the track, owned by a guy I grew up cheering for. And a dozen or so laps later, after burning the right-rear tire off the car through the corners, I see the black flag waving at me.
My car owner, Bucko Branham, had me black flagged for driving like an idiot.
"I thought you were good!" he laughs, but only half-kidding. "What the hell happened? I almost had a heart attack! Get out of my car!"
We still laugh about it to this day, but that's just another example of the kind of guy Branham is. That day was one of the highlights of my racing career, right up there with winning on Memorial Day at Thunder Road. I owed him that article from the other day, and then some. So, as a retired racer, as a fan, and as a guy that likes to tell stories, thank you, Bucko Branham.
AROUND THE REGION:
Time to take a look at the top Vermonters from the past weekend...
ACT Late Model Tour: Scott Payea of Milton earned his first ACT win of the season and the fifth of his career at the Furniture World of Vermont Spring Green 100 at Airborne Speedway in Plattsburgh, N.Y. on Sunday. Brent Dragon, also of Milton, finished fifth, with Williston's Brian Hoar sixth, Ryan Nolin of Georgia eighth, and Shelburne's Jamie Fisher tenth.
Airborne Speedway (Plattsburgh, N.Y.): Adam Bartemy of Sheldon finished fourth in the 30-lap Modified feature on Sunday, with Castleton's Mike Bruno in sixth. Aaron Bartemy, Adam's older brother, finished eighth. St. Albans racer Jason Bonnett earned his first Sportsman win of the season, with Swanton's Kevin Boutin taking down the Renegade main event. Mike Terry of Grand Isle, Lance Rabtoy of Fairfax, and Milton's Rob Gordon finished in positions three through five.
Albany-Saratoga Speedway (Malta, N.Y.): Todd Stone of Middlebury finished seventh in the all-star invitational Modified Clash. Brett Hearn remains undefeated at the track through three events. In the Sportsman feature, lone Vermonter Rob Langevin of Londonderry finished third.
Canaan Dirt Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Thetford Center drivers Wayne Stearns and David Lacasse finished 1-2 in the Modified feature at the track's season opener on Friday night. Only two Sportsman Coupe drivers showed, and the cars were grouped into the Modified feature. Melvin Pierson of East Corinth beat Topsham's Josh Harrington to get credit for the Coupe win. East Montpelier's Will Hull finished second in the Street Stock event to Ryan Christian. Josh Sunn of White River Junction won the Mini Stock feature.
Canaan Fair Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Rain pushed back Saturday's season opener on the "Awesome Asphalt" to this Saturday, May 16.
Monadnock Speedway (Winchester, N.H.): Rains washed out the racing program on Saturday night following Mini Stock qualifying. A full card of Modified, Outlaw Pro Stocks, Super Stocks, Mini Stocks, 4- & 8-cylinder Enduros, and the All Star Race Trucks Series is on tap for this week.
True Value Modified Racing Series: Ascutney brothers Dwight and Peter Jarvis slumped home 20th and 21st, respectively, at Connecticut's Waterford Speedway on Saturday night. Dwight Jarvis completed just 60 laps, while Peter Jarvis made only 52 laps. Doug Coby of Milford, Conn. won the race in his first TVMRS start.
Twin State Speedway (Claremont, N.H.): Guy Caron made it three-for-three in the Late Models, while Ascutney's Chris Riendeau finished second. Rookie Dola Holland of Ludlow was third after leading several laps. Joey Jarvis of Ascutney finished third in the Modified event with Windsor's Robert Hagar sixth. Tara Tarbell of Springfield finished third in the Strictly Stock feature with West Hartford's Jeremy Blood fifth.
The Série ACT-Castrol opens its season at Autodrome St-Eustache near Montréal on Saturday, while the PASS North Series is at Unity Raceway in Maine. The ACT Late Model Tour is at Maine's Oxford Plains Speedway on Sunday. In Vermont, Bear Ridge Speedway opens its gates for the first time on Saturday evening at 6:00pm with double features and fireworks, while Devil's Bowl Speedway in Fair Haven kicks off its 2009 season on Sunday at 6:45pm with a regular card for all divisions.
(Photos: 1. Canaan Fair Speedway's Modified field ready for green - Alan Ward photo; 2. Scott Payea takes ACT checkers at Airborne - Leif Tillotson photo; 3. Yours truly in Bucko Branham's car, 2004 - Dave Brown photo; 4. Todd Stone at speed at Albany-Saratoga Speedway on Friday night - CVRA photo)