-by Justin St. Louis
O... M... G... Thursday, June 11 can't come fast enough, and as this is being written, it's less than 24 hours away. There isn't much to really say, other than 'Hurrah!' or maybe 'Yippie!', because Thunder Road opens its weekly Thursday night season, and that means the rest of summer can finally get underway. Not sure if you know this, but there's a law in Vermont that no fun is allowed to be had outside of the Thursday racing season. So, yeah, sorry about the last, um, nine and a half months.
Here's what's on tap: the Late Models kick off their championship campaign, while the Tiger Sportsman class tries for a race somewhere between the flag-to-flag run on opening day and the carnage that took place on Memorial Day, the Street Stock/Warrior combo (finally) provides a healthy portion of rollovers and twisted race cars, and the New England Antique Racers celebrate the T-Road 50th in style.
"Kings of the Road" Phil Scott and Cris Michaud will each try to become the first-ever four-time Late Model champion, but have to fend off other past title winners in Dave Pembroke, Jamie Fisher, Dave Whitcomb, and defending champ Eric Williams. (Is Pete Fecteau gonna be there or what?) Plus, seven-time ACT champion Jean-Paul Cyr has thrown his hat in the ring, Joey Laquerre says he's running for the title, and you can't forget guys like John Donahue, Trampas Demers, Robbie Crouch, and the youngsters like the ever-improving Brooks Clark. We've also heard that Rich Lowrey, who ran at Twin State Speedway a couple weeks ago, is back for the full go, and Tour driver Eric Chase is running the entire Thursday night schedule, too.
Throw the freakin' green already!
As I sit here this morning munching on strawberry frosted Pop Tarts, sipping berry Juicy Juice, and listening to Road Apples, I can't help but still get a chuckle over Guitargate. The fans hate him and the media can't figure out what to make of him, but I'm here to tell you that Kyle Busch is just awesome.
Sam Bass, the legendary NASCAR artist, was a bit disappointed that his gorgeous Gibson Les Paul guitar-trophy, specially painted to commemorate the Federated Auto Parts 300 at Nashville Superspeedway, was smashed rock star-style by Busch following his win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race on Saturday. Granted, Bass put a reported 150 hours' worth of work into the piece, and his creations are always something to behold, plus, a Les Paul with or without artwork on it is an iconic piece of equipment, held by many in a holy light. (If I had one, the last thing I'd do is smash it. Heck, I'd probably be too afraid to even play it.) There's no doubt that some feelings were hurt by Busch's celebration.
But honestly -- and you've read this same opinion by dozens of columnists across the country by now, and twice as many opposing views -- NASCAR should be giving its least-favorite son a big ol' pat on the back and reserving the best motorcoach spot in the 'A' lot for Kyle Busch. In a financial struggle that an already-slumping NASCAR so desperately needs to pull itself out of, and fast, Busch is the EMT paddles shocking the heartbeat back into the once-unstoppably growing beast that an all-too-blah NASCAR has recently become.
It's sickening that the only two guys you read about anymore are Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. For crying out loud, I'm writing about them right now. Everything they do (but little else, save for our favorite meth-head, Jeremy Mayfield) draws headlines to the sport: Busch Wins, Junior Struggles. Junior Gets a New Crew Chief, Busch Criticizes. Busch Ignores Media, Junior Finishes 12th. Busch Smashes Guitar, Junior's Probably Unhappy About It. Jimmie Johnson? Who's that? Three championships you say? Never heard of him.
And as much as NASCAR has defrocked its drivers for making any sort of PR-unfriendly waves lately, it needs to change its stance on that and emphasize tenfold a villian like Kyle Busch. They promote Earnhardt, Jr. to no end, despite the fact that he's been nothing more than an also-ran for two years. He's still popular, so they capitalize. Well, NASCAR, if Junior is God, then consider Busch the anti-Christ and use that to your advantage. Who cares if people don't like him? Rather than skirt an Earnhardt-Busch rivalry and any possible controversy, tell your pro-Dale fans to show up and root against the jerk. Create a souvenir line promoting their dislike for each other. Do something.
It's classic promotion, and NASCAR is missing the boat by not calling every race a "showdown between two legends in the making" or some stupid thing. Twenty-five years ago, that's what they would have done (see: Dale "One Tough Customer" Earnhardt, Sr. vs. Darrell "Jaws" Waltrip). Until NASCAR realizes that old-school promotion still works, it will continue to struggle, it will continue to be 40,000 seats short of a full house at one of its best tracks, Dover Int'l Speedway, and it will continue to see interest wane.
The MotorMag has been to ten races this season, and we've been impressed by quite a few racers. Of course, there are a lot of races and drivers we haven't seen, but for our money, this is who's at the top of heap so far this season. Here's the Top Ten Through Ten:
1. Scott Payea, Milton, Vt., ACT Late Model Tour -- A win and three thirds out of five starts is pretty impressive anywhere. To do it against 40 stout Late Model teams on a touring series brings it to a whole different level.
2. Chris Donnelly, Piermont, N.H., Bear Ridge Speedway -- It'll be a surprise if anyone else takes the Sportsman Modified championship at Bear Ridge this season. Donnelly is on fire with two wins, a second, and a third in four starts.
3. Jon McKennedy, Chelmsford, Mass., True Value Modified Racing Series -- In the two TVMRS races we've seen young McKennedy in this season (Monadnock and Thunder Road), he was robbed of two wins -- one by a stuff job into the wall, the other from a bad radiator. The kid is good.
4. Quinny Welch, Lancaster, N.H., ACT Late Model Tour -- Unless things have changed, The Q is still taking his ACT season one race at a time. For a guy that's run only weekly events at, what, two tracks in his life, he's sure getting it done on the Tour. Can't think of anything that would be sweeter than Welch winning the ACT show at White Mountain in two weeks and getting that invite to Loudon.
5. Martin Roy, Napierville, Qué., Airborne Speedway -- Again, a guy I've only seen twice this year, but he won both races. The first, yup, he got in the tech line, but he had the fastest car on the track and drove the smartest line in both races.
6. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., Hudson, N.H., ACT Late Model Tour -- After an inconsistent season last year, I was still a bit unsure of how ready Joey Polewarczyk was to challenge for the ACT title. Now I know. He's there.
7. Dwight Jarvis, Ascutney, Vt., True Value Modified Racing Series -- Two back-to-front performances at Monadnock and T-Road, plus another one I didn't get the chance to see at Twin State. One of my greatest racing regrets is that I didn't spend more time growing up around Modifieds as a kid to see Dwight Jarvis in action.
8. Tucker Williams, Hyde Park, Vt., Thunder Road -- How do you not admire this kid? In two lifetime starts at Thunder Road, he's got a win and a third on his résumé. Granted, that's going to change as the season gets going and the rookie will surely get schooled now and then, but for now, way to go!
9. Josh Harrington, Topsham, Vt., Bear Ridge Speedway -- The fields aer a bit short in Harrington's Sportsman Coupe division, but there's no denying his talent. He dominated the first two features of the year and won a very smoothly calculated race in the third week.
10. Derrick O'Donnell, Bradford, Vt., Thunder Road -- The breakthrough driver for 2009? Still only a youngster, O'Donnell is really beginning to find himself near the top of the Tiger Sportsman division all the time, and enters the Thursday night season as the point leader.
We'll see how this list looks in about three or four weeks as the race season rolls on.
Got this photo from Paul and Lise Bellefeuille of the newly-built-but-retro-designed ticket booth at Northeastern Speedway in Waterford. We've said it a bunch of times, and we'll say it a bunch more: the July 18th reunion at Northeastern is simply a can't-miss date for any Vermont race fan.
Oh man, is there some money flowing through that Super DIRTcar Series deal. We made a mental note at Airborne that we hadn't seen that many stacker trailers at a short track race since the Busch North Series was still on short tracks. Too bad the day got rained out, but it was neat to see the local Small Block cars running as fast as the high-dollar Big Blocks, especially Jason Durgan, who had a real bad wreck the week before.
AROUND THE REGION:
Time to take a look at the top Vermonters from the past weekend...
Airborne Speedway (Plattsburgh, N.Y.): Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Super DIRTcar Series event was rained out.
Albany-Saratoga Speedway (Malta, N.Y.): Brett Hearn won his fifth 358 Modified race in seven starts on Friday night, while Fair Haven's Dave Camara came home fifth. Middlebury's Todd Stone was seventh. Rob Langevin of Londonderry finished fifth in the Sportsman feature. Chuck Towslee of Manchester Center won the Pro Street Stock event, with Fair Haven's Ed Thompson fourth and Lori Langevin of Londonderry fifth.
Bear Ridge Speedway (Bradford): Jason Gray of East Thetford earned his first Sportsman Modified win on Saturday night, with Thetford Center's Wayne Stearns fourth. Bob Shepard and Bryan King, both of Corinth, finished sixth and seventh, with Bradford's Jeremy Huntoon ninth. Melvin Pierson of Topsham earned his first Sportsman Coupe win of the season, followed by Jason Horniak and Billy Simmons, both of Bradford. Thetford Center's Dan Eastman won the Limited Late Model feature over Bradford's Jeremy Hodge. Andy Johnson of Wilder picked up his second Fast Four win of the season over St. Johnsbury's Kevin Harran, while Bobby Lee Bell of St. Johnsbury beat Bradford's Tom Placey in the Hornet class. Lacey Hanson of Orwell won the Granite State Mini Sprint 500cc race.
Canaan Dirt Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Thetford Center's Dave Lacasse finished fourth in the Modified feature on Friday night, while Tyler Stygles led a Green Mountain podium sweep in the Street Stock division. Stygles, of Bradford, led Thetford Center's Dan Eastman and East Montpelier's Will Hull across the stripe. Josh Sunn of White River Junction was the runner-up in the Mini Stock race with Wilder's Andy Johnson third, while Bradford's Tom Placey won the Bandit race. Lacey Hanson of Orwell finished eighth in the SCONE 360 Sprint Car feature.
Devil's Bowl Speedway (Fair Haven): Jimmy Ryan of Whiting finished second to Kenny Tremont on Sunday in the 358 Modified event, with Middlebury's Todd Stone third. Vince Quenneville, Jr. of Brandon was fifth, one better than Orwell's Tim LaDuc. Frank Hoard, III of Manchester finished fourth in the Budget Sportsman feature with Middlebury's Hunter Bates on his tail. Chuck Towslee made it a perfect weekend in the Pro Street Stock feature after winning Friday at Malta, N.Y., while Lori Langevin of Londonderry ended a tough streak of finishes in second place. Bill Durpey won the Limited feature with Don Williams of Ripton second and Mike Clark of Brandon third.
Empire Super Sprints: Anthony Cain of Fairfax finished 13th at Autodrome Granby on Friday night, then finished 14th at Autodrome Drummond on Saturday. Orwell's James Hanson was 18th in both races.
Monadnock Speedway (Winchester, N.H.): Dana Shepard of Putney finished 12th in the Super Stock race on Saturday night, and Ludlow's Joe Rogers was ninth in the Mini Stock feature.
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Kevin Lepage of Shelburne made his 250th career Nationwide Series start on Saturday, finishing 34th at Nashville (Tenn.) Superspeedway after an engine failure.
Riverside Speedway (Groveton, N.H.): Pending a committee meeting on Friday, June 12, concerning the finish of Saturday Bond Auto 100 Late Model event, Morrisville's Dwayne Lanphear was the runner-up with St. Johnsbury's Bob Ailes, Sr. fifth. Dilyn Swister of West Burke finished third in the Super Stock feature. Lyndonville's Dean Switser, Jr. finished second in the Street Stock race with Rick Utley, Jr. of Wheelock third and William "Weiner" Hennequin of Morrisville fourth. Ernie LaPlant of Lyndonville won the Dwarf Car race. Andy Simpson of Lyndon Center was second in the Cyclone race.
Série ACT-Castrol: Donald Theetge won the Le AIM Québec 150 at Autodrome Chaudière on Saturday night; Trampas Demers of South Burlington finished 22nd, while Graniteville's Pete Potvin, III finished 25th.
Utica-Rome Speedway (Vernon, N.Y.): John Scarborough of Bomoseen finished eighth in the Sportsman feature on Sunday.
True Value Modified Racing Series: Dwight Jarvis of Ascutney drove from 24th at the start to finish second in the Granite State Harley-Davidson 100 at Twin State Speedway on Friday night. Bruce Batchelder of Perkinsville was 13th, with Ascutney's Peter Jarvis 15th.
Twin State Speedway (Claremont, N.H.): Dola Holland of Ludlow finished fourth in the Late Model feature on Friday with Rutland's Dallas Trombley 10th. Ascutney driver Chris Riendeau held the lead until being taken out on the final lap; he finished 13th officially. Rookie Joey Jarvis of Ascutney earned a career-best runner-up finish in the Pepsi Modified feature with Windham's Nate Kehoe third. Chris Wilk of Mendon and Russ Davis of Cavendish finished 1-2 in the Super Street feature, while Michael Burke of Bellows Falls earned his first Strictly Stock win of the year. Dickie Houle of West Brattleboro won the Wildact feature over Rob Leitch of Cavendish and Hartland's Cody Small.
White Mountain Motorsports Park (North Woodstock, N.H.): Tyler Cahoon of St. Johnsbury finished second in a wild Late Model feature Saturday night behind first-time winner Jeremy Davis. Stevie Parker of Lyndonville was fifth in the Strictly Stock feature, while Concord's Rubin Call finished fourth in the Strictly Stock Mini race ahead of Plainfield's Jason Corliss.
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl in Barre opens its 50th weekly season on Thursday at 6:30. Albany-Saratoga, Canaan Dirt, and Twin State speedways are all in action on Friday night, while Saturday will see regular events at Airborne, Bear Ridge, Canaan Fair, Mondanock, Riverside, and White Mountain. The ACT Late Model Tour is at Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl on Saturday, while the Série ACT-Castrol is at Capital City Speedway in Ottawa, Ont. The PASS North Super Late Models travel to Speedway 660 in New Brunswick on Saturday, and the True Value Modified Racing Series is at Seekonk (Mass.) Speedway. Devil's Bowl and Utica-Rome speedways return to action on Sunday.
(PHOTOS: 1. Breathe... breathe... breathe... it'll be here soon; 2. Kyle Busch, Sam Bass, and (most of) Les Paul; 3. You know how on "Rob & Big" they say 'Do Work'? Scott Payea is doing work; 4. Martin Roy (#90) blowing by everyone three-wide; 5. Northeastern Speedway is really coming together. Photos 1 and 3 by Justin St. Louis/VMM; Photo 2 by Chris Graythem/Getty Images for NASCAR; Photo 4 by Leif Tillotson; Photo 5 courtesy Paul Bellefeuille/Northeastern Speedway)