-by Justin St. Louis
I traveled to White Mountain Motorsports Park on Saturday to cover the American-Canadian Tour's 150-lap event for Vermont Motorsports Magazine. I took some photos, got a few quotes, and wrote of John Donahue's dominant victory. In that regard, the general flow of the day was no different than many of the races I've been to this season.
Over the years, though, I've found that the fun is in writing the surprise stories that develop during an event. And at White Mountain, I found myself literally in the middle of one.
During my final days as a driver in 2004, a 17 year-old kid named Martin Ingram -- he prefers to be called by his initials, M.C. -- came to Thunder Road from Essex Junction with a Street Stock car, one that he bought from a friend and former competitor of mine, Aaron Maynard. I'll admit that I wasn't much of a driver, but M.C. made guys like me look pretty good. He was a likeable guy, so my friends and I tried to help him out as much as we could. But we couldn't drive the car for him, and more often than not, it came back home pretty wadded up.
Fast forward to this season: Now 22, M.C. is back on the track full-time for the first time in a couple years, although he managed to make one or two races a year while in the Army. And, yeah, he's still tearing fenders off every now and then, but generally he's much more smooth and his car is competitive. On Saturday, he made the long haul to North Woodstock, N.H. -- by himself -- with the intention of running some laps at a track he'd never seen and having some fun. After a couple of tense moments, it turned into the best day of his career, and brought back some great memories for me.
We joked earlier in the week that I should take the car out for some practice laps to show him the way around White Mountain; I'd raced there a few times and really enjoyed the track, and we both knew I was only interested in having a little fun myself. M.C. took the car out for the first six-minute practice, but he was clearly uncomfortable, running off the pace two or three lanes up the track, even by himself. Somebody spun and the yellow flag flew, and thinking the session was over, M.C. came to pit road. I met him when he got to his pit stall and could tell that he was preparing himself for just another day of flopping around in the back. I leaned in the window and said, "Try running the low line, dude, get back out there," and he drove off.
It was like flipping a switch; instantly, he figured the place out, and I'd be lying if I said he wasn't one of the fastest four or five cars out there. He was perfect entering and exiting the corners, very smooth, very consistent. He caught and passed a few cars, and no one was fast enough to get by him.
When he came back in after the session was over, he had a big grin on his face. "That felt good," he said, and Maynard (I can't remember ever calling Maynard by his first name in ten years), who lives in nearby Lyndonville, Vt. and was there to help M.C. out, said the tires had only built up two or three pounds of air pressure, a very good sign. Maynard raced at White Mountain weekly for a while, and was asked to run the car in the second (and final) practice to double-check everything.
Immediately, I got my dander up: "Hey! I thought I was gonna drive it!" I whined. I was then reminded of my less-than-perfect finishing record and told to shut up and take pictures. Of course, I wasn't really expecting to drive the thing anyway, and probably wouldn't know what to do if I did get in the car. It'd been five years since I raced anything, and my last start ended in a massive pileup at Thunder Road. Maynard got in and drove the hell out of the car, passing at will. But after he brought one poor kid to school with a three-lane change in Turn 4, he brought it in and shut it off.
And handed me the helmet. I felt like a little kid I was so giddy.
We quickly got Maynard out of the driver's suit, put me in it, and I strapped into the car and fired it up. Just as I put it in first gear to take off, hands came up and everyone went, "Whoa! Shut it off!" Water was pouring out of the engine. I got out of the car and we all pushed it back into the pit stall. After a few minutes of searching, it was determined that the water pump gasket had blown, and M.C. and Maynard set to work fixing it. Oh, and somewhere along the way the zipper on the firesuit broke, but I don't think that was my fault. Then we looked at the clock and realized there were less than 15 minutes before M.C.'s heat race. Somehow, they got it done, and somehow, M.C. lined up on the outside pole for the second qualifying heat, outside fellow Thunder Road racer David Greenslit.
Now, Greenslit's becoming a decent racer and has a fast car, and given M.C.'s not-so-good practice in the outside lane, we all sort of expected it to be a cakewalk for Greenslit. Not so. Right from the drop of the green, M.C. barrelled it down into the first turn and made it work. He flew out of Turn 2 to the very top of the backstretch, and nosed ahead for the lead. By the time two more laps had passed, M.C. was out front by himself, and, unbelievably, walking away from the pack. Another seven laps later, he had himself a checkered flag, his first in four years. I, of course, felt a certain amount of credit was due to me for breaking the water pump in practice, rather than having it go during the race. Instead, I was blamed for, well, being my destructive self. No matter, the kid won.
"It feels [expletive] fantastic!" M.C. said as he walked back to the trailer. "I thought [Greenslit] was going to blow right by me, because there's not really an outside lane here. It turned out I could go on the outside for a little bit, and once I cleared him I dropped down onto the inside where I was faster and just kept going from there. I was just thinking 'Holy [expletive], I've never been here and I won.' I didn't even think I was going to make it out for the heat, so I was pretty happy."
And then he one-upped himself in the feature, starting 12th and finishing fifth after having a legitimate shot a top-three. He ran with Nick Pilotte and Rubin Call, two of the top runners at White Mountain, and Brendan Hunt who is a big shot at Riverside in Groveton. He ran the far outside lane a couple times and made it work. He stuck his nose in down low a couple times and made it work. It was like he was a whole new driver.
It blew our freaking minds, all of us, including Greenslit, and Gene, and T.J., and Al, and Eddy, who had all been in and out of the picture during the day. When M.C. drove back to the pits, we, like morons, jumped on the car -- while it was still moving, of course -- and celebrated.
"I'll definitely be back to White Mountain," he said. "I think with a little more seat time I could do a lot better." Spoken like a veteran.
He instantly ranked the day as his best-ever at a race track. "This has to be number one. To go to a track you've never been to before and win your heat race and finish in the top-five in the feature, it's a pretty damn good feeling. I showed up by myself, and with the water pump blowing and breaking my firesuit, it turned out to be a pretty good day."
It's funny, as a rookie nine years ago, I went to White Mountain for the first time with my race car. Like M.C. Ingram, I'd never seen the place. I don't remember if there were any problems with the race car, there probably weren't, but I do remember thinking I was way out of my element, even though I had won my first feature the week before at Thunder Road. My dad and my crew and I puttered on the car all day, trying to get both it and me figured out, and when it came time to race, we won our qualifier. The next year at Airborne Speedway, I blew the clutch in practice, we made it out in time the 'B' feature and finished second, then got a top-ten in the 50-lap feature that night. In fact, that first win at Thunder Road came just a week after I blew up a motor.
Racing's got a strange way of turning things around. I remembered the feeling that M.C. Ingram had, that he probably still has, that there was no way I could have had more fun doing anything else. And it was a lot of fun to relive that feeling on Saturday night.