BARRE -- Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl has had, by all accounts, a great season. With the Mid-Season Championship slated for Thursday evening, fans have already enjoyed some outstanding competition, especially in the headline Late Model division, some surprise feature winners, packed-house crowds on Memorial Day and at the Governor's Cup, and the season-long 50th anniversary celebration has been a memorable one.
Yet, promoter Tom Curley isn't having much fun.
The track's four-cylinder divisions, the Street Stocks and Junkyard Warriors, have been a constant thorn in Curley's side, and the Hall of Fame promoter has had enough.
"I guess I have run out of energy to carry on the constant fight with those that just don't get it," he said.
Citing declining car counts in the Warrior class and a lack of edge-of-your-seat action in both entry-level divisions over the past couple of seasons, Curley merged the two groups for 2009 running both on the track at the same time while keeping seperate championship point systems for each. The intent, he says, "would give us an opportunity to keep the (Warrior) division alive for a couple years while we figured out a new rules and format system for four-cylinder racing at Thunder Road."
Curley announced the merger at a rules meeting in Feburary, saying that the intent was to provide more excitement for race fans and drivers, while also beginning the integration of foreign-made cars into the domestic-only Street Stocks in order to help future growth in the division. He also noted that the Warrior class has begun to move away from its roots, which began in 2003 as a $500 claimer division with emphasis on using very little actual racing technology.
"It has been clear for a couple of years that the [Warrior] division is 'broken' as there is no place for the Buster Porters of the world, which is what made it fun back then," Curley said, using low-buck racer Porter, one of the original Warrior drivers, as an example. "It is also why there is no growth and why the division is on life support at this time."
The merger has been exciting for race fans to watch, with three- and four-wide action, wild crashes, and obvious disparity between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' of the two classes, all things that resembled shades of years gone by in the Street Stock and Warrior divisions. But as popular as the combination was in the grandstands, it had been repeatedly met with some resistance on the other side of the pit fence; after weeks of complaints and, in Curley's words, "constant negativity," the decision was made last Thursday to split the divisions apart and run seperate events as in years past. The major gripes by Street Stock drivers were that the Warrior cars were too slow, their drivers too inexperienced, and that the combination caused major wrecks, while the Warrior racers complained that they were being run over by impatient Street Stockers, and that on average, only one or two Warriors have been able to qualify for the 'A' main feature each week.
With the split last Thursday, however, the results were in many estimations boring in the Warriors and disastrous in the Street Stocks. Using last year's format of shorter-distance 20-lap Street Stock features and 15-lap Warrior features, and 2008's comparatively smaller purse payouts, the still-impatient Street Stocks summarily teed-off on each other, destroying a half-dozen cars in a race that took nearly a half-hour to complete, and a caution-free Warrior race with just 16 cars lacked any real excitement. The 'reserve' feature, which was implemented with the merger as a non-qualifiers race and had become unquestionably the most action-filled event on any given race night, was deleted from the program. Qualifying heats had reduced numbers due to the split, and therefore less excitement. The Street Stock last-chance qualifier -- the closest thing to the 'reserve' race -- went flag-to-flag without incident.
"It certainly was not as much fun as when there were 16 or 17 cars in heats trying to qualify, or for that matter, the 'reserve' feature had become one of my favorite events of the night," said Curley. "Without question, generally, the Warriors learned a lot about how to race in that event over the past month. They were lifting, taking a look in the mirror for advancing Street Stocks and got to the inside, etc. This was evidenced by the green to checkers effort [Thursday night], although not what the division was originally intended to be at Thunder Road, you have to be proud of the way they actually conducted themselves as far as racing goes, if you are a purist.
"As far as the Street Stocks, after qualifying, they were supposedly the 'cream of the crop' from the 42 who entered that were in the main event. It was the worst slugfest we have had this year. Sort of hard to blame the Warriors who [the Street Stocks] wanted exiled from the merger and were granted their wish."
POINT OF VIEW
Tommy "Thunder" Smith, the Street Stock division's all-time victory leader, has been one of the few outspoken drivers in favor of the merger. The Williamstown driver said he was reminded of the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the dawn of the Junkyard Warrior class, when fields of 50-plus Street Stocks would show up each week and the action was intense.
"I've never had a problem with the Warrior drivers," Smith said. "It shouldn't matter if they're slow, it's just racing, and I'm used to that. Some of us have been trying to help them out in the pits -- guys like me, Dave Allen, and David Greenslit -- and trying to help them drive better. For the most part they've done a good job, and I enjoy racing with them. And if they are slow, it's fun to use them as a 'pick' on the track."
Warrior driver Ken Christman agrees, sort of. "Racing-wise the merger has been pretty good, it definitely has made me a better racer," he said. "I learn a lot more about picking lines and set-ups of cars and tires." Christman, of Cabot, earned his first career win in last week's Warriors-only feature.
"But I have to say that I liked it split and not just because I won, but because I was able to keep the car in one piece and race against people I am actually competing in the points for," said Christman, who sits second in the standings behind Donny Yates. "It's tough when we are merged because the Street Stocks are a little faster and some get a little impatient and run us over. I have had to do a lot of fixing this year, more than last year. It's also [less fun] when you are the only car to make the 'A' feature and are guaranteed the win with no one to race against."
Christman and Smith both agree that there have been a lot of complaints from both divisions about the merger.
"[Warrior driver] Mark LaFleche is pretty adamant about not liking it, and I have had my gripes about it," said Christman. "I think I have heard a complaint from just about everyone about it."
"I don't mind it, but I know there are a lot of guys that don't like it," said Smith. "But last week when we ran seperate, it was a wreckfest, no fun at all. I wouldn't mind going back to the merger if it's going to be like that, and I'll bet they wouldn't either."
The problems that have arisen for Curley due to the merger and the following split are many, and at the moment, he's uncertain about what will take place. Smith and Christman offered a few suggestions in case of a potential reuniting of the divisions.
"My only complaint is that I think the Warrior drivers should have the opportunity to get more trophies," said Smith. "If they brought back the 'reserve' race, where there's more Warriors, give the top-three in both divisions trophies, rather just the top-three cars at the finish, which are usually always us Street Stocks. That might make it a bit more fun for them."
Christman thinks everyone would be having more fun if more Warriors had the opportunity to make the main events. "Right now when things are merged, it's the top nine cars qualify [in heat races]," he said. "It might be interesting to make it the top seven Street Stocks and top two Junkyard Warriors qualify to the 'A' feature, that way there would be more then one or two in the feature."
Obviously, Curley would like to see the divisions remain together throughout the year, but feels that no matter what, things have been tainted already.
"What is stupid is that both divisions now get to race far less laps than previously [while they're seperate]," he said. "We have gone back to the old purses which are about 25% less than the merger purses, and there will be nothing pure about he point title races, as we have changed formats in mid-stream."
"I'm not sure what is going to happen in the future," he said. "I guess we will just have to wait and see."
(PHOTOS: 1. The Street Stock/Junkyard Warrior division merger has produced some excitment in 2009; 2. Street Stocker Dan Lathrop (#6) gets upside down; 3. Jamie Davis (#43) got wrecked in the Street Stock-only feature last Thursday; 4. A trio of Warriors run each other clean up front during a heat race; 5. Warrior Ken Christman sees both positive and negative aspects of the merger. Photos 1-4 by Leif Tillotson, Photo 5 by Alan Ward)