-by Justin St. Louis
There's a neat little success story that's been brewing for a few years around here, and it's beginning to seem strange that it's one of Vermont racing's best kept secrets: The rise of Nick Sweet.
It's likely just a matter of weeks -- days? -- until Sweet takes his first Late Model victory at Thunder Road, or at any track he happens to show up at, and although he's begun to grab some attention, his name is still not usually mentioned in the same breath as Michaud, Williams, Pembroke, Dragon, Cyr, etc. His popularity at Thunder Road has never been in question -- a young, fast racer with success in front of a hometown crowd is an instant recipe for gathering fans -- but the media have largely ignored Sweet.
The question is, why? How can a driver that has won races and championships from the very beginning of his career be so unknown? We think we have an answer.
Sweet started in the four-cylinder Street Stock class at Thunder Road in 2003. He won Rookie of the Year honors, finished second in points two years in a row, and won some races. In 2005, he stepped up to the Tiger Sportsman division, again winning the freshman title and finishing second in points. He won at Thunder Road, Canaan Fair, Lee USA, Airborne Speedway, and at the Sanair mile in Canada, then finally took his first championship at his home track in 2007 with three wins. For a minute it seemed, the local press started to really take notice and give the youngster a few more lines of ink in the papers. But then Sweet purchased a Late Model... and went on the road. There was a buzz surrounding his climb to the region's top levels, but that buzz seemed to disappear as soon as the season began.
Here's why: Sweet had the attention of the local media, and had he stayed at Thunder Road in 2008 running strictly that track's schedule, he likely would have kept that attention. But he and his family team chose to make their next step a big one, joining the ACT Late Model Tour. They struggled, like all rookie teams are supposed to, and consequently, the media lost interest. By the middle of the season, Sweet's car was up front consistently in Tour races, but the local news had already forgotten, as bizarre as that sounds.
All told, he was a top-ten finisher in more than half of the season's ACT events last year, and added impressive runs at the Thunder Road Governor's Cup and Oxford 250 for good measure. He was the ACT Rookie of the Year and finished ninth in points. The regional media took only glancing interest in Sweet's performances, as they usually do with a rookie, and the local media mentioned him only as a footnote in their year-end write-ups.
Now, in 2009, Sweet is back at Thunder Road, running up front, and the people that wrote of his successes just two short years ago are beginning to remember who he is. And on the biggest weekend of the season, one that included regional and even a bit of national press, Nick Sweet proved that everyone should be paying attention.
His 40-lap battle for the win at Thursday's Governor's Cup 150 at Thunder Road with fellow youngster Joey Polewarczyk was the stuff of a future legend. His third-place finish in a surprise ACT Late Model Tour start at White Mountain Motorsports Park on Saturday night -- in front of some of the same media folks -- only backed up what they'd seen two days before.
Nick Sweet is for real. There is no reason why he shouldn't be able to break through and win a few regular events at Thunder Road this summer, why he shouldn't be able to contend for the "King of the Road" crown, or why he shouldn't be considered a threat at next month's TD Banknorth 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway, a race in which he ran as high as third place during the closing stages last year. He's very well spoken, and rarely accepts praise for himself. In a world where too many interviews are cut-and-paste thank-yous to sponsors and crew with very little substance or opinion, Sweet honestly answers the questions he's asked and then gives genuine thanks to his supporters at the end of the interview, rather than begin by saying, "The Saint J Auto Pontiac was great today..." His team and equipment are smartly outfitted, the crew is a friendly, outgoing bunch, and the competitors seem to enjoy having the Sweet group around.
Our unsolicited advice is this: For every lap you watch a kid like Joey Polewarczyk or Scott Payea, try to sneak in at least a corner's worth of Nick Sweet. Although he's unlikely to move beyond the level he's at right now -- and that's a personal choice he's made for himself -- Sweet has the potential to be one of the great drivers this region has seen in many years. Pay attention.
Remember the Shark Energy Drink scandal. That's all I'm saying.
Man, all I want to do is turn on a Star Search and Charlie's Angels marathon, and do the Moonwalk as I Oxi-Clean the hell out of something. What a terrible week to be a celebrity. Rest in peace, you late, great stalwarts of entertainment.
This'll be the last shamless plug about "Fifty Years of Excitement" for a while, I promise. The book, honoring 50 years of racing at Barre's Thunder Road, will be available for sale at the track beginning this Thursday, on Pepsi Fireworks Night, for just $10. Here's another piece of the book:
"Day to Remember: August 30, 2003
If there was a Top 10 list of the most significant dates in Thunder Road history, Saturday, August 30, 2003 would almost certainly be in the running for the #1 spot. It was the date of the annual Labor Day weekend event for what was then known as the NASCAR Busch North Series, the date of the final event in the race for the Late Model "King of the Road" battle, and, it turns out, the date of one of New England's most memorable stock car crashes.
First things first: like the Senate race he was a part of, incumbent Thunder Road Champion Phil Scott was feeling the pressure. In nine days' time, Scott had seen Jamie Fisher come from behind to post his first victory of the year on the previous Thursday, August 21, and finish third behind Pete Fecteau and Trampas Demers a week later. Now just two days later, Scott entered with a 33-point lead. In most cases, 33 points is a pretty comfortable margin. In most cases.
Secondly: with the Busch North Series in town, the buzz around Central Vermont was all Thunder Road. Home-track names like Dave Dion, Bobby Dragon, Brian Hoar, Mike Olsen, Dennis Demers, Kip Stockwell, and - for the final time in his Busch North career - Stub Fadden were back in town, with superstar outsiders like Andy Santerre, Mike Stefanik, Kelly and Ryan Moore, and Matt Kobyluck trying their hands on the highbanks again. Add to it the fact that Thunder Road's own Phil Scott, in addition to trying to clinch his second-straight track title, was making his Busch North Series debut.
Third: Still mathematically in the hunt, 2000 "Queen of the Road" Tracie Bellerose had had a fantastic revival season at Thunder Road, winning three features and staying at or near the top all season long. Entering the race, Bellerose was - although not very likely given her point margin behind Scott and Fisher - a candidate for her second Thunder Road title.
As the Late Models completed their qualifying heats to begin the evening just before the advertised post time, Bellerose was hanging it all out. After picking off cars from her back-of-the-pack starting position, Bellerose got a run outside rookie Joey Becker coming off Turn 2. As she drew to Becker's right-side door on the backstretch, Bellerose clearly had enough momentum to complete the pass by the start-finish line just a half-lap away. Entering Turn 3, Bellerose kept her foot buried in the floorboard, using up every bit of her outside-lane run to try and nose ahead of Becker.
She drew nearly even with Becker's red-and-white #16 Chevrolet, adorned in its familiar Richard Green Trucking signage. But Bellerose's orange-and-green #2 Chevrolet, instantly recognizable as the Merchants Bank-sponsored entry, suddenly took a scary right-turn in the beginning of the corner; Becker's left-front suspension broke just as the two entered Turn 3. As Becker shot up the track at full song into Bellerose, her car immediately hopped into the air and pointed toward the Turn 3 fence. Given their speed and the fact that she was still on the gas, Bellerose and her car became a science experiment, testing the laws of inertia and gravity. As the height of the back end of her car increased, the nose dug into the earth, tipping the car over onto its left side while continuing in a cartwheel-like motion. As the airborne car twisted on two axes, it headed toward the wall, the fence, a tree line, and - God forbid - a jam-packed parking lot full of pedestrians most likely not expecting a sailing 2,800-lb race car to come hurtling at them.
Already stripped of most of its body panels, Bellerose's car became simply a black chassis and roll cage, almost totally exposed, and was catapulted over the catch fence out of sight from the race track. Judging by eye-witness accounts and the very limited photography and video that accurately illustrated the incident, Bellerose flipped at least once more end-over-end and side-over-side before coming to rest upside down on a short asphalt access route near the ticket booth. Becker, meanwhile, skidded to a safe stop at the top of Turn 3 as cars stopped for the red flag.
Less than five seconds before, Tracie Bellerose looked like she might give the boys a run for the championship. Now, a few thousand fans, competitors, officials, and media wondered if she was still alive, or if others had been injured in the parking lot. As the rescue crew rushed to the emergency gate in Turn 3 near the spot where Bellerose crested the catch fence, everyone held their breath. Announcer Troy Germain was left speechless. The only sounds heard - as even the race cars on the track had shut their engines off almost immediately - were of the ambulance and wrecker vehicles racing to the crash site, and of race director Tom Curley calling to the safety team. For what must have seemed like hours, the Speedway Safety Services and Golden Cross rescue crew tended to Bellerose, who was not only alive, but awake and uninjured, as were the unsuspecting fans nearby, before the call came that everyone was okay. Bellerose was taken to the Central Vermont Medical Center in nearby Berlin for observation, but demanded to be released so she could return to the race track and get her car ready for last-chance qualifying. Once she signed her waiver and returned to Thunder Road, however, she discovered that the car was a total loss."
The chapter 'Day to Remember' continues, chronicling Jamie Fisher's unlikely run to the championship, Phil Scott's unending struggles, and Brian Hoar's hometown victory in the Busch North Series. For more information about "Fifty Years of Excitement", click here.
AROUND THE REGION:
Time to take a look at the top Vermonters from the past weekend...
ACT Late Model Tour: John Donahue of Graniteville dominated the White Mountain 150 at New Hampshire's White Mountain Motorsports Park on Saturday night, leading every lap en route to his first win of the season. Brent Dragon of Milton finished second, followed by Nick Sweet of Barre, Eric Williams of Hyde Park, and Maine's Ben Rowe.
Airborne Speedway (Plattsburgh, N.Y.): Mike Bruno of Castleton finished third in the Modifeid feature on Saturday night with Sheldon's Aaron Bartemy fourth. Robin Wood of Plattsburgh, N.Y. scored his fourth-straight Sportsman, with Richie Turner of Fairfax third and Milton's Bill Sawyer eighth. Kevin Boutin of Swanton was the runner-up in the Renegades, with Lance Rabtoy of Fairfax eighth and Milton's Rob Gordon ninth.
Albany-Saratoga Speedway (Malta, N.Y.): Friday's race program was rained out.
Bear Ridge Speedway (Bradford): Wayne Stearns of Thetford Center finished third in the Sportsman Modified feature behind Gary Siemons and Chris Donnelly on Saturday night, with Bradford's Jeremy Huntoon a season-best fourth. Josh Harrington of Topsham took Sportsman Coupe win #5, with Bryan King of Corinth a season-best second, followed by Bradford rookie Jason Horniak, Richie Simmons of Bradford, and Mike McGinley of East Barre. Thetford Center's Dan Eastman won his sixth Limited Late Model feature of the season over Will Hull of East Montpelier and Shane Race of South Strafford. Josh Sunn of White River Junction made the most of a rare appearance by winning the Fast Four feature over Steve Bell and Kevin Harran, both of St. Johnsbury. Bradford's Tom Placey took his third Hornet win of the year over St. Johnsbury's Bobby Lee Bell and Steve Sheldon of St. Johnsbury Center.
Canaan Dirt Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Dave Lacasse of Thetford Center finished fourth in the Sportsman Modified event on Friday night, with Hartland's Ed Tobin ninth. Will Hull of East Montpelier beat Dan Eastman of Thetford Center for Street Stock checkers, while Josh Sunn of White River Junction won the Mini Stock race. James Hanson of Orwell won the SCONE 360 Sprint Car feature, with cousin Lacey Hanson, also of Orwell, in fourth. Point leader Si Allen of West Windsor was seventh.
Canaan Fair Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Saturday night's race card was rained out.
Devil's Bowl Speedway (West Haven): Don Mattison of Wells earned his first 358 Modified top-ten finish of the season by winning the 30-lap feature on Sunday night. Frank Hoard, Sr. of Manchester finished second ahead of Orwell's Tim LaDuc. Todd Stone of Middlebury was fifth, Rob Langevin of Londonderry was seventh, and Gardiner Stone of Middlebury was tenth. Fred Little of Salisbury beat Londonderry's Lori Langevin by 0.026 second for the Pro Street Stock win. Brandon's Mike Clark finished third in the Limited feature. Kayla Bryant of Rutland won the 6-cylinder Mini Stock race, Nathan Woodworth of Essex Junction won the 4-cylinder Minis, and with Poultney's Chris Murray was second in the Duke Stocks.
Monadnock Speedway (Winchester, N.H.): Saturday's race event was rained out for the second week in a row.
NASCAR Camping World Series East: Eric Chase of Milton finished 28th in his series debut in the Heluva Good! Summer 125 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. on Friday.
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Kevin Lepage of Shelburne finished 39th in the Camping World RV Sales 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. on Saturday.
Pro All Stars Series: Adam Bates of Warner, N.H. won Friday's event at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, Me. Rookie Steven Legendre of Danville was 21st.
Riverside Speedway (Groveton, N.H.): Friday's races were rained out.
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl (Barre): Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. of Hudson, N.H. scored his long-awaited first Thunder Road on Thursday night in the Vermont Governor's Cup 150. Cris Michaud of Northfield was second, followed by Barre's Nick Sweet, Jamie Fisher of Shelburne, and John Donahue of Graniteville. Dave Pembroke of Middlesex, Trampas Demers of South Burlington, Phil Scott of Montpelier, Joey Laquerre of East Montpelier, and Eric Williams of Hyde Park completed the top ten. NASCAR's Tony Stewart was 16th. Pete Ainsworth of Middlesex and Jimmy Hebert of Williamstown split twin Tiger Sportsman features; it was the 10th career win for Ainsworth and the first for 18 year-old Hebert. In twin Street Stock/Junkyard Warrior features, Tommy "Thunder" Smith of Williamstown and David Whitcomb of Elmore were the winners in the Street Stock division, while Kevin Streeter of Waitsfield and Donny Yates of North Montpelier were the top Warriors.
Twin State Speedway (Claremont, N.H.): The weekly racing program at Twin State was rained out on Friday for the second week in a row.
White Mountain Motorsports Park (North Woodstock, N.H.): In support action for the ACT Late Model Tour event, Stevie Parker of Lyndonville was third in the Strictly Stocks with Milton's Gordie Stone seventh. Rubin Call of Concord was second in the Strictly Stock Mini division, with Brendan Hunt of Derby Line fourth and M.C. Ingram of Essex Junction fifth.
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl in Barre is in action on Thursday night. On Friday, regular events will be held at Albany-Saratoga, Canaan Dirt, and Twin State. Saturday has the Série ACT-Castrol in action with the annual Montmagny 250 at Autodrome Montmagny near Québec City and the True Value Modified Racing Series is at Monadnock Speedway, while regular events are on tap for Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Airborne, Canaan Fair, and Riverside, as well as a special show at Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven for the CRSA and ELS Sprint Car series and DIRTcar and Budget Sportsman divisions. A regular event is scheduled for Sunday at Devil's Bowl as well as Utica-Rome Speedway.
(PHOTOS: 1. Nick Sweet has risen from Thunder Road's entry levels to become a top contender in the Late Models; 2. Sweet (#88) battles with Joey Polewarczyk (#97) and Eric Williams (#7VT) at White Mountain; 3. R.I.P. Billy Mays; 4. Tracie Bellerose (#2) takes a flyer in 2003. Photos 1 and 2 by Justin St. Louis/VMM; Photo 4 by Gene Gagne.)