Friday, August 14, 2009

Against All Odds, Duquette Wins Tri-State Title

Fleury wins 100, New Yorker wins tie-breaker over Bonnett for championship

BARRE -- Sometimes all you need is a little luck, and Shawn Duquette got it. That, and a lot of help from some friends.

Duquette came to Barre's Thunder Road for the ACT Tiger Sportsman Tri-State Series championship finale on Thursday night. The Morrisonville, N.Y. driver won the opening round of the series at his Airborne Speedway home base in July, copped the second round at Canaan Fair Speedway two weeks ago, and held a 22-point lead over fellow New Yorker Toby Ebersole, with St. Albans driver Jason Bonnett 32 points back.

At Thunder Road, a track he'd seen for the first time just seven days earlier, Duquette moved forward in his qualifying heat, enough to earn him a '+2' handicap rating and give him the seventh starting spot in the ACE Hardware 100 finale. Ebersole quickly went a lap down, effectively eliminating him from title contention. While running in the top-ten two laps before halfway, Duquette looked strong against hometown stars Shawn Fleury, Brendan Moodie, and Jimmy Hebert. Bonnett, who needed to finish 15 positions ahead of Duquette to take the championship away, was on his rival's front bumper. Things looked to be under control for Duquette.

But as soon as it looked like he would be celebrating a championship, it was just as soon gone. Contact from rookie Erik Steel on lap 48 sent Duquette hard into the frontstretch wall. The sliver, black, and green #18 Toyota sat on the track motionless, its driver an emotional mess.

"I was almost in tears," admitted Duquette. "I said, 'There it goes.' I knew it was going to happen here."

During a caution period ten laps later, it was announced that, given the misfortunes of Duquette and Ebersole, Bonnett would need to finish ninth or better to win the championship. A pretty easy task, all things considered, for the two-time Airborne champion and past feature winner at Thunder Road, who in June had an outstanding Late Model debut at the track.

In the pits, however, a swarm of bodies surrounded the battered car. Crew members representing no less than nine Airborne-based teams -- and even Airborne Speedway promoter Mike Perrotte, who attended the race to cheer on his drivers -- repaired the car's broken suspension in just 19 laps' time. Duquette returned on lap 67, and soldiered on to finish 20th.

And in a magical twist of fate for Duquette, Bonnett finished sixth, only 14 positions better. The result left them tied with 204 points each, and Duquette's pair of victories earned him the tie-breaker, sending the championship trophy to the western side of Lake Champlain for only the second time in history.

"I can't thank everybody enough," said Duquette. "There were a lot of people helping. My crew, Jamy Begor (an Airborne driver not in competition at Thunder Road) was there, I don't really know who else was over there because there were so many people. It's awesome. They got me back out on the track.

"It's wonderful. I didn't think it was going to happen there, I was sweating bullets. We got lucky, it was just a tie rod and a couple of rims, and we got back out and finished the race. It's the best feeling I've had so far in racing."

Ironically, one of the volunteers helping make repairs was Bonnett's father, Ron, a former racer. "I guess it's sort of my fault that Jason lost the title," laughed Ron Bonnett. "[Duquette] would have helped us out. We've lost titles before, and we've won them, too. It would have been nice to win, but it's no big deal. Stuff like [tonight] is why we race."

Two-time Thunder Road champion Fleury, of Middlesex, turned his dismal season around with the second 100-lap Sportsman victory of his career; his first came in 2005.

"I definitely had to get up on the wheel tonight," said Fleury, who started 21st in the 27-car field. "We just had a bad start to the night and I really wanted to win it for the guys. They busted their butts tonight putting that thing together. We were overheating earlier and they changed the radiator, changed the water pump, we had a bad start but it all worked out for us. We've had a terrible year, and if I was going to win one, this is the one I wanted to win. I'm glad we got it, and whatever happens happens from here on out."

Fleury's National Guard Chevrolet stalked young Derrick O'Donnell of Bradford for the lead from lap 80 until making his move on the outside; Fleury took the lead on lap 91, then held O'Donnell and teenager Hebert off for the victory.

"[O'Donnell] had a real good car, he ran me clean, and it was just an awesome race," said Fleury. "They're pretty tough, no doubt. We've been doing this a long time and there's a lot of good drivers. The division has really evened out. Any car can win on any given night. [The young drivers] are tough to beat. Honestly, I didn't think I was gonna get him, and luckily we did."

O'Donnell inherited the lead on lap 45 after top runners Mark Barnier and Eric Badore crashed as Barnier blew a tire on a restart. After surrendering the point to Fleury with nine laps to go, O'Donnell held on to second over Hebert, Moodie, Scott Coburn, and Bonnett. David Finck, Joey Laquerre, Ray Stearns, and Josh Demers completed the unofficial top ten.

ACT Tiger Sportsman Tri-State Series -- Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Barre, Vt.
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pos.-Driver-Hometown (# - denotes rookie)

1. Shawn Fleury, Middlesex
2. Derrick O'Donnell, Bradford
3. Jimmy Hebert, Williamstown
4. Brendan Moodie, North Wolcott
5. Scott Coburn, Barre
6. Jason Bonnett, St. Albans
7. David Finck, Barre
8. Joey Laquerre, East Montpelier
9. Ray Stearns, East Corinth
10. Josh Demers, Middlesex
11. Eric Badore, Milton
12. #Erik Steel, Barre
13. Joel Hodgdon, Craftsbury
14. #Mike Billado, Essex Junction
15. #Neal Foster, Waterbury
16. Howard Stoner, Altona, N.Y.
17. Toby Ebersole, Peru, N.Y.
18. Joey Becker, Jeffersonville
19. #Kevin Godfrey, Wentworth, N.H.
20. Shawn Duquette, Morrisonville, N.Y.
21. Mark Barnier, Essex Junction
22. Joe Steffen, Essex Junction
23. George May, Barre
24. Lance Allen, Barre
25. Skip Liberty, Peru, N.Y.
26. Brian Delphia, Waterbury
27. Richie LaFond, Colchester

(PHOTOS: 1. Shawn Duquette (2nd from right) and a small representation of the team that repaired his car on Thursday night celebrate their Tri-State Series championship. 2. Shawn Fleury won the ACE Hardware 100. Photos by Justin St. Louis/VMM)

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