-by Justin St. Louis
"That guy has got stone hands," Nick Sweet laughs after being congratulated by Tony Andrews on Thursday night.
A couple of minutes later, Eric Chase offers a handshake, and Phil Scott walks over to pat Sweet on the shoulder. A member of the wrecker crew gives him a nudge on his way past. Crew members, fans, even a couple of admiring young girls -- 14 or 15 years old, at most -- give some sort of congratulatory praise to Thunder Road's newest Late Model winner.
"I'm gonna crack a cold one I think," he says. "You want one? We've probably got some in the cooler."
"No, thanks, I'm working," I'm forced to reply. But I do appreciate the offer, and even more so, the fact that it came in the middle of an interview following the biggest moment in this young racer's career.
Nick Sweet seems genuinely happy just to be racing, and winning is merely a bonus. And although he's just 24 years old, the husband and father is mature enough to keep things in perspective. Go ahead and stick a microphone in his face and try to ask him a serious question, I dare you. Invariably, he'll pause at some point during the interview to say hello to somebody, or in the middle of praising his team, he'll giggle at his own goofy, self-deprecating one-liners and speak of how he forces his crew to work harder because he's not that good behind the wheel.
Here's an example, as Sweet speaks about the dedication of his crew while picking on himself about scuffing the decals on his car every race: "We were at the shop, heck, I was going home before them and I usually don't do that. I'm usually one of the last guys there, and I was like, 'Guys, I gotta go to work in the morning,' and they would just stay down there. And my dad, especially, without him this wouldn't be happening the way it is. He is just amazing. He does stuff that we shouldn't even be doing, he's so particular. He'll make sure it's right. That's what makes us so good, though, it's that kind of aspect. I'm very fortunate. I work hard on it, but he just puts that extra effort in, it makes it so much more. I go down, and I'm good at doing vinyl. I'm getting fantastic at that. I'm great at fixing the body panels, but when it comes to suspension, my dad is just right on it."
Another example, speaking about how his team is a tight-knit group: "We're a family-run team and that's what makes it fun. We stay close as a family, and it's even fun sometimes when you're fighting. It's like a woman, you've got to fight 'em every once in a while. It wouldn't be real if you weren't fighting, right? Wait, is Kristin (Sweet's wife) going to read this? You're like a family basically, that's how we are. We lose as a team, we win as a team, and you really find out who your real friends are when you're down."
Or this one, speaking about his chances for the 2009 Thunder Road championship after clinching his first career win: "All I care about is finishing. I'd like to come back and get a top five, that'd really be something, but we'll see. It's fun to think you're racing for it, but I just want to keep winning races now. I've been hungry for them, and maybe sometimes too hungry. Sometimes I get a little impatient and I run out of talent, it just happens."
It's refreshing to have a racer as fast as Nick Sweet understand that there's more to this game than just showing up, driving fast, saying the right things, and getting home in time for supper. His car is usually one of the last Late Models loaded up after the races. He sticks around and signs autographs and talks to fans until the lights are shut off. He encourages kids to sit in his race car. He's still a fan. In fact, his paint schemes have recently been designed in tribute to his childhood heroes. ("I'm hoping they'll think I'm Jeff Taylor and they'll cheer for me," Sweet joked at Oxford Plains Speedway last month, referencing the numbers he designed for his car in the same style of the multi-time OPS champion.)
I mused in this column space about six weeks ago that it was just a matter of time before Sweet broke into victory lane. Truth is, he was already a winner.
I got a rather pointed email from a friend and colleague of mine following last week's editorial on Vermont native Kevin Lepage struggling mercilessly in NASCAR's upper levels. "Unbelievably harsh treatment," it was called.
Folks, let's get one thing straight: I don't dislike Kevin Lepage at all. At my "real" job, we've got 52 television sets, and I make sure that at least one of them is tuned into Nationwide Series practice and qualifying every week. I hope for a miraculous run at the top of the speed charts every time, and it simply never comes. In fact, last week he didn't make the show at Michigan.
Look, I grew up cheering for the guy. When Lepage moved south, my parents bought me the die-cast cars and we followed his every move. When he came back home to Thunder Road to race the Milk Bowl in 1994 and a Thursday show in 1998, I foamed at the mouth to get inside the gates and watch him race. I served his mother lunch one time when I was working at Friendly's as a teenager, and I told people about it for years. As a Vermonter, I'm proud of what Kevin Lepage has achieved.
That doesn't mean I can't be disappointed with what he's doing now.
I have a friend that has been a big Atlanta Braves fan since we were kids. Huge John Smoltz fan. Do you think he doesn't have the right to be disappointed in what Smoltz is going through this year?
I want nothing but the best for Kevin Lepage, and I do understand that he has bills to pay. In this day and age, a driver past his prime "marketing years" (which start to end at age 22 these days), needs to take advantage of every opportunity he or she can get to stay in the racing business, and that's what Lepage is doing. I get that.
But I have a hunch that if he found something else to do to make ends meet -- Crew chief? Team manager? Official? Sponsor representative? Television analyst? -- and came back to moonlight as a driver in his short track roots, he'd be celebrated as a winner again. Sure, it's not the Sprint Cup Series, but who cares? It's racing, it's winning, and it's what he should be doing. He deserves to win. He's worked too hard for too long to run 37th or 42nd or not qualify.
That's all I was saying.
If you like wild crashes, you owe it to yourself to look at this Modified wreck produced by Cody Sargent at Albany-Saratoga. That's levitation, homes.
I don't care a hoot about football or Brett Favre, but this right here is awesome. You go get 'em, Rockford.
I had never had a good experience at Riverside Speedway. Ever.
The first time I went as a kid, it rained, it was cold, and my dad's friend crashed in the race. The second time I went, as a racer about eight years later, I got disqualified for a stupid bent wheel. The third time (the only other time I competed there), I did well in a race, but I got walled by every single Riverside regular that I raced against, and I got pulled over on the way home for doing six miles per hour over the speed limit while towing a trailer on a downhill slope. The next four or five times, it either rained, or there were fights or wrecks or just plain bad races. The last time I went in 2007, the program moved along so slowly that I got up and left before the show ended, despite paying $30 to get in.
The stretch of Route 2 from East Montpelier to Lancaster, N.H. isn't bad during the daylight, but that same stretch headed home in the opposite direction at night is THE WORST drive in America, and I feel that way when I'm on it coming home from Oxford, too, every time. And by the way, that's kinda the only way to get to Riverside and back for me.
I hadn't been there in two years, and I wasn't necessarily looking forward to going back. But Sunday, for the first time in my life, I was glad I went. I saw one helluva race, and Wayne Helliwell's story that day was as dramatic, compelling, and super-human as any I've seen in short track racing. The fact that it was so ungodly hot that the asphalt fell apart, I had to remind myself, was not the fault of Riverside itself, that's just the way it was. That could have happened anywhere.
I probably won't be back to Riverside this year, just because that's the way the schedule works out. But Sunday went a long way for me. Kudos to the staff and competitors.
I'll be honest, I reported Sunday's event at Devil's Bowl exactly as it was prepared in the track's official press release. And then I got a message from a guy that's been there all season, letting me know that, um, said press release might be a bit misleading.
This is the opening line from the release: "Ken Tremont Jr. hasn't officially won the track championship at Devil's Bowl Speedway yet, but the fat lady is definitely warming up backstage."
Well, that's foreshadowing, no? Continue reading...
"Tremont held off Todd Stone Sunday night to register his sixth win of the season in the 30-lap 358-modified feature on Judith L. Richards Memorial Night at Devil's Bowl. ... Frank Hoard Sr. set the pace for the first 11 laps of the modified feature, but Tremont had the Rifenburgh Construction small block humming and only needed seven laps to get from his eighth starting position to second.
Tremont used a restart on lap 11 to get the lead, and the rest of the field could do nothing more than watch his rear bumper for the rest of the feature. Stone, who started just behind Tremont, moved into second on lap 14, but had to be content with the No. 2 spot, and knows his reign as track champion is just about over."
Kinda paints the picture that it's all but over, right? Not so.
Turns out Todd Stone is, in fact, third in points at Devil's Bowl this year and his reign may be over soon. But it's not likely that he'll go away quietly. And neither will Tim LaDuc.
Depsite six wins, Tremont has only an 11-point edge over LaDuc and just 13 points on Stone with three events remaining, including the double-points season finale. With each position offering just two points more than the next (read: If Stone wins this Sunday, LaDuc is second, and Tremont is eighth, Stone and LaDuc would be tied for the lead with Tremont one point back in third, it's THAT close), it's far from over. If Tremont had a 70-point lead, then it might be time to warm up the bus, but that's not the case.
And I'll tell you right now that if I was a media guy working for a track, I'd hype the living crap out of a point battle like that -- a la Airborne Speedway with Martin Roy and Patrick Dupree, or the now-finished ACT Tiger Sportsman Series, which ended in a tie -- not calling it a day like Devil's Bowl.
Speaking of Airborne, Kenny Schrader is the one professional racer I have really wanted to see all season long on a short track, and Saturday's Modified race ought to be a good show.
AROUND THE REGION:
Time to take a look at the top Vermonters from the past weekend...
ACT Tiger Sportsman Series: Shawn Duquette of Morrisonville, N.Y. won his first ACT championship on Thursday at Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl in Barre after winning a tie-breaker with St. Albans driver Jason Bonnett. Bonnett finished sixth in the ACE Hardware 100 with Duquette 20th after a mid-race crash, but due to his victories at Airborne and Canaan Fair earlier in the season, Duquette was awarded the tie-breaker over the winless Bonnett. Shawn Fleury of Middlesex won the ACE Hardware 100 over Bradford's Derrick O'Donnell, Jimmy Hebert of Williamstown, North Wolcott's Brendan Moodie, Scott Coburn of Barre, and Bonnett.
Airborne Speedway (Plattsburgh, N.Y.): Aaron Bartemy of Sheldon took his second Modified win of the season on Saturday night, while Milton's Bill Sawyer was fifth in the Sportsman feature. Milton's Rob Gordon was the runner-up in the Renegade feature for the second week in a row, with Swanton's Kevin Boutin fourth, Mike Terry of Grand Isle fifth, Lance Rabtoy of Fairfax eighth, and Swanton's Dave Rabtoy tenth. Billy Jenkins of Milton was sixth in the Mini-Modified feature.
Albany-Saratoga Speedway (Malta, N.Y.): Dave Camara of Fair Haven took his first win of the season in the 358 Modified class on Friday night, while Todd Stone of Middlebury finished sixth. Rob Langevin of Londonderry was fourth in the Sportsman division. Fred Little of Salisbury finished foruth in the Pro Street Stock feature with Benson's Jeff Washburn seventh and Ed Thompson of Fair Haven eighth.
Bear Ridge Speedway (Bradford): Chris Donnelly of Piermont, N.H. took his fourth Sportsman Modified win of the season on Saturday night, with Thetford Center's Wayne Stearns second, Gary Siemons of Orford, N.H. third, Ryan Avery of Thornton, N.H. fourth, and Mike Dunn fifth. Kevin Chaffee of East Orange was sixth with East Thetford's Jason Gray ninth. Rookie Jason Horniak of Bradford held off Topsham's Josh Harrington to win the Sportsman Coupe feature over Billy Simmons of Bradford, Melvin Pierson of Topsham, and Bryan King of Corinth. Dan Eastman of Thetford Center won his ninth Limited Late Model feature of the year over Bradford's Jeremy Hodge, Shane Race of South Strafford, Will Hull of East Montpelier, and T.C. Forward of Lyme, N.H. St. Johnsbury's Steve Bell notched his first Fast Four win over Wilder's Andy Johnson, Ryan Dutton of Bradford, Kevin Harran of St. Johnsbury, and John Dunham of West Lebanon, N.H. First-time Hornet winner Mike Chapin of Chelsea snapped a six-race win streak for Bradford's Tom Placey, who finished second. Bobby Bell of St. Johnsbury was third over Chelsea's Mike Ryan and Mike Santaw of Lyme, N.H.
Canaan Dirt Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Thetford Center's Dave Lacasse was the Modified runner-up with Hartland's Ed Tobin sixth. Will Hull of East Montpelier was the Street Stock runner-up, with Dan Eastman of Thetford Center third. Josh Sunn of White River Junction was the Fast Four winner with Ryan Dutton of Bradford third and Wilder's Andy Johnson seventh. Lacey Hanson of Orwell finished second in the Granite State Mini Sprint 500cc race.
Canaan Fair Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Kris Lyman of West Hartford was eighth in the Pro Stock feature Saturday with South Royalton's Kevin Menard tenth, while Bradford's Arnie Stylges finished third in the Super Street race. Jamie Hodgdon of Ascutney won the Pure Stock feature with Rory Merritt of North Springfield tenth. Chris Lyman of Hartland won the Outlaw Mini Stock race over White River Junction drivers Bobby Prior and Josh Sunn and Chris McKinstry of Thetford. Ascutney's Tyler Lescord won the Bandit race over Mike Parker of Bradford.
Devil's Bowl Speedway (West Haven): Kenny Tremont, Jr. of West Sand Lake, N.Y. took his sixth 358 Modified win of 2009 on Sunday over Middlebury's Todd Stone, Vince Quenneville, Jr. of Brandon, Tim LaDuc of Orwell, and Ron Proctor of Charlton, N.Y. Brian Whittemore of Florence was sixth with Whiting's Jimmy Ryan eighth and Gardner Stone of Middlebury ninth. Seth Howe of South Londonderry won the 50-lap Budget Sportsman race over Indian Lake, N.Y.'s Paul Dunham, Jr., Jack Swinton of Hudson Falls, N.Y., Manchester's Frank Hoard, III, and Derrick McGrew of Ballston Spa, N.Y. Fred Little of Salisbury won the Pro Street Stock feature over Carl Vladyka of Fair Haven, Cale Kneer of Troy, N.Y., Hampton, N.Y.'s Justin Perry, and Pat McLaughlin of Johnsonville, N.Y. Brandon's Mike Clark won his third Limited feature of the season with Hydeville's Bill Duprey fourth, and Nathan Woodworth of Essex Junction beat Rutland's Kayla Bryant in the Mini Stock/Duke Stock race.
Monadnock Speedway (Winchester, N.H.): Dana Shepard of Putney finished 11th in the Super Stock race on Saturday, with Joe Rogers of Ludlow tenth in the Mini Stocks. Vernon's Heath Renaud beat Dick Houle of West Brattleboro to win the 4-cylinder Enduro.
PASS North Super Late Models: Seekonk (Mass.) Speedway ace Tom Scully, Jr. beat the PASS stars at his home track on Saturday night for his first win on the series. Maine racers Ben Rowe and Johnny Clark completed the podium, with Danville rookie Steven Legendre 17th.
Riverside Speedway (Groveton, N.H.): Howard Switser of West Burke finished fourth in Sunday's "Clash of the Titans 150" Late Model event, behind Wayne Helliwell, Jr., Quinny Welch, and Randy Potter. Rick Utley, Jr. of Wheelock won Saturday's Street Stock feature over Concord's Brett Rowell. Johanna Christman of Cabot won the Angel event on Saturday.
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl (Barre): Nick Sweet of Barre posted his first career Late Model win on Thursday over Shelburne's Jamie Fisher, Cris Michaud of Northfield, Phil Scott of Montpelier, and point leader Jean-Paul Cyr of Milton. Shawn Fleury of Middlesex won the ACE Hardware 100 for the ACT Tiger Sportsman Tri-State Series. Garry Bashaw of Lincoln was a first-time Street Stock winner over Elmore's David Whitcomb, rookie Tucker Williams of Hyde Park, Michael Moore of East Haven, and Williamstown's Mike MacAskill, while Donny Yates of North Montpelier was the Junkyard Warrior winner over Barre's Kevin Dodge, Kevin Streeter of Waitsfield, Lance Donald of Williamstown, and Bryan Nykiel of Berlin. On Friday, Rich Lowrey of Charlotte won his second Late Model event of the season over Dave Whitcomb of Essex Junction, Fisher, Waitsfield's Grant Folsom, and Michaud. Bobby Therrien of Hinesburg took his first Tiger Sportsman win of the year over Marshfield's Matt Potter, Derrick O'Donnell of Bradford, Cody Blake of Barre, and Joe Steffen of Essex Junction. M.C. Ingram of Essex Junction won the Street Stock race over Williams, Moore, Greg Adams, Jr. of Hardwick, and Hancock's Danny Doyle, while Yates took his second Warrior win in 24 hours over Cabot's Ken Christman, Kevin Wheatley of Williamstown, Streeter, and Donald.
True Value Modified Racing Series: Rowan Pennink of Huntington Valley, Penn. notched his first career win at Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl on Saturday, followed by Connecticut driver Chris Pasteryak and Kenny Horton. Dwight Jarvis of Ascutney was 21st.
Twin State Speedway (Claremont, N.H.): Guy Caron of Lempster, N.H. won the three-segment Late Model feature on Friday over Chris Bergerson and Marc Palmisano. Joey Jarvis of Ascutney was the Modified runner-up. Chris Wilk of Mendon beat Russ Davis of Cavendish to win the Super Street feature. Josh Lovely of Barre was third in the Strictly Stocks. Rob Leitch of Cavendish won the Wildcat feature, which was run in counter-clockwise direction, over Ludlow's Rob Olney, III and James Brow of Brattleboro.
White Mountain Motorsports Park (North Woodstock, N.H.): Bernie Lantagne of McIndoe Falls finished sixth Saturday's Late Model feature, with Stacy Cahoon and son Tyler Cahoon of St. Johnsbury ninth and tenth, respectively. Stevie Parker of Lyndonville was the Strictly Stock runner-up with Milton's Gordie Stone seventh, and Concord driver Rubin Call was third in the Strictly Stock Mini feature.
Thursday, Aug. 20
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Barre -- 6:30pm (Kids Poster Contest)
Friday, Aug. 21
Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Malta, N.Y. -- 6:45pm (Empire Lightning Sprints)
Canaan Dirt Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 7:00pm (SCoNE 360 Sprint Cars)
Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. -- 7:30pm (All-Star Race Trucks, Demolition Derby)
Saturday, Aug. 22
Bear Ridge Speedway, Bradford -- 6:00pm (Hornet Queens)
Airborne Speedway, Plattsburgh, N.Y. -- 6:00pm (Special guest NASCAR driver Ken Schrader, plus SpeedSTR Midgets)
Canaan Fair Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 6:00pm (New England Champ Kart Series)
Monadnock Speedway, Winchester, N.H. -- 6:00pm (All-Star Race Trucks)
Riverside Speedway, Groveton, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Late Model Triple Crown 100)
White Mountain Motorsports Park, North Woodstock, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Regular Event)
Sunday, Aug. 23
Devil's Bowl Speedway, West Haven -- 6:45pm (Veterans Night)
Canaan Fair Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 2:00pm (PASS North Super Late Models)
PASS North Super Late Models: Sun., Aug. 23 -- Canaan Fair Speedway, Canaan, N.H. (2:00pm)
SCoNE 360 Sprint Cars: Fri., Aug. 21 -- Canaan Dirt Speedway, Canaan, N.H. (7:00pm)
Série ACT-Castrol: Sat., Aug. 22 -- Riverside Speedway, Ste-Croix, Qué. (5:00pm)
True Value Modified Racing Series: Sat.. Aug. 22 -- Seekonk Speedway, Seekonk, Mass. (6:00pm)