Monday, September 21, 2009

While Thinking of the Past, Curley Can Look to the Future

New Hampshire Motor Speedway coverage presented by RPM Racing Engines

LOUDON, N.H. -- American-Canadian Tour President Tom Curley looked over a crowd of about 65 people on Saturday. It was just past noon on September 19, 2009 in Loudon, New Hampshire. ACT and the entire decade-long business model of northeastern Late Model racing was about to debut at the 1-mile track, in front of the most important personalities in stock car racing, and in front of certainly the largest spectator crowd to attend an ACT event. For most of the people in that crowd of 65, everything happening around them that day was happening for the first time.

But Curley was having a bit of déjà vu.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Curley told the drivers, officials, team members, and media assembled before him. "We had [21 cars]. We had some big names like Beaver and Bobby Dragon, Dave Dion, and Robbie Crouch, but not much else. There were twenty-five thousand seats, and about twenty-five hundred people."

It was September 18, 1982, and Curley had just pulled into Dover Int'l Speedway with what was then known as the NASCAR North Tour. It was his series' first appearance on a superspeedway, running as the support show to the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series. The track's promoter, Dennis McGlynn, had taken what Curley called "a wild gamble" by bringing in a group of New England and Canadian-based racers that had mostly never left the tiny, quarter- and half-mile bullrings of the northeast.

In addition to a thin field of cars and a short head count in the grandstand, the race itself was lackluster. Only ten cars were running at the finish, with just two of them completing the entire 200-lap distance. Randy LaJoie finished fourth, six laps off the pace. Gardiner Leavitt was eighth, 20 laps down. Bobby Dragon posted a ninth-place finish after crashing out 46 laps from the end. After Dion collected the trophy for his victory, McGlynn asked Curley what he wanted to do. Curley suggested McGlynn pay only half of the $43,000-plus purse and let him return home with his tail tucked between his legs. McGlynn wouldn't hear of it.

"It was not a promotional success," Curley says, "but it was a start. [McGlynn] told me after that first race that almost nothing works the first time, and to give it three years and then analyze things."

Sure enough, the NASCAR North Tour returned to Dover in 1983 with, as Curley recalled, 25 cars and 5,000 fans. In 1984, there were 37 cars and 17,000 ticket holders.

Fast forward 27 years and one day to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Curley was telling his ACT drivers the story. Like Dover so many years ago, it was the first time for Curley's present group of racers to be racing on a superspeedway. Like Dover, there were important people watching. And like Dover, the promoter, Bruton Smith, had taken a gamble.

Unlike Dover, though, there were 36 cars, most of the region's most recognizable full-fendered short track drivers, and, including those that attended the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Whelen Modified Tour races earlier in the day, about 40,000 fans in the grandstands.

The ACT drivers ripped off a competitive 50-lap exhibition race, one that was promoted heavily on both sides of the border from last November until post time, with just two cautions in 38 minutes. ACT's traditional pre-race pomp played well into Curley's hands at NHMS; an energetic introduction, followed by the series' traditional wave-off lap with battle flags displayed on the track's edge, pushed the already excited crowd into a football stadium-style cheer. There were multiple passes for the lead, a solid mix of veterans and youngsters -- as in 66 year-old Joey Laquerre taking on 16 year-old Brandon Watson for third place with two laps to go -- an even representation of every part of the region's racers among the top finishers, and a host of track officials that were impressed by the event.

The official New Hampshire Motor Speedway press release following the finish appears to be a good omen for ACT; one of the two short quotes printed from winner Eddie MacDonald was "I'm sure there will be many more ACT Invitationals here," indicating that the series has a place at NHMS in the future. Another report from Green-White-Checker quoted NHMS General Manager Jerry Gappens saying that he was "very impressed" and that he wants to have ACT back at the track.

Tom Curley's mind may have been stuck in 1982 at Dover on Saturday. But it appears he might be better served now spending his time thinking about 2010 at New Hampshire.

(PHOTO: Tom Curley's rocky debut at Dover in 1982 was no match for his successful first event at New Hampshire on Saturday. Photo by Justin St. Louis/VMM)

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