BARRE -- Three years ago, John Donahue's name was often little more than a footnote in American-Canadian Tour race finishes or year-end point standings. And three short years later, the Graniteville driver has firmly established himself as a driver that will be remembered long after his final lap.
With a win in the 47th running of the Chittenden Bank Milk Bowl at Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Donahue became just the tenth driver in history to win each of the track's "big three" events -- he won the Memorial Day Classic in 2008, the Labor Day Classic, the site of his first ACT Late Model Tour win, in 2007, and now Sunday's Milk Bowl. The victory means his name will be now etched in all three granite monuments at the Barre track honoring past winners of the events, alongside pioneers Larry Demar and Russell Ingerson, Hall of Famers Jean-Paul Cabana, Bobby Dragon, Dave Dion, and Robbie Crouch, and modern-day heroes Jean-Paul Cyr, Dave Pembroke, and Brent Dragon.
It's something Donahue spent a lot of time thinking about, too.
"This'll put the third one on there now," Donahue said after his Milk Bowl victory. "[It means] a lot. A month ago, Tom (Curley, ACT president) brought us all up there, the drivers, and I'm looking on down through and I'm on two of [the monuments], and I said, 'Boy, I'd really like to be on that Milk Bowl one, that way my name is on all three of them.' I've been thinking about it since then."
And perhaps appropriately, it was one of those names already carved into each piece of the rock -- Milton's Brent Dragon -- that Donahue had to outduel to win the Milk Bowl.
Dragon won the opening 50-lap round of the three-segment, cumulatively scored race, with Donahue third. Donahue finished ninth in the middle leg, one spot better than Dragon, and trailed Dragon by one point entering the final 50 laps. And that's when Donahue turned up the wick.
Both drivers raced three-wide through traffic, along with Scott Payea, Brian Hoar, and Brad Leighton, who each would be within striking distance under the right circumstances, near the one-third mark of the final segment. Dragon and Donahue traded jabs on the track, knowing their mid-pack battle was almost certainly for the overall victory.
Dragon pushed three-wide under Donahue and Glen Luce on lap 17, then swapped lanes on the next lap. Donahue seized the opportunity, returning the three-wide favor. In the intense action, Dragon's car was shoved momentarily off the backstretch, while Donahue was able to squeeze by. Two laps later, Payea spun off the track with Dave Whitcomb and Eric Chase to bring out the caution flag.
Donahue and Dragon realigned in 13th and 14th for the restart on lap 20, which proved to be the decisive moment of the race. Traffic in Donahue's inside lane moved faster than Dragon's high side group, and Donahue picked his way through the field to finish fifth in the segment. But Dragon, his car knocked out of alignment from the contact on lap 18, was only able to muster a tenth-place finish in segment. With the final tally added up, Donahue's 17 segment points secured him his first Milk Bowl win, four points better than Dragon's 21, and nine better than Eric Williams of Hyde Park.
Donahue began his career as a Flying Tiger/Sportsman racer at Thunder Road in the mid-nineties, winning more than his share of races and championships, but had little in the way of headline-grabbing success in the top-tier Late Model class -- and certainly with the touring ACT division -- until recently. His Milk Bowl victory and planting the traditional kiss on a "trophy queen" cow, he says, is the crowning achievement of his racing career.
"It's right at the top. I've had a lot of good races, I won a [Labor Day] 200 here, but this is different," he said. "You've got three different segments, you stop, you have to think about it, re-do your car. This is one I've been wanting for a long time. I'm just going to soak this one in and be happy."
Williams' third-place finish went virtually unnoticed, overshadowed by the Donahue-Dragon saga, but his segment finishes of seventh, fifteenth, and fourth were good enough for the podium spot. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. of Hudson, N.H. (28 points) and Brian Hoar of Williston (29 points) finished fourth and fifth overall. The top-ten was completed by Dave Pembroke, Jamie Fisher, Nick Sweet, Joey Laquerre, and Chip Grenier. Track champion Jean-Paul Cyr, who won the third segment finished 11th overall, while second-segment winner Wayne Helliwell, Jr. finished 18th overall in his first start at Thunder Road.
Eighteen year-old Jimmy Hebert of Williamstown became the youngest driver in history to win a championship in Thunder Road's famed Tiger Sportsman division on Sunday, taking a four-point victory over Tony Rossi of Barre. Hebert overcame a tense moment on lap 17 of the 50-lap finale when hard contact with Mark Barnier cut Hebert's left-rear tire, sending him into a spin down the frontstretch. After pitting under the caution period, Hebert recovered for a 13th-place finish.
"It's ten times better that I ever thought it would be," said Hebert. "Ever since I was little, I dreamed of this. I never thought I would race at 16, say nothing about winning a championship at 18. The first year we really struggled and everybody seemed discouraged, but last year we put together some good runs. This year we worked on consistency and it really paid off for us."
Shawn Fleury of Middlesex took the lead from upstart Jason Corliss on lap 28, then cruised to his second win of the season. Mike Ziter followed Fleury past Corliss, but was penalized with under ten laps remaining for spinning a lapped car off the backstretch. Ziter was placed last in the 28-car field. Danville driver Corliss, the 2008 Street Stock champion making only his fourth appearance in the Tiger Sportsman division, finished second officially, with Bradford's Derrick O'Donnell third, Rossi fourth, and Bobby Therrien of Hinesburg in fifth.
Pete Ainsworth, who entered the final weekend with an eight-point lead in the division, failed to qualify for the main event. He slumped to a fourth-place championship finish behind Hebert, Rossi, and Brendan Moodie.
Tommy "Thunder" Smith of Williamstown moved into sole possession of first-place all-time in the Street Stock division with his 20th career win, his third of the season. Mike Martin of Craftsbury Common was the runner-up, with rookie Danny Doyle of Hancock third, Garry Bashaw of Lincoln fourth, and Randolph's Markus Farnham fifth. Veteran driver Gary Mullen of Tunbridge captured his first championship with a ninth-place finish, beating Martin for the title by 26 points.
Like Ainsworth, Junkyard Warrior point leader Donny Yates of North Montpelier failed to qualify for the Milk Bowl finale, but was still able to clinch his division's championship on the strength of six wins during the season. Ken Christman of Cabot took his third victory, over Keith Fortier of Hinesburg, Kevin Streeter of Waitsfield, Northfield's John Prentice, and Tommy Elwood of Morrisville.
UNOFFICIAL RESULTS -- 47th Annual Chittenden Bank Milk Bowl
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Barre, Vt.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Pos.-Driver-Hometown-(Segment Finishes/Total Score)
1. John Donahue, Graniteville (3+9+5=17)
2. Brent Dragon, Milton (1+10+10=21)
3. Eric Williams, Hyde Park (7+15+4=26)
4. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., Hudson, N.H. (4+22+2=28)
5. Brian Hoar, Williston (16+4+9=29)
6. Dave Pembroke, Middlesex (5+19+7=31)
7. Jamie Fisher, Shelburne (10+13+8=31)
8. Nick Sweet, Barre (2+17+12=31)
9. Joey Laquerre, East Montpelier (11+8+15=34)
10. Chip Grenier, Graniteville (9+25+3=37)
11. Jean-Paul Cyr, Milton (8+29+1=38)
12. Phil Scott, Montpelier (6+27+6=39)
13. Scott Payea, Milton (12+5+23=40)
14. Brad Leighton, Center Harbor, N.H. (13+6+22=41)
15. Tyler Cahoon, St. Johnsbury (22+2+20=44)
16. Glen Luce, Turner, Me. (18+16+11=45)
17. Tony Andrews, Northfield (24+3+18=45)
18. Wayne Helliwell, Jr., Dracut, Mass. (27+1+19=47)
19. Joey Doiron, Berwick, Me. (14+7+26=47)
20. Quinny Welch, Lancaster, N.H. (21+12+17=50)
21. Matt White, Northfield (15+28+16=59)
22. Chad Wheeler, Waterbury Center (19+30+13=62)
23. Mark Hayward, Unity, N.H. (25+11+27=63)
24. Mike Olsen, North Haverhill, N.H. (17+18+28=63)
25. Eric Chase, Milton (20+14+29=63)
26. Joey Becker, Jeffersonville (23+21+21=65)
27. Pete Potvin, III, Graniteville (28+24+14=66)
28. Rich Lowrey, Charlotte (26+20+25=71)
29. Mike Bailey, South Barre (30+23+24=77)
30. Dave Whitcomb, Essex Junction (29+26+30=85)
NAPA Tiger Sportsman (# - denotes rookie)
1. Shawn Fleury, Middlesex
2. #Jason Corliss, Danville
3. Derrick O'Donnell, Bradford
4. Tony Rossi, Barre
5. Bobby Therrien, Hinesburg
6. Ray Stearns, East Corinth
7. Brendan Moodie, North Wolcott
8. Tommy Therrien, Hinesburg
9. Josh Demers, Middlesex
10. Lance Allen, Barre
Allen Lumber Street Stock/Power Shift Online Junkyard Warrior (# - denotes rookie)
Pos.-Driver-Hometown (# - denotes rookie)
1. Tommy Smith, Williamstown (SS)
2. Mike Martin, Craftsbury Common (SS)
3. #Danny Doyle, Hancock (SS)
4. Garry Bashaw, Lincoln (SS)
5. Markus Farnham, Randolph (SS)
20. Ken Christman, Cabot (JW)
21. Keith Fortier, Hinesburg (JW)
22. Kevin Streeter, Waitsfield (JW)
23. John Prentice, Northfield (JW)
24. Tommy Elwood, Morrisville (JW)
(PHOTOS: 1. John Donahue hoists the Milk Bowl trophy after his first win in the classic event; 2. Donahue smooches Larolupine, the Milk Bowl trophy queen, as Governor Jim Douglas looks on; 3. Tiger Sportsman champion Jimmy Hebert; 4. Street Stock champion Gary Mullen. Photos by Justin St. Louis/VMM)