-by Justin St. Louis
Don't look now, but there's a new kid in town. Actually, there's nothing new about him at all, really, or kid-like. He's a hard worker with strong, dirty hands, hints of an old-time "ayuh" accent, and has been around this game for the better part of 20 years.
But all of a sudden, for the first time, John Donahue is a headline driver.
There's no telling the exact moment when he became one. Sunday, after winning the Milk Bowl? It might have been the crown jewel of his career, but it certainly wasn't his first win, or even his first important win. But in writing the post-race wrap-up of the Milk Bowl on Sunday and Monday, I found myself surprised, thinking something to the effect of, "Holy cow, Donahue's racked up quite the résumé. When did that happen?" In reality, it began a lot longer ago than I realized, maybe longer than anyone did.
A farmer by trade, the woodchuck-through-and-through Donahue rolled out of the rural Graniteville hills with a block-long Chevrolet for the "Killer B" class at Barre's Thunder Road in 1994. He recalled thinking that his car -- a larger, heavier, less powerful version of the era's Flying Tigers -- was "too slow" to have any fun in, so he moved up to the Tigers to race against his older brother, Bill, who had followed in their father Paul's footsteps as a multi-time winner and championship contender in the division.
And it turned out that "Irish John" was a chip off the ol' block, finishing third in points as a rookie. During the five seasons that followed, he would earn a pair of Thunder Road championships, a Triple Crown title at New Hampshire's Riverside Speedway, a "Tiger 50 Series" title, well over two dozen feature races at Thunder Road, Riverside, and Airborne Speedway in New York, and three Strictly Stock features at Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine.
In 2002, Donahue was hired to drive an American-Canadian Tour Late Model for Lee Delphia, winning top rookie honors at Thunder Road and finishing second on the Tour to the well-financed Ryan Moore, while also taking a Limited Sportsman win at Oxford. But a split from Delphia as the season ended left Donahue without a full-time ride for 2003, and the funding for his Maine-based team dried up as well. Donahue was on the outside looking in before another car owner, Mike Thompson, put Donahue in his Late Model for 2004.
Although comparatively underfunded, the team notched a win in the 2005 regular season finale at Thunder Road, a second win in mid-2006, and was constantly a top-five threat. A few on-track tussles brought some fanfare, including a couple involving Eric Williams, one of Thunder Road's all-time great villains. Add to that the fact that T-Road impresario Ken Squier loved to say the words "Irish John Donahue" (as he still does), and the name was becoming a water cooler topic in the offices of Central Vermont each Friday morning after the races, but still rarely appeared in print, radio, or television.
A windfall ride from new car owner Kendall Roberts -- complete with flashy, high-profile sponsorship from the National Guard, a pair of brand new cars with technical support from chassis builder Dale Shaw, and the occasional performance boost in crew chief Jeff Laquerre, at least in the first season -- appeared at Donahue's door in 2007, and, as far as my best guess goes, anyway, that's probably when things really began to click. Donahue knocked off a 100-lap open win at Oxford in June and took his first ACT victory in Thunder Road's 200-lap Labor Day Classic in September. The next season, he won back-to-back races at Thunder Road, on Mother's Day and in the ACT race on Memorial Day, then finished in the top-five in points with both the weekly Thunder Road chase and the ACT Late Model Tour. But still, he was never much for the headlines.
Now, this year, Donahue scored a dominating ACT win at White Mountain Motorsports Park, has three ACT runner-up finishes, pulled down a third-place effort in the Oxford 250 after leading some laps, took fifth in the ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, won last week's Milk Bowl, and is about to again finish among the top five in ACT points. And we're finally talking about him. You'll notice that Donahue has won some races, big ones at that, but like was said earlier, he's been winning from the very start. So what's made him a star now? I think the answer might be John Donahue himself.
It's easy to tell that when speaking with the media, Donahue's still not always comfortable being in the spotlight. But he's certainly come a long way from the days of his Tiger championships; Donahue won the Milk Bowl season finale in 2001 to clinch both the track and Tiger 50 titles, and he got out of the car with big smile and a two-fisted "Rocky" salute to the crowd. All well and good for photos, but his victory lane speech -- and I still remember hearing it -- was pretty much void of the content or emotion a race fan might expect to hear from a driver going through so much excitement.
Last Sunday at the Milk Bowl, though, Donahue played it up for the crowd, for the media, for Squier, for the Governor, for everybody. He performed a series of smoky, spinning burnouts while carrying the checkered flag. He dumped Booth Bros. milk down his frontside as he drank from the bowl trophy. He lifted the farm-style milk can above his head as though it was the Stanley Cup. He kissed the cow in victory lane -- on the lips -- twice. He celebrated with his family and team. As a couple of television cameras and a crowd of a half-dozen reporters stuck their microphones in Donahue's face, he flashed a confident smile, answered on-the-spot questions, and even cracked a joke or two. He never backed down from a question, gave honest answers, and even spit a little bit of fire when confronted with another driver's ruffled feathers. At White Mountain in June, his victory lane and post-race radio interviews were well-spoken and entertaining. His confidence with being a publicly prominent sports figure in the region seems to grow after every top-five finish (and he's on a streak of six straight right now).
Travis Barrett of Green-White-Checker asked Donahue on Sunday if he has felt overlooked as a top driver. I asked him a similar question after the Fall Foliage 300 at Airborne last month, speaking in terms of the ACT championship battle. And it seemed as though Donahue didn't really care if he was forgotten or not. "I'm sort of out of the picture," Donahue said at Airborne. "That's okay, make 'em think." And then he rambled on -- yes, rambled -- about how good his car and his team are, and gave this writer more than enough to fill a blog post's worth of space.
If anyone on the track, in the media, or anywhere else -- myself included -- forgot to think about John Donahue in the past, well, we won't now.
He's not the new kid in town. But he's definitely in town.
Three words: Bucktona International Speedway. If you don't know, ask someone who does.
Interesting stuff from the Milk Bowl pit meeting:
--ACT president Tom Curley said that there is "no question" that his series will be invited back to New Hampshire Motor Speedway next year. Ken Squier said the same thing.
--Curley said that the 2010 ACT Late Model Tour schedule is expected to be completed and published by the end of October. The Tour will not return to Kawartha Speedway in Ontario, but will visit "one or two new tracks".
--ACT's announcement that it will continue to sanction the Castrol Series in Canada comes this early, in part, to dispell rumors that the recent Patrick Laperle scandal drove Curley's group away. In fact, Curley said he's going back to Canada in 2010 because he's "pissed off" about the Autodrome St-Eustache incident and wants to continue holding fair races for the teams that have supported him.
--Okay, this wasn't at the pit meeting, but we overheard Curley telling third-place finisher Eric Williams that he is exploring the idea of expanding the Milk Bowl's three segments from 50 laps each to 75 laps, as early as next year. Curley thinks that another 25 laps would help bring back the possibility of the single-digit Milk Bowl win and bring back more excitement to the race. The fact that John Donahue's winning score was 17 points, and other recent winning scores have been as high as 23 points -- a far cry from Brian Hoar's 4-point win in 1998 -- means to Curley that the segments are just too short to produce the kind of racing the Milk Bowl became famous for. With the current ACT rules package, the cars are too equal to allow for three back-to-front drives through traffic. Robbie Crouch was the last driver to win every segment and score a perfect three points... in 1986. And it was a distant nine years ago that Phil Scott and Tracie Bellerose each scored eight points in the race, the most recent single-digit scores.
Speaking of Bellerose, she will be back in competition at Riverside Speedway on Saturday behind the wheel of a Late Model owned by Jane LeBlanc. Bellerose has been out of competition since a 10th-place ACT Late Model Tour finish at Oxford Plains Speedway in October 2007.
And speaking of Oxford, we'll be there on Sunday for the New England Dodge Dealers Fall Spectacular 150 and the ACT Late Model Tour season finale, welcoming a new supporter to Vermont Motorsports Magazine in Burnett Scrap Metals of Williston, Vt. Burnett has been involved in local racing for many years, and fielded a pair of race cars -- Neal Foster's Tiger Sportsman and Keith Fortier's Junkyard Warrior -- at Thunder Road in 2009.
Brian Hoar will try to fend off Scott Payea at Oxford for his sixth ACT championship, and first since 2000. Payea, of course, is looking for his first title, but will have to break his streak of not-so-good luck at Oxford. In ten career ACT starts at Oxford, Payea's got an average finish of just 12th, with a pair of sixth-place runs as his best finishes. He also has two 17ths, a 19th in May of this year, and a 22nd. Payea readily admits that Oxford is his achilles heel, and has been rumored to be building a second chassis for the 2010 season strictly to help improve his Oxford program. It'll be fun to watch, either way.
Rookie Jacob Dore of Sanford, Me. celebrated his first True Value Modified Racing Series win... a day after the race. Dore finished second across the finish line at Twin State Speedway on Sunday, but was named the winner of the Ricky Miller Memorial 112 on Monday after Matt Hirschman was disqualified. Dore, 20, was informed of the ruling as he was doing homework in his dorm room at the University of New Hampshire. Dwight Jarvis of Ascutney was fourth, and his nephew, Joey, finished 19th in a car normally driven by his father, Peter. The TVMRS cars now head to Seekonk Speedway in Massachusetts on Saturday and Sunday for the annual D. Anthony Venditti Memorial Fall Classic event.