-by Justin St. Louis
Bradford's Bear Ridge Speedway -- the "Home of the Coupes" -- is certainly the best-kept secret in Vermont racing. It also might be the home of some of the best drivers in Vermont. Look at these numbers: Chris Donnelly, despite running a partial schedule in the track's headline Sportsman Modified division, won six features in 2009, double the count of track champion Gary Siemons. Josh Harrington was an eight-time winner in the Sportsman Coupes, and Andy Johnson won a half-dozen Fast Four races.
But the most shocking numbers were posted by Limited Late Model champion Dan Eastman and Hornet champion Tom Placey. They each won 11 times -- yes, eleven -- in 17 weeks of competition at Bear Ridge. And Eastman missed two races, bringing his win average to a staggering 73 percent.
Now, are there flaws in making a statement that Bear Ridge has the most talent of Vermont's three tracks? Of course. First of all, there's no pure way to compare the high-banked, asphalt quarter-mile at Thunder Road to the flat, lightning-fast, clay half-mile at Devil's Bowl Speedway or the tiny, clay quarter-mile at Bear Ridge. The tracks are all extremely different from each other. Second, the car counts are vastly different at each track; Thunder Road will easily have 2:1 the numbers that Devil's Bowl has, and 3:1 the count at Bear Ridge on any given night. That's a fact. Third, opinions being what they are, well, anything is possible.
But as car counts grew on a weekly basis at Bear Ridge, the same guys kept winning. Example: On opening night at Bear Ridge, Eastman won a five-car feature. He also won one with 14 cars just past the middle point of the season. And for most of the year, he had Jeremy Hodge, Shane Race, and Will Hull chasing him down. Race won three of the features Eastman didn't, and Hull was strong enough to beat Eastman for the championship at Canaan Speedway this year.
Another example: In the first six weeks of racing at Bear Ridge, Modified car counts hovered between eight and twelve, and Donnelly was winning. At the season finale, 25 cars took to the track, and Donnelly was still the winner.
Siemons, who won his third-straight Bear Ridge Speedway title in the Modifieds, was also extremely consistent, reeling off an incredible amount of podium finishes. Were it not for a scary mid-season flip that left Siemons scrambling for a week or two, he might have had another win or two. Wayne Stearns, who challenged Siemons for the title all year despite missing several events, is a very talented racer, and took three victories. Two-time winner Ryan Avery has shown signs that, with equal equipment, he could run with the best of them.
And Placey never saw a field smaller than a dozen cars in the Hornet class, winning six-straight feature from June 29 to August 8.
Now, we very much realize that respect is due Kenny Tremont, Jr., who won six features and the 358-Modified championship at Devil's Bowl, and to Jean-Paul Cyr, who won the Thunder Road Late Model championship in his first try. There is also much to be said about racers like Todd Stone, Vince Quenneville, Jr., Frank Hoard, III, Bill Duprey, and Mike Clark at Devil's Bowl, and Cris Michaud, Dave Pembroke, Phil Scott, Jimmy Hebert, and Pete Ainsworth at Thunder Road. But for our money, Bear Ridge Speedway has a talent pool as rich as any track around.
Anyone who thinks Brooks Clark isn't going to win a race next season is daffy. The Fayston driver won the "most improved" award for Thunder Road's Late Model division last year, and, at least in the court of public opinion, he's on the short list of those to win this year's trophy, too. Clark finished in the top-ten five times in 2009, including a surprising fifth in the 100-lap regular season finale, and snuck his way into a ninth-place finish in the championship.
Clark is in a group of young local racers with a solid future in the sport, alongside Craig Bushey, Chip Grenier, Grant Folsom, and Milk Bowl polesitter Nick Sweet. He began a few years ago in a second-rate car at Riverside Speedway as a teammate to Owen Wimble, father of Clark's girlfriend and spotter, Lacey. He and his family team moved to the weekly Thunder Road trail in 2007 to gain more experience and become stronger. The move is starting to pay off.
"Just to see how much we've improved from when we started [racing at Thunder Road] to now, it's unbelievable," Clark says. "We're just having fun doing it now."
Clark has been strong enough on occasion to hold his own against the likes of champions Jean-Paul Cyr, Phil Scott, Cris Michaud, Dave Pembroke, and Jamie Fisher. In the 100-lap race on August 27th, he finished between Michaud and seven-time Late Model winner Rich Lowrey, and was moving forward as the race ended.
"Following them around every week gives me more experience and makes me better as a driver, I think," said Clark. "You watch what they do and try to follow in their footsteps. We just try to improve as we can. To be able to run up there with those guys, it's pretty cool."
Cris Michaud says that with a little rest and healing time, he'll be back to normal. In fact, he said he hopes to be at Thunder Road on Sunday to watch the races. Michaud fell off a ladder at work this week, fracturing a vertebra in his back as he landed. His doctors told him there shouldn't be any risk of complications or further injury, so long as he stays out of the race car and off the jobsite for about a month.
Chad Wheeler, who retired after becoming the 2006 "King of the Road", will race in place of Michaud at the Milk Bowl on Sunday.
It's freaking hockey season, dude, and Les Habitants are already les vainqueurs! The Montréal Canadiens opened the 2009-2010 NHL season Thursday night with a big OT win over the hated Toronto Maple Leafs.
Travis Moen scored in the second period and had two fighting majors, so what more do you need out of a guy? And Carey Price with 43 saves? Woo! Although I'm saddened that the racing season is pretty near done, at least I have the Habs to keep me fired up through the off-season. Olé, olé, olé, olé!
Speaking of the Canadiens, defenseman Patrice Brisebois has retired after 18 seasons and over 1,000 NHL games. He was a huge contributor to Montréal, but he gets a free pass from VMM for calling it quits. Why? Because he's becoming a stock car racer.
Brisebois ran a pair of NASCAR Canadian Tire Series races in 2009, finishing 17th and 12th on the road courses at Trois-Rivières and Montréal, respectively.
"I'm going to try and go as far as I can in auto racing," Brisebois told the Associated Press last week. "I'd love to be able to move on to the (NASCAR) Nationwide or Sprint [Cup] series, but it's going to be very tough. Another dream of mine would be to do the 24 Hours of Le Mans."
You go get 'em, Pat.
AROUND THE REGION:
Time to take a look at the top Vermonters from the past weekend...
Bear Ridge Speedway (Bradford): Chris Donnelly of Piermont, N.H. won his sixth Sportsman Modified feature of the season in Saturday's season finale. Gary Siemons of Orford, N.H. clinched his third track championship with a runner-up finish. Kevin Chaffee of Orange was third with Middlebury's Justin Comes fourth and Jeremy Huntoon of Bradford fifth. Rookie Jason Horniak of Bradford took his third Sportsman Coupe win of the year, over Topsham's Melvin Pierson, Bryan King of Corinth, Ritchie Simmons of Bradford, and champion Josh Harrington of Topsham. Jason Giguere of Enfield, N.H. won the Limited Late Model feature over Bradford's Arnie Stygles, Shane Race of South Strafford, Robert Tucker of East Corinth, and Jason Blake of Waitsfield. Josh Sunn of White River Junction won the Fast Four feature over champion Andy Johnson of Wilder, Steve Bell and Kevin Harran of St. Johnsbury, and Tim Hodge of Vershire. Bradford's Tom Placey wrapped up the Hornet title with his 11th win of the year over Mike Ryan of Chelsea, Charlie Lakin of Groton, Bobby Bell of St. Johnsbury, and Mike Chapin of Chelsea.
Monadnock Speedway (Winchester, N.H.): Josh King of Vernon finished ninth in Saturday's Super Stock feature, with Dana Shepard of Putney tenth. Joe Rogers of Ludlow was 12th in the Mini Stocks with Brattleboro's Travis Grover 23rd. Vernon's Heath Renaud finished second in the four-cylinder Enduro with Ascutney's Tyler Lescord third, and Dick Houle of West Brattleboro was the division champion.
NASCAR Camping World Series East: Ryan Moffitt of Grimes, Ia. won Friday's Sunoco 150 at Dover Int'l Speedway in Dover, Del., with Barney McRae of Milton 18th. Rookie Ryan Truex of Mayetta, N.J. was named the champion.
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl (Barre): Nick Sweet of Barre won the Booth Bros./H.P. Hood Pole Position for the 47th Annual Chittenden Milk Bowl on Saturday, with Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. of Hudson, N.H. taking the outside of the front row. Dave Pembroke of Middlesex, John Donahue of Graniteville, and Joey Laquerre of East Montpelier won the "Triple 50" qualifying heats, and Quinny Welch of Lancaster, N.H. won the last-chance "B" feature. The Milk Bowl main event was postponed on Sunday by rain.
Friday, Oct. 2
Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. -- 7:00pm (Enduro)
Saturday, Oct. 3
Riverside Speedway, Groveton, N.H. -- 5:00pm (Championship Night)
Twin State Speedway -- CANCELLED
White Mountain Motorsports Park -- CANCELLED
Sunday, Oct. 4
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Barre -- 1:00pm (Final Event -- Chittenden Bank Milk Bowl)
Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. -- 2:00pm (True Value Modified Racing Series)
White Mountain Motorsports Park -- CANCELLED
LOCAL TOURING SERIES:
True Value Modified Racing Series: Sun., Oct. 4 -- Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. (2:00pm)