-by Justin St. Louis
I was never a big fan of Eric Williams when I was a kid sitting in the grandstands at Thunder Road. I didn't hate him -- I booed Clem Despault and Dwayne Lanphear a lot more, for some unknown reason -- but I can't remember ever thinking he was "my guy" to cheer for.
He was exciting to watch, that's for sure: Like on the night he pushed someone (maybe Tom Tiller?) totally sideways -- and I'm talking nose-in-the-driver's-door-at-a-90-degree-angle sideways -- for more than a quarter of a lap, or the year he won almost half of the Flying Tiger features from the rear of the field, or all those nights he was black-flagged for whacking someone else for no apparent reason. It was long-known that Williams operated his team on a shoestring budget, hauling his car on an open trailer for longer than almost every other Late Model team. His cars almost never looked show-ready, although they were fast. And his fan club was notoriously loud, sometimes nasty, and always controversial.
As I grew up and eventually became a racer myself, I still watched and marveled at Williams, as he started becoming a constant threat for victory lane, no matter where he went. And the excitement continued: His year-long championship battle with Brian Hoar in 1999 that ultimately came down to Hoar's final-corner pass of Jamie Fisher to win the Milk Bowl and the "King of the Road" title by one point, his razor-close finish in an ACT Late Model Tour race at Canaan Fair Speedway with Dave Pembroke, his opening-day battle with Dale Shaw in 2004, his season-long confrontations with John Donahue the next year. The cars were still ugly and the fan club still cheered.
And in the last few years as I've gotten to know Williams on a bit more of a personal level through work, at least through interviews and whatnot, I've come to this conclusion: Thunder Road International Speedbowl needs Eric Williams. The American-Canadian Tour needs Eric Williams. The northeast is lucky to have him.
When Williams pulls into a race track, he's an immediate darkhorse for the win. He is certainly one of the most feared Late Model drivers at Thunder Road. He's a major threat at White Mountain Motorsports Park. And this year, he certainly stepped up his game on the flatter tracks at Oxford Plains Speedway and Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. Due to his limited budget, Williams missed three of the 13 ACT events on the schedule, and was forced to use each of his finishes to count toward the ACT championship in the "Pick 10" points format. So while Brian Hoar was able to drop his 22nd-place finish at White Mountain, Scott Payea scratched a 19th from Oxford in May, and John Donahue excluded a 20th at Thunder Road, Williams had no choice but to use his 27th-place finish at Twin State and two bad showings at Airborne Speedway. And he still finished seventh in points, better than eight teams that went to every race.
The Eric Williams mystique goes way beyond that, though; he is a true character, and the catalyst for anyone with a dream. Williams owns and operates a small, one-man auto repair shop in his home town of Hyde Park, up in far-from-everything Lamoille County. With the modest income that shop creates, he and wife Lisa tackle the regular chores of owning a home, putting their daughter Lacey through college, and preparing for son Tucker's entry into school next year. Health issues involving Williams' brother and parents have been a recent distraction, and two years ago, a mudslide threatened to wash away the family's home. Tucker, 18, has a race car and is a multi-sport athlete in high school, which, again, takes time and money. It's a snapshot of small-town Vermont working hard to make a living and still have some fun on the side.
And Williams himself is a relic of small-town Vermont. The 46 year-old stands like a piece of rough-cut lumber, and speaks like a guy that might have chopped the tree down. "Thunder Road," he once told me, with the type of native Vermont accent found closer to the Canadian and northern New York borders than to the Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire borders, "is a whole diff'rent breed'a cat. If you can win here, I guess you can prob'ly win anywhere."
He speaks deliberately, which can be funny, even if he's not trying to be funny. Maybe that's the Chittenden County "city boy" in me giggling over the words he says, knowing they're on purpose, although my own accent has thickened of late, and my Vermontisms (I caught myself saying "move it just a frogskin more" the other day) have picked up. Williams looks at you when he talks, and has a piercing gaze in his eyes. He smiles, a little, when he speaks, and it's obvious that even though he's probably tired, he's enjoying himself.
His line following his win at Oxford last week: "I figured as long I didn't do anything mentally challenged I'll be just fine," will forever live in my mind as one of my favorite interview quotes. But he's had some other good ones recently, too.
The 11-second summary of his third-place finish in the Milk Bowl: "We had a piece of crap in the first segment, had a really good car in the second segment but got boxed in, and then the third, the car was so-so but just worked out. Did alright."
At Thunder Road's pre-season practice session in April, speaking about losing his sponsor despite winning the track championship the year before: "I don't race to prove things, I race because I like to race. I'm glad that I had a good year, if that happens to be my last full-time year, you never know. I'd like to think the economy will turn around. If I hang around at least some, maybe something will come along. I certainly ain't saying I'm all done racing, it's just as of right now I don't have the funds to race full-time."
On the possibility that he might race full-time after winning the Merchants Bank 150 season opener at Thunder Road in May: "I can't really comment and give you anything other than baloney right now, I just don't know. To be honest with you, the first thing that crossed my mind was 'Hey, I can go to Airborne now.' I had a good day, I got some money for tires, so we're headed across the lake next Saturday and give that new pavement a whirl."
On how small his team feels compared to those of the high-budget ACT Late Model Tour operations: "We come down here every year to the first big race, we pull in with our little hauler and trailer. Some of these rigs I could park my hauler and truck inside their rig and still have a picnic underneath it, you know? And you stand there and you look around and you almost say, 'Man, what am I doing? This is crazy.'"
Regarding ACT president Tom Curley: "I'd like to finish top-ten in points. We'd get a check anyway, and I wouldn't mind a little bit more of ol' T-Bone's money. It spends nice."
Eric Williams is maybe the hardest racer in the last 20 years at Thunder Road. He fights for every spot, he isn't afraid to move people if he has to, and he works on his own equipment with his own money. His reputation preceeds him, too.
Nick Sweet at White Mountain in June: "I hate seeing that black bumper in my mirror. He's always run me clean, but I still let him go if he wants a spot."
Scott Payea, after rough-housing Williams a little at Thunder Road on the last lap of a Labor Day qualifying heat: "He would have done it to me, too. He has."
John Donahue, after winning the Milk Bowl: "You don't want to piss Eric off, because he gets mad and he don't forget."
No driver creates more controversy at Thunder Road these days than Eric Williams. No driver gets more of a rise -- good or bad -- out of the spectators than Eric Williams. No driver in the ACT ranks gets booed more than Eric Williams. No driver wins big races on a short budget like Eric Williams. And you'd be hard-pressed to find many drivers saying the things Eric Williams says. He might be a hero to only a select group of family and friends wearing red #7 shirts, a villain to everyone else. But he's a wonderful character for the sport.
We need him around.
Still all wound up about that Hart 100 thing. Good lord was that fun. We're contemplating doing the Hangover Enduro thing at Riverside in January on New Year's Day. Guess that means we'd have to go dig the car out of the ditch at Bucktona then, eh? Speaking of which, Riverside has the annual "Frostbite" Enduro on Saturday at 1:30pm, along with the PASS Sportsman Series finale.
There's a pretty large contingent of northern racers headed to Dixie for the PASS South Mason-Dixon Meltdown at South Boston Speedway in Virginia this weekend, including Danville racer Steven Legendre, ACT Rookie of the Year Joey Doiron, and jack-of-all-trades D.J. Shaw. Legendre, we think, is the PASS North Rookie of the Year, but there's been nothing made publicly official about that. Even Legendre said he doesn't know if he won it or not, because PASS isn't saying anything. Either way, he grabbed three top-tens in a dozen starts in his freshman season en route to 11th place overall, and those are better numbers than some of the series' veterans put up. Doiron finished 12th in ACT points with a fourth-place run at Twin State Speedway and an impressive outing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last month, and also had a great PASS effort at Beech Ridge earlier in the year. Shaw had five top-fives in 11 PASS starts this year, and also ran well in select ACT and NASCAR Camping World Series East races.
Peanut butter and jelly on white bread just isn't the same. And for that matter, Smuckers needs to step up its game. Even the Shaw's generic store brand stuff is better.
Ascutney's Dwight Jarvis was the runner-up behind Mike Stefanik in the True Value Modified Racing Series event at Seekonk Speedway last Sunday. What, I say, what does Jarvis have to do to win a race these days? Seekonk was Jarvis' fifth second-place run of the year. I'm guessing when you've won 19 championships in your career like Jarvis has, second place gets old after a while. The TVMRS bunch has one more stop on the schedule at Lee USA Speedway in coastal New Hampshire on Oct. 24/25 before the year is out.
I've come across a bit of a dilemma here, now that racing season is all but over in these parts. I'm not really sure what VMM will be up to in the next few days, weeks, or months, but I'll think of something. And when I do, you'll read about it here. Because there's kinda nowhere else to read it.
But I do want to thank each and every one of the readers to visit this little blog this year. I started a hit counter on April 1st and saw the 50,000th visitor come through last month, not quite six months into the count. I have no idea if that's a good number or not, but it sure sounds like a lot, so thank you for reading. And a huge thank you to the groups that have joined on recently to support us: RPM Racing Engines in Georgia, Vt., Burnett Scrap Metals in Williston, and C&S Screenprinting in Richmond.
The MotorMag hit 48 races this year (55 if you count rainouts), and I'm thinking about getting to one or two more before the calendar changes. I made a lot of friends, ruffled a few feathers, and saw some great racing. I developed a new appreciation for dirt racing, and although I still don't totally understand it, I like it and want to see more of it. There are some plans for VMM for the future, and they'll come along in time.
I want to send a special thank-you to the folks that do this job a lot better than I do, including but certainly not limited to Travis Barrett of Green-White-Checker, Seth Leavitt of WCAX-TV Channel 3, Big Bigelow of the Caledonian-Record, Tom Herzig of the Times Argus and the Union Leader, Mike Twist of Speed51.com, T.J. Michaels of Frank 107.1 FM, Lee Kittell of WDEV Radio Vermont, and Phil Whipple of the Lewiston (Me.) Sun Journal.
A HUGE thanks to photographers Leif Tillotson and Alan Ward for their help this year, and also to Jamie Williams.
Thanks to Pete Hartt for being there. Anna Grearson, too.
Thanks to my old man, Ron, and my friends Eddy and Jeff Companion for helping out with a few things this summer, and to both Gene Gagnes (Lil and Big) for sharing a tank of gas here and there.
Thanks to John O. Casey, Dave Moody, Cho Lee, the legends of Thunder Road, the staff at Queen City Printers, and the fans that have so enthusiastically supported "Fifty Years of Excitement".
I would be forgetting myself if I didn't thank the promoters and staff at the following tracks and series for their help, cooperation, and belief that VMM is worthwhile to them: Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Bear Ridge Speedway, Airborne Speedway, Northeastern Speedway, White Mountain Motorsports Park, Oxford Plains Speedway, Fred Neergaard and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Twin State Speedway, Riverside Speedway, Canaan Fair Speedway, the American-Canadian Tour, the True Value Modified Racing Series, and the Sprint Cars of New England.
Thanks to the drivers and teams for letting me get in their faces all year, and for not punching my lights out when they probably wanted to a couple times. (I'll probably have to thank them for that a few times over the years.)
But most of all, again, thank YOU, the readers of Vermont Motorsports Magazine. I've had comments and emails come in from everywhere all year thanking me for the stuff I've written. Folks, don't thank me, thank the drivers and the promoters for making all this happen. All I do is write down what they say and give you a place to read it. I can't tell you how flattered I am to hear someone at Thunder Road or Bear Ridge tell me that they read VMM "two or three times a day" -- say nothing of the folks that say it that are from New Hampshire or New York or Maine -- even a racer from Rhode Island once this summer!
The first year was rocky at times, but I feel like it was a positive one, overall. Here's hoping the next one or two or 17 will be even better.
Thank you, everyone, and winter well.