SOUTH BURLINGTON -- Jerry Gappens is a believer, in the American-Canadian Tour and in its fiery figurehead, Tom Curley.
The New Hampshire Motor Speedway Executive Vice President was presented with ACT's prestigious Don MacTavish Award on Saturday night at the annual Banquet of Champions, but his affinity for the series has roots much deeper than just being given a trophy.
Gappens took a chance on Curley's series at a meeting in 2008, agreeing to host the first-ever ACT Invitational on Sylvania 300 weekend in Septmeber 2009 -- the kickoff event of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Cup -- and seems happy to have done so; grandstand attendance for the Saturday program at NHMS was around 40,000, up significantly from prior years, thanks in part to the Invitational. But his affinity for ACT is even deeper than just increased ticket sales.
In fact, Gappens is a short tracker. Growing up in Indiana, he raced dirt track Sprint Cars in high school and attended local races with his father as a boy. Gappens may be in charge of a high-profile superspeedway in the national spotlight, but he still takes time to appreciate where he came from. He's been to Thunder Road to watch the Milk Bowl, he's been to Lee USA Speedway, a weekly Friday-night track not far from NHMS, and he keeps tabs on who's doing what in the local circuits. In the middle of the interview for this story on Saturday night, he went out of his way to introduce himself to one of ACT's young stars, and called him by name.
Gappens knows how vital ACT and its band of grassroots racers have become to the success of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and he knows that's a two-way street.
"I think it's very important. We saw in September that our attendance was up over the previous three or four years by having ACT there, and I give them all the credit for increasing the crowd," he said. "The economy has been down, ticket sales have been down, but that [Invitational] gave us the shot in the arm to help us have a great crowd on Saturday."
A strategic promotional move by Curley and Gappens was to make each ACT race in the U.S. and Canada in 2009 an ACT Invitational qualifying event, thereby making the September weekend at New Hampshire the focal point of every race from April to mid-September.
"One of the reasons we wanted to do the partnership with ACT was that they're out there racing every weekend throughout New England, up into Canada, and that Invitational format gave us a chance to promote New Hampshire Motor Speedway and our September weekend at all the ACT events," said Gappens. "It was really beneficial for both of us. It gave the participants of ACT a venue for really a Super Bowl-type atmosphere, a chance to run in front of NASCAR car owners and drivers, and it helped us promote our event. It was a win-win situation for both parties."
New Hampshire Motor Speedway has invited Curley and ACT back for another go in September 2010. "It's still going to be an invitational, [but] I think there will be a day you'll see it be an actual points race on the calendar," Gappens said. "Right now Tom says let's do another year as an invitational, and I think that's good, I trust his guidance on what's best for the tour."
The 50-lap, 36-car ACT Invitational race, which featured several lead changes and competitive side-by-side racing, immediately followed a decidely lackluster 200-lap NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event as the sun began to set on September 19. Gappens says that he jokingly thanked NASCAR President Mike Helton in the pressbox that day for putting on the "lead-up event" to the ACT race, which proved to be the best show of the day. As it turned out, Helton and NASCAR were paying attention.
"[ACT is] definitely coming back," Gappens is quick to say. "We're working with NASCAR, and one of the things I'm talking about is shortening the truck race from 200 laps to 150 laps, just to make sure that we have more time for the ACT race on Saturday afternoon. They're actually pretty receptive to it, so I think we'll get that accomplished."
Curley had a dream to bring his series of local short track racers to the biggest stage in the northeast, and Gappens took a chance on it. And so far, it seems, everybody is a winner.
(PHOTO: Tom Curley (left) and Jerry Gappens are working together to benefit both ACT and NHMS. Leif Tillotson photo)