-by Justin St. Louis
Not having Eric Williams to watch on the track at the Merchants Bank 150 this weekend is a dose of reality. As the defending winner of the race, the Hyde Park driver certainly would have been considered a contender against the invading American-Canadian Tour teams, and as a controversial driver with a controversial fan base, Williams' character will surely be missed.
Williams' biggest issue in not being able to race this weekend was a lack of time while running the family business and building a Tiger Sportsman car for his son, Tucker, largely in part because he is struggling to find funding for his team and could not afford to take time off work to build his own race car. He realizes he's not the only one, too.
"I'd say that probably 75 percent of the guys running Late Models are going to find a bit of a struggle this year in terms of money," Williams said. "You've got your [Brian] Hoar teams and your other big teams that have enough money to have whatever they need, but the little guys -- and there's a lot of little guys -- are gonna have a hard time this year."
Tunbridge racer Doug Murphy, who stole his own share of headlines last year by running up front with likely the smallest Late Model budget under the ACT umbrella, said his pre-season practice session on April 13 may have been his only appearance of the year.
"I've got old tires and no money," Murphy said, leaning on the only open trailer left in the division. "I lost almost all of my sponsorship over the winter. The only way I was able to show up last year was by picking up my paycheck before I bought my pit pass and using that money to buy gas and two tires."
Murphy's thoroughly battered ride was among the fastest cars at the test two weeks ago, but he says that speed won't matter if there's no sponsorship: "If it comes down to making the choice between putting food on the table for my family and going to Thunder Road, well, there's not much of a choice to make there."
Middlesex veteran Dave Pembroke, who trounced the ACT teams to win both the Memorial Day Classic and Labor Day Classic events at Thunder Road last year, showed up with blank quarterpanels at the April practice and said he doesn't have any sponsorship names to put on them.
Even Milton's Jean-Paul Cyr has admitted that while he hopes to contend for his eighth ACT Late Model Tour championship this year, his schedule will depend solely on cash. "We'd like to run the whole schedule, but it all comes down to money and how we're doing [on the track]," Cyr said. "If we're doing well then we'll figure out how to keep going, but [money] will be tight all year."
A recent Thunder Road press release indicated that "over fifty" Late Model teams are expected to attempt the Merchants Bank 150 on Sunday. Given the anticipation of the season's first race, a growing interest in the touring concept from teams in both the U.S. and Canada, and the enthusiasm of the locally-based regular Thunder Road teams, it's a safe bet that around 50 teams will in fact put on what should be a very competitive event. The official ACT/Thunder Road roster is larger this year than in recent years, and sponsorship appears to be solid across the board, but the stories of local racers like Williams, Murphy, and Pembroke do cause legitimate concern.
A bump from 13 ACT races last year to 14 this doesn't sound like much, but increased travel that includes an extra trip south to Waterford, Conn., a new drive southwest to Albany, N.Y., and the long hike north to Ste-Croix, Qué., could be all that some teams can handle. Thunder Road's weekly Late Model program was stronger last year than in recent seasons, averaging 24 to 26 cars each week, but if the smaller teams begin to start falling off the map then the whole program will be in trouble.
It's great for any series to have marquee drivers like Hoar, Cyr, Joey Polewarczyk, or Brad Leighton, but when racers like Pembroke at Thunder Road, Jeff White at Oxford, or Guy Caron at Twin State begin to worry about money -- the strong local racers that hold their own when ACT is in town -- that's when we all lose.
Keep an eye on the "little guys" this year. We need them now more than ever.
Monday I was walking the dog in shorts and a t-shirt. Wednesday morning I shoveled a foot of snow off my porch. By Friday I'll be back in shorts, and by Sunday night I'll be treating the second- and third-degree burns on my neck because I was too dumb to bring sunscreen to the track. Ah, racing season.
Despite the snow and wetness right now, Thunder Road officials have told VMM that they "don't expect to be roping anything off" in the parking lots this weekend due to mud and standing water.
Joey Polewarczyk might have said it best: "One thing I know about Thunder Road from all my years of going there is that I don't care if the forecast is for 100 percent chance of rain. We're all going to stand there under our umbrellas all day, but we're going to get that race in. Tom Curley and Ken Squier will make sure we get to race. They'll find a way to get it in, even if it takes all day and night."
Temperatures are expected to reach the high 70s and low 80s by this weekend aided by wind and sun, so everything should be good to go for race time.
But still, wouldn't it be kinda neat to see a Junkyard Warrior slide off the top of Turn 1 and into a snowbank?
I'm sorry, were you expecting the Capitals to sweep it in four games? #GoHabsGo
Looking briefly at the national levels, Québec native Derek White, who competed with the Série ACT-Castrol last year, will be racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Kansas Speedway this weekend, while Shelburne's Kevin Lepage will head to Richmond Int'l Raceway with the Nationwide Series.
David Stremme and Vermont's Latitude 43 Motorsports finished 27th in the Sprint Cup Series event at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend despite a mid-race crash, and will look to break back into the top-35 in owner points at Richmond. Stremme's average qualifying position in seven starts at Richmond is a solid 20.6. Latitude 43 ranks 37th in owner points, 162 markers behind 35th-place Front Row Motorsports' #38 car.
We're headed to Barre on Saturday morning for the annual Thunder Road car show and parade, then up to the track for practice. After that, we're taking a trip across the lake to Airborne Speedway for its season opener. Sunday morning, it's back to Thunder Road for the Merchants Bank 150. We're hoping to see y'all there, but make sure to keep an eye on the VMM blog, Twitter feed, and Facebook and YouTube pages for updates throughout the weekend!
Friday, April 30
Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. -- 7:30pm (Season Opener)
Saturday, May 1
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Barre -- 9:00am (Car Show -- Downtown Barre, practice at track at 1:00pm)
Airborne Speedway, Plattsburgh, N.Y. -- 5:00pm (Season Opener -- Modified 50-lap Syracuse qualifier)
Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Malta, N.Y. -- 1:00pm (Open Practice)
Canaan Dirt Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 10:00am (Car Show/Open Practice)
Canaan Fair Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 10:00am (Car Show/Open Practice)
Monadnock Speedway, Winchester, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Season Opener/Modified Racing Series)
Riverside Speedway, Groveton, N.H. -- 2:00pm (Open Practice)
Sunday, May 2
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Barre -- 1:00pm (Car Show -- Downtown Barre, practice at track at 1:00pm)
Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Malta, N.Y. -- 1:00pm (ISMA SuperModifieds)
Big Daddy's Speedbowl, Rumney, N.H. -- 12:00pm (Open Practice)
ACT Late Model Tour: Sun., May 2 -- Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Barre, Vt. (1:00pm)
ISMA SuperModifieds: Sun., May 2 -- Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Malta, N.Y. (1:00pm)
Modified Racing Series: Sat., May 1 -- Monadnock Speedway, Winchester, N.H. (6:00pm)
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Sun., May 2 -- Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kan. (12:30pm)
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Fri., April 30 -- Richmond Int'l Raceway, Richmond, Va. (7:00pm)
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Sat., May 1 -- Richmond Int'l Raceway, Richmond, Va. (7:30pm)
Pro All Stars Series: Sat., May 1 -- Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, Scarborough, Me. (3:00pm)