-by Justin St. Louis
How sweet it was at Thunder Road's Merchants Bank 150 last weekend. Sweet, yes, to be back in Barre at "The Nation's Site of Excitement", and Sweet, too, in victory lane. As in hometown boy Nick Sweet.
The 24 year-old grabbed his first career American-Canadian Tour victory in entertaining fashion, having driven from 12th starting spot to wage a 40-lap battle for the lead with Thunder Road heavyweight Dave Pembroke and Canadian star Patrick Laperle, then holding off defending ACT champion Brian Hoar in the final frames.
We've told parts of this story before, but what a story it is behind Sweet, who has become something of a cult hero in Central Vermont. In 2003, the high school student built a four-cylinder Street Stock and was an immediate contender for wins and championships. Four years later and ascending the local ladder, he was celebrated as the Tiger Sportsman champion and had won races at tracks like Airborne Speedway in New York, Lee USA Speedway in New Hampshire, and the intimidating Sanair Super Speedway tri-oval outside Montreal.
With high-profile backing from Saint J Auto, Sweet tackled the ACT Late Model circuit in 2008, winning Rookie of the Year. He returned to Thunder Road last season to notch his first Late Model win, and ran impressively enough during the year to earn the final starting spot in the inaugural ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He responded in kind with a runner-up finish in front of a NASCAR crowd.
Sunday he etched his name on the ACT win list by beating a few future Hall of Famers. For those that have watched Sweet develop, it seemed like only a matter of time before he broke through.
"He's one of the best to come out of Thunder Road in the Tiger division," said Hoar, a six-time ACT title winner. "He’s a future champion for sure."
"We knew [at Thunder Road] last year that Nick was a great, great driver," said Middlesex racer Pembroke. "It's just no one knew it at this [ACT] level yet."
Sweet, as usual, humbly deflected all praise to his team, noting his father/crew chief, Shayne, "made me look good." He respects the drivers he races against, frequently citing men he beats on the track as his childhood heroes. He has an obvious love for Thunder Road and its fans: "It's my home place in front my home people," he said Sunday. "I'm a native of Barre, Vermont. Winning here is like a dream."
Apparently it was no surprise when Nick Sweet pulled into the ACT winner's circle for the first time last weekend. Therefore, it probably won't be a surprise the next time, either.
We asked ACT and Thunder Road prexy Tom Curley about his thoughts on Nick Sweet's breakthrough. Here is Curley, in his own words:
VMM: "What does it mean for you to have a kid like Nick Sweet win his first ACT race at Thunder Road after having come up through the ladder system there?"
TC: "Well the real interesting thing about Nick Sweet is that he has continually surprised me at every step of the way. I don't ever remember a driver that I have been so wrong about. I knew we had a great talent in the Street Stocks [but] I thought he made his move to Tigers too soon. Wrong!
"As soon as he rolled onto the track I knew I was wrong. He was more dominant in that division in just a couple years than some of the all-time best ever like Cooper [MacRitchie], [John] Donahue, Eric Williams, [Dave] Pembroke, etc. He was doing things that bordered on veteran skills in his first year [but] I thought his move to Late Models was too fast. Wrong!
"I knew I was wrong around the fourth race. The character of the entire team bouncing back from the horrible start, when I privately told myself 'I told you so' proved me wrong again. After the [Oxford] 250 performance, I knew he was going to [the ACT Invitational at] NHMS. I never in my wildest imagination thought he would be the star of Loudon that day, on and off the track.
"I think he is the absolute poster boy for why I have done this business for so long.
"His father [Shayne] is one of the most remarkable men I have ever known in the business. A perfectionist, methodical, very grounded, and deals as well as anyone I have ever known with controversy. As an example, he had quietly geared up pretty much for the now infamous 'bump stop' fiasco early last spring. After our decision to get rid of them for economic reasons, Shayne wrote me a very respectful email about his disappointment, and the expensive costs that had been wasted by the #88 team because of our decision last June. We had one quick telephone conversation and they moved on quietly and without all the usual negative stuff that might have adversely affected his team. I now know why Nick is one of the best young drivers to come out of our system in the past 20 years.
"He was on my short list of recommended 'draft picks' for the annual Speed 51 deal. I was pleased to see him join two others I pitched, Joey [Polewarczyk] and Eddie [MacDonald] who made the list from our neck of the woods.
"Nick has earned instant respect from the veteran champions, handles his success with great humility, and I would say he and his overall team effort from the start until now ranks right up there [as] being one of the most worthwhile rewards I have gotten for 33 years of work."
The first load of asphalt is being put down at Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven as this column is being written. The first practice is Saturday, May 15.
Martin Roy's 2009 championship at Airborne Speedway certainly seems a little bit tainted now, doesn't it?
Roy ran afoul of the DIRTcar rulebook -- specifically, illegally altered cylinder heads -- for the second time in the last two Airborne events on Saturday night. Roy and Modified rival Patrick Dupree were each penalized for the infraction at the 2009 season finale last September, one week after championship points had been finalized. Roy and third-place finisher Richard Tisseur were busted again after Saturday's season opener for similar findings. Ironically, Dupree inherited the Saturday victory after his heads passed inspection.
Airborne officials inspected the parts thoroughly on Saturday night, but sent the heads of all three cars to DIRTcar inspectors, from where the disqualifications come. Any further penalties, including fines, suspensions, etc., will be decided upon by DIRTcar rather than Airborne Speedway.
We've seen Martin Roy race enough times to know that illegal or not, he is one whale of a driver, and the Jean-Claude Fortin team he drives for is as nice and friendly a group of people as you can ask for. But this isn't the 1950s, when Modifieds had no rules. Play with fire, and you're gonna get burned.
Congratulations to Thunder Road veteran George May. May scored the Tiger Sportsman win on opening day, sixteen years after his last victory.
ACT driver Mark Lamberton joked on Saturday that it took him fifteen years to learn how to get around Thunder Road, but only a couple of years away to forget. After a fifth-place finish in the Merchants Bank 150, it's probably okay to guess that he figured it back out in a hurry.
We're trying something new for 2010 by strapping the VMM camera -- a four year-old Olympus FE-340 point-and-shoot that you can find at any electronics store for around $75 -- into some race cars. So far we've done a Tiger Sportsman practice, a Late Model practice, and a Street Stock feature race at Thunder Road, and a Modified heat at Airborne. Not to brag, but in the two races, we've pulled down a win at T-Road with Mike MacAskill and a third at Airborne with Chris Cayea.
We figure it'll be fun until a big ol' glob of clay bounces up and takes the camera out at Bear Ridge some night. Even then, that should be pretty good footage, right?
Make sure to pick up a copy of The Barre-Montpelier (VT) Times Argus each Wednesday to check out the new "Rear View Mirror" column, written by yours truly. You can also read it online at http://www.timesargus.com/.
AROUND THE REGION:
Time to take a look at the top Vermonters from the past weekend...
ACT Late Model Tour: Barre's Nick Sweet took his frist career win at Thunder Road on Sunday, followed by Williston's Brian Hoar in second. Middlesex racer Dave Pembroke was fourth.
Airborne Speedway (Plattsburgh, N.Y.): Lance Rabtoy of Fairfax scored his first career Renegade victory after a race-long battle with Swanton's Kevin Boutin. Whiting's Jimmy Ryan was the top Vermonter in the Modified feature, placing 13th.
Modified Racing Series: Dwight Jarvis of Ascutney won the Bond Auto Spring Dash 100 at Monadnock Speedway on Saturday night in Winchester, N.H. Joey Jarvis of Ascutney was 17th.
Monadnock Speedway (Winchester, N.H.): Nate Kehoe of Windham finished ninth in the Sportsman Modifieds on Saturday, while Dana Shepard of Putney finished eighth in the Super Stock feature. Ludlow's Joe Rogers was tenth in the Mini Stocks.
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Shelburne's Kevin Lepage was 38th at Richmond Int'l Raceway on Friday night.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: David Stremme finished 29th at Richmond Int'l Raceway on Saturday night for Vermont-based Latitude 43 Motorsports. Marshfield native Dave Rogers earned his first career Sprint Cup Series win as crew chief for Kyle Busch.
PASS North Super Late Models: Scott Dragon of Milton finished 11th in Saturday's event at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, Me.
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl (Barre): Barre's George May won the Tiger Sportsman feature over Williamstown's Mike Ziter and Barre's Cody Blake on Sunday. Mike MacAskill of Williamstown won the first Street Stock feature over Graniteville's Travis Hull and Bunker Hodgdon of Hardwick, while West Topsham's Tim Campbell won the second feature over Hardwick's Greg Adams, Jr., and Ron Gabaree of Barre. Ken Christman of Cabot won the first Junkyard Warrior feature over Williamstown's Kevin Hebert and Tommy Elwood of Morrisville, and Williasmtown's Kevin Wheatley won the second race over Barre's Kevin Dodge and Brock Parrott of Williamstown.
Twin State Speedway (Claremont, N.H.): Dallas Trombley of Rutland finished sixth in the Late Model feature on Friday night, while Robert Hagar of Windsor was fifth in the Modified event. Chris Wilk of Mendon won the Super Street feature over Russ Davis of Cavendish, and David Greenslit of Waitsfield won the Strictly Stock feature. Rob Leitch of Cavendish was second in the Wildcat feature, with Jeremiah Losee of North Springfield third.
Friday, May 7
Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Malta, N.Y. -- 6:45pm (Grand Re-Opening)
Canaan Dirt Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 7:00pm (Season Opener)
Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. -- 7:30pm (Regular Event)
Saturday, May 8
Bear Ridge Speedway, Bradford -- 10:00am (Car Show @ Jiffy Mart), 2:00pm (Practice)
Airborne Speedway, Plattsburgh, N.Y. -- 5:00pm (ACT Late Model Tour)
Canaan Fair Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Season Opener)
Monadnock Speedway, Winchester, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Regular Event)
Riverside Speedway, Groveton, N.H. -- 11:00am Car Show, 1:00pm (Open Practice)
Sunday, May 9
Big Daddy's Speedbowl, Rumney, N.H. -- 4:00pm (Grand Opening)
ACT Late Model Tour: Sat., May 8 -- Airborne Speedway, Plattsburgh, N.Y. (5:00pm)
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Fri., May 7 -- Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C. (7:00pm)
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Sat., May 8 -- Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C. (7:30pm)
Pro All Stars Series: Fri., May 7 -- Wake County Speedway, Raleigh, N.C. (7:00pm)