WEEKLY LMS NUMBER NOT ADDING UP

BY DAVE MOODY WITH PERMISSION FROM TIMES ARGUS

A year ago, making the starting field for a Late Model Sportsman race at Barre's Thunder Road was the racing equivalent of breaking into Fort Knox. Car counts in the track's lead division routinely topped 30, with 50 or more entries for ACT Dodge Tour events at the track.

Now, however, LMS drivers are arriving at the speedway with a qualified spot effectively in hand, as track officials grapple with less-then-full fields. Three weeks ago, 23 cars turned out for an advertised 24-car LMS field. Just 20 LMS drivers took the green flag the following week, with 23 poised for action prior to last week's rainout.

Why the sudden dearth of Late Model Sportsman entries? Is the decision in trouble? And if so, what can be done to resurrect it?

The problem is clear. Weekly purse- at Thunder Road and its New York counterpart, Airborne Raceway - pale in comparison to those on the traveling ACT Dodge Tour. A weekly Thunder Road Late Model event pays $4,430 - not counting qualifying heats and semi-features - while ACT Dodge Tour purses range from $10,500 to $16,500, depending on event. In addition, Thunder Road will pay out $14,700 in weekly point fund monies at the end of the 2001 season, compared to $56,350 point fund on the Dodge Tour.

Some drivers - including many with limited financial resources - apparently think the best way to maximize their investment is to race where the payoff is best: on the ACT Dodge Tour. Unfortunately, the odds of qualifying for an ACT race are considerably lower. An average of 43 cars has attempted to qualify for each of the seven tour races this season, meaning that 40 percent of the field fails to make the cut each week. As a rule, it's the drivers who need the track time and experience the most who end up on the trailer in these instances, foregoing a full weekly race program at Thunder Road or Airborne in favor of only a heat race, consolation and B-feature on the ACT Dodge Tour.

Take a look at the B-feature finishes for this season's tour events, and you'll see a pattern. The field generally includes two or three top runners who have experienced problems in qualifying, along with a large number of inexperienced, low-budget teams. The top runners qualify for the main event, while the vast majority of the their less-experienced counterparts flounder in the back, often ending up on the business end of a wrecker.

That's a tough way to get experience.

With the 2001 season nearly complete, perhaps it's time for some of these less-experienced drivers to reexamine their thinking.  Rather than comparing Thunder Road's weekly purse to those on the Tour, maybe it's time to start comparing apples to apples.  Simply put, a Dodge Tour B-Feature - the purse these drivers are running for most nights - pays $2,860, considerably less than a Thursday night show at Thunder Road.  It also provides far less opportunity for improvement.

This is not the first time a tour has adversely impacted car counts at the local level.  In the late 1970s, the fledgling NASCAR North Tour took the top drivers of the day - the Dragon Brothers, Robbie Crouch, Dave Dion, Hector Leclair - on the road for the first time.  Thunder Road and Milton's Catamount Stadium attempted to fill the void with a sort of "Tour Light" weekly program, featuring lesser-known drivers like Randy Corey and Dan Perez.  Despite the best efforts of the promoters, however, fans did not warm to the new names.  The bemoaned the comparative lack of star power at the weekly tracks, and eventually, stopped supporting the shows.  In the end, Catamount eliminated weekly racing altogether, while Thunder Road soldiered on with an upgraded Flying Tiger class.

To many veteran observers, this writer included, the present situation in identical.

In announcing the expanded 2001 Dodge Tour Schedule, ACT President Tom Curley stressed that he would not allow the tour to adversely impact his weekly tracks.  "If people stop supporting the weekly events to concentrate on the tour, I will absolutely pull the plug on the tour," he said.  "The weekly events are the foundation we have built this series on, and I will not allow it to be undermined."

It appears that Curley's worst fears have been realized.  Now, what does he do it?

Obviously, pulling the plug on the highly successful Dodge Tour is not an option.  The answer, it appears, is to somehow divert a number of "tour only" drivers back to the weekly wars, both for their own good and the good of the series.  Thursday nights at Thunder Road - and Saturdays at Airborne - are the roots of the ACT tree, and a tree without roots cannot stand for long.

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Richard Childress has a lot on his mind right now.  Childress has two Winston Cup teams under his wing - Kevin Harvick's Goodwrench Chevrolet and the Lowe's Home Improvement Chevy of Mike Skinner - but only one (Harvick) is producing the kind of finishes people expect from a seven-time Winston Cup champion car owner.  In addition, the North Carolina native has announced plans to field a third Cup team in 2002, sponsored by internet giant America Online.  As yet, he has not announced a driver. 

As a result, Childress has become the number-one topic for the NASCAR rumor mill.

Officials of Lowe's Home Improvement Centers are openly pressuring Childress to dump former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Mike Skinner, who has been less-than-impressive in his stint at RCR.  Sources close to the team say cost is not an issue, as Lowe's desperately wants someone to rival Tony Stewarts's success in the rival Home Depot car.  Another former Truck Series champion, Greg Biffle, has reportedly toured Childress' shop in recent weeks, despite being under contract to rival car owner Jack Roush.  Biffle told this writer last week that "you can take my name out of the rumor mill," but insiders say he is still a strong candidate for either the AOL or Lowe's ride.  In addition, fellow Roush Racing driver Jeff Burton is rumored to have been offered a five-year contract to drive the Lowe's car next season.

Roush Racing President Geoff Smith said last week that his drivers are all solidly under contract for the next season and beyond, but recent developments in Winston Cup racing have proven that contracts can easily be bought out, or simply torn up, provided the right amount of money is involved. 

While refusing to comment on his efforts to recruit new drivers, Childress admitted last week that he has a lot of decisions to make before Aug. 1, his self-imposed deadline for having all three of his Winston Cup teams ramped-up for 2002.

"We've got a lot of balls in the air and they all have to come together by the first of August.  We've got two or three plans in place," said Childress, adding that things could begin happening quickly, depending on what driver(s) agree to come aboard.

In a related story, Childress said he would prefer to retire Dale Earnhardt's famous No. 3 next season, but needs NASCAR's approval to do it.

"I'll be able to say what we're going to do after more discussions with NASCAR," he said.  "I feel that retiring the number is the way to go.  We'll just have to see if NASCAR says we can do it."

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In addition to trying to fight off other marauding car owners, Jack Roush has got some personnel problems of his own.  Truck Series drivers Chuck Hossfeld and Nathan Haseleu, winners of Roush Racing's Craftsman Truck "gong show" auditions last summer, were gonged themselves last weekend at Memphis, replaced by young Jon Wood and returning former champion Greg Biffle.  Publicly, team spokespersons say they are not dissatisfied with the performance of the two rookies, and brought in Wood and Biffle to "evaluate variables in the program."  Behind the scenes, however, sources say Roush is unhappy with his team's apparently instantaneous decline from 2000 championship contenders to 2001 backmarkers.

"There's no way these teams turned to junk overnight," said one team member, on the condition of anonymity.  "Bifle took a truck that had been struggling and nearly won the race at Memphis.  You're probably going to see some changes made." 

For now, however, decisions on who will drive the Roush trucks will be made on a race-by-race basis.

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Short (Track) Subjects...

...The Pro All Stars Series has cancelled its July 7 event at the Circuit St. Croix in Quebec.  According to Series President Tom Mayberry, "We have faced a number of weather-related challenges this spring, including two rain-outs of our first White Mountain Motorsports Park event.  Adhering to our present schedule would require our teams to compete in three events (in) eight days, and we felt this was too much to ask"

Mayberry said PASS will "make every effort" to reschedule the St. Croix date. 

...Shawna Robinson, the first woman to compete on the Winston Cup circuit in more than a decade, may be getting a hot new sponsor for next season.  Sources say lingerie giant Victoria's Secret is the leading candidate to back Robinson next season.  Looking forward to seeing those autograph cards!

...Independence Day is next Wednesday, meaning there's no shortage of holiday race programs on the docket in the coming few days.  Tonight, Thunder Road attempts to shake off last week's rain showers with the Green Mountain Offices Machines "Flying Tiger 50" Series program, with LMS, Tigers and Street Stocks, set to roll at 7 p.m.

Tomorrow night, the Canaan, N.H., dirt track hosts the first of two holiday week events, with a full card of events for all four weekly divisions, plus the Granite State Mini-Sprints.

Saturday night at 7, Coca-Cola presents the rained-out McDonald's Late Model 50-lap special at Plattsburgh's Airborne Raceway, plus Flying Tigers, Street Stock and Renegades.  Bear Ridge Speedway is also in action, with H.O. Taylor Chevrolet Night, featuring the 358 Modifieds, Sportsman Coupes, Pro-Street Stocks and Fast Fours, a show-closing 60-lap Enduro, and fireworks.  Racing begins at 6:30 p.m. Riverside Speedway in Groveton, N.H., hosts double features for its three regular divisions Saturday, though the first round of features will be open only to competitors who were in attendance for last Saturday's rainout.  Those events will be followed by the regular program, headlined by Round One in the Coca-Cola Triple Crown Series for the Riverside Sportsman (Flying Tiger) cars, plus Cyclones, Strictly Stocks, and Dwarf Cars.  Show time is 7:05 p.m.

Tuesday, Thunder Road Celebrates the Fourth of July a day early, with a full card of events for all three divisions, plus fireworks, sponsored by Coca-Cola.  Canaan's annual holiday program also rolls Tuesday night, headlined by a Twin State Modified Series 40-lapper and a fireworks display.