Start Your Engines: 2002 Dodge Tour Debuts Next Sunday

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

It’s been a long, cold winter, and spring’s been even worse. But with a little help from Mother Nature, the 2002 ACT Dodge Tour is set to kick off next Sunday at New Hampshire’s Star Speedway. And while ACT’s old guard - defending series champion Pete Fecteau, Thunder Road champion Cris Michaud, and Airborne king Mark Lamberton, to name just a few - look to start their season’s with an Opening Day win, a number of new faces will give the 2002 edition of the Dodge Tour a new look.

“I expect as many as a dozen new teams at Star next weekend,” said ACT President Tom Curley this week. “In the past, the Tour has been like a Thunder Road/Airborne `good old boys club,’ but now, we’re getting a lot of interest out of New Hampshire, Maine, and even southern New England. There’ll be some news faces, for sure.”

And with those new faces come new procedures designed to give new drivers - or even part-time competitors - a better shot at ACT success. For many years, the ACT Dodge Tour has determined its qualifying and main event starting lineups by handicap. Less-experienced drivers start up front, high-point drivers begin further back, with newcomers and part-time racers relegated to the rear of the field. It was a system designed to protect series regulars, and according to Curley, it’s a system that has outlived its usefulness.

“On the old ACT (Pro Stock) Tour, we had 12-15 regular teams, and Milt Wright started on the pole every week for seven years,” recalled Curley. “The system worked back then, but today, we need to find a way to give outsiders more of a fair shake. Take a guy like (former NASCAR Busch North Series driver) Herb Drugg or (New Hampshire Pro Stock driver) Bobby Webber. They want to run the full ACT Dodge Tour this year, but under the old system, they’d be starting at least the first three races of the season in the back of the pack. You can’t ask guys to start the year with that kind of a disadvantage.”

As a result, the 2002 ACT Dodge Tour rules call for drivers to take part in a blind draw for starting positions in the heat races, giving Tour regulars and newcomers alike an equal chance to start in the front of the pack. Once qualifying is complete, however, the main event lineups will be handicapped in the customary ACT fashion, giving full-time Tour supporters an advantage.

“We met with the Late Model teams for more than three hours last Thursday night,” said Curley, “and they all seemed to be in favor of the new rule, or at least resigned to it. They realize that if we’re going to attract new talent to this series, we have to give them at least a fighting chance to succeed.”

Another byproduct of last week’s meeting was a new procedure governing tires.

“We’ve been trying to police tires for five or six years now, with varying degrees of success,” said Curley. “We had the problem under control for a while, but with the success of the spec engine program, teams naturally have begun looking at tires once again as one of the biggest variables to their performance. They’ve figured out that throwing new tires on the car make a difference, and there are also a few guys out there who continue to alter (soak) tires in an attempt to cheat the system.”

While Curley did not reveal the exact specifics of the new rule, sources say teams running among the top 30 in points will be required - not allowed, but required - to purchase four new tires at each ACT Dodge Tour stop, eliminating the opportunity to soak tires. Those four tires must be run in qualifying and the race itself. Should one or more tires become damaged, used tires will be allowed, provided they pass stringent guidelines. Teams outside the top 30 will reportedly not be required to purchase tires at each event.

While requiring teams to buy new tires at each race might initially seem like an unworkable expense, it is, in fact, a cost-saving measure. In recent seasons, virtually every team has purchased a minimum of four new tires per event, with many buying six or even eight new sneakers. After consulting with teams last week, Curley said he is confident the new rule will shave 20-30% off a team’s annual tire bill.

“Last year, the average tire bill for the year was somewhere in the $11,000 to $12,000 range,” he said. “This year, it should be closer to $8,000, and that’s a significant savings.”

Post time for next Sunday’s race is set for 2 p.m., with same-day coverage on the ACT Radio Network slated for 5:00. You can hear the race on WDEV FM 96.1 in Warren, WDEV AM 550 in Waterbury, WKDR AM 1390 in Burlington, and WWSR AM 1420 in St. Albans.

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Former Airborne Raceway Late Model champion Mike Bruno returns to the ACT Dodge Tour wars full time next Sunday at Star, but this time around, it’s more than just a step on the ladder.

A former 358 Modified champion on both the DIRT and CVRA circuits, Bruno was a major force on the ACT Tour from 1996 to 1999, winning the Airborne Raceway track title, as well as his first career ACT Dodge Tour feature. Just as his team began to jell, however, he elected to take another step up the motorsports ladder, trying his hand on NASCAR’s Busch North Series. His first season of NASCAR racing earned him Busch North "Rookie Of The Year" honors, along with a top-10 points standing at the halfway point of the season. Unfortunately, the financial realities of running with the Busch North big dogs set in soon after, and Bruno’s effort fizzled down the stretch.

"We had a great first 10 races,” he recalled. “We were 10th in points 10 races into the season, but that's when you first start to notice the financial end of it. When you're running on a limited budget, it gets difficult to keep pace. It takes big bucks to replenish worn or wrecked equipment.”

After racing sporadically down the stretch, Bruno spent most of the 2001 campaign as a spectator, selling off his equipment to pay off racing debts. Late in the year, he fielded a new ACT-legal Chevrolet, and picked up right where he had left off, collecting a pair of top-five finishes in the final two races of 2001. Now, the second-generation racer said the events of the past two years have given him a new outlook on his career, and the sport in general.

“The past two seasons made me realize that I really love racing, and that this is what I want to do,” he said. “But you’ve also got to pay the bills when they are due. You have to race within your means. You can't race Winston Cup if you've got a Street Stock budget, and I think a lot of guys try to do that.

“That's not Mike Bruno,” said the Bomoseen native. “I want to run for championships, and I want to win races. I want to race in a division that I can be competitive in, and that's why I am running a full ACT Tour schedule this year."

Despite his previous success in the ACT ranks, Bruno said he is "not setting any lofty goals. I have run ACT before, but I’ve got some new guys - young guys -- helping me this year, and I am building a foundation for the next few years. If we can finish in the top five at the end of the season and win some races, I'd be happy with that."

Bruno’s new team is not all new, however. His 2002 effort will be backed by former New York modified champion Dick Nephew, whose restaurant, Cricket’s Restaurant in Peru, will serve as major sponsor. And while the former dirt track star has not completely abandoned his goal of racing on the Busch North Tour, he said he is looking forward to a return to his short track roots.

“People think there are bigger and better things out there, but they don't always realize what they have right close to home. ACT is for local short track racing -- Saturday night-style racing - and I don't think you can get any better bang for your buck. (Racing on the ACT Tour) brings back the family feeling I had when my father was alive,” said Bruno, who along with wife Alayne, welcomed new daughter Austin last August. “It’s what we enjoy the most, and I want to get back to that."

“I can control my own destiny (on the ACT Tour),” he said. “If I want to race Thursday nights, I can race Thursday nights. It’s not life and death anymore. I’m here to have fun.”

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…Despite reports to the contrary, NASCAR spokeswoman Danielle Humphrey said the sanctioning body will not re-evaluate Steve Park to determine his readiness to drive on the Winston Cup Series. As reported here last week, Park’s return from head injuries suffered last September has been a rocky one, prompting reports that NASCAR would re-examine the New York driver to determine if he had come back too soon.

Humphrey said Park's doctors have cleared him to race, and that no further action by NASCAR is forthcoming.

…Say goodbye to Haas-Carter Motorsports. Left without a sponsor when Kmart filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, team owner Travis Carter announced last week that his team has ceased operations. The move effectively parks Joe Nemechek’s #26 Fords, alongside those of teammate Todd Bodine, which were sidelined following the season’s third event at Las Vegas.

“The timing could not have been worse to find a replacement (sponsor),” said a statement from the team. “It is with great sadness that Haas-Carter Motorsports releases its drivers and team members to pursue other Winston Cup opportunities.”

"I¹m not quitting," said a defiant Carter last week. "Just because Haas-Carter Motorsports has closed its doors, does not mean that I intend to leave NASCAR. I¹ve been in this sport for more than 30 years, and racing is what I do. I still have a lot of work to do here, and my main focus is to pursue sponsors and fight to survive. I¹ll work on deals that may reopen the doors in a few months, or that may allow us to race in 2003.

“Emotionally, this has been a tough load to carry," admitted Carter. "But through all of this, I¹ve had a lot of support from quality people in the racing community. I can¹t thank them enough for all that they¹ve said or done for me and this team."

…New NASCAR Busch North Series Director Lee Roy continues to round out his roster of 2002 officials, with the recent addition of two familiar names. Andy Mitchell of West Burke has been named Technical Director for the series, while Burlington’s John Hulburd will serve as Race Director.

Mitchell is a former BNS car owner and crew chief, most recently turning wrenches for Vermont veteran Bobby Dragon. Hulburd served as Assistant Starter on the old ACT Pro Stock Tour for many years, and has also served stints as race director, chief starter, technical inspector, and pit steward.

The Busch North Series kicks off on Sunday, April 21, at Lee USA Speedway in Lee, N.H.

…NASCAR giveth, and NASCAR taketh away. At Daytona in February, NASCAR International attempted to make the Ford Taurus more competitive with Chevrolet, Pontiac and Dodge by allowing Ford teams to shave ¼ inch off their rear spoilers. Now, however, NASCAR has rescinded the rule, putting that ¼ inch back on the Fords for this month’s Talladega 500.

Not surprisingly, the Ford teams are not amused. Jack Roush, who fields a four-car Winston Cup team for drivers Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, says that he and his fellow blue oval troops will suffer from the change.

"I'm unhappy with it,” said Roush this week. “I think the Fords will be at a disadvantage in both qualifying and the race. You really want to go in with the assurance that…every manufacturer has a chance to win, but this change will not be in the interest of making the race more competitive.“

Roush also rapped what he sees as a long series of rules adjustments by NASCAR, saying they have kept the Winston Cup garage in a perpetual state of turmoil. In his words, ”these continuous changes (are) fertile ground for contradiction, debate and the continued unhappiness of the competitors."

…Robby Gordon will attempt to pull a Memorial Day weekend doubleheader this season, competing in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowes Motor Speedway. It would be the third time that Gordon has attempted the double-dip. Tony Stewart, who ran both races last year, has not announced whether he will attempt the feat again in 2002. Sources close to his Joe Gibbs Racing Team tell SpeedReading, however, that Stewart will not race at Indy this season, preferring instead to concentrate on the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup championship chase.

…Look for former Thunder Road and Airborne Raceway Flying Tiger champion Jimmy Young to return to the racing wars on a limited basis this season, running 6-8 events in the #91 Tiger entry for owner/driver Kent Shortz. Shortz is expected to contest the remainder of the schedule himself.