Dodge Tour Hits “The Road” Sunday
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
The ACT Dodge Tour comes home Sunday,
returning to Barre’s Thunder Road for the track’s 43rd
season opener, the Merchants Bank “Freedom Lynx 150.” And while Sunday’s race is only the second stop on the 16-race Dodge Tour schedule, former Thunder Road track Tracie Bellerose says her entire season may hang in the balance.
The Gorham, New Hampshire driver struggled to an 18th-place finish two weeks ago at Star Speedway, and knows from hard experience that a sub-par outing Sunday in her sponsor’s race could eliminate her from any shot at the 2002 ACT Dodge Tour title.
"Basically, we had three different skirmishes at Star, all with the same guy,” she said. “He’s new to the Tour, and while it’s aggravating at the time, there’s not much you can do about it. I know it’s early, and I know there are 16 races. But the talent on this Tour is so deep, you can’t afford to stumble early. I proved last year that it’s not a good idea to start the season with two bad races in a row."
Bellerose said she and crewchief Jeff Laquerre are excited about coming back to Thunder Road, especially since Sunday’s race sponsor, Merchant’s Bank, also backs her team. In addition, the 2000 “Queen of the Road” believes Sunday’s race plays directly to her team’s strengths.
“We re-clipped last year’s car and totally rebuilt it from end to end,” Bellerose said. “It probably would have been cheaper to buy a new car, but we know what we have with this car, and we know what it can do. We’ve got a book full of notes, and especially early in the season, it’s nice not to be figuring out a brand new car. This car is very consistent in the long races, and the Merchants Bank race is the longest race of the year at Thunder Road. If I'm going to win one race this season, I'd like it to be this one.”
Bellerose said a win Sunday would also provide a fitting “thank you” to her sponsor, who came on board just prior to the start of the 2001 campaign, after her previous backer unexpectedly backed out.
"Merchant’s Bank came on board just as I was thinking about folding up my tent, and they’re far and away the best sponsor I’ve ever had," Bellerose said. “Tom Leavitt (of Merchant’s Bank) calls every Friday during the season to wish us luck, and best of all, they understand racing. They’ve been involved for years, and they understand that on a circuit this competitive, you’re not going to win every week. They take the good with the bad, and they keep us upbeat.”
That “upbeat” attitude is something Bellerose is focusing on this season.
“A year ago, we had all the momentum in the world,” she said. “We had won the Thunder Road championship the year before, and finished the year with top-three finishes in each of the last four ACT Tour races. We really thought we had the cat by the tail, but 2001 slapped us back to reality in a hurry. Our sponsor bailed out at the last minute, and after that, we never really got things going the way we thought we should have.
“I don’t think we replaced a single body panel in 2000,” she recalled. “Last year, we went through two or three complete bodies, roof and all. We lost three or four top finishes to what we thought was an overheating engine, only to discover that a brand-new water temperature gauge was bad. We had a fast car just about every week, but we never got much to show for it.”
With the benefit of 12 months’ perspective, however, the Granite State driver said her demoralizing 2001 campaign may have served a purpose.
“Bad luck has a way of humbling you, and a little humility is not necessarily a bad thing,” she laughed. “After last season, we know we’re not untouchable, that’s for sure. I used to get frustrated, wondering if we would ever be able to run up front at Thunder Road and on the Dodge Tour. But last year was much, much worse. To know what you’re capable of, but not be able to achieve it, that’s a killer.”
Bellerose said she has challenged herself and her team to return to their 2000 form.
“I took our 2000 Thunder Road championship trophy to the shop the other day, and put it right up on mantle,” she said. “I told the crew, `That’s what we’re capable of, that’s what we can do.’ It’s inspiration for all of us to get back to the top.
“If I ever start questioning whether we can do it or not, I just look at Phil Scott,” she said. “He had a great 2000 season, pushing us all year for the championship. He struggled last year; had a lot of problems just like we did, but he can out of the box flying this year. That’s what we have to prove we can do. We have the team, we have the equipment, we just need the luck.
Forty-three advance entries have been received for Sunday’s race, and upwards of 50 cars are expected to compete for one of only 26 starting spots in the main event. Top contenders include defending ACT Dodge Tour champion Pete Fecteau and 2001 Milk Bowl winner Dwayne Lanphear - both of whom, like Bellerose, stumbled on opening day - point-leader Patrick Laperle of St Denis, Quebec, defending Thunder Road champ Cris Michaud, two-time Thunder Road champion Scott, and last year's Merchants Bank “Freedom Lynx 150” winner, Kenny Dufour of Bethlehem, NH.
Thunder Road's annual Car Show will be held at the track on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission is free, and will be followed by practice for all divisions. Post-time Sunday is set for 1:30, and the 150-lap main event will be broadcast live on the ACT Dodge Tour Radio Network; locally on WDEV FM 96.1/AM 550, and in Chittenden County on NewsTalk 1390/WKDR.
While asphalt racing fans flock to the top of Quarry Hill this weekend, dirt-track aficionados are set to mark the 35th season opener at Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway Saturday night.
Promoter C.V. Elms, III, has thoroughly remodeled the historic Bradford oval, with major facility improvements, a widened and improved racing surface, changes in the racing programs, and major updates to the track’s concession facilities. Bear Ridge will roll out its four time-tested divisions for Saturday night’s opener; 358 Modifieds, Sportsman Coupes, Pro Street Stocks and Fast Fours.
“The Home of the Coupes” will kick off its 35th season with the annual Majestic Trophy Car Show at Oxbow High School from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., followed by practice on the new racing surface from 2 to 4 p.m. The NAPA Bradford Auto Parts 2002 lidlifter begins at 6 p.m., highlighted by the first Twin State Modified Series 40-lap event of the season. With cool evening temperatures expected, starting time at Bear Ridge has been rolled back a half-hour to 6 p.m. for this race only.
Bear Ridge’s sister track, the Canaan (NH) Speedway, begins its 2002 season next Friday, with Brownie's Auto Parts Night featuring a full four-division card of racing. A special Car Show and practice session is set for this Sunday. The Bear Ridge Sportsman Coupes will replace the Late Models at Canaan this season, joining the Modifieds, Pro Streets and Four Cylinders on the weekly card.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Want to go racing on the cheap? If so, the New England Dodge Dealers' can help.
Local racing fans are being offered reduced ticket prices for selected ACT Dodge Tour races at Thunder Road, Airborne, and Monadnock Speedways as part of the New England Dodge Dealers' “Super Discount Coupon” plan. While supplies last, fans may visit their local Dodge dealer’s showroom to pick up a coupon good for up to $5.00 off the price of an adult general admission ticket. Among the races included in the promotion are Sunday’s “Merchants Bank Freedom Lynx 150” at Thunder Road, and the Saturday, May 11 ACT Dodge Tour event at Airborne Raceway. Tour events at Monadnock (May 18), White Mountain Motorsports Park (June 8), Canaan USA Speedway (June 23), and Oxford Plains Speedway (August 3) are also a part of the discount coupon program.
…Dale Earnhardt, Jr., took a hard lick last Sunday, and left California Speedway on crutches. The incident occurred when Kevin Harvick suffered a blown left-rear tire late in Sunday's NAPA Auto Parts 500, sending his GM Goodwrench Service Chevrolet sliding into the path of Earnhardt’s Budweiser Chevrolet. With little time to react, Earnhardt attempted to slip past the struggling Harvick on the inside, but the two cars made contact, sending Earnhardt nearly head-on into the wall at more than 130 mph.
Earnhardt initially caused some concern among his team when he failed to respond to them on the radio. "That was about as hard a hit as I've ever taken,” explained Earnhardt. “It took every bit of air out me. I could hear the guys on the radio, but I couldn't answer.”
After regaining his breath, however, the third-generation racer hobbled to the ambulance with nothing more serious than a badly bruised right ankle. He left the infield medical center on crutches, and will to fly home to North Carolina to have the ankle examined by his own doctor.
…Ricky Craven is being courted for a new ride next season, and team-owner Cal Wells is doing nothing to stop it. Craven’s PPI Motorsports Team is being wined and dined by Pontiac, as the automaker attempts to interest more teams in switching to the new 2003 Pontiac Grand Prix next season. PPI -- which won its first Winston Cup race with Craven at the controls last fall and has two Bud Poles to its credit already this season -- is reportedly at the top of the list of teams Pontiac would like to add to its roster next season; joining Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, Johnny Benson, Ken Schrader, and Stacy Compton.
Pontiac lost a number of teams to Dodge two years ago, but hopes their aerodynamically redesigned 2003 Grand Prix will put them back in the hunt. Craven is currently 15th in the NASCAR Winston Cup championship chase, with two top-five finishes in nine starts.
Earlier rumors had Pontiac brass worried about losing Stewart and Labonte to the Chevrolet camp next season, but with the Gibbs team doing most of the testing on the 2003 Grand Prix, their relationship appears solid.
Another team getting plenty of attention in the ongoing “manufacturers’ derby” is Penske Racing South, whose contract with Ford expires at the end of this season. Penske, which fields cars for veteran Rusty Wallace and rookie Ryan Newman, is expected to re-sign with Ford, but is keeping an interested eye out for the rumored arrival of Toyota on the Winston Cup scene within the next few years. The Japanese automaker is believed to be interested in becoming the first overseas make to compete on NASCAR’s senior circuit - it currently competes on the Goody’s Dash Series - but will not begin marketing a V8-powered vehicle in North America until 2003.
…Andy Petree continues to try and save his second Winston Cup team. Petree’s #66 cars have been idle since sponsor Kmart filed for bankruptcy at the start of the season, while his #26 team has struggled along race-to-race with part-time drivers Frank Kimmell and Joe Nemechek. Talks have been ongoing to partner Petree with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but while there’s been plenty of talk, no deals have been signed so far. Now, Petree has signed a deal to put Busch Series driver Kevin Grubb in his #66 six times this season, with sponsorship from the Toys R Us toy store chain. Rick Goodwin, owner of Grubb’s Toys R Us-sponsored Busch Series team, will technically be listed as the owner of Petree’s cars, with an eye toward running the full Winston Cup schedule in 2003.
"Kevin tested our car last week at Richmond, and he was not only well under the track record, but he was the fastest driver there," said Petree, adding that the test included drivers like Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Steve Park and Steve Grissom.
…The “Brain Drain” continues at Robert Yates Racing. Crewchief Jimmy Elledge left Yates’ #88 team recently, reportedly the result of disagreements between himself and team manager Todd Parrott. Last Saturday at California, crewman Roman Pemberton abruptly quit the team, prompting talk that a full-fledged mutiny might be afoot before long.
…Last weekend’s NAPA 500 marked Ricky Rudd’s 654th consecutive start on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Rudd is now poised to Terry Labonte's all-time record this weekend at Richmond. If all goes according to plan, Rudd will become NASCAR’s new ironman in three weeks, when he takes the green flag in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
…Is Michael Waltrip on his way out at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.? This week, Elliott Sadler asked for his release from the #21 Wood Brothers team, reportedly to pursue an opportunity at DEI. There has been no talk of DEI adding a third team - joining Waltrip’s NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet and the Budweiser Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - inspiring talk that Waltrip could be on his way out.
The Wood Brothers have not yet granted Sadler his release.