Handicapping The Horses

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Mother Nature has done her best to delay the party, but Opening Day 2003 is now just a few hours away at the Nation’s Site of Excitement, Thunder Road. As always, the little track on the hill throws open its gates with one of the biggest races of the season, as the stars of the ACT New England Dodge Dealers Tour come to town for the 44th Annual Merchant’s Bank “Freedom Lynx 150.”

In an effort to preview the festivities, as well as to expedite some of the “friendly wagers” that take place atop T-Road’s infamous Budweiser Hill, we offer our SpeedReading version of the preseason racing form, a capsulized summary of some of the top contenders for the 2003 ACT New England Dodge Dealers Tour championship. Compiled by a quasi-unbiased panel of one - whose name afflicts the top of this very masthead - these picks are, as they say, for entertainment purposes only.

Phil Scott - The only thing tougher than winning a championship is defending one, and after copping the Thunder Road, Airborne, and New England Dodge Dealers Tour titles a year ago, the Montpelier veteran has plenty to defend. As if being a fulltime businessman, state legislator, husband and father weren’t enough to take his mind off his work, a part-time NASCAR Busch North Series schedule could serve as an added distraction to both him and his team. Eventually, this guy’s going to put too much on his plate. As of now, though, he’s still the man to beat. ODDS - Even Money.

Patrick Laperle -The St. Denis, Quebec youngster has a great racing pedigree, and a year ago, he showed the maturity needed to become a title contender. He dramatically improved his performance on the quarter-mile bullrings last year, and trimmed his DNQs down to just one. The only thing keeping him from carrying the ACT title back to Quebec is a bit more consistency. ODDS - 2:1.

Brent Dragon - With Kinney Drugs onboard as a major sponsor this season, the son of former NASCAR North Tour champion Harmon “Beaver” Dragon may finally have all the pieces in place to make a serious run for the ACT crown. If he can find a way to run up front at Thunder Road, he might just make 2003 his year. ODDS -- 3:2.

Todd Stone - After starting the year with five consecutive top-five finishes, he stumbled from midseason on, finishing outside the top-10 in seven of his final 11 starts. The former Devil’s Bowl dirt track champion is among the toughest around on the half-mile ovals, but when it’s time to turn it loose at Thunder Road, Riverside and Star, he’s yet to find the magic combination. He’ll come closer this time, but not quite close enough. ODDS: 4:1.

Dave Pembroke - He comes into the season with plenty of momentum, after carrying the checkers on Milk Bowl Sunday last autumn at the Road. He and his team have climbed the ACT ladder methodically over the last five years, and now, he’s poised for a serious run at the front. He won’t win the championship - at least not this year -- but he’ll probably be in the top five when it’s all over. ODDS: 5:1.

Jamie Fisher - A disappointing (for him) 2002 campaign leads this writer to believe that one of two things will happen in 2003. Either he’ll come out of the box flying and dominate from the start, or he’ll never get started at all. One of the best financed drivers on the Tour, some see this as a “make or break” season for The Hurricane. ODDS - 5:1.

Cooper MacRitchie - Here’s our surprise pick of the season. The former Thunder Road Flying Tiger king was like a ticking time bomb last season. You knew he was going to go off, you just didn’t know when. Top-five finishes in the final two ACT Dodge Tour races gave him all the confidence he needs to hit the ground running in 2003. Expect him to do just that. ODDS: 6:1.

Eric Williams - Another driver with his roots set deep in Thunder Road’s legendary Flying Tiger division, Williams has always known how to win races. Championships, however, are another story. The Hyde Park driver always seems to be in the hunt at midseason, only to flame out down the stretch. More and more, racing has become a thinking man’s sport. Sometimes, though, Williams may be guilty of thinking too much. ODDS - 8:1

Pete Fecteau - How was this guy shut out of Victory Lane last year? He was a force just about every week, but somehow, never quite managed to grab the brass ring. His storybook championship season seems like a long time ago now, but a win in the season’s first five races could give Fecteau the emotional boost he needs to give all these kids a run for their money. ODDS: 8:1.

Joey Laquerre - With Laquerre, some things are simply accepted. Accept the fact that he’ll win at least once this year. And when he does, accept the fact that roughly half the crowd will boo. Most won’t know why, really, it just seems like the thing to do. The ageless veteran will hold true to form in 2003, equaling his two Tour victories from a year ago, and ticking off a few of the faithful along the way. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. ODDS - 8:1.

Rich Lowrey - He started 2002 strong, with back-to-back podium finishes in the first two Dodge Tour events. He finished strong, with top-10s in two of the final three starts. In between, inconsistency was the name of the game. Still a relative beginner in terms of seat time, both he and his team will continue to make great strides this season. ODDS: 9:1.

Dave Whitcomb - After a thoroughly un-Whitcomb-like 2002, we figure the Essex Junction veteran has burned a few barrels of midnight oil during the offseason, to ensure there will be no repeat performance. He’ll win - early - dispelling all that silly talk of retirement. ODDS - 10:1.

Scott Dragon -- Another kid with racing in his genes, Dragon had a breakthrough season in 2002. He claimed his first career Tour checkers, and made every race after missing the cut on opening day. Like Lowrey, Dragon and his team learned a lot last year, but there are still a few more lessons to be learned before he’s championship material. ODDS: 10:1.

Jean-Paul Cyr - After finding his way home from a season on the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Tour, the former ACT champion was the model of inconsistency last season. He collected three ACT Dodge Tour wins - more than any other driver - but also staggered to a half-dozen finishes of 20th or worse. The talent is there, if the focus follows. ODDS -- 12:1.

Cris Michaud - A late-season shakeup in his team put the cherry on top of a difficult defense of his 2001 Thunder Road championship. On Tour, he managed just four top-10 finishes in 16 starts, the stuff of which rebuilding seasons are made. If he has the funding and the help, he can bounce back. ODDS: 12:1.

Tracie Bellerose - A couple of years ago, she was the hottest property in ACT racing. Last year, it all came unglued. The former “Queen of the Road” threw in the Tour towel to concentrate on her adopted home track, after a half-dozen disastrous starts produced no top-10 finishes. Even the weekly wars proved a struggle, however, leaving the Gorham, NH, speedster with plenty of questions to answer in 2003. ODDS - 12:1.

Derek Lynch - He won’t run the full ACT schedule, but when he shows up, he’ll be heard from. It may take a race or two to figure out the Late Model package, but once he does, he’ll run up front. ODDS - 15:1.

Mike Olsen - Like Lynch, he has other demands on his time that will preclude a full championship assault. But like Lynch, he’ll make the most of the races he runs. ODDS: 15:1.

The Darkhorses - Though they may not have the stuff to nail down a Tour championship just yet, Dave Wilcox, Tim Martin, Mark Lamberton, Buzzie Bezanson, and defending “Freedom Lynx 150” winner Kenny Dufour can all win races this season. In fact, we’re betting that at least three of them will. Toss a sawbuck in their direction Sunday, and see what happens.

And finally, one pick from the nostalgia file…

Dwayne Lanphear - He swears he’s retired, after finally tiring of being the circuit’s bad boy. And since it takes just one missed race to kill any shot at the 2003 championship, Lanphear ranks as the darkest of darkhorses. With that said, we’ll eat our hat if his retirement holds through the entire season. ODDS - 100:1.