Dreams Come True At Thunder Road
By DAVE MOODY
When promoters dream, they dream of three things; big crowds, great racing, and a smattering of controversy to build interest in next week’s race. ACT New England Dodge Dealers Tour promoter Tom Curley saw his dreams come true Sunday at Thunder Road.
The “Merchant’s Bank Freedom Lynx 150” program had everything a promoter (or a race fan) could ask for. A total of 38 cars attempted qualifying for the 26-car season opener, the racing was fantastic throughout the 150-lap main event, and the fans went home with a controversial late-race incident to talk about, building hype for round two of the ACT title chase this weekend at Airborne. Sunday’s feature went off in a brisk hour and four minutes, but featured enough fender-banging to satisfy those who have come to expect that kind of thing at the Road. And Patrick’s Laperle’s late-race disqualification -- for spinning Jacob McGrath in turn four -- provided all the subplot ACT should need to pack the stands in Plattsburgh Saturday night.
Depending on who you ask, Laperle’s DSQ was either entirely justified, or a case of heavy handed discrimination. Laperle contends that he retaliated only after McGrath repeatedly ran him high in an effort to maintain the lead. McGrath’s backers argue that there’s a big difference between rubbing fenders (an every lap occurrence at Thunder Road) and harpooning someone in the back bumper. Curley clearly saw it McGrath’s way, banishing Laperle to the pits for the day, and spoiling what had been a spectacular performance for the St. Denis, Quebec, youngster.
Sunday’s on-track fracas was not the first for either driver. In only their third full year of ACT Late Model competition, both Laperle and McGrath have been known bring their mounts home with wrinkled fenders in the past. And while both took quantum leaps in 2002, improving from “wildly erratic” to “generally dependable,” the two youngsters are still known to take more than their share of liberties on the racetrack. In this writer’s opinion, Sunday’s tussle was a simple case of two hard-headed drivers battling over the piece of asphalt.
Thunder Road legend Dave Dion said it best years ago, when he described a six-inch “no-man’s land” between Thunder Road’s inside and outside grooves; a space he called “the difference between winning and losing.
“When you’re running the outside at Thunder Road, your job is the pinch the other guy down as low as possible,” said Dion, who knows a thing or two about winning races at The Nation’s Site of Excitement. “You have to use as much racetrack as possible. Make the guy lift a little earlier than he wants to going into the corners, to avoid sliding up and hitting you. Make him touch the brake, then get on the throttle as late as possible. That’s how you get the advantage.
“When you’re running the inside, the opposite is true. You need to push the other guy as high as you can. Make him take a good, hard look at the wall in turn four, and make him run the longest line possible through the corners. That’s not dirty driving, it’s good, hard racing. Whoever wins the fight for that six-inch space will generally win the race.”
Sunday at Thunder Road, Laperle and McGrath battled hard for that space. McGrath pushed Laperle high - too high a couple of times - and Laperle crowded McGrath all the way to the speed bumps on occasion, as well. They slapped doors more times than either could count in their 20-lap, side-by-side battle. But then again, so did Scott Dragon and Dave Wilcox. So did every other driver who raced hard for position.
Like Dion said, it’s not dirty driving. It’s good, hard racing.
Unfortunately, Laperle lost his temper and turned McGrath around, ruining the day for both. He did it in the worst possible place, too, planting McGrath’s immaculate Dodge into the turn-four “Widowmaker,” endangering virtually every driver in the tightly bunched field. It was an ill-advised fit of temper that cost McGrath a racecar, and Laperle a race. Curley had little choice but to drop the hammer on the Quebec youngster, knowing full well that the cries of “American bias” would surely follow.
Hopefully, both drivers will accept Sunday’s events as a valuable - though costly -- learning experience; a lesson on the value of keeping your cool when the action gets hot. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in time for Saturday night’s “Ehler’s RV Spring Green.”
Maybe not, though. And that possibility should be enough to get the Airborne turnstiles spinning.
Sunday’s Thunder Road opener provided ample proof that ACT’s “new breed” has come of age. Second-generation driver Scott Dragon won the day for the youngsters, hotly pursued by cousin Brent Dragon. Laperle, McGrath, Wilcox, Dave Pembroke, Trampas Demers and Cooper MacRitchie all took turns in the top-10, boding well for the future of the series.
Joey Laquerre’s second-place finished led the way for the graybeards, and former champions Dave Whitcomb, Pete Fecteau and Tracie Bellerose all looked strong before running into various problems late in the day. All in all, Sunday’s field was perhaps the most competitive - top to bottom - ever seen at Thunder Road. Of the 28 drivers that qualified for the Merchant’s Bank 150, at least 26 were arguably capable of winning. A couple of other potential winners never made the cut for the main event.
Based on Sunday’s events, we’re going to make a bold prediction. With the level of competition on this year’s Tour, we’re betting the 2003 champion fails to qualify for at least one race.
To the surprise of almost no one, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. released driver Steve Park this week. “Steve was instrumental in DEI's first NASCAR Winston Cup program,” said team owner Teresa Earnhardt. “Our loyalty to each other was hard to overcome. However, the time came where we simply had to make a change. We wish Steve the best in his future endeavors.”
Park will be replaced - at least on an interim basis - by Kentucky native Jeff Green, who was handed his own set of walking papers just 24 hours earlier by Richard Childress Racing. Green’s release came three days after an angry exchange with Childress following an on-track skirmish between Green and RCR teammate Kevin Harvick Saturday night at Richmond.
"Our relationship was not where we had hoped it would be at this point, so we decided to make this move now," said Childress. "Jeff is a very good race car driver, but sometimes change can be good for everyone involved.”
For his part, Green said that while he probably should not have gone to Harvick's pit Saturday night, he would “probably do exactly the same thing” if the situation arose again. "To have teammates, you’ve got to be able to work together, and you've got to want to help each other. Things (weren’t) going that way, so it's time for a change." Green claimed that Childress does not consider the #30 Chevrolet as important as his other two cars.
Mike Wallace is rumored to be leading candidate to steer the AOL-sponsored entry for the rest of the season.
Two New Hampshire speedways remain shuttered this weekend, after failing to secure operating permits from their respective towns. At Star Speedway in Epping, NH, selectmen declined to renew the track’s license for the second time last week, after town and state inspectors said safety violations at the speedway have not been adequately addressed.
The track was issued a “cease and desist” order on March 25, when a series of structural and electrical violations were found, forcing owner Bob Webber to cancel his scheduled season opener on April 19. The track was subsequently re-inspected, but according to Kevin Kelley, Code Enforcement Officer for the town of Epping, more work still needs to be done.
“Some changes have been made, but regrettably, (the track) is still not in compliance,” said Kelley, saying a state plumbing inspector has determined that “most, if not the entire plumbing system failed to meet code.” There are also structural problems with a number of buildings on site, he said. The violations, some of which reportedly date back to 2001, include unsafe seating in the track’s skyview area, other structural problems, and electrical wiring issues that “could expose the public to danger.”
Webber requested a temporary license from selectmen April 14 to open the track. In a letter, Webber said he hired an electrician last August to fix many of the electrical problems. However, he admitted the work was never finished. Webber said he has now hired a new electrician to complete the job.
Webber, who has owned and operated Star Speedway for 23 years, argued that the most important violations have already been addressed and that the venue is safe, adding that he has agreed not to use the seats in question until they are examined by a structural engineer.
Last Sunday’s appearance by the traveling ISMA Supermodifieds was cancelled late last week by the sanctioning body, citing uncertainty over the track’s future. The ACT New England Dodge Dealers Tour is scheduled to visit the Epping oval on Saturday, July 26.
Webber’s other track, the Hudson (NH) Speedway, has also delayed its opening until May 18, after failing to secure required permits from its town selectmen. The Hudson oval also has a number of less-serious building code violations that must be addressed before a permit is issued. In addition, town officials say Webber failed to apply for an operating permit before the April 1 deadline, and as a result, may not be able to open at all this season.
Webber claims he filed a timely application, only to have it misplaced during a recent change in town management. “It was sent in way back,” he said. “I called, they said they didn’t have it, so I sent it again.”
Short (Track) Subjects…
…They’re still talking about a proposed new superspeedway on the site of the current Clinton County (NY) Airport. Since late last year, discussions have been held about relocating the county’s regional airport to the site of the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Two weeks ago, county officials unveiled plans for a new terminal building at the former base, using $20-million in federal Military Airport Program funding.
Officials say they hope to break ground on the project next spring, meaning that the long-discussed plans of Florida developer Howard "Tim’’ Fry will remain on hold for at least another year. State Representative James Langley told the Plattsburgh Press-Republican recently that while Fry is “definitely still interested,’’ he remains unable to purchase the property until the airport actually moves.
…New Hampshire International Speedway has been reworked again. More than 1,500 tons of new asphalt were laid in the track’s much-maligned turns last week, in an effort to increase competition and end complaints about the asphalt breaking up under competitive conditions. Former Winston Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart will test the new surface, after the new pavement has time to cure.
NHIS owner Bob Bahre remains committed to being one of the first to install the new SAFER soft-wall technology, as soon as recent testing results can be evaluated. The system is already in place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where data showed it reduced the impact of Winston Cup crashes by about 30 percent. Modifications were needed to adapt it for shorter tracks, however, and final testing took place earlier this week. It will take 4-6 weeks to analyze the data, and if all goes well, the SAFER system could be installed later this year at both Richmond and New Hampshire.
…International Speedway Corporation says it may spend $2.5 to $3.5 million to reconfigure Homestead-Miami Speedway. In a statement released this week, an ISC spokesman said, "If the project moves forward, (we) expect the reconfiguration would be completed in early October." The season finales for NASCAR’s Winston Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck series are scheduled there the weekend of November 15-16.
…Look for defending NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series champion Andy Santerre to run three races on the NASCAR Craftsman truck series this season, at the wheel of a Chevrolet fielded by fellow Maine natives Peter and Steve Prescott. The Cherryfield, Maine, driver said he will steer the #03 E.J. Prescott Chevrolet at New Hampshire, Indianapolis Raceway Park, and Richmond, on off-weekends from his Busch North title defense.
…Former NASCAR Busch North Series champion Dale Shaw will not compete on the series this season, blaming the high cost of competition for his shift to the PASS Pro Stock Tour.
"The Busch series has gotten way out of hand," said Shaw, the 1994 Busch North champion. "The PASS races pay more than the Busch North races. It shouldn't be that way, because you have three to five times more money wrapped up in a Busch car. The PASS tour is a lot more affordable."
"The Busch North tour isn't worker friendly any more,” said Shaw. “You have to take too much time off from work. I figure I'll be away from my bed four nights this summer. With the Busch series, it seemed like…we were never home."
…Thunder Road has announced substantial point fund increases for its Late Model and NAPA Tiger Sportsman divisions, as well as the 2003 Subway Flying Tiger/Sportsman "Grand Slam" Series. The Late Model point fund has been expanded to pay 20 positions, and increased 18% to a total of $20,000. The Tigers will receive a 50% increase, while their payout is also expanded to 20 positions. The 2003 Subway Grand Slam Series has been hiked 18% to $7,000.
…The NASCAR Busch North Series makes its first of three 2003 appearances at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway Friday night in the “New England Dodge Dealers NASCAR 150.” Action on the one-half mile track begins with practice at 3 p.m., followed by Bud Pole Qualifying at 5:30 p.m. and the feature event at approximately 9 p.m. Stafford’s regular NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series classes will share the program.
The weekly racing scene is finally beginning to heat up, as well. Saturday night, Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford presents a four-division card of racing for the 358 Modifieds, Sportsman Coupes, Pro Streets and Fast Fours, beginning at 6:30 p.m. That same night, the Canaan Fair (NH) asphalt track hosts a full slate of Pro Stock, Late Model, Super Street, Mini Stock and Enduro racing, along with the New England Dwarf Car Association, beginning at 6:00 p.m.
Sunday, the ACT Dodge Tour, Tiger/Sportsmen and Street Stocks return to action in the 28th Annual “Ehler’s RV Spring Green 100” at Airborne International Raceway in Plattsburgh, with post-time set for 6:30.