Lepage Back On Cup Tour…For Now
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
Kevin Lepage is back on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, but only for a couple of weeks.
The Shelburne native signed a deal with Derrike Cope’s Quest Motor Racing this week to drive one of two Cope-owned Winston Cup Fords in the “Winston Open” at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte this weekend, and also in next weekend’s “Coca-Cola 600.” GEICO Direct auto insurance will sponsor the Lepage-driven #38 Ford in both races, while Cope's #37 will be backed by Sound Moves, a global freight company.
“We’ve been working 18 hour days since the deal was finalized,” said Lepage this week. “It’s been a tough season so far, and I’m looking to take out a little frustration on these Winston Cup teams.”
Lepage admits being “disheartened” by the recent downturn in his career. One year ago, he was a weekly fixture on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, driving the Kodak Film Chevrolet for Morgan-McClure Racing. Now, Lepage is struggling simply to keep the doors open on his own unsponsored Busch Series team, having run only four times all season. He has not turned a lap since Bristol in late March, and has fallen to 35th in the overall Busch Series standings.
“There are rides out there, but I don’t get a shot at them,” revealed an angry Lepage. “It’s `out of sight, out of mind,’ and there’s not a thing I can do about it. I’m feeling a lot of vindictiveness and animosity right now, and at this point, I figure the only way I’m ever going to get any (Winston Cup team owner’s) attention again is to knock his butt out of the Winston. My goal for the next two weeks is to make the Coca-Cola 600, and send a good team home.”
Lepage said the team is focusing all its efforts on today’s two-lap qualifying effort.
“We’re going into qualifying loaded for bear, and we’ll see what happens from there,” he said. “If we get a decent spot for Saturday night’s Winston Open, we’ll go for it. If not, we’ll run a lap, stick the money in our pocket and gear up for the 600 next week.”
Should Lepage succeed in advancing to “The Winston,” he will face a new, more demanding format. For the first time, backmarkers in the first two (of three) race segments will be eliminated from the field, leaving only the 10 best to fight for the majority of the $3 million purse. The winner will take home a minimum of $750,000 for 90 laps of work:
"In the past, I think some guys would kind of cruise around for those first two segments and then race like hell in the last segment,” said Earnhardt, finally noticing what average fans have been complaining about for years. “Now, you need to get to the front and try to stay there so you're one of the 10 cars that get to fight for the big bucks. I like it. A lot.”
Soft walls are coming to a speedway near you. In fact, sources say the new “soft wall” technology being tested at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month will be installed at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon in time for the track’s first of two Winston Cup races in July.
The SAFER energy absorbing barriers are being tested this month at IMS, and if they perform as expected, NASCAR will reportedly allow NHIS owners Bob and Gary Bahre to install them at the Loudon oval in time for the July 21 “New England 300.”
"It is absolutely no surprise to anyone that Bob Bahre would be among the first to say, 'Whatever it takes I'll do it,'" said NASCAR Vice President for Corporate Communications, Jim Hunter last weekend. ”Having worked with (IMS President) Tony George for the last two years on developing a better barrier, and based on what we've seen so far this month, we're more encouraged than ever."
Bahre had said it will cost approximately $300,000 to pad the walls at NHIS, a sum he downplayed. “It's a lot of dough,” he said, “but if it's going to do the job, who cares? We're ready to go. We're anxious to do it, and if it works out at Indy we're going to do it, for sure.
"You've got to take care of the drivers the same as you've got to take care of your fans," said Bahre, who suffered the loss of drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin at his Loudon oval in a pair of 2000 practice crashes. "If you don't do that, you don't have a business. I think (NASCAR) is just as anxious as we are to do it, if not more so. They just don't want to do the wrong thing. Sometimes you can do something just to do it, and that just doesn't pay."
The new barriers, dubbed SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction), were created by Dr. Dean Sicking at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, through a partnership between the Indy Racing League and NASCAR. The new system has received a heavy workout in its first week of testing at Indy, as drivers Robby McGehee, P.J. Jones and Mark Dismore suffered a trio of high-speed crashes that left them with comparatively minor injuries, considering the violence of the wrecks. And while some fine tuning will be needed to account for the increased weight difference between 1,500 pound, open-wheeled IRL racers and a full-blown, 3,400 pound NASCAR stocker, those hurdles are not expected to be insurmountable.
"The additional data (Sicking) is collecting this month at Indianapolis will go a long way toward resolving that issue,” said NASCAR’s Hunter. "We don't feel there will be any problem getting the materials or installing them. The only question remaining is how much time it would take to repair a wall after it's been hit. We think that's a solvable problem. We are looking at it real closely as the month of May progresses.”
Hunter refused to outline a timetable for installing the new barriers at NHIS. "But knowing Bob Bahre, if the experts said it was OK to put it in, the work would begin that night."
"They say the installation could be done at the rate of about 150 feet a day," said Bahre, who reportedly is waiting only for NASCAR’s approval before beinning the project. "At that rate, it wouldn't take too long. We'd be doing roughly 800 feet in each end (of the track), so that's not an awful long time if we can get the OK."
While last Saturday’s Busch Series/Busch North twinbill at NHIS was arguably the best day of racing seen on “The Magic Mile” in recent memory, there’s no real consensus as to why.
The Loudon oval was liberally reworked prior to Saturday’s races, with an additional twelve-foot groove of asphalt added on the inside of the corners. Dotted lanes on the track marked the change in banking; from 3.5 degrees on the apron to 7 degrees on the new low groove, to 12 degrees on the previously existing lanes. The work was done in an effort to create a second raceable lane at the track, which has long been criticized as one of the least competitive venues in NASCAR.
The Bahre family also applied a new sealer to the entire track, and while lap times were quicker and two-abreast racing more frequent, many drivers questioned whether the new groove deserved the credit.
“We really aren’t using that much of the new asphalt,” said former NHIS winner Jason Keller. “It’s almost completely flat down there, and it’s pretty tough to get a grip. I’m flirting with it coming into the corner, and maybe a little coming out, but other than that, I can’t really say the changes have made much of a difference.”
Former Busch North champion Brad Leighton, who won Saturday’s BNS event in a thrilling last-lap duel with Andy Santerre, also was unsure whether the changes had helped or not.
“The track’s a little different, but we’re also on a brand-new tire this year,” said Leighton afterward. “I honestly can’t tell you if it’s one, the other, or both.”
Virtually everyone. However, praised the Bahres for trying to improve the track.
“It doesn’t matter whether the groove works or not,” said Busch Series winner Bobby Hamilton, Jr. “At least they listened to us and did something. We go to some places that do not listen to us and do not care if the racing is good or not. Here, they listen and they care about racing. At least they are trying.”
While the competition factor was up at New Hampshire, the car counts were down. The Busch Series started just 41 cars for an advertised 42-car race, despite the presence of 4-5 backup cars that were abruptly hauled out of the transporters on Friday. Busch North regulars Andy Santerre and Mike Johnson were tapped to drive to of the backup cars, as was former Busch North competitor Jeff Spraker, but all three made only a handful of laps before retiring, as planned. In addition, sources say NASCAR made a series of telephone calls the previous week to lure NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series backmarkers Jason White and Phil Bonfield to NHIS with their Busch cars, in a further effort to fill the field.
In the Busch North garage, the scene was even bleaker. Only 34 BNS entries started their advertised 42-car event, and among the noticeably absent were Vermont drivers Brian Hoar and Barney McRae. In the words of one Busch North crewman, “When Barney McRae starts skipping races, we know we’re in trouble.”
With only 34 cars on the starting grid at NHIS - the centrally located, best-paying home track of the Busch North Series - one has to worry about the car count this weekend at Nazareth.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Airborne Raceway has rescheduled the Remington "4-10" Shootout, postponed by rain on Sunday, April 28. The special, $5,000-to-win Late Model Invitational for 2001 feature winners will now be run on Saturday, July 13.
…This ought to get folks steaming. The Winston-Salem (NC) Journal reported last week that officials of the International Speedway Corporation are considering adding a second Winston Cup date at California Speedway, despite the fact that a recent Busch Series race there drew a crowd of only 25,000. Where will that race come from? Reportedly, ISC is considering dropping North Carolina Motor Speedway from the Winston Cup schedule in order to award second dates to Bruton Smith, to be used as a second date at either Texas or Las Vegas.
Investors in Smith’s Speedway Motorsports are currently suing ISC and NASCAR, alleging that the sanctioning body failed to honor commitments to award the Texas track a second race date.
…Many viewers did a doubletake when ESPN pit reporter Amy East planted a passionate kiss on the lips of NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Terry Cook in Victory Lane at Gateway International Raceway recently, not knowing that Cook and East are husband and wife. We can only hope that Dr. Dick Berggren, Matt Yokum, and the pit road crew at FOX/FX don’t attempt to continue the trend!
…Tomorrow night, the Canaan (NH) Speedway dirt track returns to action, featuring round two of the Twin State Modified Series, with the modifieds running a special, 40-lap main event. The Sportsman Coupes, Pro Streets and Four Cylinders will also be on the docket, along with a special appearance by the Granite State Mini Sprints. Post time is set for 7 p.m.
Saturday, the ACT Dodge Tour invades Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, NH for the “New England Dodge Dealers 100,” with a post time of 5:30 p.m. The NASCAR Busch North Series travels to the Nazareth Speedway in Nazareth, Pennsylvania for the “Burnham Boilers 100,” a doubleheader with the NASCAR Busch Series. Closer to home, Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh presents a three-division card of racing beginning at 7 p.m., while at Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, it’s “Wells River Savings Bank Night,” highlighted by the third race in the 2002 Twin State Modified Series with a post time of 6:30 p.m. Riverside Speedway in Groveton, NH, opens its doors with the 22nd Annual “NAPA All-Star Race Car Show” at 12:05 p.m., followed round one of the Subway Shops Enduro Series - with four-cylinder, eight-cylinder, and ladies racing - set for 7:05