Track Champion Optimistic About T-Road Return
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
After getting rained/snowed/sleeted out last weekend at New Hampshire’s Monadnock Speedway, the ACT Dodge Tour comes home to Thunder Road Sunday for the Mekkelsen RV Memorial Day Classic. And for defending Thunder Road Late Model champion Cris Michaud, a little home cooking is always welcome right about now.
One year ago, Michaud entered the Memorial Day weekend with his first career ACT Tour win in hand. By the end of the weekend, he had his second, topping 2000 Thunder Road champ Tracie Bellerose and darkhorse Jeff Spooner to claim the Thunder Road checkers. This year, Michaud has struggled in his first three Dodge Tour starts with just one top-10 finish to his credit, and stands 13th in series points. Despite his early season travails, however, the Williamstown resident said he’s just one lucky break away from getting his season back on track.
“We’ve had good cars every week, we just haven’t had any luck to go with it,” he said. “A couple of little mechanical deals, a couple of times being in the wrong place at the wrong time on the racetrack, and all of a sudden, we’re 13th in points. I’m not happy with where we’re at right now, but I’d be a lot more worried if we weren’t running as well as we have been.”
Michaud said he feels confident coming into this weekend’s race, but admits that he’ll feel even better after a good pick in Sunday’s pre-race qualifying draw.
“That blind draw is nerve-wracking,” he said. “There are going to be 50 or 60 cars trying to qualify for 26 spots Sunday, and with the level of competition we’ve got on the Tour, if you pull a back-of-the-pack starting spot in your heat, you’re going to have a long day ahead of you.
“But even if we do have a lousy draw, I know from experience that we can come from the back,” he said. “If the car is right, we’ve proven that we can set it on the outside rail and pass cars. If you can run the high lane at Thunder Road, you’ve always got a chance.”
The defending Thunder Road king also had high marks for the ACT Dodge Tour’s newly instituted tire rule, which limits teams to four new tires at each race.
“I think it’s taken the tire softener out of the picture,” he said. “Now, the high-dollar teams can’t come in with eight or ten soaked tires and just blow people away. Now, they’ve got to work hard, find the right set-up, and have a little luck along the way. We’re still getting some of the procedural stuff figured out, and I’m sure the process will get easier as we go along. So far, though, I think it’s been great.”
Michaud also said the series’ spec engine program continues to pay dividends.
“Since buying the spec engine two years ago (for approximately $6,500), we’ve spent about $2,300 a year on our motor program,” said Michaud, who tested the Tour’s original spec engine three seasons ago. “The year before that, we spent $20,000 each for motors, and I think we blew up three of them. So yeah, I’d say the math is working out pretty well.
“All in all, we’re happy with the way things are going right. But I’ll be a lot happier if we can put this car in Victory Lane Sunday.”
While the ACT Dodge Tour is wash in cars at present, the numbers are not adding up as well on the Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring Division. Thirty four drivers turned out for the BNS season opener at Lee USA Speedway on April 21, with four -- Rick Bell, Barney McRae, Jarod Robie and Jimmy Renfrew - failing to qualify for the main event. Just 34 cars took the green flag in an advertised 42-car field at New Hampshire two weeks ago, however, and last weekend at Nazareth, only 32 cars turned out for a race that was supposed to start 36.
While admitting that the low car counts are disturbing, new Busch North Series Director Lee Roy said it may be something he has to live with, at least in the short term.
“Do I wish we had more cars? You bet I do,” said Roy last weekend at Nazareth. “It’s tough to look out through that pit area and not see guys like Jamie Aube and Barney McRae. But the economy is tough right now, and some guys are coming to the realization that they just don’t have the finances to go racing. Hopefully, things will begin to turn around in the near future.”
Off the record, drivers and officials alike are scratching their heads over how to remedy the situation.
“A year ago, everyone complained that they couldn’t get sponsors because we didn’t have a TV package,” said one Busch North official last weekend. “Now, we’ve got the best TV package we’ve ever had, and the first broadcast race (at NHIS) draws comes up eight cars short of a full field. If they’re not coming to New Hampshire - with the TV coverage and the big purse - I have to wonder if they’re coming at all.”
For now, Roy and his staff will continue to play the numbers game, working the phones in an effort to round up a full field for this weekend’s race at Seekonk. The “Budweiser 150” entry calls for 28 cars -- 23 through time trials, two provisionals based on driver points, two based on owner points, plus the dreaded “Past Champion’s Provisional,” if needed - and Roy said he hopes a full field of cars will turn out.
“I talked to (Hooters Cup driver) B.J. Underdown, who drove a Dale Shaw team car this weekend, and he said he’s going home to convert his car to Busch North rules,” said Roy. “That’s a start, and I’m hoping that some of the guys who’ve been sitting at home so far will get the itch to come racing at Seekonk.
“There is an `upside’ to all this, though,” said Roy. “The racing has been outstanding at every stop. As long as there are three or four guys battling for the lead, and good racing back through the pack, we can do without the raw numbers for a while.”
"There’s no excuse for the blue collar teams not to go to Seekonk,” said former Series champion Dave Dion this week. ”You don’t need any horsepower. You don’t need any aerodynamics. You don’t need any brakes. The money teams have absolutely no advantage."
Elliott Sadler is becoming a very popular guy.
Nearly a month ago, we told you that the Virginia driver had asked to be released from his contract with Wood Brothers Racing, possibly to replace either Steve Park or Michael Waltrip at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Now, our sources in NASCAR-land say Sadler has got some serious pocket change to bring to the dance. Reportedly upset that the engines the Woods’ receive from Roush Racing are not as good as others on the circuit, Sadler has reportedly landed an $11 million sponsorship package from World Wrestling Entertainment; formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation.
DEI, meanwhile, is currently negotiating with both NAPA Auto Parts and Pennzoil to continue their sponsorship of the team’s #15 and #1 Chevrolets. Should either of those negotiations break down, Sadler and the WWE are reportedly set to step in. In fact, DEI General Manager Ty Norris has informed both Waltrip and Park that he is speaking with other drivers about their positions.
Anxious to avoid losing Sadler to the Chevrolet camp, officials at Ford Motor Company are reportedly scrambling to make him a better offer. One of the possibilities being discussed involves Robert Yates Racing, one of whose drivers - veteran Ricky Rudd - has hinted that this might be his final season.
In addition to Sadler, Matt Kenseth is reportedly being considered for a spot on the 2002 DEI roster. Like Sadler, Kenseth is a close friend of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and combining the three would give DEI three of NASCAR’s brightest young talents under the same roof. It may not be all wine and roses at DEI, however. Rumors have circulated recently that Teresa Earnhardt - widow of the late Dale Earnhardt and owner of DEI - might be looking to sell the team (in whole or in part) and move to Florida. One scenario has Anheuser-Busch becoming a part owner of the team along with Earnhardt, Jr.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Busch Series driver Jeff Purvis remains in the Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pa., today, in serious but stable condition with injuries suffered in a vicious crash with Greg Biffle Sunday’s at Nazareth Speedway. Purvis, who was rendered unconscious in the crash and had to be cut from his car with the jaws of life, sustained a contusion to the left base of the brain and a fracture of the first and second cervical vertebrae. He is heavily sedated and on a ventilator in the hospital's Trauma Neuro Intensive Care Unit, after undergoing a battery of tests to determine the severity of his condition.
The doctor will say, 'Hold up two fingers on your right hand,' and he can do it, said team spokesman Dennis Punch this week. “He's obviously not talking, but with the ventilator, that’s normal. He's been responsive, and he’s moved his extremities.”
Biffle was also knocked unconscious in the crash, which literally tore both machines to pieces, but was eventually able to walk to a waiting ambulance under his own power.
…Last Saturday’s postponed ACT Dodge Tour “New England Dodge Dealers 100” at Monadnock Speedway has been rescheduled for Saturday, June 1 at 5:30 pm.
…Frank Stoddard is one tricky son-of-a-gun. Stoddard, a native of North Haverhill, NH, and crewchief for Jeff Burton's CITGO-sponsored Winston Cup Ford, nearly snookered the entire field last Saturday night during the opening segment of “The Winston.”
Rules called for each team to make a mandatory, four-tire pit stop during the opening 40-lap segment, but Stoddard kept Burton on the track until the final turn of the final lap. Burton then ducked onto pit road, changed four times, then drove approximately 50 feet to the start-finish line to complete the race on pit road. The strategy allowed Burton to avoid spending an entire lap coming back up to race speed following the stop, and earned him a second-place finish in the segment.
Stoddard’s stroke of genius was foiled by a faulty clutch that slowed Burton at the start of segment two, but will reportedly result in a new NASCAR rule designed to outlaw such a maneuver in next year’s race.
“Frankie sat me down yesterday and explained what he wanted to do, and I said, `Man, that’s a no brainer,’” said a grinning Burton afterward. “Had the clutch not been slipping, we’d have won the thing.”
…Officials of the American Canadian Tour have released the following dates and venues for the 2002 Tri-State Street Stock Series. The series will open at Canaan USA Speedway in Canaan, NH on Sunday, June 23, with additional events set for New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway on Saturday, July 13; Barre’s Thunder Road on Sunday, August 4; and Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY on Saturday, August 24.
Each Series race will feature a distinct, three-abreast, Indy 500-style start, along with an independent championship point fund. The series opener at Canaan USA Speedway is a part of the ACT Dodge Tour race card that also includes event number two in the four-race NAPA Flying Tiger Subway Grand Slam Series. The Thunder Road event on August 4 will run in conjunction with the 18th annual M&M Beverage Enduro.
…There’s no shortage of action on tap this week, with Memorial Day holiday specials scheduled at virtually every area speedway. Now, if we can only get Mother Nature to play along.
Canaan (NH) Speedway returns to action tomorrow night, with the New England Sprint Car Association making its maiden Canaan voyage, along with the Modifieds, Sportsman Coupes, Pro Street Stocks and Fast Fours, beginning at 7 p.m.
Saturday night, they’ll try it again at Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, after Mother Nature turned thumbs down on last week’s festivities. Post time for the Flying Tigers, Street Stocks and Renegades is set for 7 p.m. Also Saturday night, the Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring teams return to the Seekonk Speedway in Seekonk, Mass., for the “Budweiser 150.” Bud Pole Qualifying is set for 4:00 p.m., with a full program of Seekonk’s NASCAR Weekly Racing Series divisions also slated to compete.
Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway is back in action Saturday night when it hosts “Gilmour Ford-Chrysler Night.” The first Sunoco Race Fuels Coupe Series 40-lap feature of the season will highlight the card, with a full lineup of Modified, Pro Street Stock and Fast Four racing also on the card, along with a V-8 Enduro. Post time is 6:30 p.m.
At Groveton, New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, the 22nd annual “NAPA Spectacular” kicks off their 37th season of racing, with a full card of events for no less than seven different divisions. The Cyclones, Strictly Stocks, Sportsmen, North Country Dwarf Cars, Legends Cars, Senior Tour Auto Racers and N.E.D.A. Late Models will all be on tap, with post time set for 7:05 p.m.
And finally, it’s dueling Memorial Day Classics on Sunday. Thunder Road presents its aforementioned “Mekkelsen RV Memorial Day Classic” at 1:30 p.m., while White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, rolls out its “New England Dodge Dealers Memorial Day Classic” Sunday at noon. A 75-lap Late Model feature highlights the WMMP program, along with five other racing divisions.