Laquerre Ageless, Pittsley Lucky At Thunder Road

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

Dick Clark, you’ve got some competition, and his name is Joey Laquerre.

Clark, 60-something host of American Bandstand and holder of the unofficial title “America’s oldest teenager,” has lately begun to show his age. A crow’s foot here, a laugh line there; they all confirm that Clark is no longer the spring chicken he used to be. Laquerre, meanwhile, just keeps rolling along.

Sunday afternoon at Barre’s Thunder Road, the 58-year old Laquerre outran a pack of drivers half his age to claim the first-place trophy in the Mekkelsen RV Memorial Day Classic, despite running the entire distance without the benefit of power steering. The win came less than a year after the East Montpelier veteran defeated an even tougher foe; overcoming severe health problems to post a top-10 Thunder Road points finish, all while barely missing a race along the way.

“I like running against, well…the younger generation,” said Laquerre, with a nod toward his closest pursuer Sunday, 26-year old rookie John Donahue. “They work hard, they’re hungry, and they keep me hungry, too. John ran a good race. On the final lap, he got his nose underneath me and tried to loosen me up, but I knew he wouldn’t dump me. He’s not that kind of racer. That’s not John.”

The respect is mutual.

“(Joey) raced against my father in the 1970s, and he’s probably got more laps around this place than anyone else alive,“ said Donahue afterward. “I knew if I just followed him through traffic and did everything he did, I’d be okay. He was drifting a little high in turn three, so I decided to go for it on the last lap, mostly because I knew I’d take a lot of heat from my crew if I didn’t. But I also knew he’d race me clean.”

Laquerre’s Memorial Day victory was the latest in a long list of triumphs at the Barre oval. The multi-time Thunder Road track champion claims to have won feature races there in each of the past five decades; a claim that few, if any, dispute. And while it’s been a while since he challenged for a championship, Thunder Road’s ageless wonder manages to carry at least one checkered flag per season.

“I like going out there and getting after it,” said Laquerre. “It’s just something I enjoy. I’d race every day if I could find enough help.”

And that’s not just talk, either. Two weeks ago, after the ACT Dodge Tour was snowed out in Winchester, New Hampshire, Laquerre climbed into his truck and headed north to Quebec’s Circuit Ste. Croix, where he raced his Late Model against a patchwork field of CASCAR Late Models and Pro Stock entries. Despite conceding 50-75 horsepower to the competition, Laquerre ran among the top-10 for much of the day, before encountering problems in the late going.

Not bad for a guy born during the FDR administration.

With Sunday’s win, Laquerre adds his name to a list of former Memorial Day Classic winners that includes such Thunder Road greats as Dave Dion, Bobby Dragon, and Jean-Paul Cabana.

Some would argue he already belonged there.

 

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While Laquerre smiled for the photographers in Victory Lane Sunday, young Corey Pittsley lay on an emergency room examining table, making a list of all the places that hurt.

Pittsley, a rookie on the ACT Dodge Tour, rode out one of the worst crashes in recent memory Sunday, sailing sideways off the top of Thunder Road’s second turn on lap 10 of the main event. The Williamstown youngster landed upside down on top of a dirt retaining wall, then embarked on a terrifying series of end-over-end and side-over-side flips that reduced his Formula Ford-sponsored Taurus to a twisted hunk of scrap metal.

“I’m pretty sore,” admitted Pittsley this week,” but I guess it could have been worse. My neck and shouders took it pretty hard, and the force of the crash broke my helmet. It also burst all the capillaries in my eyes, so whites of my eyes are bright red from all the blood. The doctors say they’ll probably stay that way for a week or two.”

Like any racer, however, Pittsley is more concerned about his car.

“The chassis is pretty much junk,” he said. “The front and rear clips are trashed, the driver’s door bars are all dimpled, and the tubing that makes up the hoop over my head also got flattened. We could probably fix it, but with everything that’s bent, it’s probably cheaper just to start over.”

Pittsley said he knew from past experience that the crash was going to be ugly.

“Only two guys have ever cleared that berm on the fly, and I’m both of them,” he smiled, referring to a 2001 wreck that saw him clear the same dirt bank in his Flying Tiger entry, while remaining upright. “When I went off the top Sunday, I saw that berm coming fast and knew I was in trouble. Then I realized I was upside down, and I figured I was really in trouble.”

Pittsley was transported to Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin following the crash, but was released later that evening with nothing more serious than a raging headache; a testimonial to the rigid construction standards in the ACT Late Model division.

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One week ago, Kevin Lepage expressed frustration that he no longer seems to be “in the loop” for available rides on the Winston Cup and Busch Series circuits. “There are rides out there, but I don’t get a shot at them. It’s `out of sight, out of mind,’” he said. “I figure the only way I’m going to get any (Winston Cup team owner’s) attention again is to kick his butt out (of a race). My goal is to make the Coca-Cola 600, and send a good team home.”

Mission accomplished.

The Shelburne native qualified his Derrike Cope-owned Ford 22nd for last weekend’s Coca-Cola Family 600, at nearly 184-miles per hour, outrunning such established Winston Cup stars Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick and Rusty Wallace. Former Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett and Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton were among those needing provisionals to make the field, while Lepage’s car owner, Cope, was among four drivers who failed to qualify.

Lepage also drove the #37 Timber Wolf Chevrolet in Saturday’s “CarQuest Auto Parts 300” at Lowe's Motor Speedway, substituting for injured driver Jeff Purvis. Purvis suffered head injuries, two fractured vertebrae and a broken left leg in a recent Busch Series race in Nazareth, PA. Lepage, who has been without a fulltime ride since being released by the Ultra Motorsports Winston Cup team at the end of the 2001 season, qualified ninth and finished sixth, after rebounding from deep in the field at the midway point.

That performance earned Lepage a three-race extension with Clarence Brewer’s team. He’ll drive the car at Dover this weekend, followed by outings at Nashville and Kentucky Motor Speedway. Brewer, however, is still said to be considering putting David Green to steer the car at some point in the future.

“I’ll take a sixth-place finish any day of the week,” said Lepage afterward. “My hat’s off to this whole team. They put a good car underneath Jeff Purvis every week. That’s why he wins races.”

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The long-rumored partnership between Andy Petree and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones may finally be coming to pass. Petree said this week that Jones is "close to buying controlling interest" in the team as part of a pact that is said to include a $6-million up front payment, plus some $15-million per year in operating capital. The deal will also involve a switch from Chevrolet to Ford, due to Jones’ ties with the Detroit automaker.

"We're just about there," Petree said Wednesday. "I think we're where we need to be to get it done. All we need to do is get it down on paper so it reflects all of the things that we've talked about."

Under the agreement, Jones and the Cowboys organization will handle the team's marketing and sponsorships; with Petree retaining control over racing matters. Jones has reportedly had preliminary talks with both Pizza Hut and Ciclon Energy Drink about sponsoring the team, and is said to be looking to sign one “well known” driver, and one with Texas ties. To that end, he has reportedly spoken with NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver - and Irving, Texas resident -- David Starr.

 

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Short (Track) Subjects…

 

…Mark Martin keeps the win in last weekend’s “Coca-Cola Family 600” at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, despite the fact that his Ford measured one-eighth of an inch below the minimum. Martin’s win, his $1-million bonus and championship points will stand, but crewchief Ben Leslie has been fined a whopping $50,000.

"With 600 miles of racing, there is a great deal of wear and tear and adjustments that have to be made on the car,” said Leslie of the fine. "If you think of it that way, 1/8 of an inch is not a lot. It didn't have any impact on the outcome of the race at all. Still, NASCAR has to draw the line somewhere, and we didn't measure up to that line. It's a steep fine, but those are the rules of the game."

…Shawna Robinson will be back in the #49 BAM Racing NASCAR Winston Cup Dodge this weekend at Dover, but here job is reportedly still not secure. After a series of disappointing outings, NASCAR’s only female Winston Cup driver was replaced -- on an interim basis -- by veteran Ron Hornaday recently. The former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion drove the car in both the Winston Open and the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowes Motor Speedway, and while certainly not a threat to win, sources say he is still under consideration for a full-time ride. Hornaday, however, already has a gig driving the Carroll Motorsports/Dr. Pepper Busch Series Chevrolet, and is reportedly lobbying hard to become the next fulltime driver of Rick Hendrick’s UAW/Delphi Winston Cup entry, as well.

…Subway will sponsor the ACT Dodge Tour event at Canaan USA Speedway, Sunday, June 23. The one-third mile Canaan oval will also host a NAPA Flying Tiger “Subway Grand Slam Series” event, and the opening round of the ACT Tri-State Street Stock Series as part of the June 23 card. Thirty-six Late Model teams have already filed entries for the “Subway 100.” More than 40 cars are expected to compete for 26 available starting positions and a $20,500 purse.

 

…Airborne Raceway has revised an earlier ruling regarding last Saturday night’s Renegade feature. Originally, top-three finishers Greg Wolcott, Dale Terry, and Todd Langlois, were all disqualified for illegal engine parts. Since then, however, the offending parts have been ruled “out of compliance, but without competitive advantage,” by ACT officials, and all drivers have been reinstated. However, the three will be required to start at the rear in all events this Saturday night.

Wolcott’s reinstatement gives the defending Renegade track champion two wins in as many starts this season.

…Hot off a runner-up finish in last week’s Indianapolis 500, CART star Paul Tracy is talking about a possible career in NASCAR. The team for which Tracy drives is said to be jumping from CART to the rival Indy Racing League next season, and Tracy said this week that he won’t be going along for the ride.

"If CART doesn't survive, I'd have to seriously look at NASCAR," he said. "I'm a road racer, but if I'm going to be forced to run on ovals, I'm going to do go where I can prosper. There's more opportunity in NASCAR." Tracy has reportedly already spoken with Richard Childress, with a testing date scheduled for later this season.

…From the “You’re Never Too Old” Department this week, Thunder Road champion Harold “Hard Luck” Hanaford climbed through the window of a race car recently for the first time in nearly four decades. Hanaford, who claimed “King of the Road” honors in 1964 and 1965 at the wheel of his familiar purple #30 coupe, toured the Canaan (NH) asphalt oval recently aboard one of son Brian Hanaford’s “American Spectator Driving Challenge” cars. According to the younger Hanaford, “It took 37 years to get him back into a race car, and I thought it was going to take us 37 years to get him back out. He had a blast, and he walked around with a smile on his face for the rest of the day.”

 

Rumors of a full-time Thunder Road comeback are said to be premature, however.

…It’s beginning to feel like summer, with all the local tracks now open for business. Canaan (NH) Speedway returns to action tomorrow night, with a pair of 40-lap main events on NAPA of Lebanon Memorial Day Classic night. The evening will be headlined by both the Twin State Modified Series and the Sunoco Twin State Coupe Series. The Pro Street Stocks and Fast Fours will be in action, as well, with qualifying beginning at 7 p.m.

Saturday night, the ACT Dodge Tour Late Models invade Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, New Hampshire for the New England Dodge Dealers 100. A full slate of ACT racing will be complimented by “Mad Dog’s” five NASCAR Weekly Racing Series divisions, with a special, 5:30 p.m. start.

Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh rolls out round one of the Subway Flying Tiger Grand Slam Series Saturday night, with a 100-lap event for the Tiger troops, plus a full card of events for the Street Stocks and Renegades, post time 7:00. At Groveton, New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, look for twin features for the Strictly Stocks Saturday night, plus Cyclones, NEDA Late Models, Dwarf Cars, a 25-lap Enduro, and a Youth Race for kids age 10-14, with a 7:05 post time.

Also Saturday, Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford hosts Woodsville Guaranty Savings Bank Night, with the Twin State Modified Series in town for a 40-lap main event, along with Sportsman Coupe, Pro Street Stock and Fast Four racing. Post time is 6:30 p.m. And finally, the NEKC Kart Tour is back at Thunder Road on Saturday afternoon with a multi-division race program for all ages. Admission is free.

…And finally, despite the fact that ESPN SportsCenter aired the conclusive, 10-second piece of videotape within moments of the checkered flag, it took CART officials nearly 10 hours Sunday night and Monday to confirm Helio Castroneves as winner of the Indianapolis 500. Just one more reason why I’m a NASCAR fan.