Bellerose Is Back

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

Tracie Bellerose is back, and that may be bad news for the competition.

The 2000 Late Model “Queen of the Road” at Barre’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl dusted the field Friday night, sailing past veteran Dave Whitcomb to take the lead, then strong-arming the competition down the stretch to claim the rain-delayed regular season opener at the Nation’s Site of Excitement. Bellerose made short work of the field on a pair of late-race restarts, easily pulling away from closest pursuers Jamie Fisher and Cooper MacRitchie to claim the checkered flag; her first since 2001.

While Friday night’s win brought Bellerose a new trophy for her mantel and the winner’s check, it also produced something far more important; confidence.

“We really needed this,” said a beaming Bellerose afterward. “The last two years have been pretty bleak, and this season hadn’t started out very well, either. But to go out tonight and dominate…it means a lot.”

The Gorham, New Hampshire, driver admitted that disappointing campaigns in 2001 and 2002 had her questioning her ability, to the point of considering retirement from the sport.

“We won the championship in 2000, and felt like we were a threat to win every race we entered. We ran up front at Thunder Road, and on the ACT Tour, too. We were clicking as a team, and everything was going right. Then, all of a sudden, it just fell apart. We got off to a terrible start in 2001, tearing the car up two or three times right off the bat. That put us in a hole financially, and as the season wore on, we just couldn’t seem to get things turned around.

“I honestly started questioning my own ability,” she said. “I mean, I knew I could still drive a race car, but when I tried to communicate what the car was doing to (crewchief) Jeff Laquerre, the adjustments we made never seemed to help. I know how good Jeff is. In my opinion, he’s the best crewchief out there. So after a while, as we continued to struggled, I figured the problem must be me.”

After posting just one win in 2001 and surrendering her Thunder Road championship to Cris Michaud, things got even worse in `02. A series of early crashes forced her Merchant’s Bank-sponsored team to withdraw from the traveling ACT Dodge Tour, hoping to regroup in the Thunder Road weekly wars. The team fared no better there, going winless on the season and finishing well out of the hunt in the final point standings. For Bellerose, 2002 marked the low point of her career, prompting the Granite State speedster to consider hanging up her helmet.

“Obviously, we weren’t having a lot of fun,” she said. “The guys were working their tails off, but nothing was happening. We struggled and struggled, but we just couldn’t buy a break. By midseason, it occurred to me that there must be a better way to spend our free time. But I had made a commitment to the team and to our sponsors, so I had to see it through.”

During the off-season, Bellerose and Laquerre agreed that changes were in order. A series of telephone conversations with the Port City Racing shops in Michigan prompted a total rebuild of their championship-winning Chevrolet, and on Opening Day at Thunder Road, the results were encouraging. Bellerose stormed from 20th on the starting grid to second place, and was poised to challenge for the lead before getting squeezed into the infamous turn-four “Widowmaker” not once, but twice.

“After we hit the wall for the second time, we had stuff just flapping in the breeze,” she recalled. “The suspension was so bent up that the upper a-frame was hitting the shock. I couldn’t turn the car, so we ended up parking it.”

A similar fate awaited three weeks later, when another apparent top-five run was spoiled by a cut tire in the waning laps. For the third consecutive year, Bellerose was off to a terrible start, leaving her scratching her head and questioning her ability once again.

Then came Friday night.

“The car was fast right off the trailer,” Bellerose recalled. “It was probably the best car I’ve ever driven at Thunder Road. We won our heat race going away, and when the green flag flew in the feature, I knew we were going to be tough. I got to the lead pretty quickly, then just flipped the mirror down and drove my line. At one point, Jeff told me to back off and save my tires, because we were pulling away from everyone. I told him I wasn’t even pushing the car. We were that good.”

After two years of struggle, however, Bellerose could not help thinking that something was sure to go wrong.

“When the yellow flag flew and Jeff told me the 18 (Fisher) was running second, I said `Oh boy, here we go.’ I knew Jamie would be tough to beat. But on the restart, I pulled away from everyone again. I wasn’t abusing the car at all, but it still never occurred to me that we were going to win until I drove under the white flag. At that point, I thought, `Hey, we’re actually going to win this thing!’”

One triumphant victory lap later, Bellerose’s world looked a whole lot brighter.

“I pulled into Victory Lane, and my crew was just beaming,” she said. “I felt so good for them, because they’ve been through a lot the last two years. I guess I felt pretty good for me, too.

“Winning at Thunder Road is tough, and it proved to everyone - ourselves included - that we are a good race team, and that we can still win races. The difference in our outlook this week is like night and day. I know we’re not going to dominate like that every week, and I know it’s not all going to be smooth sailing from here on. But I do believe that this team is back on track.

“My confidence is back where it needs to be, and for the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to getting back in that car Thursday night.”

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Look for NASCAR to announce a new sponsor for its premier racing series, as soon as this weekend.

In a SpeedReading exclusive, sources close to the Daytona Beach sanctioning body say that while VISA, Coca-Cola, and Budweiser have dominated the rumor mill since NASCAR began its efforts to replace longtime backer R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, a series of quiet, low-key negotiations with NEXTEL are close to fruition, with the wireless communication company set to replace Winston as major sponsors of NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series at the start of the 2004 season.

There has been no public confirmation from anyone at either NASCAR or NEXTEL, and NASCAR officials continue to say what they have said for months; that the search for a new sponsor is progressing on a number of fronts. Expect an official announcement soon.

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John Andretti is out as driver of the Cheerios Dodge.

Andretti was fired Tuesday by Petty Enterprises, and will be replaced by youngster Christian Fittipaldi -- nephew of former Formula One champion and 1989 Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi -- beginning this weekend at Michigan. Andretti served two tours with the Petty team, beginning with an 11-race stint in 1994. He returned to the legendary #43 in 1998, but has experienced only middling success, with a single win and two poles to his credit. He currently stands 33rd in points, with just one top 10 finish in 14 starts.

"We had some successes, won some poles and won a race," said Richard Petty this week. "But we feel like where we are right now, it's time for a change for Petty Enterprises and for John."

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DaimlerChrysler says NASCAR owner Bill Davis violated his contract by sharing top-secret information with Toyota, the Japanese automaker that hopes to join the NASCAR ranks as early as next season.

Last week, DaimlerChrysler filed suit against Bill Davis Racing in Oakland County (MI) Circuit Court, accusing Davis and his team of building a Toyota Tundra race truck, equipping it with a Dodge engine, then conducting wind tunnel testing on the truck in late April. The suit alleges that at least one of Davis’ employees claimed to be a Toyota representative at the test, and that the truck carried Bill Davis Racing decals. In addition, the suit alleges that Davis obtained a license to do business at a shop in High Point, N.C. that carried signage reading “Tundra Race Truck Center.”

Those allegations, if true, constitute a clear violation of DaimlerChrysler’s contract with Davis, a contract that prohibits Davis and his BDR employees from doing anything that would “represent, endorse, or otherwise promote the vehicles, parts or service of a DaimlerChrysler competitor.”

Dodge reacted swiftly, terminating its contract with Davis and demanding the immediate return of any funds paid to BDR not already spent. While Davis said this week that he will continue to run the Dodge Intrepid body and engine package on his Winston Cup cars for the remainder of the 2003 season, he will no longer have access to DaimlerChrysler’s wind tunnel, and will not share information with other Dodge-backed Winston Cup teams.

Toyota spokesman Xavier Dominicis confirmed one of Dodge’s allegations last week, admitting that his company had hired Davis’ team to develop a body and chassis for the Tundra race truck. He said Davis did not consider the agreement to be a conflict of interest, since BDR does not race for Dodge (or anyone else) on the truck series.

For his part, Davis released a statement saying only that he was "surprised by the decision of DaimlerChrysler to terminate their agreement with BDR and to file suit,” saying he has not breached his agreement, and expects to prevail in the litigation.

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Penske Racing’s Don Miller said last week that when Toyota does arrive on the NASCAR scene, they will not be running in the back.

“When Toyota comes in, they're not going to come in to run 10th or 20th. That's not how they operate,” said Miller, who knows plenty about Toyota after working closely with them in the Indy car ranks. “They're going to come in with both guns blazing. These guys are going to be playing for keeps, (and) they're going to be very serious about what they do. When it happens, it's going to be the gunfight at the OK Corral.”

Anticipating that, the GM, Ford and Dodge camps are currently working hard to lock-up their top teams and drivers with a series of long-term contracts, hoping to shield themselves from the avalanche of dollars that will almost certainly accompany Toyota’s arrival on the scene.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…NASCAR has returned the car they confiscated from Tony Stewart’s Home Depot Racing Team in March. The car, which failed to meet body measurement specifications during pre-race inspection at Texas Motor Speedway, was returned Tuesday, minus the offending body. During its 10-week impoundment, the car underwent a full-body digital scan to record all its measurements and angles. The car was held under lock and key in a secured storage room at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C.

…The 2004 Winston Cup schedule is expected to be made public this weekend. As expected, California Speedway will get a second race next season, taking the traditional fall date of the Southern 500 at Rockingham. Darlington will keep both of its dates, but only for another year. Sources say International Speedway Corporation, owners of the track, will move one Darlington event to another ISC venue in 2005; most likely Chicago or Kansas.

…Homestead-Miami Speedway President Curtis Gray has confirmed that renovations at his track will not be competed until early October. After that, the new asphalt will need at least another month to cool and cure. As a result, NASCAR Vice President of Corporate Communications Jim Hunter said this week that only Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company will be allowed to conduct testing on the rebuilt track, prior to the season’s final race in mid-November.

…Vermonter Kevin Lepage hopes to be back on track next month at Daytona International Speedway, fielding a car in the NASCAR Busch Series 250. Lepage’s Matrix Motorsports has been effectively idle for nearly a year now, lacking the sponsorship dollars necessary to field even a part-time Busch Series or Winston Cup effort.

 

…NASCAR will reportedly change the penalty for pitting outside the designated pit box, a violation that arguably cost Tony Stewart a win two weeks ago at Dover. Rather than penalizing teams a full lap for pitting “over the line,” NASCAR will reportedly mandate a 15-second penalty.

…When his racing days are through, fellow ACT-alum Ricky Craven says he’ll be looking skyward for his recreation. The Newbergh, Maine native has spent part of his down time recently learning to fly single-engine Cessna aircraft with a buddy in his home state. While calling it “a nice distraction” from the pressures of big-league NASCAR racing, Craven said he will probably not attempt to earn his pilot’s license until his racing career is over.

“I'm sure my wife will be happy to know that,” laughed Craven, “just when she thinks I've got the risky stuff out of my system."

…As usual, Thunder Road leads off the weekly racing schedule tonight, with “Casella Waste Management Night.” The Late Models, Tiger Sportsman, Street Stocks, and Junkyard Warriors take to the track beginning at 7:00 p.m.

Tomorrow night on the Canaan Fair Speedway dirt track, it’s a full program of racing for the 358 Modifieds, Sportsman Coupes, Pro Streets and Fast Fours, plus spectator drags. Graduating seniors get in free with their diploma and identification.

Saturday night, the ACT New England Dodge Tour “Country Pools, Spas, and Billiards 100” rolls to the line at White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, New Hampshire. WMMP owners Teri and Don Avery have bumped the starting time up to 4 p.m., and added a 75-lap event for their own Late Model division (rained out on May 31st) to the multi-division program. Pit gates open at 11 a.m., grandstands open at noon, practice at 1:30, and the first green flag at 4:00. The NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series makes attempt number two at the “Beech Ridge 150 presented by Forest City Chevrolet” Saturday at the Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, Me.

Also Saturday, Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY, hosts the “Quality Homes 100,” the opening event of the Subway Flying Tiger Sportsman Series, along with Late Models, Street Stocks, Renegades, and the new Junkyard Warriors, beginning at 6:30 p.m. At Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway, it’s “A.C. Performance Night,” headlined by a Twin State Modified Event and a V-8 Enduro. Graduating seniors get in free with their diploma and identification. At Riverside Speedway in Groveton, NH, it’s the 6th Annual “Pat's Auto Sales Night,” beginning with the rained-out Cyclone feature from May 24th, followed by a full program for the Late Models, Strictly Stocks, Cyclones, and Dwarf Cars, plus four-cylinder and ladies’ Enduros. And on the Canaan Fair (NH) Speedway asphalt, the Pro Stocks, Late Models, Super Streets, Mini Stocks, and four-cylinder Enduro cars are all on the docket, with the green flag flying at 6:00 p.m.

Sunday, it’s “Topless Night” at Devil’s Bowl Speedway West Haven, with anyone in a convertible admitted free.