Handing Out The Midseason Smedleys
By DAVE MOODY
It seems like only yesterday when the first engines of 2003 were fired in anger at Airborne Raceway. And in truth, one of the soggiest springs in recent memory has made the first half of the season a decidedly stop-and-go affair. But Thursday night at Thunder Road, the `03 campaign hits its halfway point with the annual “Times-Argus Midseason Championships,” and as is traditional in this space, we take time to pause, reflect, and recognize some of the top first-half performers with the annual “SpeedReading Midseason Smedley Awards.” The awards are named in honor of the late Herbert “Bugs” Smedley, who died of exhaustion while working as Russell Ingerson’s body man in 1966. They are voted on by a quasi-impartial committee of one, and are presented here for entertainment purposes only.
And now, without further ado, this year’s Smedleys…
Best Comeback: Jean-Paul Cyr. The former ACT champion abandoned his roots for a while, trading in his Late Model stock for a pair of spotty seasons on NASCAR’s Featherlite Modified Tour. He returned to ACT competition in 2002, but showed only glimmers of his former talent. In 2003, however, JPC is back. The Milton driver won two of the circuit’s first four events, and stands at the top of the points parade as ACT nears the 1/3 mark of its season. Who says you can’t go home again?
Best Comeback, II: Tracie Bellerose. After two horrendous seasons, the 2000 Thunder Road Late Model champion has returned to form this season, winning the first two events of the Thursday night schedule and leading the track championship standings. While many of the other preseason favorites got off to faltering starts, Bellerose hit the ground running. Even a 15th place finish last week - after being bumped into the infield at the midway mark of the main event - could not knock her from the top of the Thunder Road heap, where she maintains a five point advantage over Jamie Fisher.
Biggest Surprise: Scott Dragon. Six months ago, the South Hero driver was best known for being Bobby Dragon’s son. An Opening Day ACT Dodge Tour win at Thunder Road changed all that, and he has ranked no worst than second in the Tour points ever since. Most drivers mature of the course of a few seasons. Dragon became a contender almost overnight.
Biggest Surprise, II: Ryan Moore. There were plenty of doubters when last year’s ACT Dodge Tour Rookie of the Year jumped straight to the NASCAR Busch North Series to race with his father, former BNS champion Kelly Moore. Those doubts have now been laid to rest, as the kid has run as high as second in points - behind defending champion Andy Santerre - after outrunning his old man at virtually every stop. So far, he’s shown a consistency well beyond his years, and while nobody is predicting that he’ll overhaul a dominant Santerre for the title anytime soon, he has clearly established himself as a star of the future on the Busch North Tour.
Biggest Disappointment: Patrick Laperle. After nipping at Phil Scott’s heels throughout the 2002 season, the Quebec youngster was a solid bet to win the ACT Dodge Tour title this season. A knuckleheaded rough-riding DSQ on opening day put him behind the eight-ball immediately, and despite rebound somewhat in recent weeks, only managed to crack the Tour’s top-10 for the first time this week. Who’dathunkit?
Biggest Disappointment, II: Mike Stefanik. Combine a multi-time championship-winning driver with a multi-time championship winning crew and one of the best-financed operations in the northeast, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out that way for Mike Stefanik and the Grizco Racing Team. They have just three top-five finishes in six starts this season, and rank a disappointing sixth in the BNS points; more than 200 points behind Santerre, who doesn’t appear likely to stumble anytime soon. Perhaps worse, they haven’t won yet, and have fallen short of the preseason expectations that had them challenging for yet another title.
Best New Act: Roger Brown. “The Rocketman” came to ACT with solid credentials in Flying Tiger/Sportsman racing, then wasted little time adapting to the lighter, faster Late Model cars. He qualified for his first two ACT Dodge Tour races - an unprecedented accomplishment for a rookie - and showed the level-headedness and maturity necessary to earn the trust of the veterans in record time. A wicked crash into Thunder Road’s pit wall two weeks ago set his youthful team back a notch or two, and a pair of meetings with Thunder Road’s infamous “Widowmaker” last week didn’t help, either. But based on what we’ve seen so far, “The Rocket” will bounce back strong.
Good News/Bad News: One of ACT’s most promising teams came apart when car owner Rick Green and driver Dave Wilcox parted company recently. Wilcox’s loss was Flying Tiger/Sportsman veteran Joey Becker’s gain. Becker steered the Richard Green Trucking #16 to an impressive runner-up finish at Airborne in his maiden Late Model voyage, and cracked the top-10 in his first start at Thunder Road last Thursday night. "I wanted to give a chance to a guy who might not get one otherwise,” said Green, who has tabbed Becker to fill the seat on a full-time basis. “I think it’s going to be a good match."
Best Idea: The Junkyard Warriors. When ACT’s Street Stock division was allowed to evolve from a low-buck, rock `em sock `em, entry level division to a higher dollar series with career drivers and fewer laughs, Thunder Road and Airborne were left with a major void at the bottom of the feeding chain. Enter the Warriors. Junk cars, low bucks, and lots of fun are exactly what the doctor ordered, and the car count is already flirting with double digits.
Second Best Idea: 100-lap features for the Tigers. For years, we’ve been beating the drum for the ACT Flying Tiger/Sportsman division, calling it the toughest, most competitive division in the northeast. And after years toiling in the shadows of their Late Model brethren, the Tiger troops finally got a chance to shine this season, with five 100-lap main events scheduled at tracks around the region. They travel to White Mountain Motorsport Park Sunday night, and if you haven’t got the date circled in red on your calendar, you could be missing the best 100 laps you’ll see all year.
Most Cause For Worry: The Street Stocks. They’re spending WAY too much money on their cars, their flip-per-night average has plummeted from 3.5 a few years ago to 0.0 today, and the new Warrior division is almost certain to suck all the new talent away. What does the future hold for Thunder Road’s beloved “Crunch Bunch?” Nobody seems to know, but it doesn’t look good.
Biggest Improvement: ACT at St. Croix. Last year, the Dodge Tour troops stunk-up the joint at Quebec’s Circuit St. Croix, suffering through double-digit cautions during a 100-lap feature that took more than two and a half hours to complete. Saturday night, Milton’s Brent Dragon took the checkered flag in a 58-minute St. Croix spellbinder that showcased ACT racing at its best, fighting off spirited challenges from Todd Stone and local favorite Sylvain Lacombe to win the “Top-Tech 100.”
Biggest Mess: Quebec Late Model Racing. A decade ago, la belle province featured one main sanctioning body for Late Model racing - ACT - and a unified rules structure that allowed best drivers to compete against each other, head to head. Now, a handful of organizations battle each other for promotional superiority, each with different rules and a microscopic roster of stars. Worse yet, competition between the Circuit St. Croix and the rival Autodrome Montmagny - owned by former ACT racer Ralph Nason - has reached the point of open warfare. It’s gotten so bad that Montmagny allegedly purchased an advertisement in a local French-language newspaper last week, falsely stating that ACT’s race at St. Croix had been cancelled. When officials showed up to open the gates last Saturday, vandals has destroyed the track’s portable restroom facilities, and slapped mammoth padlocks on all the gates that had to be removed with torches.
The situation north of the border been bad for some time, and it’s getting worse. In situations like this, racers lose, promoters lose, and fans lose. At present, there doesn’t seem to be any solution in sight.
Best Sign For The Future: 2003 Tiger Rookies. At the end of last season, a large group of drivers announced plans to jump from Street Stock to Flying Tiger competition this year. Led by 2002 Thunder Road champion “Little Brendan” Moodie, at least seven other Crunch Bunch grads -- Ryan Nolin, Josh Lovely, Scott Coburn, Matt Chandler, Kerry Henry, and sisters Rachel and Renee Beede - have tackled the Tiger Tour this season. Most have already shown the ability to run up front, ensuring that the Tiger/Sportsmen will not lack for talent in the next few years.
Best Sign That Moody’s Getting Old: After listening to a couple of drivers grouse about that “grueling” four-hour haul to Waterford, Connecticut two weeks ago, this writer just had to laugh. Back in my day, sonny, we did Thunder Road every Thursday, Oxford Maine every Friday, Airborne every Saturday, then chased the old ACT Tour from western Ontario to Nova Scotia on Sunday. Uphill! Both ways!
Short (Track) Subjects…
…This season marks the changing of the television guard, as NBC takes over the NASCAR Winston Cup broadcast reins from Fox, beginning with Friday night’s NASCAR Busch Series event at Daytona, followed by Saturday night’s “Pepsi 400.” Sorry kids, no more “Boogity Boogity Boogity” for a few months.
…Former NASCAR Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie is a pedestrian this week, after being fired by Evans Motorsports. LaJoie, who won the Busch Series title with BACE Motorsports in both 1996 and 1997, stands 16th in points after last weekend’s 11th place showing on the Milwaukee Mile. He has just two top-five and four top-10 finishes this season.
"Randy has been a great asset to the program,” said Ed Evans, who owns the team along with Winston Cup veteran Joe Nemechek. “He is a proven champion, and a great person. Unfortunately, our program has not performed to the level I expect. We are halfway through the season and we continue to struggle. This is our third season together, and we haven't been able to make a serious run at the championship."
…Published reports say Steve Park may be replaced - at least on a one-race basis - in the Richard Childress Racing AOL Chevrolet. The Long Island driver has continued to struggled since “swapping rides” with Jeff Green more than a month ago, and may be held out of the car Saturday night at Daytona.
…Friday night at the Canaan Fair (NH) Speedway dirt track, it’s “Winning Image Graphix Night,” with a full card of weekly division racing, plus the 8th Twin State Modified event of the season and another round of Spectator Drags.
The ACT New England Dodge Tour returns to the Waterford (CT) Speedbowl Saturday night to make up an event rained-out on June 21. Qualifying heats begin at 5 p.m. Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY, celebrates Independence Day that same night, with all five racing divisions and a fireworks display. Post time is 6:30 PM. At Riverside in Groveton, NH, Saturday night marks the 11th annual “McDonalds Kids Night,” with six divisions of racing, a youth race, bike races and coloring contests for the kids. At Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway, it is “Perry’s Oil Service Night,” with a full card of racing plus a Twin State Coupe Event. The Canaan Fair (NH) Speedway Asphalt track presents a full slate of racing action for the Pro Stocks, Late Models, Super Streets and Mini Stocks, with the green flag at 6:00 pm.
It’s a rare doubleheader weekend at White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, with the New England Dodge Dealers presenting a six-division program highlighted by a 75-lap Late Model main Saturday night, beginning at 6 p.m. Sunday, the ACT Flying Tiger/Sportsmen will make their first ever visit to WMMP in the Subway Series 100 lapper, plus Strictly Minis, Kids’ Trucks, and the 350 Super Modifieds. Post time is 2 p.m.
Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven, VT, will be back in action with its annual “Summer Blast” Independence Day celebration Sunday night, with racing and fireworks. The NASCAR Busch North Series takes the Independence Day weekend off, resuming at Thompson International Speedway next Saturday.