By DAVE MOODY
Nobody would have blamed him for gloating.
Last Sunday afternoon, New Hampshire International Speedway founder Bob Bahre watched as his Granite State oval hosted the most competitive Winston Cup race in its history. In each of the last dozen seasons, the 76-year old Bahre has listened patiently - if unhappily -- as drivers criticized his track, calling it non-competitive, dangerous, even deadly. But Sunday, the latest in a long series of repaving jobs at the Loudon oval finally turned the trick, allowing Winston Cup cars to circle the track two and even three-wide for the first time.
There was someone passing someone in the top 10 on virtually every lap of Sunday’s 300-lap affair, leading to what was easily the most competitive race in NHIS history. And when it was over, the same drivers who had torn Bahre and his speedway to shreds in the past lined up to praise him.
"The track was excellent," said veteran Ricky Rudd. "Mr. Bahre has got a race track he can be proud of. It didn't tear up all day. It had two grooves. You’ve got a lane or a lane and a half under you now.”
“Bob Bahre spent a lot of money to give the fans what they want and what they deserve, and that’s side-by-side racing,” said second-place finisher Kevin Harvick. “Now you can do it. They’ve made it something more than a one-groove track. It’s a lot more fun.”
“For a flat track with corners this tight, it’s as good as
it can get,’’ said Winton Cup point leader Matt Kenseth.
Looking down on it all, Bob Bahre could have been forgiven for saying, “I told you so.” He could have grabbed the media center microphone and indulged in blissful payback, reminding so many in the room of their insistence that NHIS would never be a competitive racetrack. He could have pointed fingers and named names; blasting the same drivers and media members who in the sport’s darkest hours chose to pin the black mantel of blame to the front of his perennially rumpled white shirt. He could have gotten even in spades Sunday, and no one would have blamed him.
He could have, but he didn’t.
"It's not their fault," he said quietly. "It was our fault."
Instead, Bahre spoke of his unfailing determination to make his track better; repaving it over and over again, only to see each layer of new asphalt come apart under the incessant pounding of speeding, 3,000-pound racecars. A few months ago, however, he found the magic combination; a special oil found only on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago. The oil was shipped to Germany, formed into capsules, imported to the United States, incorporated into a new asphalt mix by New Hampshire’s Pike Industries, and applied to NHIS’ troublesome corners.
Last week, Bahre said he hoped he had found an answer to his track’s problems. And when eventual winner Jimmie Johnson ran door-to-door with Kevin Harvick for four spellbinding laps early in the race, he knew it was true.
''We were very pleased with the track,'' said Bahre afterward. “We had to get it straightened out, and we did. I think we've got it now. In fact, I know we’ve got it now. From now on, it's going to be good, because it's had plenty of time to set. I think things are going to work out well.''
Thirteen years after throwing open the gates, Bob Bahre can finally relax.
His racetrack is finished.
Mike Rowe has done it all in New England Late Model racing. Last Saturday night at White Mountain Motorsports Park, he nearly lost it all.
Rowe, making his Pro All Stars Series debut in Carleton Robie’s Pro Stock Chevrolet, was involved in a multi-car crash that, unbeknownst to him, ruptured the car’s fuel cell. As the Turner, Maine, veteran attempted to drive the damaged racer away, sparks ignited the fuel and triggered a massive blaze that chased his car down the track toward the pits. When the flames caught the car, all hell broke loose. Rowe’s car was completely engulfed, with flames soaring more than 20 feet in the air. Several brave souls dove into the inferno to help free the trapped driver, who struggled to emerge from the cockpit after becoming entangled in his Hutchens device.
After several attempts, Rowe finally emerged from his destroyed racer, with only a few minor burns to show for his horrifying ordeal.
"I got hit from behind, and I guess it exploded the fuel cell,” said Rowe, a multi-time track champion at Maine’s Oxford Plains Speedway, and the 1994 American-Canadian Tour king. “I could see the flames, and my spotter was hollering, 'fire.' Usually, if you drive off, the fire goes out, but that didn't happen this time. And then when I stopped, I had a hard time getting out of the car. I was trying to unhook the Hutchens Device, and one side was holding me up. I'm OK though. I got a burn on my backside, but I'm fine."
The next time some racer decides it’s okay to crowd someone into the wall on the final lap, they should be required to view the photos of Rowe’s much-too-narrow escape.
There’s been a changing of the guard at Quebec’s Autodrome Montmagny.
Three weeks ago in this space, we lamented what we see as the deteriorating state of Late Model racing in La Belle Province, which weathered the loss of the high-dollar ADL Tobacco Series during the off season, and has since seen two tracks - Montmagny and the rival Circuit St. Croix -- battle openly for both cars and fans. Last week, three top officials at the Montmagny oval resigned after track owner Ralph Nason made major revisions to the track’s remaining 2003 schedule.
“When we started the `Super 6 Series’ last November, Ralph was very enthusiastic, and ready to pay some very good purses to attract drivers and fans,” said former Public Relations Director Sylvio Turgeon this week. “(General Manager) Andre Fortin and I asked Ralph many times if he would be okay if things were slowed by bad weather, no assistance, or conflict with other tracks. He said everything would be okay.
“We decided to put the six LMS shows on Friday nights to be fair to other tracks and associations. The Modifieds were racing on Friday nights at Granby, so we put their races on Saturday nights. Both series were set-up the same; $22,000 purse, $5000 to win, no point fund, no banquet, and no obligation to run a minimum percentage of races. It was clear to all of us that that was the best way to put the train back on the track.
“Weather wasn't really on our side,” lamented Turgeon. “The first two LMS shows drew 25 and 30 cars, and the first two Modified shows drew 11 and 13 cars. That was so-so, but with the rain, there were no fans in the grandstands. Last week, Ralph decided to pull the plug on the four remaining Modified shows, and make the remaining LMS races $2,500 to win. That’s not a bad idea when you’re paying the bills and losing money, but I was not comfortable with it. Bottom line, it would be very difficult for me to tell those Modified drivers, `Sorry guys, no more races. I asked you during the winter to make some changes to your cars, but now you're out.’”
Turgeon was also uncomfortable with Nason’s decision to move the four remaining LMS races to Saturday nights, saying “It made me feel bad, because we promised not to do that. I told Ralph that I understand his point of view, but I can’t change the way I feel. The best thing for me was to quit.”
Turgeon, Fortin and Chief Scorer Normand St. Pierre all tendered their resignations last week, and while the parting was reportedly amicable on all sides, their departure adds another layer of uncertainty to what was already a disjointed Quebec Late Model picture.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Tracie Bellerose is one tough cookie. The 2000 Late Model “Queen of the Road” suffered a badly dislocated right thumb in a lap-13, multi-car crash last Thursday night, but soldiered on to finish the race, despite a solid bout with the frontstretch wall a few laps later.
“I got hit during the wreck, and it wrenched the wheel out of my hand,” said Bellerose Monday. “I caught in the spokes of the steering wheel, and when I looked down, my thumb was hanging straight down. (Crewchief) Jeff Laquerre called on the radio to ask if I was alright, and I told him I had a few tears in my eyes, but I was going to finish the race.”
Unfortunately for Bellerose, the ensuing restart proved to be her undoing.
“I wanted to get the jump on (leader) Trampas Demers, and I got on it too hard,” she said. “The back end came around, I slapped the wall, and we bent a trailing arm. I finished the race after pitting, but we were just making laps after that. I’ve gotten to be pretty good friends with my ice bag this week, though, and I should be good to go tonight.”
…Rookie Jack Sprague is out as driver of the Haas CNC Racing/NetZero HiSpeed Pontiac on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, replaced for at least the time being by veteran John Andretti. Andretti drove the car last weekend at New Hampshire, and will be behind the wheel again Sunday at Pocono.
"Unfortunately, being a rookie team with a rookie owner, rookie crew chief and a rookie driver, we started off behind the eight ball,” said Sprague. “We never really got a handle on it. After eight years of winning races and championships, this year's been very frustrating for me, and I'm sure it has been equally as frustrating for them.”
As reported here two weeks ago, Sprague is a leading candidate
to steer one of the new Toyota Tundras on next year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck
Series, with an eye toward Winston Cup competition in 2005 or 2006.
His best qualifying effort in the NetZero Pontiac was a fifth-place showing at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May. He recorded a season-best 14th-place finish in the season opening Daytona 500.
…Morgan Shepherd took the term “mercenary” to new lows Sunday. Shepherd, a former champion of NASCAR’s Busch Series, has become a professional field-filler in recent seasons, running a handful of laps each week in the Winston Cup, Busch, or Craftsman Truck Series, pocketing last-place money, then rolling on to the next stop.
Shepherd did it again Sunday, taking provisional starting spots for both the Busch and Winston Cup races at New Hampshire. Saturday produced an $11,500 payday for a 37th-place finish. Sunday’s take was $48,500 for dead last. Not content with a $60,000 weekend, however, Shepherd found a way to make a little extra cash on the side. Every four or five laps, Shepherd’s “Racing With Jesus” Ford ducked onto pit road for four new tires. It was a puzzling strategy for a driver with a shoestring budget -- and a ragtag team that took 40-50 seconds to crank out a four-tire pitstop -- and it immediately attracted the attention of NASCAR inspectors. As it turns out, Shepherd had worked himself a bit of a side deal, and was scuffing tires to sell to other teams. NASCAR immediately put a stop to the scam, and Shepherd quietly retired from the event after just 43 laps.
Everyone’s got a right to make a living, but for a driver with four career Winston Cup wins and 481 starts, Sunday’s escapade was embarrassing to watch.
…Thunder Road is set to make a bit of history tonight, as the Flying Tiger Sportsmen run the “Power Shift On Line Homecoming 100,” event number three in the 2003 Subway Grand Slam Series. Craig Bushey seeks his third straight Subway Series win, as the Tigers go 100 laps for the first-time ever at the Road. The ACT Late Models, Street Stocks and Junkyard Warriors will also be in action, with a post time of 7:00 p.m.
Tomorrow night on the Canaan Fair (NH) Speedway dirt track, it’s “Upper Valley Equipment Rental Night,” with the Granite State Mini Sprints joining the track’s regular 6:30 p.m. racing program.
The ACT New England Dodge Tour tackles the Star Speedway in Epping, NH, Saturday night, along with the 350 Supermodifieds (an incredible show on a quarter-mile bullring), Streets, Strictlies, and Roadrunners, with a post time of 5:00. The NASCAR Busch North Series also returns to the short tracks Saturday night at the Waterford (CT) Speedbowl. Plattsburgh’s Airborne Raceway is back at it Saturday night, with the Tiger Sportsmen, Renegades, Street Stocks and Warriors, beginning at 6:30. At Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway, six divisions take to the track, with a return of the Sprint Cars and a Tri-Track Four Cylinder Enduro. Riverside (NH) Speedway presents round two of the Coca-Cola Triple Crown Series for Tiger Sportsman Cars, plus Strictly Stocks, Cyclones, Dwarf Cars, a Ladies’ Enduro and an 8-cylinder Enduro, beginning at 6:35 p.m.
At White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, the Strictly Streets go 35 laps at the top of a six-division race program Saturday, beginning at 6 p.m. On the Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway asphalt, NAPA Auto Parts of Lebanon and Bradford present a six-divisions program, with the return of the New England Allison Legacy Series and an enduro, with racing beginning at 6:00 p.m.
And finally, Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven rolls off Sunday night at 7 p.m., with all divisions in action.