Warriors Add Spice To Weekly Racing
By DAVE MOODY
At the three-quarter mark of the 2003 season, the “New Kids on the Block” at Thunder Road and Airborne Raceway are threatening to take over. The new, four-cylinder Junkyard Warrior division has reinvigorated ACT’s Thursday and Saturday night race programs, and with car counts skyrocketing at both venues, the fun may be just beginning.
As little as three years ago, the ACT Street Stock division averaged nearly three flips per night at Thunder Road. While the “inversion factor” was slightly lower on the fast Airborne half-mile oval, the division still added an element of fun and unpredictability that meshed perfectly with the faster, more professional Late Model and Flying Tiger-Sportsman divisions. Lately, however, technology has taken hold in the Street Stock ranks. More lenient rules, combined with a smattering of aftermarket parts and a racier track tire, has made the Streets faster, more predictable, less exciting, and - worst of all - more expensive.
In the beginning, a competitive Street Stock racer could be built for a few hundred dollars. Now, a good engine costs that much, discouraging many first-time racers from joining the ranks. That reality is not lost on ACT President Tom Curley.
“During the off-season, we took a close look at our weekly racing programs, and realized that something was missing,” said Curley. “Our entry level division had evolved to the point where it was no longer what we had designed it to be; a low-dollar, high-enjoyment division. Over the last three or four years, the Street Stocks had become real race cars driven by real racers, and were no longer filling the void they were designed to fill.”
Enter the Junkyard Warriors.
Using the same simple rulebook that once governed the Street Stocks, Curley and partner Ken Squier ushered in a new entry-level class this season, with an emphasis on low-buck competition. A $600 claiming rule was adopted, allowing the track to purchase questionable cars outright, and insulating the division from those who might be tempted to overspend in their pursuit of speed. The results have been nothing less than spectacular.
Four cars turned out for the division’s maiden voyage at Thunder Road in June. Just six weeks later, 28 took the green flag, with two more on pit road suffering from various mechanical maladies.
“The thing has really taken off,” said Curley with a smile. “Next season, I expect to have 50 cars on a weekly basis, just like we used to with the Street Stocks. They’re cheap to race, they’re fun, and the crowd loves them. My job now is to not screw `em up.”
Apparently learning from past experience, Curley said he will be unwavering in his efforts to weed-out cheaters and keep the division inexpensive. “We’ve claimed a car at each track already this season,” he said. “If we find any others, we’ll claim them, too. This is not the place to race if you want to spend a lot of money.
”Right now, if a kid wrecks his $500 Warrior car, he’s got two choices. He can build a new one, or say “Hey, I had a good time and I got my money’s worth. That’s it for me.’ Either way, he’s happy. We’re not going to let this go the way of the Street Stocks,” said Curley. “The Warriors are right where they need to be right now, where people can afford to get in, try their hand at racing, and have a little fun without taking out a second mortgage.”
The Thunder Road and Airborne promoter said he also has a fine line to walk when policing the inevitable on-track highjinks.
“There’s a fine line between exciting and dangerous,” he said. “These kids are beginners, and they’re going to make mistakes. We expect that. In fact, we embrace it. What we don’t want is dangerous driving; guys running through people instead of racing with them. We’ll deal with that on a case-by-case basis, reining in the rough-riders while hopefully not taking the excitement out of it.”
Sunday night’s “Parts Plus” event at Thunder Road offered a perfect example of what has made the Warriors so popular. Jimi “The Road Warrior” Heyder won the main event, despite a last-lap challenge from newcomer Matt Shannon that saw Shannon drive through the infield and harpoon the leader in a futile attempt to steal the victory. When Heyder criticized Shannon’s roughhouse tactics in Victory Lane, the New Hampshire driver vowed to return the next week and finish the job, saying, “Where I come from, rubbing is racing.”
With visions of P.T. Barnum and the WWE’s Vince McMahon dancing in his head, Curley immediately ordered the infield cleared for a no-holds-barred, no-rules match race between the two. Heyder took a commanding early lead, then inexplicably slowed, inviting Shannon to give him his best shot. Shannon happily complied, sending Heyder for a wild spin. The race ended prematurely, however, when Shannon declined to restart in front of Heyder; directly in the line of retaliatory fire. The New Hampshire driver drove to the pits, while Heyder was awarded the first AND second-place trophies, to the delight of the Thunder Road fans.
Minutes later, Shannon’s car failed a post-race technical inspection. Curley invoked the $600 claiming rule, and when Shannon refused to turn over the keys, he was stripped of all point and prize money and banned from competition for the rest of the season.
Not a bad show for a few hundred bucks.
In Winston Cup news this week, Bill Davis Racing has offered to terminate the final year of Ward Burton’s contract, freeing him to sign with another team. Burton admitted that he is exploring other options for 2004, but said he will not accept Davis’ offer until he has another ride in place for 2004.
"We have an option to terminate our agreement for 2004 by November 30,” said Burton last weekend at Watkins Glen. “Obviously, I'm not going to sign it until I have an agreement with someone else."
As we told you here last week, one of the car owners interested in talking to Burton is Richard Childress. While the two claim they have not spoken specifically about the possibility of joining forces next season, Childress said Burton would be a good choice for a car owner in need of a driver.
Burton may not be the only name on Childress’ wish list, if rumors running through the Winston Cup garage area bear fruit. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., said Sunday that he is a "free agent," and has no long-term contract to continue driving for his late father’s team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Months ago, the two parties said they had negotiated a contract to keep them together through the 2007 season. But Junior never signed the pact, concerned that it made too many demands on his time for sponsor appearances and promotions.
"I've paid my dues to get where I am, and I feel I have to stand up for myself," said Earnhardt this week. "There are too many security blankets on one side of the fence, and there need to be a few on my side. Right now, the contract looks out totally after Dale Earnhardt Inc., rather than myself."
The day after Earnhardt’s comments, his sister and business manager, Kelley Earnhardt, insisted her brother has "no issues” with DEI, and “no plans to drive anywhere else. The whole thing is way overblown," said Kelley Earnhardt Tuesday. "There is a verbal agreement, and 95 percent of the deal is worked out. There are just a few things Dale Jr. and Teresa need to work out."
Short (Track) Subjects…
…There may also be a shakeup coming at Roush Racing, where drivers Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin have all struggled this season. Roush himself admitted last week that he will “look at moving some people around for the second half of the year.
“We have three programs that could be doing better, and I'm looking for things we can do,” said Roush. “Right now, it comes down to personnel assignments. We're talking with drivers about what they think they need, If that isn't what the team manager thinks they need, then we have to argue with them and rationalize with them.”
…Terry Bradshaw is no Earnhardt fan. The NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, who co-owns - along with partner Armando Fitz - the FitzBradshaw Racing NASCAR Busch Series team, said he was so unhappy with the performance of former driver Kerry Earnhardt that the threatened to pull his support from the team.
"I wanted to make the move a long time ago," said Bradshaw last week. "This is about performance, not a last name. I wanted something to be done, but it was hard with all the sponsorship deals. And my partner was more worried about being politically correct. I finally said we got to do something different or you can do this without me."
Since replacing Earnhardt with veteran Tim Fedewa, the team has recorded its three best finishes of the season; 12th, 13th and 13th.
"Hello?" said Bradshaw. "Does that tell you something?"
…Ricky Craven’s Winston Cup car owner, Cal Wells, may be looking to join the Toyota camp in 2004, when the Japanese automaker makes its debut on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Wells and former crewchief (turned TV analyst) Larry McReynolds are negotiating to form a new team to field Toyota Tundras on the NCTS next season, with former series champion Mike Skinner at the wheel. Skinner and McReynolds teamed for several years at Richard Childress Racing.
“I have had some conversations with some people about the future of the series,” said McReynolds this week. “I'm a competitor. I'm a racer. I love to work on racecars. I am still committed to FOX Sports and SPEED Channel, but if I can be part of a series that I don't broadcast, then it may even help my broadcast abilities."
…NASCAR is set to introduce its new “Official Fuel” this weekend at Michigan. Leading candidates include Exxon/Mobil and Sunoco.
…Look for Brett Bodine to announce a new, long-term sponsor for his #11 Winston Cup team in the next three weeks. The new deal will reportedly cover the balance of the 2003 season, and continue through 2005.
…Historic Darlington Raceway will join the ranks of tracks going “under the lights” in 2004. The system will reportedly not be ready for testing until autumn of next year, however, and track officials have not yet announced what events will be moved to nighttime starts.
…The weekly racing wars begin tonight at Barre’s Thunder Road, with “NAPA Auto Parts Night,” featuring the "Run What U Brung" spectator drags, plus a full slate of racing for the Late Models, Tiger-Sportsmen, Streets and Warriors, beginning at 7 p.m.
On the Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway dirt track tomorrow night, it’s “Upper Valley Equipment Rentals Night,” with a full card of racing including a Twin State Coupe Series event, Spectator Drags, and a 4-Cylinder Enduro.
Saturday night, the ACT New England Dodge Tour invades the “Cement Palace,” Seekonk Speedway in Seekonk, MA, for the “New England Dodge Dealers 100,” with a post time of 6 p.m. The NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series moves into the home stretch with the first of three consecutive short track races Saturday night, as New York’s Adirondack International Speedway hosts the second annual “Dealmaker 150.”
Saturday night’s TCS Communications/NEXTEL program at Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY, includes double features for the Tiger-Sportsmen and Street Stocks, plus solo events for the Renegades and Junkyard Warriors, with a post time of 6:30 p.m. Due to last Saturday night’s rain out, this week’s “Walker Motor Sales Night” at Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford will be feature races only, with doubleheaders in all divisions. The schedule features a Lebanon Valley 200 qualifier position in the Modified ranks, a 4-cylinder Enduro, and a Tri-Track V-8 Enduro. On the Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway asphalt track Saturday night, Vermont Country Campers presents the Pro Stocks, Late Models, Super Streets, and Mini Stocks, plus the New England Dwarf Cars and a 4-cylinder Enduro. The first green flag flies at 6:00 p.m. At Riverside Speedway in Groveton, NH, it’s the third and final race in the Coca-Cola Triple Crown Series, and also the final points race for the Tiger Sportsman Division in 2003. The Late Models, Strictlies, Cyclones, Senior Tour Auto Racers, and an 8-cylinder Enduro are also on the card, beginning at 6:35 p.m.
And finally, Devils Bowl Speedway in West Haven returns to action Sunday night with Seniors Night. Anyone over the age of 52 will be admitted to the grandstand free of charge, as a full card of racing will be on tap with an Enduro to cap off the night's racing.