Busch North Transitions: Shaw Leaving, Leighton Next?



Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus


            Already struggling to make ends meet in the car count department, the Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring division sustained a pair of major blows last weekend. A disastrous outing on the road course at Watkins Glen saw as many as five teams return home with totally destroyed racecars, while two of the series’ top names confirmed that they are considering retirement at the end of the season. Former series champion Dale Shaw announced that 2002 will be his final season on the Busch North Tour, while two-time titlist Brad Leighton said he is strongly considering a similar move.


Published reports last week said Leighton -- the 1999 and 2000 Busch North champion -- has informed car owner Steve Griswold that he will not return next season. The New Hampshire driver refused to confirm those reports in an exclusive SpeedReading interview last weekend, but admitted he is leaning strongly in that direction. In fact, sources close to the team say Grizco Racing has already signed former Busch North Series champion Mike Stefanik to replace Leighton at the wheel of the Burnham Boilers Chevrolet.


Leighton said he has not yet ready to announce a final decision on his future, but admitted that he has accomplished virtually everything he can on the Busch North Series.


“We won back-to-back championships in 1999 and 2000, and we’re right in the thick of the hunt again this year,” he said. “We’ve won three races in a row at NHIS, and short of winning here at Watkins Glen, I feel like I have done everything there is to do in Busch North racing.”         


Leighton, who recently sold his successful business in New Hampshire , said his newfound financial security has him questioning what he wants to do with the rest of his life.


“I’ve talked to Steve Griswold about this, and he tells me that no matter how much money you have in the bank, you still need something to do. If I quit racing at the end of the season, I don’t want to get a year or two down the road and miss it. I would hate to be one of those people wandering around with nothing to occupy my time. But at the same time, I’m not sure I want to have to go to the racetrack every weekend. Part of me feels like it’s time to take some time for myself.”


After testing the waters down south a few years ago, Leighton said he has no interest in pulling up roots to further his racing career. “I’ve got the greatest deal in the world right here,” he said. “Karl (Osha), Brian (Latuch) and the boys do all the work on the cars, I don’t even go to the shop. All I do is show up at the track with my helmet in my hand and drive. Where else am I going to get a deal like that? And even if I could, this business is awfully tough on a family. Being away every weekend means less time with my kids, and they’re getting to an age where they’re not going to want to hang out with their old man much longer.”


Sources close to the team say a public announcement on Leighton’s plans may come in two weeks at his home track, Maine ’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. At that time, expect Leighton to announce that he will race only a limited schedule of events in 2003 in a car fielded by Grizco, with Stefanik taking his place as fulltime driver.


While Leighton has still not finalized his plans for next year, Shaw has announced that this will be his final season on the Busch North Tour.


            “This is definitely my last year, and I’d like to go out on top,” said Shaw, who won the 1994 Busch North championship at the wheel of Quint Boisvert’s Skoal Bandit Pontiac. ”I want to win the championship, pay off my house, sell all my (Busch North) stuff, and do something else for a while.” Shaw’s announcement may not mean the end of his racing career, however, as the Granite State driver may continue to run selected races on the PASS Pro Stock Series, or even on the ACT Dodge Tour.


“It’s the final year of my Busch North career,” he said. “I’m not going to say I might not do something else in the future.”


The loss of Leighton and Shaw is the latest in a series of bad signs for the Busch North Series. Currently in its sixteenth season, NASCAR’s northern tour has struggled to fill fields at virtually every stop. Last Saturday’s race at Watkins Glen won’t help. The green flag had barely flown when a massive pileup at the top of turns 3 and 4 eliminated seven cars outright, and sent at least four more to the garage for repairs. First-year driver Troy Williams took the worst of it, flipping wildly over the guardrail, while the cars of Martin Truex, Jr., Ted Christopher, Mike Speakman, John Kohler, John Cerbone, and Randolph ’s Kip Stockwell were all severely damaged. Miraculously, all drivers emerged uninjured.


Ironically, just prior to the start of the race, Stockwell spoke of his desire to put Watkins Glen in his rear-view mirror as quickly as possible. “We’ve got no business racing here,” he said. “Our motor’s all wrong for this kind of track, we haven’t got the special brakes and transmission we need, nothing. I don’t care if we finish last today, as long as we roll the car into the trailer in one piece so we can get on to Beech Ridge and Thunder Road .”


Unfortunately, the first-lap melee reduced what Stockwell called “the best car I’ve ever driven” to scrap metal, in only its second start. “It’s junk,” reported Stockwell’s father Lennie Monday. “Even the steering wheel is bent. We hope the motor survived, though the headers and a lot of the bolt-on stuff took it pretty hard. If the engine is okay -- and that’s a big `if’ -- we’ll drag the old Pontiac out of mothballs and see if we can cobble it back together in time for Thunder Road on Labor Day weekend.”


Later in Saturday’s race, Shelburne’s Dennis Demers flipped in turn two and tore down a lengthy section of guardrail, severely damaging his Chevrolet. Repairs to the safety barrier required a second red flag, and after struggling to exit his inverted racer, Demers was released after examination at the infield care center.


Two years ago, the BNS drew more than 60 cars at New Hampshire International Speedway, for a race that started 43. This year, only 45 drivers have attempted to qualify for more than one race, and only 19 have attempted every event. Just 27 teams have entered this weekend’s race at Adirondack , and in the aftermath of Saturday’s debacle at the Glen, even that number may be optimistic.




            Phil Scott has been holding his breath all season, waiting for a four-month run of good luck to come to an end. Saturday night at New Hampshire ’s Riverside Speedway, it ended.


            Scott, who leads both the ACT Dodge Tour and Thunder Road Late Model standings, was racing two-abreast with the Pontiac of Jimmy Winters just 10 laps from the finish, when the two came upon a slower lapped car. Winters moved high to pass the slower car, and when he and Scott came into contact, Scott’s Lamberton Electric Ford pounded the first-turn concrete, severely damaging the car and bringing out a red flag.


Aside from a serious case of  “racer’s rheumatism,” the two-time Thunder Road king experienced no after effects from the crash, other than a major hit to his championship point lead. His margin over runnerup Patrick Laperle has now been trimmed to just 88 points, with Dwayne Lanphear just one more marker in arrears. Saturday’s DNF broke a strong of 11 consecutive top-10 Dodge Tour finishes for Scott, despite being forced to race from the rear of the field virtually every time out.


This weekend is officially a weekend off for the Dodge Tour troops, though a majority of the top runners will be on hand at Plattsburgh ’s Airborne Raceway Saturday night for a non-point, 100-lap Late Model special there. The Dodge Tour resumes next weekend at New Hampshire ’s White Mountain Motorsports Park . One year ago, Shelburne’s Jamie Fisher saw his luck turn sour and a comfortable point lead evaporate with a serious of lackluster runs down the stretch. Scott can only hope for a better turn of the cards this time around. 




Short (Track) Subjects…


     …Ricky Craven confirmed recently that team-owner Cal Wells is looking to add a second car to the PPI Motorsports stable. A deal to change PPI from Ford to Pontiac livery next season is all but signed, and Jerry Nadeau is said to be at the top of the list of possible Craven teammates. Nadeau was recently hired to drive the Petty Enterprises/Georgia Pacific #44 Dodge for the remainder of the 2002 campaign.


…Kyle Petty says his #43 Dodge belongs to John Andretti next season, if he wants it. If he doesn’t, Bobby Hamilton has made it clear he would love to return.


“I’ve talked to Kyle, and I’ve told him I’d like to get into a Dodge next year,” said Hamilton in an exclusive SpeedReading interview. “I’ve driven for the Pettys before (from 1995 to 1997), and it was the best job I’ve ever had in racing. There’s something in their bloodline; they treat their people with respect, and they give you what you need to win. If they can get everything together sponsor-wise, yeah, I’d love to go back.”


Hamilton admitted he never should have left Petty Enterprises in the first place, calling the decision “a case of selfishness. In 1996, we won at Phoenix and finished ninth in points. Everyone expected things to be even better in `97, but we only won once – at Rockingham -- and fell to 16th in points. Everyone knew we were capable of more, and we all got thinking about ourselves instead of working as a team. It was selfish, it was stupid, because if we had stayed together, I think we’d be in a pretty good place right now.”


…Among the sponsors rumored to be interested in replacing Sprint on Petty’s #45 next season is one with Vermont ties; Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream.


…The latest angle on the “Where Will Ricky Rudd Race Next Season” sweepstakes has Rudd moving to Chip Ganassi Racing in 2003, with sponsor Texaco in tow. Ganassi will reportedly form a new team for Rudd, paving the way for Rudd’s current car owner, Robert Yates, to finalize his long-discussed deal with Elliott Sadler. Sponsorship for that operation is expected to come from M&Ms. The deal may not be done yet, however, as a scheduled midweek press conference to announce Havoline’s plans for 2003 was abruptly cancelled this week.


…The weekend racing calendar kicks off tonight at Thunder Road with NAPA Make-A-Wish Night,” beginning at 7 p.m. Only one Thursday Night Thunder racing program remains after tonight. Canaan (NH) Speedway returns to action tomorrow night, when Chappy's Concessions presents a four-division card of dirt track racing beginning at 7 p.m.


Saturday night, Airborne Raceway welcomes the ACT Late Models for a 100-lap special event, along with Street Stocks, Renegades, and the "Run Whatcha Brung" spectator races. All "Run Whatcha Brung" entries must be registered and inspected, drivers must wear helmets and seat belts, and no snow tires are allowed. Post time is set for 7:00 . At New Hampshire ’s White Mountain Motorsports Park Saturday night, the Strictly Streets will run a special 35 lap main event as part of their regular weekly program, and the Kids Truck Division will be back in action, as well. The green flag waves at 6 p.m. At Riverside Speedway in Groveton, NH, ACT’s “Subway Shops Grand-Slam Series” for Flying Tiger/Sportsman cars headlines the Saturday night card, along with the Cyclones, Strictlies, Dwarf cars, and an eight-cylinder Enduro, beginning at 6:35 p.m. Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway returns to action Saturday night, when Walker Motor Sales presents a 40-lap Twin State Modified Series feature that will send its winner to Lebanon Valley (N.Y.) Speedway's 100-lap Race Of Kings. The Coupes, Pro-Streets and Fast Fours will also be in action, along with a Four-Cylinder Enduro. Post time is 6:30 p.m. The NEKC Kart Tour is at Barre’s Thunder Road Saturday afternoon at 4:00 , with a multi-division card for all ages.


And finally, Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven , VT , rolls Sunday night at 7 p.m. , with all divisions in competition, plus an Enduro.