So Long, Airborne

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

           

The coroner was not called, the funeral home wasn’t needed, but make no mistake about it. Airborne Raceway committed suicide last Saturday night.

 

In the latest in a long-running series of problems at the Plattsburgh , NY , oval, three American-Canadian Tour officials suffered minor injuries Saturday night, after attempting to intercede in an incident involving Street Stock driver Dustin Criss and his team. A member of the Criss team reportedly attempted to throw a metal bumper through the windshield of another competitor’s car after an on-track altercation in qualifying, and a second incident following the division’s main event resulted in what one observer described as “a donnybrook,” with officials Dan Beede, Dean Suprenant, and Jim Lamell all suffering injuries.

 

Confrontations involving racers, crewmembers and even fans have become a frequent part of the Airborne program this season, as has a repeating pattern of disqualifications in the track’s Renegade and Street Stock divisions. Two weeks ago, the track’s chief starter was verbally accosted by spectators, and a female member of the ACT staff was struck above the eye by a rock thrown by an unidentified fan. On July 11, American-Canadian Tour President Tom Curley sent a written memo to competitors in the Renegade division, stating that due to repeated problems in post-race technical inspections, automatic suspensions would be handed out for all repeat offenders, with a season suspension awaiting any three-time losers. That warning apparently fell on deaf ears, since at last one of the top-three finishers has been disqualified for illegal parts every week since then. One driver, Mike Wells, was suspended for the season recently after receiving his third DSQ of the year.

 

In the aftermath of Saturday night’s brawl, ACT President Tom Curley said he has had enough of the Plattsburgh oval.

 

“When Jimmy Lamell – 140 pounds soaking wet – gets pinned to the ground and beaten, when Dean Suprenant and Danny Beede get sucker-punched trying to break up the brawl, it’s all over,” he said. “Had it not been for the efforts of (Late Model crewmember) Billy Herring and a couple of others who came to the rescue and helped restore order, we would have had a very serious situation on our hands.

 

“There is a group of people at that track who have absolutely no regard for the process, and no respect for what we’ve tried to accomplish,” he said. “We’ve tried for 12 years to weed them out, to no avail. Now, it’s time to stop.”

 

Curley said this Saturday night’s program will be the final race of the season at Airborne. The September 15 ACT Dodge Tour “New England Dodge Dealers Fall Foliage 200” – already trimmed from a two-day affair to a single-day format -- will now take place at Thunder Road , instead.

 

“We’re going to Airborne Saturday night to run the Flying Tiger/Sportsman `Dick Nephew Memorial,’ but the ACT Tri-State Street Stock Series race has been cancelled, as has the Renegade division feature. Instead, we will run ‘invitation only,’ non-point races for the Streets and Renegades. We will send out written invitations this week to drivers who have not been disqualified for tech line violations, thrown-out for disciplinary reasons, or in the opinion of the officials, been a detriment to the process. It’ll be a fairly short list of names, and if you’re not invited, you’re not welcome. As far as the Street and Renegades are concerned, their championship seasons are over, and the points are final.

 

“In all honesty, we’re going back Saturday night for one reason and one reason only; because the Flying Tigers deserve it,” said Curley. “I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not their fault. They have been fabulous this season. Their car counts are up, and the racing has been excellent. They have been everything I envisioned them being as a headline division.”

 

Unfortunately, as is often the case, a small nucleus of troublemakers seems insistent on ruining things for the majority. And in all honesty, there’s not been much to stop them.

 

At ACT’s other weekly venue -- Thunder Road – the track hires officers from the Barre Town Police Department to patrol the grounds. Highly visible, with full arrest capability, the presence of these officers on site is enough to give potential rabble-rousers second thoughts. At Airborne, however, there is no uniformed police presence. Instead, a small, private security force attempts to keep order, often with as few as one or two officers; none of whom have arrest capability. Curley has been criticized recently for not hiring a larger security force, specifically one with arrest powers.

 

“The deal Saturday night should never have happened,” said one driver this week, on the condition on anonymity. “They should have thrown that whole (Criss) bunch out after the first incident, but they didn’t. They ignored the problem until it blew up again, and by then, it was too late. There’s a group of people at Airborne that doesn’t care about rules, doesn’t care about getting disqualified, and doesn’t care about getting thrown out. Their attitude is, `We’re going to do what we want, and nobody’s going to stop us.’ Curley’s rent-a-cops turn and run when the fights break out. They’re not going to do anything, and everyone knows it. The inmates are running the asylum.”

 

Curley responded to those charges this week.

 

“I’ve tried for 12 years to get a security force in place there, but nobody wants the job,” he said. “I’ve approached the Plattsburgh City Police, the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department, even the New York State Police. None of them are interested. I’ve hired four different private security companies, and the longest any of them lasted was two seasons. Most of them are gone after a few weeks, because they’re not interested in dealing with the B.S.”

 

Curley said local law enforcement officials have washed their hands of the situation.

 

“We called the State Police Saturday night, and after 30 minutes of discussion, they said that if they took the Criss’ to jail, they’d have to take my officials, too. I offered to press charges, but they said that since they hadn’t actually seen the fight, they would have to take everyone involved to jail. Basically, they said that unless my people were willing to lay on the ground getting beaten – without defending themselves -- until they showed up, there was nothing they could do.”

 

Airborne’s problems, while worse in recent weeks, are nothing new. When ACT first acquired the track, physical confrontations and threats against officials were commonplace, and track management was routinely required to banish repeat offenders from the grounds. Even during its previous run as a dirt track, problems were frequent.

 

“It’s nothing new,” said former Airborne dirt modified champion Charlie Wilbur last week. “The year after I won the championship, I left Airborne after just two races and went to race in Canada . It was the same thing then; drinking, fighting and carrying on. It’s been that way since day one, and it’ll never change.”

 

Are Airborne’s days as a race track numbered? Clearly, Saturday night’s race will be the last at the Airborne oval for 2002. Curley declined to comment on the track’s long-term future, saying a decision will be announced next week, but it doesn’t take a genius to guess that Airborne Raceway may have run its final race under ACT management.

 

            If so, it’ll be death by suicide.

 

rrrr

 

    Moving the “Fall Foliage 200” to Thunder Road has ramifications for that track, as well as for the traveling ACT Dodge Tour. Curley said yesterday that moving the race to Thunder Road on September 15 will force him to trim the previously scheduled “Subway Flying Tiger Grand Slam Series” finale that same day from 100 laps to 50. The “Fall Foliage 200” will now award ACT Dodge Tour championship points, as well as Thunder Road Late Model championship points, meaning that all three weekly divisions will contest their final championship events that day.

 

            And finally, Curley said that in the aftermath of a recent cancellation at New Hampshire ’s Hudson Speedway, the 39th annual “New England Dodge Dealers Milk Bowl” on September 28/29 will now award points toward the 2002 ACT Dodge Tour championship.

 

rrrr

 

After weeks of speculation that Ricky Rudd would take the Texaco/Havoline sponsorship from Robert Yates Racing to Chip Ganassi, Rudd surprised everyone Tuesday by signing a three-year contract with Motorcraft Quality Parts and the Wood Brothers Team. The deal puts Rudd under the Motorcraft banner for the second time in his career. He won four races, and finished in the top-10 in points in three consecutive seasons (1985-1987) in Bud Moore’s Motorcraft-sponsored Ford.

"Unbelievable. Incredible. I don't know what else to say,” said team spokesman Eddie Wood Tuesday. “Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have bet you a nickel on our chances to sign Ricky.  We had one year of sponsorship left, and just not enough to offer him. But Motorcraft came down to see us last week, told us they wanted to extend our deal, and asked what we thought it would take to get Ricky.  We laid it out, and they said, `Let's go get him.’"

"The bottom line is that I trust Eddie and Len Wood, and I trust the people at Motorcraft,” said Rudd. “We speak the same language. Everybody knows how good the Wood Brothers' equipment is. Eddie and Len have put together a partnership with Jack Roush that is paying off.  Pat Tryson (crew chief) used to work for me when I ran my own team.  This is really comfortable for me, and I think we've got a chance to win some races."

The Rudd/Wood deal caught virtually everyone by surprise, since as recently as last Sunday, press conferences had been scheduled to announce an agreement between Rudd, Havoline, and Ganassi to run a third Dodge team next year. The deal reportedly came apart at the last minute, however, after a heated disagreement in Ganassi's office resulted in Rudd being asked to leave. In the aftermath of that breakdown, angry Texaco officials were reportedly set to pull out of NASCAR racing altogether, but sources close to the Ganassi team said yesterday that he had persuaded them to bankroll a third Dodge Team out of his stable, with a driver to be named soon.

 

In other “Silly Season” news, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. signed driver Steve Park to a one-year contract extension to remain in the Pennzoil Monte Carlo. That signing also caught many by surprise, since as recently as last month, insiders said Park would be lucky to keep his job through the end of the 2002 campaign.

 

            Ricky Craven’s PPI Motorsports Team announced Saturday that it will convert to Pontiac livery next season. That move angered officials at Ford Motor Company, who claim they had a handshake agreement with team owner Cal Wells to keep the Tide team in Ford sheetmetal.

 

"I was very disappointed when I got a phone call from Cal Thursday morning, informing me that he intended to sign a deal with Pontiac," said Ford's North American Racing Operations Manager, Greg Specht. "At Sears Point , we shook hands on an agreement that I had presented to him, and that I had followed up with in writing. His lawyer…called my guy who handles contracts and said, 'Don't pay attention to the rumors. We're just waiting to get the legal language cleared up.’ I am very disappointed, and now know what a handshake means to Mr. Wells."

 

Pontiac will add another team to its stable this weekend, when Morgan-McLure Motorsports announces plans to move their Kodak Film #4 from the Chevrolet camp next season. Sources say Hendrick Motorsports – longtime stalwarts of the Chevy bowtie brigade – will also field a Winston Cup Pontiac for former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Jack Sprague next year. Hendrick’s other drivers; Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Jimmie Johnson and Joe Nemechek, will remain with Chevrolet.

 

And finally, MBV Motorsports announced last weekend that Johnny Benson and crewchief James Ince have signed multi-year contract extensions to continue with the Valvoline Pontiac team. Benson and Ince have been with the #10 team since 2000.

 

rrrr

 

Short (Track) Subjects…

            …Against long odds, Vermonters Dennis Demers and Kip Stockwell both competed in last weekend’s NASCAR Busch North Series event at Adirondack International Speedway. Both teams destroyed racecars the previous week at Watkins Glen, and worked long hours to get things back together and avoid missing a race.

 

Demers’ Shelburne Limestone/Whelen Chevrolet was literally severed at the firewall after flipped into the infamous ARMCO guardrail in Watkins Glen’s second turn. The crash saw a steel upright slice through Demers’ car like a hot knife through butter, ending up inches from Demers’ right hip. “My feet were hanging in mid-air,” said the Shelburne driver last week. The left-front frame rail was gone, the front crossmember was torn away, the firewall and footbox were gone…there was nothing left. My feet are black and blue this week, but I was very, very lucky to walk away.” Demers finished 13th Saturday.

 

Stockwell, meanwhile, saw his new Flooring Network Chevrolet destroyed in a violent, multi-car incident on the first lap of the Watkins Glen race, forcing his family team to roll out their backup car; an elderly Pontiac that had supposedly been retired forever after backing hard into the wall at Thompson (CT) Speedway last month. After a week of what Stockwell called "23-hour days," the team made the race at Adirondack , finishing 24th.

 

…Thunder Road returns to action tonight for the final “Thursday Night Thunder” series event of the year, as Vermont State Employees Credit Union presents a three-division card of racing, plus the annual kids’ rides in the racecars from 4 to 5 p.m. The Canaan (NH) dirt track is back in action tomorrow night, when the Twin State Modified Series returns for a 40-lap main event, along with Sportsman Coupes, Pro-Streets and Fast Fours, with a post time of 7 p.m.

 

The ACT Dodge Tour invades White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock , NH , Saturday night for a 100-lap main event. Also on the card will be Late Models, Super Streets, Strictly Minis, Mini-Cups and the Kids Truck Division, with an early starting time of 5 p.m. The Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring division makes its second and final visit of 2002 to Maine ’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway the “Irving Oil 150,” with Bud Pole Qualifying at 5:15 p.m. , and the main event at approximately 9 p.m.

 

Airborne Raceway closes out its 2002 campaign Saturday with “Four Seasons Real Estate Night,” beginning at 7 p.m., while at New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, it’s “Pat's Auto Sales Night,” featuring the third and final round of the Coca-Cola Triple Crown Series for Flying Tiger/Sportsman Cars, plus the Riverside Late Models, Cyclones, Strictlies, and the Senior Tour Auto Racers, with a show time of 6:35 p.m. Bear Ridge Speedway is also back in action Saturday night, when Richardson Insurance Agency presents all four weekly racing divisions, the Granite State Mini-Sprints, and a show-closing V8 Enduro. Post time is 6:30 p.m.  And finally, the NEKC karters are at Thunder Road Saturday afternoon for their “Worcester Envelope Trophy Dash,” with a post time of 4 p.m.

 

And finally, the 350 Supermodifieds roar to life on the Canaan USA Speedway asphalt track Sunday, sharing top billing with the NEDA Late Models as part of a five-division card of racing that includes 360-cubic inch Super Streets, the Claremont/ Monadnock/White Mountain Street Stocks, and an Enduro. Qualifying begins at 4 p.m.