NASCAR vs ACT: Let The Debate Begin!

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

 

NASCAR’s Busch North Series and the ACT Dodge Tour come together Saturday night for the only time this season, and their annual twinbill at Barre’s Thunder Road is sure to touch-off another round in the long-simmering debate over which series is the northeast’s best. Like siblings separated at birth, ACT and Busch North share a common pedigree. But nature and nurture parted long ago, taking the two series down decidedly different paths, with their devoted fans along for the ride.

 

Admittedly, there is not much common ground for backers of the two circuits to stand on. Like their big brothers on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, Busch North sets its field through time trials. ACT runs heat races, with the lineups determined by blind draw. Busch North features a “heads up” feature start, with the fastest cars at the front of the pack. ACT handicaps its hotdogs to the rear. Busch North counts caution laps, ACT does not.

 

The differences go well beyond procedure, however. In many ways, the NASCAR/ACT debate is the racing equivalent of class warfare. Busch North utilizes high-powered, steel-bodied racers with 12-inch wide racing slicks. ACT features economy based engines, aftermarket bodies, and narrow, eight-inch tires. A new ACT motor retails for $6,000, about one-fifth the cost of a Busch North powerplant. And when Brad Leighton knocks a fender off his car Saturday night, he’s beating up a $10,000 body. Phil Scott can replace his for about a grand. The NASCAR troops will roll into Barre this weekend in gleaming, 18-wheel transporters dripping with chrome, while their counterparts on the Dodge Tour soldier on with modest, dual-axle box trailers. Oh, there are a few NASCAR stragglers who’ve yet to join the convoy -- God bless you, Kip Stockwell -- but in general, it’s safe to say the average Busch North team has more invested in its transporter than an ACT team has in its entire operation.

 

Many Busch North drivers complain that their cars were not designed for short tracks like Thunder Road . And with only 13 lead changes in 900 laps of main-event racing over the last six years, they may have a point. Last year’s event featured just one change at the front; that coming when leader Mike Olsen tangled with a lapped car and handed the lead to eventual winner Dave Dion. Take ACT to New Hampshire International Speedway, however, and you’ll probably see the same thing in reverse. Dodge Tour fans like to talk about their series emphasizing the driver, instead of just the car. Money does not necessarily buy wins on the American-Canadian Tour, but then again, every previous “True Value 150” winner – Stockwell, Tracy Gordon, Dale Shaw, Leighton, and Dion – had considerable experience on the Barre highbanks before grabbing the brass ring. Maybe the driver still counts for something in NASCAR racing, as well.

 

Which series is best, NASCAR or ACT? We’ll never tell. Comparing the two is not like comparing apples to oranges. It’s like comparing apples to watermelons. And when all is said and done, who really cares? In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter whether you come to watch Leighton or Laperle, Santerre or Scott. All that matters is that you come. 

 

Let the debate begin!

 

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“Dynamite” Dave Dion won the first race he ever ran at Thunder Road , 30 years ago this season. Saturday night, he looks to the Barre oval to revitalize his career once again. The Hudson , New Hampshire veteran – for many years a resident of Milton – is the defending “True Value 150” champion, but has not won a race on the Busch North Series this season. In fact, he has only two top-five finishes in 12 starts, a statistic he hopes to change this weekend.

 

“Historically, every time this team has been down, Thunder Road has been there to lift us up,” he said. “Whenever I start thinking that this game may have passed us by, Thunder Road throws us a bone and reminds us that we can still get the job done every once in a while.”

 

The two-time Thunder Road track champion pointed to last year’s victory as a case in point.

 

“Most of my fans are older – like me – and it’s been tough for them,” he said. “For four years, every time we came back to Thunder Road , they’d start talking about our glory days there. Then we’d go out and stink up the show, and I could just hear the younger fans saying, `What’s the big deal about this Dion guy? He stinks!’ Winning the race last year took a lot of pressure off my fans, and me too!”

 

The former Busch North Series champion said another checkered flag Saturday night would resurrect what has so far been a difficult season.

 

“We’ve had good cars most of the time, but we’ve had crummy luck,” he said. “We’ve had too many DNFs (did not finish); mostly due to stupid things like flat tires. With a little bit of luck, we could easily have a couple of wins by now. But it just hasn’t happened. Maybe Thunder Road can turn things around for us again.”

 

But no matter who wins Saturday night, Dion said money won’t have anything to do with it.

 

"All that’s required to win this race is four tires," he said. "If a driver with deep pockets wins, it’s because he stepped up to the plate and did a terrific job of driving. Money doesn’t matter at Thunder Road ."

 

And while winning last year’s “True Value 150” added a few extra pages to Mama Dion’s bulging scrapbook, the New Hampshire veteran knows it won’t mean a thing Saturday.

 

"I won the first race I ever ran at Thunder Road ,” he recalled. “I was so scared, I ran away from the field. I got around Beaver Dragon and Jean-Paul Cabana, the stars of that era, and I thought I was King of the Road. I came back the next week, put it on the wall, and slid into the pits on my door handles. Thunder Road has a way of bringing you back to earth.”

 

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The season is over at Plattsburgh ’s Airborne International Raceway. ACT officials pulled the plug on the track last week after a wild brawl resulted in three track officials being treated for minor injuries; the latest in a long series of incidents at the Empire State oval. Perhaps surprisingly, Saturday night’s “Dick Nephew Memorial” was a quiet, well-behaved affair. “Invitation-only” features for the troublesome Street Stock and Renegade divisions weeded out most of the bad apples before they ever entered the pits. Those who slipped through were closely watched by a volunteer security force -- made up of members of 2001 Late Model champion Mark Lamberton’s team, among others – that shadowed American-Canadian Tour officials on their rounds and stood guard at the back pit gate.

 

            The presence of these good-guy vigilantes sent a clear message to any potential troublemakers that the “anything goes” era was over, at least for one night. It stated – loud and clear – that there were still a few good people at Airborne; people who have seen enough fighting and controversy. Unfortunately, that message may have come too late to save the Plattsburgh oval, at least in its present incarnation.

 

            There has been no word from ACT President Tom Curley about the long-term future of the Airborne oval, but sources say the days of weekly racing at the Plattsburgh track are almost certainly over.

 

In this writer’s opinion, Airborne Raceway’s fate was sealed the day Malone (NY) International Raceway closed down. During Malone’s short lifespan, drivers who found themselves disqualified in the Airborne tech line or thrown-out for bad behavior invariably launched a few profanities in Curley’s direction, then took their show up the road to Malone. Once the Malone track closed, however, Airborne’s bad apples kept coming back. Last Saturday night’s brawl was the end result.

 

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It may or may not have been the final, lead-division track championship of the ACT era at Airborne Raceway, but it was definitely the closest.

 

Cambridge , VT , driver Craig Bushey was named the 2002 Airborne Flying Tiger/Sportsman champion Monday, nearly 48 hours after he and crosstown rival Joe Becker finished the regular season tied in points. They remained deadlocked after the first tiebreaker – feature wins – was considered, with Bushey eventually getting the nod by virtue of three runner-up finishes this season, to none for Becker.

 

“It’s definitely a first for us,” said ACT spokesman Tom Herzig this week. “We all had a general understanding that in the event of a tie, feature wins were the first tiebreaker. But nobody was entirely sure what the procedure was beyond that. We were fairly certain it would come down to second-place finishes, but nobody can recall it ever happening before. So we decided to wait, do the proper research, and be sure we got it right.”

 

Becker came into Saturday night’s finale trailing Bushey by 16 points, but trimmed the deficit to just two after qualifying, before finishing one position better than Bushey in the main event. The pair could force ACT officials to sharpen their pencils again, since they currently stand first and second in ACT’s Subway Flying Tiger Grand Slam Series standings, separated by just 22 points.

 

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Mike “Chickenman” Perdue’s upset victory in Friday night’s regular season Late Model finale at Thunder Road was the kind of fairytale finish fans love. It also brought to mind enough goofy clichés to send a track announcer into conniptions. Among the lines just begging to be delivered were such gems as “the feathers were flying,” and “poultry in motion.”

 

Perdue, a former Street Stick competitor at Thunder Road , became the 12th different Late Model winner in 14 events at Thunder Road this season, wheeling his 12-year old chassis – complete with six-year old engine – across the line just inches ahead of Eric Williams after a spellbinding, 15-lap battle at the front. The fact that Perdue was in the race at all is a testimonial to ACT’s new tire rule, which allows a low-buck team to compete with its better-financed competition. As little as two years ago, major races at Thunder Road saw teams buy four tires for practice, four for qualifying, and another four for the main event; something low-budget teams like Perdue’s often could not afford.

 

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Short (Track) Subjects…

 

…Bill Davis Racing announced a multi-year deal yesterday to put Kenny Wallace behind the wheel of Davis ’ #23 NASCAR Winston Cup Dodges beginning in 2003, with sponsorship from Stacker 2. "This is a dream come true for me," said Wallace.  "Competition on the Winston Cup level is so close these days, you have to be with a team that can win races. Bill Davis Racing has proven that. Bill's a racer, and he knows what it takes to win.”

 

Wallace will take over the #23 Dodge this weekend at Darlington , after journeyman Hut Stricklin’s release this week. The car will retain its Hills Brothers Coffee sponsorship for the remainder of the season.

 

…Mike Harmon is one lucky sonofagun. Early in the first practice for last Saturday’s Food City 250 at Bristol , Harmon crashed into an outside retaining wall that doubles as a crossover gate. The wall was supposed to be backed with six, four-by-four, 3/8-inch thick metal posts, preventing the gate from opening on impact. Somehow, those posts were not put in place. Harmon's Chevrolet was literally cut in two – front to back -- by the concrete wall, with its engine and steering column coming to rest halfway down the back straightaway. The battered remains, with Harmon still inside, were then hit by the car of Johnny Sauter, who T-boned Harmon as he slid across the racing surface.

 

"Something happened to the car, it just went to the right," said Harmon afterward. "I didn't realize what had happened. I knew I was too close to the wall with my body, but I didn't realize the car was cut in two until I got out of it. Looking back, I'm glad to have survived this deal. Looking at the pictures on the Internet, I'm surprised I'm alive. I thank the good Lord for that. All I can say is, it just wasn't my day."

 

Harmon emerged with a few scratches and bruises, but after being taken to a local hospital via ambulance, but returned to the track in time to practice and qualify in a different car.

…New Hampshire International Speedway owner Bob Bahre has changed his tune, but only slightly. Bahre admitted last week that drivers who called his track dangerous after last month’s Winston Cup race were probably right. Initially, Bahre denied that the track had come apart during the race, blaming problems on a too-hard tire compound. Now, however, Bahre says there was indeed a problem with the track.

"The top came off, but nothing broke up,” he said. “It's like if you threw sand on the track."

Bahre said he will do what he can to improve the situation, and heavy rollers have reportedly been making laps at “The Magic Mile” of late. But the NHIS owner warned that conditions might not be much better when the Cup troops return to Loudon next month. That ought to help sell tickets.

…Chip Ganassi confirmed this week that he will field a third Dodge team next season. He would not, however, confirm published reports that the new team will be sponsored by Texaco-Havoline. Jerry Nadeau is openly campaigning for the new Ganassi ride, saying he would sign a performance-based contract that pays him nothing if the team does not succeed on the track.

…There’s no racing at Barre’s Thunder Road tonight, with the summer long “Thursday Night Thunder” racing series now complete. Bradford ’s Bear Ridge Speedway rolls out of special Friday night show tomorrow, as the Vermont National Guard and Clifford Concrete presenting a full four-division card of racing, along with a double-point four-cylinder Enduro beginning at 7 p.m.

Saturday, the annual Busch North/ACT Dodge Tour doubleheader blasts off at Thunder Road , with qualifying beginning at 5 p.m. White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock , NH , presents a five-division program -- plus the Kids’ Truck Division – that same night, beginning at 6:00 . The Canaan (NH) dirt track rolls out a special Saturday card this week as well when Carroll Concrete presents the final stop this season of the Sunoco Twin State Coupe Series, plus 358 Modifieds, Pro-Street Stocks and Fast Fours. Post time is  6:30 p.m.

Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven runs Sunday night at 7 p.m. , with a special appearance by the Empire Super Sprints. Riverside Speedway and the NEKC Kart Tour are both off this weekend.