One Day, Five Champions At Thunder Road Sunday
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
They’ve been racing cars at the top of Quarry Hill in Barre Town since 1961, but never has so much hardware been on the line as there will be Sunday.No less than five season championships will be decided Sunday in the final race of 2002, the “Dodge Dealers Fall Foliage 200.” The race is the longest in the history of the ACT Dodge Tour, with 200 green-flag laps on the docket. Thunder Road has hosted a handful of 200-lap events in the past - beginning with the Northern NASCAR “Barre Bicentennial 200” in 1976 - but the modern-day ACT Late Models have never gone 200 at the Road, adding an element of the unknown to Sunday’s proceedings.
Always known for close competition, Thunder Road has outdone itself this season, with 37 different winners in 49 feature events. And with handicapped starts the rule, it’s entirely possible that the championship contenders in the Flying Tiger/Sportsman and Street Stock divisions could spend their day waiting (impatiently) for the omnipresent T-Road “pack” to break up; something that experience says may or may not happen.
In the ACT Dodge Tour chase, Phil Scott leads by 79 points over Canadian challenger Patrick Laperle. Laperle has won two Dodge Tour races this year to none for Scott, but the two-time Thunder Road king has made the most of consistency, riding an amazing string of top-10 finishes to the head of the class. It will take a finish outside the top-20 (combined with a win by Laperle) for Scott to lose the championship Sunday, but then again, everyone thought Jamie Fisher was a shoo-in to win it last year.
The battle for the Thunder Road Late Model crown is a good deal tighter, with Scott clinging to a tenuous, 18-point edge over Hyde Park’s Eric Williams. With 106 points available Sunday, six drivers - Williams, Milk Bowl winner Dave Pembroke, Fisher, Pete Fecteau and Joey Laquerre - lurk within 77 points of the lead, making Sunday’s finale a stone cold toss-up. With a win Sunday, Scott would earn over $17,500; $15,000 in combined ACT and Thunder Road championship point fund bonuses, along with the $2,500 “Fall Foliage 200” winner’s purse. Then again, he could win the ACT Dodge Tour championship, while simultaneously losing the Thunder Road title, a true “good news/bad news” scenario if there ever was one.
A tenth-place finish in last weekend’s Mini Milk Bowl gave veteran “Double-O” Joe Steffen a 41-point advantage over sophomore driver Travis Calkins in the NAPA Flying Tiger/Sportsman standings. But like the Late Models, the Tigers have a half-dozen drivers still in contention for the crown. Doug Murphy, Roger Brown, Reno Gervais, and Eric Pembroke also have at least a mathematical chance to win the championship Sunday, and in a division known for its parity, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.
It’s a simple, two-man race for the Allen Lumber Street Stock championship, with veteran David Allen of North Troy coming into Sunday’s finale with a miniscule, eight-point edge over second generation driver Brendan Moodie, Jr. Moodie has momentum on his side, coming off a strong runnerup finish in last weekend’s Street Stock Mini Bowl, but with 15 different winners in 17 “Crunch Bunch” features this summer -- including both Allen and Moodie -- picking a potential winner is like singling out the prettiest blade of grass at the local golf course.
The fifth title up for grabs Sunday is the Subway Grand Slam Series for Flying Tiger/Sportsman cars, contested at Thunder Road, Airborne, Canaan and Riverside Speedways. Cambridge’s Craig Bushey leads his Jeffersonville neighbor Joe Becker, 256-234, with Murphy and Pembroke once again within easy hailing distance.
All in all, it should be an exciting and unpredictable day at the races; and a fitting way to cap a terrific season of racing at The Nation’s Site of Excitement.”
Only in America can stories like last Sunday’s “Dodge Dealers Milk Bowl” come true. After all, where else could a kid spend years in the grandstands cheering for his idol, only to find himself - 20 years later - racing that same childhood hero for a win in the biggest race of the year? That was the case Sunday, when Montpelier native Dave Pembroke claimed the 39th Annual Milk Bowl trophy, after holding off a determined pack of pursuers that included his boyhood idol, Bobby Dragon.
“I grew up at Thunder Road, and my brother and I were always big Bobby Dragon fans,” recalled Pembroke this week. “It seemed like everyone else rooted for Dave Dion, but we were Dragon men all the way. I liked him from the start, and I always admired the way he came through the pack without ever laying a glove on anyone.”
Sunday, the 31-year old Pembroke took a page from his hero’s book, threading his way masterfully through a tangled mob of contenders with nary a scratch, then holding off Patrick Laperle and Dragon in a frenzied stretch drive to claim an emotional Milk Bowl win. Dragon’s third-place finish came in his first ACT Dodge Tour start of the season; exactly 30 years after his own 1972 Milk Bowl victory.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Pembroke afterward. “I looked in the mirror with 15 laps to go, and there was Bobby. I knew then that if I wanted to win, I had to be perfect the rest of the way. Just to race against him was a huge thrill for me. To win the Milk Bowl by beating him was unbelievable.”
As thrilling as the win was, however, Pembroke said the highlight of his career is still a year away.
“Next year, when they parade all the past Milk Bowl champions out to the start-finish line, I get to go with them,” he smiled. “That’s pretty neat.”
Frank Stoddard has switched Burtons.
Just weeks after being released as crewchief of Jeff Burton’s CITGO-sponsored Winston Cup team, the New Hampshire native will be back atop the pit box this weekend at Talladega, calling the shots for Burton’s older brother, Ward. Stoddard was hired by Bill Davis Racing to replace former crewchief Tommy Baldwin, who left the team this week.
Sources say team-owner Davis has been unhappy with Baldwin’s decision to start his own NASCAR Busch Series team this season; a move Davis said distracted Baldwin from his primary responsibility with the Caterpillar Dodge Team. The two had an animated discussion prior to Sunday’s “Protection One 400” at Kansas Speedway, and when Baldwin failed to show up for work Monday morning, Davis severed their relationship and hired Stoddard to take his place. Baldwin was seen cleaning out his office Monday afternoon.
Ward Burton has four Winston Cup Series victories in more than three seasons on Baldwin’s watch -- including this year's Daytona 500 - but has struggled to 27th place in the Winston Cup point standings with only six top-10 finishes and a series-high eight DNFs. Stoddard guided Jeff Burton to 14 Winston Cup victories since being named crewchief in 1998.
"In the past few weeks, Bill and I have spoken about a position within his organization for the 2003 season," said Stoddard. "He has a first class facility, and I believe that his teams have the potential to win a lot of races. Obviously, I was caught off guard by the opportunity to work with Ward, but at the same time I am excited about the opportunity to pick up and begin working with a winning team."
"I am very thankful to Frank for accepting this position, basically overnight," said Davis. "It's not how I wanted him to get started at Bill Davis Racing, but I am looking forward to what he can bring to our organization. He is one of the best at calling a race from pit road, and I feel like his experience will contribute a lot to the team.”
Both Stoddard and Davis said they will sit down at the end of the season and discuss continuing their relationship in 2003 and beyond.
Pat Corbett says he’s going out on top.
The Williamstown veteran captured the White Mountain Motorsports Park Late Model championship last Saturday night, edging defending champion Dennis Phelps to claim the first title of his 22-year racing career. Monday, he announced his retirement from the sport.
“Everyone knows how tough it is to keep a team going,” said Corbett. “And in all honesty, I’m not getting any younger. I thought seriously about quitting after last season, but we came so close to winning the championship (finishing second), that I decided to give it one last shot. We had a real consistent season, and I still enjoy racing, but it’s awfully tough on the family, and I’m working a lot more hours than I used to.
“It just seems like the right time to stop.”
Corbett said all his equipment goes on the auction block Monday morning, after youngest son Dan makes his Late Model debut in an Open Competition event at WMMP this Sunday.
“Danny’s worked awfully hard for me over the years, and he’s always wanted to try it,” Corbett said. “He’s run some Street Stocks at Thunder Road and White Mountain in the past, so I figure he’s earned the chance to go out there and have fun.”
The recently crowned WMMP champ did leave the door open a crack, however, saying he might consider a limited 2003 schedule, if his equipment does not sell. In his words, “you can’t just let it sit and rot.”
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Busch North Series veteran Tracy Gordon will compete in the 33rd Annual Winchester 400 ASA race this weekend, in a car fielded by Bryant-Granelli Motorsports. "I've been looking forward to competing in the ASA Series for over a year now, and this is a great opportunity with a solid team,” Gordon said. “Winchester is such a big event, and to have a strong run there would be a great way to end my season."
"We are excited to have a driver the caliber of Tracy
Gordon drive for us at Winchester,” said Bryant-Granelli Vice President, Tom
Granelli. “We have been actively pursuing this opportunity for six months now,
and we would like to have Tracy as a part of our team for 2003 to compete for
the Pat Schauer Rookie of the
Year Award. I have no doubt that he can win in ASA."
Bryant-Granelli Motorsports also hopes to run Gordon in the NASCAR Goody's Dash Series event at Daytona in February. Gordon is currently fifth in Busch North points, with 14 career wins.
…Ricky Craven’s Winston Cup team is progressing well with plans to develop an in-house engine program. While those plans are progressing, however, team owner Cal Wells announced this week that he has struck a deal to purchase his team’s restrictor plate engines from Richard Childress Racing.
"We're going to focus on our higher-powered stuff -- our open motors -- without having to worry about the science of restrictor plate racing next year," said Wells, whose team will switch from Ford to Pontiac during the offseason. The team hopes to have its own restrictor plate program in place for the 2004 campaign.
…Scott Wimmer will drive the Hills Brothers Coffee Dodge at Talladega this weekend. Kenny Wallace has been in the car since replacing Hut Stricklin at Darlington, but Wallace has a previous commitment to drive Andy Petree’s # 33 Sunday, opening the door for Wimmer.
…Note to Shawna Robinson: it may be time to polish up that
resume’. The BAM Racing Winston Cup team is reportedly interviewing drivers
for a full-time position next year, with current Busch Series driver Hank
Parker, Jr. near the top of the list. While technically still on the BAM
payroll, Robinson has not driven the team’s #49 Dodge in months. Ron Hornaday,
Chad Little, Kevin Lepage and Stuart Kirby have all taken “relief rides” in
the car in recent weeks, and Stacy Compton will steer the BAM entry this weekend
at Talladega. While Parker refused to comment directly on rumors that he would
also drive the #49 later this season, he admitted that he is exploring his
options for 2003.
…Speaking of Hornaday, the former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion is reportedly set to take over Richard Childress’ AC Delco-sponsored Busch Series Chevrolet next year, replacing Johnny Sauter. Childress’ Winston Cup driver, Kevin Harvick, is slated to run a 15-18 race slate in a new #29 Busch Series Chevy, with a reported $5-million sponsorship package from Hershey's. Sauter, a former champion of the midwest ASA series who has failed to live up to expectations this season, will reportedly be offered the races that Harvick does not run.
…Jamie McMurray will make his Winston Cup debut this weekend, in a third entry out of Chip Ganassi’s stable. McMurray, who will join the Ganassi Winston Cup team full time next season, will drive a #42 Dodge this week as a teammate to Sterling Marlin and Jimmy Spencer.
…Sources with Ford Motor Company say they now expect to lose Roger Penske to the Dodge camp in 2003. Penske, who fields Winston Cup cars for Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, says only that an offer is on the table. Dodge spokesmen, however, say the deal could be official within two weeks.
…Todd Bodine had left the Excedrin-sponsored #92 NASCAR Busch Series team, fielded by Herzog Jackson Motorsports, saying he wants to concentrate on his full-time Winston Cup ride.
…Flying Tiger series veteran Bill Sawyer will look to move to the ACT Late Model ranks next year, after purchasing the entire inventory of former Airborne Raceway champion Mike Bruno recently. Fellow Tiger/Sportsman frontrunner “Rocketman” Roger Brown also hopes to move up to the Late Models in 2003, with plans for a full Thursday night schedule at Thunder Road, and limited appearances on the ACT Dodge Tour.
…At Groveton, New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, four-cylinder racers from across New England and Quebec are set to compete for $5,000 in prize money in the “North Country Ford Blowout 500.” Last year's edition drew 105 entries, and track officials expect another packed pit area Sunday. The pits open at 8 a.m., with the qualifiers beginning at 1 p.m.
White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, runs its final event of 2002 this weekend; the New England Dodge Open Competition special. The Late Models, Super Streets, Strictly Streets and Strictly Mini's will all be on the docket, facing off against outside invaders from around the region. Practice is Saturday from 1-5 p.m., with Sunday’s main events getting the green flag at noon.
Claremont Speedway management made the
official announcement on October 1st that the Pro Stock division will
not be returning for the 2003 racing season. After discussions with a
number of other NASCAR-sanctioned tracks in the region, Claremont
Speedway decided that the Pro Stock division is a form of racing that
has been steadily fading away. Stafford Motor Speedway in Stafford
Springs, CT was the most recent track prior to Claremont to eliminate
the Pro Stock division.
"We had to look at the big picture when deciding what was best for the
Claremont Speedway weekly racing program and the fans," commented track
owner Sherrie Fleury-Lanou. "We stated a few years ago that we would not
run six divisions on a weekly basis. Now we have decided that the five
divisions that will compete on a weekly basis will be the Modifieds,
Late Models, Street Stocks, Mini Stocks, and Lightning Stocks,"
Claremont Speedway management allowed the Pro Stocks to stay for the
2002 season so that they could make a decisive resolution. While this
decision will not be accepted as a perfect resolution by all, there are
a number of Pro Stock drivers that have decided to compete in the NASCAR
Weekly Racing Series presented by Dodge Modified division in 2003.