Counting Heads For The `True Value 150’
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
Vermont’s biggest racing doubleheader is just three weeks away, with the NASCAR Busch North Series “True Value 150” teaming with the ACT Dodge Tour “New England Dodge Dealers 100” at Thunder Road on Saturday, September 1. And while all the top Busch North stars will doubtless be on hand at “The Nation’s Site of Excitement,” recent events indicate that the series might fail to produce a full field of cars for the first time in the event’s five-year history.
Car counts on NASCAR’s northeast series have hit an all-time low this summer, with short-track races suffering from especially low turnouts. Last weekend, on the road course at Watkins Glen, New York, only 40 cars turned out for an advertised 40-car race. At least six drivers - Rick Bell, C.T. Hellmund, Bobby Gerhart, John Finger, Denny Wilson and Mike Fantacone - were competing in their first Busch North race of the season, while two others -- John Wall, Sr. and John Kohler - ran second cars out of the Bryan Wall and Dale Shaw stables.
Four drivers - Fantacone, Babe Branscombe, Randolph’s Kip Stockwell and Tommy Beamer - were added to the starting grid despite not completing an official qualifying lap. Thus, had it not been for the road-course specialists and field fillers, the Busch North troops could have mustered as little as 32 cars for a race that paid more than $235,000 in posted awards (tops on the series) and was televised live on NBC-TV.
If Watkins Glen barely draws a full field, what will happen at Thunder Road; a track annually decried as too small, too tight, and too dangerous by many Busch North Series teams?
“The (Busch North) deal is in trouble right now,” said former series champion Dave Dion. “They’ve got four or five guys with tons of money, four or five more with a lot of money, and another eight or 10 just barely hanging on.
“I’ve been preaching for years that their system is not fan-friendly, and it’s not racer-friendly. But those words fall on deaf ears. They seem to think everything has to be done the way it’s done at Daytona, and as a result, you end up with only six or eight guys that can afford to compete. I got up on my soap box at Holland Speedway a few weeks ago, and I told them, `You’re not responding to the paying customers. Yellow flags eat up all the laps, and the qualifying and race procedures take all the excitement out of the show.’ I said, `You’ve got to start giving the people a show for their money.’ And you know what their response was? `We don’t care.’”
They don’t want to race at Star and Thunder Road and Lee,” said Dion, a New Hampshire native and longtime resident of Milton. “All they want to talk about is Loudon. Some day, though, all those little tracks are going to pack their bags and leave, and (Busch North) will be begging them to come back. The first thing to go was the crowd count. Now it’s the car count. Pretty soon, it’ll be the tracks.”
A quick perusal of the Busch North Series driver roster shows at least 27 expected entries for the September 1 race; assuming that Dion, Stub Fadden, Rich Lowery and Louie Mechalides show up, as expected. Drivers like Doug Hurst, David Darling, Dan Koonmen, and Adam Friend have also been a part of NASCAR’s annual Green Mountain invasion in the past, despite being only sporadic BNS racers this season, and could elect to try their hand on the Barre highbanks again. The published “True Value 150” entry calls for 26 starters, however, meaning that there will be few (if any) drivers left on pit road when the green flag falls.
Whether or not NASCAR draws a full field of cars to the Barre oval, though, Dion’s concerns remain valid. He and others like him - both inside and outside the Busch North fraternity - are rightly concerned about the present health of the series, and see the final third of the 2001 season as pivotal to the circuit’s survival.
Mike Bruno is no fan of Verres Racing Team owner Bob Sowa. And apparently, the feeling is mutual.
Recently in this space, Bruno claimed he had taken “a hosing” at the hands of the Manchester, NH, car owner, with Sowa reneging on a promise to purchase Bruno’s stock of racing equipment, then failing to enter cars for the former CVRA and Airborne Raceway champion on the 2001 NASCAR Busch North Series, as promised. Bruno also claimed that an announced deal to put second-generation motorcycle stuntman Robbie Kneivel in a Sowa-owned car was nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to draw attention - and sponsorship - to the team.
Contacted this week at his team’s offices in Manchester, NH, Sowa said he had not read Bruno’s comments, but had heard about them secondhand. Asked for a response, Sowa said only, “Shame on Mike Bruno.
The Manchester businessman declined to discuss Bruno’s assertions, and questioned the Vermont driver’s business acumen.
“Look at his track record as a businessman, and draw your conclusions from there,” said Sowa. “Talk to Dick Glines at NRP Race Cars, or Robbie Patterson at PCCW Racing Engines, and they’ll tell you who’s who. Shame on Mike Bruno, and shame on you for writing the story.”
While not wanting to comment directly on the dispute, NRP’s Glines said he has dealt successfully with Sowa for a number of years.
“All I can comment on is what I’ve seen and heard myself,” said Glines, a former championship driver and car owner before turning his attention to chassis building more than a decade ago. “Bob Sowa has always paid his bills here, and he has always done that he said he would do, right to a `T.’ In fact, if all my customers paid their bills the way he does, I’d be a lot better off.”
Glines said that during the offseason, Sowa underwrote a substantial amount of parts and repairs for Bruno’s cars, supposedly in preparation for a planned partnership between the two on the 2001 Busch North Tour. “I’ve got the invoices right in front of me, and adding it up quickly in my head, I’d have to say (Sowa) spent around $12,000 on Mike’s cars. (Bruno) would come down here for parts, I’d call Sowa to make sure it was okay, then I’d send him an invoice. It all got paid for by Verres Racing.”
The New Hampshire car builder said he has no idea what went wrong between the two, and has no real interest in finding out. In his words, “They’re both good customers, and I’ve got nothing negative to say about either of them.”
Don’t expect Sowa and Bruno to be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon.
NASCAR will release its report on the Dale Earnhardt crash next Tuesday, and the Orlando Sentinel reported last week that problems with the construction of NASCAR Winston Cup racecars will shoulder the bulk of the blame. The report, based on sources close to the investigation, will confirm that the seven-time Winston Cup champion died of a violent head-whip action when his car hit the wall on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
The Sentinel article said NASCAR’s report - some four months in the making - will stress three major points.
· NASCAR racecars are built too rigidly to adequately absorb high-speed impacts. As a result, the energy from those impacts is transferred to the driver. Possible remedies include lighter front-end construction and energy absorbing front bumpers.
· Emergency medical technician Tommy Propst was likely mistaken in his claim that Earnhardt's lap belt was intact when he arrived at the crash scene.
· Earnhardt's fatal injuries did not occur as a result of the broken seat belt. In effect, the report verifies the findings of independent expert Dr. Barry Myers, who said in April that a seat belt failure could not have caused the injuries in question.
NASCAR President Mike Helton has refused all comment on the report. The sanctioning body issued a statement late last week saying, "Our investigation is on schedule, and we will discuss the results at a press conference once it is complete. Speculation prior to that time serves no useful purpose."
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Kenny Wallace’s Innovative Motorsports/Goulds Pumps Busch team is looking to enter September’s NASCAR Winston Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway, with an eye toward joining the senior circuit full-time in 2002.
…After Robby Gordon was robbed of a potential victory by an exploding television telemetry box last weekend at Watkins Glen, there is talk that many teams will refuse to mount the devices in their cars Sunday at Michigan. Scott Cluka, a rear tire changer for the Richard Childress-owned # 31 team, suffered burns when the box exploded in his face as he tried to remove it from Gordon’s car. His injuries were described as minor, but in the aftermath of the incident, team manager David Smith said this week that he will not allow the device in the team's car this weekend.
…From the “Where Are They Now?” department, former Northern NASCAR competitor Pete Silva continues to race (and win) in the Land of Dixie, currently topping the standings at the historic Greenville-Pickins Speedway in South Carolina, and in NASCAR’s Southeast Regional championship chase. The Waterville, Maine native is best remembered by local fans as the driver of the Busch Beer-sponsored “X” on the old NASCAR North Tour. He left the Pine Tree State about 15 years ago, hoping to grab NASCAR’s Winston Cup brass ring.
…Tonight, Thunder Road presents its next-to-last Thursday night racing program of the season, with a full card of events for the ACT Late Models, Flying Tigers and Street Stocks, plus round two of the ever-popular “Run What U Brung” spectator drags, beginning at 7 p.m.
Tomorrow night, the Canaan (NH) Speedway presents “Chappy’s Concessions/Eastman Automotive Night,” with Modifieds, Late Models, Pro Street Stocks and Fast Fours in action, plus the Granite State Mini Sprints, and V8 Enduro, post time 7 p.m.
It’s a full slate on Saturday, as Plattsburgh’s Airborne Raceway goes under the lights for the final time in 2001 with a 50-lap, $1,000 to win Late Model Special sponsored by Leo’s Furniture, along with Flying Tigers, Street Stocks and Renegades. Post time is 7 p.m. Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford presents “Walker Motors Sales Night” Saturday at 7 p.m., with a Lebanon Valley “Race of Kings” Qualifier for the Modifieds as the main event. White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, rolls out its weekly five-division program that same night at 6 p.m., while Riverside Speedway in Groveton, NH, presents “Lancaster Lions Club Night,” featuring round three of the Riverside Sportsman Triple Crown Series, plus Strictly Stocks, Cyclones, and a 100-lap, eight-cylinder Enduro beginning at 7:05.
And finally, Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven will have its annual “Kiddie Ride Night” on Sunday, along with a full card of racing for all their regular divisions and the IMCA Modifieds, beginning at 7 p.m.