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Woody Wins Invitational, Griffith Beats Rowe: Northeast Late Model Recap

Each week, Short Track Scene looks back at results and news from northern New England’s Late Model and Super Late Model competition, from the region’s premier tours — the American-Canadian Tour, the Granite State Pro Stock Series, and the Pro All Stars Series — to the tracks and drivers that support them. Thanks to the local journalists and fans who report in from the track each week to keep their fellow fans informed.

A NEW SHORT TRACK TRIPLEHEADER: Earlier this season, representatives from Speedway Motorsports announced that they would be moving New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s fall NASCAR weekend to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The new deal left a void in the NHMS schedule for 2018, especially in regards to the support races usually scheduled around that weekend.

Last week, prior to NHMS’ race weekend, track president David McGrath announced a new fall event for 2018 to replace the departing Cup Series and Truck Series races. The new Friday-Saturday program will be a tripleheader featuring a 250-lap race for NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour, plus races for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. The K&N Pro Series event will feature entries for NASCAR’s Mexico Series and Euro Series champions. The Pinty’s Series event will be the first race in the United States for the Canadian tour that once was managed by Tony Novotny’s CASCAR.

Standalone weekends (without a major touring series to anchor them) are nothing new for NHMS. In the 1990s, NASCAR’s Busch North Series and Featherlite Modified Tour would race as many as four times a year at Loudon, only twice in conjunction with a major touring series. On the other weekends, the two were often a standalone doubleheader that could draw upwards of 10,000 fans.

The new tripleheader is a great move on the part of both NASCAR and NHMS, at least from a fan’s perspective. A 250-lap Modified race will present a strategy issue as far as pit stops and fueling are concerned. The lack of part-time teams to bolster the K&N and Pinty’s fields is also a concern. Those, however, are beyond the scope of this column.

But the addition of the tripleheader weekend does present some relevant questions about the 2018 schedule at Loudon.

The most obvious question is where this leaves the American-Canadian Tour. Since 2009, the fall weekend at NHMS has included the ACT Invitational, a 50-lap non-points all-star race for the Vermont-based late model tour. The tripleheader format for next year leaves little room for a fourth race on Saturday, and a Friday race would likely play to an empty grandstand. McGrath was mum on what place, if any, the ACT had on that fall weekend. With the annual Milk Bowl at the end of September, it seems unlikely that the ACT would try to commandeer a weekend at Loudon for themselves, and an all-star race in mid-season seems equally doubtful.

With those in mind, this past weekend’s ACT Invitational, a race that was not exactly the high point of the season (more on that later), may have been the last ACT appearance at the Magic Mile. For now.

The other question looks back to a test session a couple weeks ago. NASCAR’s K&N Pro East Series has had only one annual race at NHMS since 2012. Most recently, that race has been part of the July Cup weekend. Will NASCAR do away with the 70-lap July race in favor of the proposed 125-lap event in September? If so, could Derek Griffith’s recent tire test at Loudon hint that the Granite State Pro Stock Series, fresh off a successful feature event in July, could be vying for a place on the big-time schedule?

This is purely speculation, of course. Ideally, the K&N teams would keep two dates on the schedule, with room for the GSPSS and ACT teams to host either all-star or points races at the biggest track in the region. Whether they will remains to be seen.

ACT INVITATIONAL: With most weekly tracks having wrapped up competition, and only one points race remaining on the ACT Late Model Tour schedule in 2017, all eyes were on New Hampshire Motor Speedway as teams convened on the backstretch for the ninth annual ACT Invitational. Since 2009, NHMS has hosted the yearly all-star event, an opportunity for stars from all ranks of the ACT to shine on New England’s largest stage.

In eight previous Invitationals and one points race at the one-mile oval, the ACT teams have put on some of the more exciting racing the track has seen in recent years. The late models are quite capable of managing three-wide battles in the turns, and the practice of starting the fast cars to the rear of the field in a short race builds a sense of urgency.

Unfortunately, Saturday’s race was a struggle from start to finish.

The first of eight yellow flags flew on the opening lap, as Modified veteran Andy Seuss’ ACT debut ended in a backstretch wreck with Jean-François Déry and Mark Jenison. After a lengthy caution for cleanup, the field completed one lap under green before a spin brought out another yellow. A scoring issue kept the field under yellow while officials sorted out the lineup; by the time the green flew again, nearly thirty minutes had passed.

The next restart was short-lived, as an aggressive move by Série ACT champion Jonathan Bouvrette resulted in Gaetan Gaudreault’s car stuffed into the turn-one wall. When, on the subsequent restart, the field completed a second green-flag lap, the remaining crowd cheered.

At last, the ACT teams were free to do what they do best. Modified ace Woody Pitkat, who started 19th, carved his way through the field, moving into the lead by lap six. Tour regular Jimmy Hebert fought from 27th at the start into the top ten, as did pre-race favorite Eddie MacDonald. MacDonald, one of two former Invitational winners in the field, was seeking his sixth win in the all-star race.

A yellow flag for an incident involving Brian Tagg closed the field up for another restart on lap 12. As the green flag waved, polesitter Mike Ziter failed to get up to speed, and he and Ray Christian III made contact with the sand barrels at the end of the outer pit wall. The field was red-flagged for over thirty minutes as safety crews tended to Ziter and Christian and repaired the sand barrel barrier.

The race went green again on lap 12, with the skies growing ever darker. With no certainty as to the length of the race, it was safe to assume that the teams were more likely racing to halfway than to the full distance. The urgency was evident, as Jimmy Hebert climbed to second behind Pitkat and other veterans made daring three-wide moves to carve through the pack. With eighteen laps complete, Kyle Welch was turned on the backstretch while running third, collecting Eddie MacDonald and the repaired car of Ray Christian III among others. A sixth yellow flew as MacDonald and Welch reported to the pits for repairs.

At that point, making it to another restart seemed as solid a goal as halfway. With visibility in question, the green flag waved again, with an immediate yellow for a spin before another lap could click off. The field lined up for another restart, but the flagstand waved off the attempt as both Pitkat and Hebert tried outgunning one another. Another restart attempt ended the same way.

At last, the field was ushered down pit road behind the pace car. Pitkat was directed to the frontstretch, where the checkered flag waved in the darkness. With the daylight far too dim to attempt another lap, officials had elected to call the race official after only 18 of 50 laps.

Per ACT rules, no laps had been completed since the eighteenth lap, so the finishing order reverted to the scored order as the nineteenth lap began. Jimmy Hebert, who had edged out Pitkat a couple times before the late yellow flags, finished second. Kyle Welch, whose destroyed car was not on the track for the last restart attempts, was still scored third, with Joel Monahan fourth and Aaron Fellows fifth. Eddie MacDonald, despite pit stops to repair his own crash damage, was credited with seventh. Deeper in the field, Dillon Moltz finished 12th and Patrick Laperle 13th, neither having adequate time to march through traffic.

Pitkat’s celebration, though subdued and obscured by dusk, was respectful. After taking the checkered flag, he was given a white flag to display to fans on a brief “victory lap” down to turn one and back. The flag bore the initials “TMC,” for the late Thomas Michael Curley, the ACT founder and patriarch who passed earlier in the year. After honoring Curley, Pitkat proceeded to Victory Lane, where he did what he had hoped to do in the afternoon’s Modified race: he dedicated the win to Ted Christopher, the final in a series of tributes to Ted that day.

But the outcome — eight caution flags, at least ten cars off the track with crash damage, and nearly two hours invested in eighteen green-flag laps — was hardly befitting of an all-star event.

Admittedly, the late start time for an early-autumn race does not provide an ample window if problems do arise. (This is the second time the Invitational did not go the distance; red flags in the prior races and a late-race pileup shortened the 2014 Invitational by six laps.) The lengthy repair to the sand barrels alone could have allowed the race to run at least within a few laps of regulation before sunset.

This year’s entry list also garnered some criticism. At first glance, it was most notable for the stars who were absent from the lineup. Current Tour points leader Scott Payea and leading Tour rookie Jason Corliss opted to skip the Invitational. So did track champions Bobby Therrien (Thunder Road) and Quinny Welch (White Mountain Motorsports Park). Nick Sweet, a regular threat in the Invitational, was absent, as was Scott Dragon. (In fact, none of the top-ten drivers at Thunder Road, the ACT’s de facto home track, were in the field.) With so many heavy hitters skipping the event, presumably to save their cars for next week’s Milk Bowl, a number of drivers were called to fill field positions. Some were several seconds off the race pace. Admittedly, most of the crashes resulted from aggressive racing by veterans. But the absence of some of the Tour’s biggest names left a question as to the validity of an “all-star” lineup.

It was not a good look for the series on its biggest stage, particularly with questions surrounding the future of the ACT Invitational (as suggested above). The Tour has much more to offer, and with luck, fans were able to appreciate the few laps of green-flag competition over the delays and crashes. Fans can only hope that the Invitational finds a place on next year’s schedule after all.

While the ACT schedule is vacant until the Tour finale in mid-October, many ACT teams will participate in this coming weekend’s non-points event, the 55th Vermont Milk Bowl. Those teams that stayed home from the Invitational may be the best prepared for the two-day, $10,000-to-win contest.

PASS NORTH: While the ACT engaged in its all-star event at Loudon, twenty-four PASS Super Late Models packed the pits at White Mountain Motorsports Park, about an hour north of NHMS. The 150-lap SLM shootout, the final event of the year at WMMP, was also the penultimate event on the PASS North schedule, setting the stage for the final points race of the year at Oxford Plains Speedway in two weeks.

A week after losing by inches at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, Ben Rowe was back to work with a fast car from the Richard Moody Racing stable. The PASS veteran started first in the feature, flanked by Johnny Clark and followed by fourteen-year-old Gabe Brown, making his first PASS start of 2017 in a Dale Shaw Race Cars entry. Rowe, who said earlier in the week that he and the team had found a bit of speed in their cars late in the season, was still seeking his first PASS win of the year.

At first, it seemed like the four-time champ would have to beat the six-time champion who started alongside him. Rowe and Clark dueled for the lead early, before a third contender came into clear view. Derek Griffith had struggled through a sort of sophomore slump in 2017, entered the race seventh in points, lowest of the seven drivers who made every PASS field. Despite winning a race, he had weathered a number of poor runs and bad breaks. On this evening, on this quarter-mile oval, Griffith looked to serve notice that he and his Louie Mechalides-led team would be a factor for 2018.

Griffith took the lead from Rowe and held on for his second PASS feature win of 2017 and the third of his career. Travis Benjamin, leading the season points by two over Glen Luce entering the race, finished a strong second to reinforce his points lead. Rowe held on for third over Trevor Sanborn, making his third consecutive start as a teammate to Rowe in the #44 Richard Moody Racing entry. Johnny Clark, after the early battle for the lead, rounded out the top five.

Jeremy Davis, who cut back his 2017 racing to focus on his chassis business, returned to PASS with his own #09 car and finished sixth, ahead of ACT and Thunder Road competitor Scott Dragon. Dave Farrington, Jr., Craig Weinstein and recent winner Garrett Hall rounded out the top ten. Gabe Brown, in his first start, finished a lap down in twelfth.

Glen Luce, second in points entering the race, finished thirteenth and lost ground to Travis Benjamin in the title chase. DJ Shaw battled near the front of the field early, but mechanical gremlins sidelined the defending champion before halfway. Shaw, who finished eighteenth, was not alone in the pit area; Wayne Helliwell, Jr., Tracy Gordon and Derek Ramstrom were also out of contention before the race’s halfway mark.

The PASS North teams return to the series’ home track of Oxford Plains Speedway in mid-October to close out the 2017 season, with Travis Benjamin and Glen Luce holding a significant advantage over third-place Ben Rowe in points.

COMING UP: This Saturday and Sunday, Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, VT hosts the 55th Vermont Milk Bowl presented by Northfield Savings Bank. The legendary two-day show for ACT-legal late models is comprised of time trials and three 50-lap qualifying heats on Saturday, a last-chance B-feature on Sunday, and the Milk Bowl itself: three 50-lap segments with field inversions, with the lowest combined score across all three segments winning $10,000 and a kiss from the cow.

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Jeff Brown is a contributor to Short Track Scene. A native of New Hampshire and a long-time fan of New England racing, Brown provides a fan's perspective as he follows New England's regional late-model touring series.

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