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Off-Season Track News, Driver Decisions: 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.

With short tracks heating up in the south and live racing still a few weeks away for fans in New England, STS takes a look at some of the offseason news and changes among the region’s tracks and tours.

ACT SETS 10-RACE SCHEDULE AND BONUS PROGRAMS

The American-Canadian Tour kicked off its offseason with a change in ownership. Former competitor Cris Michaud and developer Pat Malone took the reins of the Tour in late October from late founder Tom Curley’s partner Darla Hartt. Michaud and Malone had purchased the ACT’s home track, historic Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vermont, shortly before Curley’s passing in May. Since then, news from the Vermont-based sanctioning organization has been constant.

ACT Action At Lee

A new chapter in the history of the American-Canadian Tour kicks off on Sunday, April 15.

Michaud and Malone wasted no time in releasing a 2018 schedule of ten races for the ACT Late Model Tour. The scheduled season opener, as in past years, is the mid-April Governor’s Cup 150 at Lee (NH) USA Speedway. The season will wrap in mid-October in Connecticut, as part of Thompson Speedway’s World Series program. In between, the Tour will make eight stops at familiar venues. Oxford (ME) Plains Speedway will host an ACT/PASS doubleheader in May, and will welcome the cars back as part of the Oxford 250 weekend in August. Speedway 51 in Groveton, NH and Connecticut’s New London-Waterford Speedbowl also return to the ACT schedule.

Missing from the 2018 itinerary are Maine’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, a staple for the last few years, and Seekonk Speedway in southern Massachusetts. The ACT Invitational, the all-star non-points event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, is also off the schedule for 2018, though with a schedule change at NHMS, there was no appropriate place for the race to fit this year.

The ACT’s north-of-the-border counterpart, the Quebec-based Série ACT, also announced a complementary schedule of nine race dates. The schedule is largely split between Autodrome Montmagny and Autodrome St.-Eustache, with a single race at Autodrome Chaudière, a former ACT staple. The combined schedule has only one conflict with the stateside schedule, allowing teams to enter events across the border as they please. Off-season rumors suggested that a tenth event was in consideration, perhaps at a road course, but no further announcements have been made.

In February, Michaud and Malone announced the institution of the Summer Showdown Series. The bonus program establishes May’s race at Oxford, June’s race at Waterford, and the September Labor Day Classic at Thunder Road as special events with a $5,000 winner’s purse. An additional $5,000 bonus awaits if a driver can sweep all three events.

ACT and Thunder Road officials will also make timing data available for Race Monitor. The popular mobile app allows fans to track live timing and scoring from a mobile phone or tablet during the race. Many years ago, a remark about the lack of a scoreboard at Thunder Road was met with “we know Vermonters can count.” Today’s fans are more sophisticated, though, and keeping them engaged through live timing and scoring can only improve the grandstand experience.

On the technical front, an unnamed team will be working with ACT Tour officials to campaign a car to test General Motors’ 602-series crate engine. The team will enter a number of early-season races to determine whether the 350-horsepower offering would be viable for Tour competition. The program is reminiscent of a similar test in 1999, in which the American Speed Association fielded a test car powered by GM’s LS1 crate V8 and driven by ASA veteran Ted Smokstad in anticipation of the series’ move to the LS1 in 2000.

The last few ACT offseasons have swirled with questions about the future of the series and how it might proceed beyond the guiding hand of Tom Curley. Cris Michaud and Pat Malone seem intent to ensure that no such concern is necessary.

PASS LOCKS IN 2018 RACE DATES

By contrast, the Pro All Stars Series rolled its calendar forward one year without any major change. In fact, the only offseason news releases of note have been those regarding the 2018 schedules. Once again, PASS will sanction races up and down the East Coast in its North, South and National Championship divisions.

PASS will make 18 stops at 11 tracks this summer, the busiest fendered schedule in the region.

The PASS North schedule features a final slate of eighteen points races, from early April’s Icebreaker at Thompson Speedway to the mid-October season finale at PASS’ home track, Oxford Plains Speedway. The region’s top touring Super Late Model teams will collect points at eleven different tracks. Two tracks absent since 2010, Speedway 51 in New Hampshire and Spud Speedway in Caribou, Maine, return to the schedule. PASS will return to Canada in 2018, but last year’s scheduled dates at Autodrome Chaudière and Speedway 660 have been replaced by a single event at Petty International Raceway in New Brunswick.

The crown jewel of the PASS North schedule, of course, remains the Oxford 250. The 45th running of the legendary race is scheduled for the last weekend in August. Three events on the PASS North schedule—the races at Petty International Raceway and Spud Speedway, as well as Oxford’s late-July contest—will serve as qualifiers for PASS’ “Roads To Oxford And Richmond” program. Winners of the three races will be guaranteed starters either in the Oxford 250 or the Commonwealth Classic, a newly-minted fall event at Richmond (VA) Raceway.

For the third straight year, PASS will host a non-points race at Oxford on July 1. The race, open to drivers who have not won a PASS feature in recent years, qualifies additional drivers for guaranteed starts in the Oxford 250.

Two dates on the schedule, the Icebreaker and the 250, are also part of the PASS National Championship schedule. The other three events of the six-race schedule will be held after the North season finale, starting with October’s inaugural Commonwealth Classic.

Fans who have not checked the schedule since the initial announcement may rejoice at a late-season adjustment. Beech Ridge Motor Speedway was scheduled to host a fall 150-lap feature on Saturday, September 22. The race has since been bumped to Sunday, September 23. New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s “Full Throttle Weekend” featuring a 250-lap Whelen Modified Tour event is scheduled for that Saturday, so the adjustment eliminates a dreadful late-season schedule conflict for regional fans (weather permitting, of course).

On the technical front, while no major rules changes have been promoted, one rules change will be worth watching. Last year, Five Star Bodies announced a long-overdue update to the traditional “ABC” (Approved Body Configuration) bodywork common to most Super Late Model sanctioning organizations. PASS has approved the new-look bodywork, while the competition committee that governs common SLM rules among other sanctioning organizations has not. It will be interesting to see who shows up with the new bodywork, how quickly it prompts other teams to change, and whether any advantages are at hand. This will not be a big deal within PASS North, given that the GSPSS is the only direct competition, but it might be worth considering for those few teams that moonlight south of the border, say, for the Snowball Derby this winter.

PASS has been the gold standard of Late Model racing in New England since its inception, attracting the drivers with the most local star power and the teams with the deepest pockets. This year’s schedule, the broadest and most frequent in the region, reflects that image with PASS scheduled as the headliner at most events. A strong schedule following the Oxford 250 should also reinforce that the season does not end in August.

GSPSS LOOKS AHEAD TO 2018, SOME DETAILS PENDING

The Granite State Pro Stock Series may be the youngest of the three big Late Model touring series in New England, but series director Mike Parks does not lack for ambition. The 2018 will be the eighth season for the series, and a fourteen-race schedule has been forged that provides a lot of surprises and a few details yet to be ironed out.

The GSPSS teams will return to NHMS in June for the Second Annual Short Track Showdown.

A 100-lap feature at Claremont (NH) Speedway will kick off the GSPSS season in earnest on May 4, with a test-and-tune day a week prior. The race is the first of eight currently scheduled for the Granite State. Monadnock Speedway in Winchester and Hudson International Speedway will each host a GSPSS event in 2018. White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock will welcome the GSPSS back as well.

The GSPSS teams will also run their biggest race in New Hampshire, as a feature division in the Second Annual Short Track Showdown. The cross-promoted event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway moves a week earlier this year, and will again feature the GSPSS and Valenti Modified Racing Series alongside the North East Mini Stock Tour. With the apparent elimination of the ACT Invitational, the GSPSS feature of the Showdown will be the only appearance for pavement late models on the one-mile oval this year.

The end of the GSPSS season positions the series alongside high-profile regional events. Star Speedway in Epping, NH will host a single event as part of the annual Star Classic weekend in September. A month later, Lee USA Speedway’s “Oktoberfest” celebration will include a 100-lap GSPSS feature in place of a non-points SLM event. The GSPSS heads to Thompson Speedway one week later, racing on Friday night as part of the track’s World Series season finale. The GSPSS season ends with a third race in three weeks, heading further south to New London-Waterford (CT) Speedbowl to settle the series championship.

The Speedbowl will host a second GSPSS event earlier in the year under a unique format. Heat races will be exchanged for time-trial qualifying, followed by triple 35-lap features on the same evening. Given that the triple features are being counted in the thirteen-race schedule, it stands to reason that full points are on the line for each feature. A wreck or equipment failure in the first feature could be especially costly in the points only two race weekends into the season.

GSPSS teams will have their own Labor Day weekend feature in 2018 with a newly-announced 150-lap event at Claremont Speedway. The $3500-to-win feature is fifty laps longer than traditional GSPSS features. While details are still emerging about the new event, promoters seem intent on making this a marquée event of the annual schedule.

Absent from the 2018 schedule are appearances at Seekonk Speedway, host of multiple big-ticket SLM features during the year, and Oxford Plains Speedway, where the GSPSS served as undercard to the Oxford 250 in 2017. The more-distant Riverhead (NY) Raceway, host of an event in 2017, will not return to the schedule in 2018.

The GSPSS has neither the longevity of the ACT nor the big-star recognition of PASS to trade on. However, they have been able to carve out their own niche, serving as a support series for some of New England’s greatest racing weekends with a headline weekend at the region’s most prestigious race track. This year’s schedule allows the GSPSS to define itself on its own terms, and not how it stacks up against the more established tours.

LEE USA SPEEDWAY SOLD, MOVING FULL STEAM AHEAD

When Lee USA Speedway opens its gates for the ACT Governor’s Cup 150 in April, it will do so under new ownership. A late-February release announced that after 33 years, track owners Red and Judy MacDonald have sold the ⅜-mile oval to Norm Wrenn, Jr., an area businessman and veteran racer.

From racer to track owner, Norm Wrenn, Jr. will direct one of New Hampshire’s legendary short tracks.

Wrenn’s name came into conversation in 2017 as a potential buyer for the beleaguered New London-Waterford (CT) Speedbowl. Instead, the propane distributor will assume ownership of the track where he won his first Pro Stock race in 1993. Wrenn’s son, Norm III, will handle operations while retaining the rest of Lee’s current staff, including general manager Joe Bassett. The MacDonalds will be at the Wrenns’ disposal through the season as they ease into retirement.

While the Wrenns do not plan any sweeping changes to the track or its racing card, they have elected to reposition the track’s Late Model Sportsman class as its premier class for NASCAR Whelen All-American Series scoring. Lee is one of two weekly tracks in New Hampshire to carry NASCAR sanctioning. The move changes how NASCAR’s prize money and awards are allocated to racers, and the higher car counts for the fendered class will benefit Lee’s rankings in the NASCAR Home Tracks program. The 350 Supermodifieds, the top class since 2011, will now be the track’s second-tier class.

“New Hampshire’s Center of Speed” opened in 1964 as a dirt tri-oval. In subsequent years, the track was paved and later reconfigured in the 1980s to its current layout. In 1986, the MacDonalds became the third owners of the speedway, and launched their weekly racing program a year later. Lee’s racing program over the years also included stops by NASCAR’s Busch North (now K&N Pro East) Series and Whelen Modified Tour, ACT’s defunct Pro Stock Tour and the International Supermodified Association (ISMA).

Lee’s 2018 schedule, announced before the sale, includes appearances by the ACT Late Models, the PASS North Super Late Models, the Granite State Pro Stock Series, and the Valenti Modified Racing Series. The latter two series will support Lee’s annual Oktoberfest weekend. A monster truck rally and an end-of-year demolition derby are among new events being scheduled for the season.

News of a track sale is always cause for concern, given that the land is often more desirable than the track itself. Norm Wrenn’s purchase, therefore, can be met with a sigh of relief, as the track remains in a racer’s caring hands. With Wrenn promising to keep the track open, while allowing the MacDonalds to ease into retirement, the future is bright for Lee.

STAR SPEEDWAY MAKING RENOVATIONS, ADDING LATE MODELS

Twenty minutes south and east of Lee, Star Speedway is preparing for 2018 despite the loss of the track’s patriarch. Bob Webber, Sr. passed away in late January after a battle with leukemia. Webber took ownership of the quarter-mile oval in 1980, and purchased the similar Hudson (NH) Speedway nine years later. After a brief hiatus, the Webber family regained control of the track in 2010. Bobby Webber, Jr., who has managed the track since, will continue to direct operations at Star.

Long a home for open-wheel racing, Star Speedway welcomes fendered cars too, with PASS and GSPSS on the 2018 schedule.

Star’s weekly racing card, anchored in recent years by small-block Supermodifieds, will add a fendered Late Model division for 2018. Compared to the plexiglass-adorned “Outlaw Late Models” that previously ran weekly at Star, this year’s Late Models will be governed by the ACT rulebook. The ACT Tour has not raced at Star since 2013, but perhaps success for the weekly class could encourage a Tour date for the 2019 schedule.

Prior to the Lee sale, Webber hinted on Star’s Facebook page that the two tracks were trying to align their weekly rulebooks for some classes. This is a move largely aimed at the tracks’ 350 Supermodified classes, but with Star’s new Late Model class, one must wonder if there’s an opportunity to work with Lee and their own Late Model Sportsman division. At one point years ago, the rules seemed to be within the same ballpark.

Capital improvements to the speedway continue with the razing of the old turn-one barn. The barn was the last structure of the former Star Brickyard that lent the track its name. Pending a change in local ordinances, the plan is to configure the resulting space as a beer garden or a patio. Star does not currently sell alcohol or allow alcohol in the grandstands.

Star opens its gates on April 14th for the Bunny Brawl enduro, followed by a season that features solo dates for the PASS Super Late Models (May 5) and Granite State Pro Stock Series (September 8) in addition to July’s annual SBM 125 and the Star Classic.

DRIVER NEWS AND NOTES

Regional racing often takes on a “wait-and-see” approach in terms of full-season plans, particularly when real life intervenes. However, a few drivers have made their intentions known ahead of schedule.

Derek Griffith kicked off his 2018 schedule a few months early. The Hudson, NH native and his Louie Mechalides-led team headed south for Speedweeks, representing New England in the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna (FL) Speedway. Griffith did not find much success in Florida, but redeemed himself a week later, winning the PASS South/National season opener at Dillon (SC) Motor Speedway. Griffith, a 2018 finalist for the Kulwicki Driver Development Program, is poised to break through in his third full PASS North season.

Finishing on the podium with Griffith were fellow travelers Ben Rowe, back for another year in the Richard Moody Racing #4 SLM, and Raymond Christian III. Christian ran a partial ACT Tour schedule last year. Late in the season, “RC3” made an unsuccessful attempt at qualifying for the Oxford 250. Could the Thompson Speedway regular be pondering a jump to the PASS circuit?

Also in attendance were Trevor Sanborn, in a new ride for 2018, and Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. in the family-owned #00. The fourteen-year-old rookie, a regular at Star Speedway, made his GSPSS debut late in 2017 and looks to be shaping up for an increased schedule in the big cars in 2018.

With talent like Lanpher, Gerry and now Helliwell on the weekly roster, the road to the Oxford 250 may go through Beech Ridge.

After a reduced schedule last year, touring star Wayne Helliwell, Jr. will return to weekly competition this season. Helliwell, who has battled multiple sclerosis for years, got off to a late start in 2017 while managing his health, and struggled to come to grips with a new chassis. This year, Helliwell and team will perfect the car by racing weekly in Beech Ridge Motor Speedway’s Pro Series while making occasional PASS starts. Beech Ridge is similar to nearby Oxford, and the weekly Pro Series roster is stacked with talent, including Maine legend Mike Rowe, Reid Lanpher and defending Oxford 250 winner Curtis Gerry.

Lanpher has big plans of his own for 2018. In addition to his Beech Ridge and PASS adventures, the two-time track champion is slated to enter two NASCAR K&N Pro Series East events, one at Bristol (TN) Motor Speedway and the other at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (An off-weekend for Beech Ridge’s weekly program allows Lanpher to run the race without risking the track title.) Lanpher shook down his new car in the K&N Pro Series West season opener at Kern County Raceway Park in California, where he finished tenth as a teammate to Kevin Harvick.

While Harvick and other NASCAR stars preach the importance of short track racing, Derek Kneeland hopes to represent the big series well in New England. The Maine native, spotter for Kyle Larson, will partner with Dale Shaw Race Cars to run a handful of PASS North races in 2018. Kneeland made a run at last year’s Oxford 250 in his own car, but failed to transfer to the field. Dale Shaw Race Cars will again be preparing cars for DJ Shaw and young Gabe Brown, who has yet to turn sixteen but is looking toward increasing his schedule after bursting onto the scene last summer.

NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

Provided the snow stops sometime before the end of March, real race cars return to the track with the traditional Icebreaker at Thompson Speedway in Thompson, CT. The PASS North Super Late Models share track time with NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour for their 100-lap season opener on Sunday, April 8. The American-Canadian Tour Late Models kick off their season a week later on Sunday, April 15 at Lee USA Speedway for the Governor’s Cup 150.

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Jeff Brown is a contributor to Short Track Scene. Brown provides a fan's perspective as he follows New England's regional late-model touring series.

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