In some ways, the Pro All Stars Series North Super Late Model Tour is a spiritual successor to NASCAR’s own Busch North Series. The tour calls Oxford Plains Speedway its home, much as the Busch North Series did upon its inception in 1987. In the absence of the Busch North Series, the PASS North has become the home for the region’s top fendered talent. PASS regulars Travis Benjamin, Ben Rowe, and DJ Shaw all have experience in the NASCAR tour, and Tracy Gordon won twelve times in his Busch North career.
New England’s highest level of fendered touring competition kicks off its eighteenth season of competition with Sunday’s Icebreaker 100 at Thompson Speedway in the northeast corner of Connecticut. Will one of PASS’ established stars, like Benjamin or Shaw, take home the spoils at season’s end? Will a rising star like Derek Griffith break through? Or will chaos somehow reign supreme?
THE 2018 SCHEDULE
The PASS North schedule for 2018 includes eighteen points-paying events and one non-points race, spread between four New England states and one Canadian province.
The season kicks off with PASS’ only appearance in Connecticut, in conjunction with Thompson Speedway’s annual Icebreaker featuring the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Formerly a 75-lap affair, the PASS Super Late Models will race 100 laps around the high-banked ⅝-mile oval to start the year off right.
The schedule returns to PASS’ home state of Maine for the next two races, at Oxford Plains Speedway and Scarborough’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. Oxford, PASS’ de facto home track, will host the Super Late Models again in May (in conjunction with the American-Canadian Tour Late Models), July, August (for the Oxford 250), and once more in October for the season finale. Beech Ridge will hold its annual 300-lap feature in April for the second year, with additional visits in July and September. The Pine Tree State will host ten PASS points races in 2018, with single events at Speedway 95 in Hermon and a mid-week Fourth-of-July special at Caribou’s Spud Speedway.
The fourth race of the season is at Epping, New Hampshire’s Star Speedway. Star and nearby Lee USA Speedway will host single races in 2018, along with North Woodstock’s White Mountain Motorsports Park. Returning to the schedule is Speedway 51 in Groveton, hosting New Hampshire’s fourth PASS event in August.
Thunder Road International Speedbowl, now the only paved oval track in Vermont, will welcome the PASS Super Late Models twice, once on Memorial Day weekend and once in September as part of Thunder Road’s annual Vermont Milk Bowl festivities.
In 2017, two Canadian races were scheduled. The first, at Quebec’s Autodrome Chaudière, went as scheduled; the second, at New Brunswick’s Speedway 660, was cancelled due to a threat of rain. Both events have been replaced by a single race in June at Petty International Raceway in New Brunswick, an all-new track to the PASS schedule.
For the third year, PASS will stage a 100-lap non-points feature at Oxford in early July, aimed at drivers who have not won a PASS feature. Top-finishing drivers will earn guaranteed berths in the Oxford 250. The features at Petty International Raceway and Spud Speedway, as well as late-July’s Oxford points race, will also qualify drivers for the 250.
Even with the championship on the line, the true glory of the season is in August’s Oxford 250. Over sixty teams attempted to qualify for last year’s 250, with Jeremy Davis winning a spirited three-way battle for the last position in the 44-car starting grid. In the race, Beech Ridge regular Curtis Gerry bested the touring aces and the weekly heroes to take home $35,000 in winnings. This year marks the 45th running of the richest one-day show on the East Coast.
Two events, the season-opening Icebreaker 100 and the Oxford 250, are part of the six-race PASS National Super Late Model Championship, including races on both the PASS North and South SLM schedules.
PASS continues to have the busiest touring schedule of the regional Late Model and Super Late Model tours, though in fairness, half the schedule is close to home for the largely Maine-centric competitor base. While new venues would be welcome (Seekonk has a presence in the SLM circle in New England, and Wiscasset is not too far from Oxford or Beech Ridge), the schedule has to make sense to the competitors first.
Seven drivers made every start on the PASS North schedule in 2017. At least five of those drivers seem primed for another championship chase.
Defending champion Travis Benjamin (#7) won twice and finished in the top five ten times to clinch his second PASS title. It was Benjamin’s second season driving for Petit Motorsports, after years of campaigning his own equipment. The Belfast, ME racer returns to Petit for a third year. It’s fitting, then, that Benjamin will be chasing threes all year: three Oxford 250 wins, three PASS titles, and a third owner’s title in four years for car owner Peter Petit. Interestingly, it appears Petit Motorsports is borrowing a car for the Thompson race, with Benjamin entered in the familiar #14 of David and Cathy Frahm.
Benjamin’s strongest competition will also have stability in their grasp. Glen Luce (#7L) and crew chief Seth Holbrook have become regular fixtures in victory lane, and look to continue that trend after Luce’s best PASS season yet. Ben Rowe (#4), who made his landmark 300th career PASS start in 2017, will seek another PASS title behind the wheel of his familiar yellow Richard Moody Racing Toyota. Two-time PASS champion DJ Shaw (#60), with a single win in 2017, is back in the trademark black-and-neon colors of Precision JLM Racing.
One driver poised to break out in 2018 is Derek Griffith (#12). The Hudson, NH youngster struggled through a sophomore slump, but rebounded on the strength of two wins to finish fifth in PASS points. Griffith and car owner/crew chief Louie Mechalides have already kicked off their 2018 season, racking up a win in the PASS South opener and finishing eighth in last week’s Easter Bunny 150 at Hickory (NC) Motor Speedway.
Championship pursuits are expensive endeavors. When many drivers and teams have day jobs, and when a single crash or blown engine can derail a title chase, some teams may opt to run as they can, as long as it makes sense. One driver put it thusly a few years ago: “We’ll run the first few races and see where we stand.”
Garrett Hall (#94) has run the bulk of the PASS schedule the last two years, with three wins and two top-ten points finishes to his credit. Hall came close to victory in a few extracurricular starts in 2017, and returns to Black Point Motorsports poised for success. Hall will start the season at Thompson, and presumably will see where it goes.
If breakout seasons can be part-time campaigns, Reid Lanpher (#59) had his last year. The Beech Ridge regular only entered half the races, but won his first two events of the year and finished second in the Oxford 250 while winning his second Beech Ridge track championship. Lanpher is scheduled to race at Thompson, though a NASCAR start the following weekend may jeopardize his chances to race at Oxford. Of course, strong starts have ways of encouraging championship efforts.
Thompson late model regular Ray Christian III (#93CT) ran a partial ACT Tour schedule a year ago, but turned up at the Oxford 250 with a Super Late Model. “RC III” ran a few SLM events to close out the season, then started off this season with a strong run in a PASS South event. Christian hinted at trying to chase the PASS National points in 2018, but with an entry filed for Oxford, one wonders if they may take a wait-and-see approach.
Another name to watch is Dillon Moltz (#5M). The Connecticut racer and former Granite State Pro Stock Series champion established himself as a threat on the ACT Late Model Tour the last two years. He and car owner Mark Brackett have entered their SLM for Thompson and Oxford. Will they then turn their focus to an ACT Tour championship, or will they roll the dice at a move to PASS?
Another handful of drivers are committed to partial schedules in 2018. Whether the costs of chasing the full schedule are too steep, or work and personal commitments dictate other plans, some drivers find it best to run the races they can manage, giving a full effort each time they roll out.
Dave Farrington, Jr. (#23) is among the part-time entries for 2018. Farrington stretched his family team’s resources to run the full schedule for the first time last season. The former Kulwicki Driver Development Program participant finished eleven of his sixteen races in the top ten, with a solid performance in the season finale derailed by suspension failure. Farrington’s season will begin at Oxford Plains, as he continues to seek his first PASS win.
After several years away from the driver’s seat, Tracy Gordon (#41) returned to competition in 2016 with a part-time PASS schedule. Gordon, who ascended from the ACT Pro Stock ranks to race in NASCAR’s Busch North Series in the late 1990s and 2000s, ran eleven races in 2017, finishing second at Thunder Road in May. He will likely run a similar schedule this year as he seeks his first PASS win since 2004.
Derek Ramstrom (#35) has been a part-time fixture on the PASS North circuit for several years. The West Boylston, MA racer splits his time between fendered and Modified competition, but he makes his Super Late Model appearances count. Ramstrom has seven PASS wins to his credit, one coming last year in a nine-race schedule. Ramstrom is on the entry list for Thompson and Oxford, but time will tell if he chooses to run more than a handful of events.
A number of drivers will run shorter schedules with an eye toward victory. Four-time PASS winner Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. (#97NH) will run a limited schedule starting at Star Speedway in May. Joey Doiron (#73) has committed to the Granite State Pro Stock Series for 2018 but will run a few PASS events in anticipation of the Oxford 250 in August. Joe Squeglia, Jr. (#03) typically picks the PASS and GSPSS events closer to his New Hampshire home, but will likely add a few longer trips through the year.
And at tracks where Super Late Models are part of the weekly program, the local heroes are always likely to play a role. Wayne Helliwell, Jr. (#27NH) is planning a weekly campaign at Beech Ridge, but the 2016 Oxford 250 winner will also run a handful of touring events. Defending Oxford 250 winner Curtis Gerry (#7G) will surely be a factor at Beech Ridge and Oxford. And father and son tandem Tim (#60B) and TJ (#61) Brackett are often in the mix at Oxford Plains.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
PASS North is largely a destination series and not a development tour, and so its image is largely mature. Reid Lanpher, one of the younger drivers at nineteen, has been part of the series for years. However, toward the end of 2017 two youngsters arrived on the Super Late Model scene. What they lack in experience, the two fourteen-year-olds have in talent and drive.
Gabe Brown (#47/2) made the leap last summer from go-karts to a Super Late Model, impressing quickly in weekly competition at Oxford. Competing in a house car for Dale Shaw Race Cars, Brown failed to qualify in two PASS attempts at Oxford, but finished twelfth in his lone PASS start last fall at White Mountain Motorsports Park. Brown ran the PASS South Easter Bunny 150 in a Shaw-prepared #2 entry, and has been preparing his own #47 for PASS in 2018. How many races the rookie enters remains to be seen.
A weekly regular at Star Speedway in NH, Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. (#00) had a less dramatic transition to make, though the leap from a four-cylinder weekly car to a Super Late Model was still of note. Renfrew made two Granite State Pro Stock Series starts at the end of 2017, and has already started off 2018 with a few SLM starts down south. It seems that the Renfrew family is wasting no time on developing their latest racer.
One question mark so far is six-time PASS champion Johnny Clark (#54). Clark struggled through 2017 with ill-handling cars and mechanical woes, and the veteran remains missing from the early entry lists. The #54 team is not at Thompson, hinting at a partial schedule for the perennial contender.
Nick Sweet (#40VT), however, is back in the lineup at Thompson. The 2016 ACT Tour champion started out 2017 with a newly-built Super Late Model, running well until the car was destroyed at Thunder Road six races into the season. Last year’s plan was to take the PASS schedule race by race; perhaps the Mad Dog Motorsports team is planning to do the same again.
One driver with a new ride this year is Trevor Sanborn, assuming the wheel of the CAT Scales-sponsored #80 entry at Thompson. Sanborn has bounced between his own entry, the Jay Cushman-owned #29, and even ran a few races last year for Richard Moody in a #44 car as a teammate to Ben Rowe. Sanborn’s exact plans are up in the air, but a good run or two early on could inspire a longer schedule.
THE CHASSIS BATTLE
While manufacturer battles mean little in the era of crate engines and ABC-template bodies, technical-minded race fans can at least revel in the chassis battle within the PASS North ranks.
The majority of cars in the PASS pit area trace their origins to one of two well-known chassis builders. Distance Racing Products of Fairfield, Maine is the first. Owned by multi-time Oxford track champion Jeff Taylor, Distance has an established reputation among racers in the state of Maine and beyond.
Across the state line in Center Conway, NH sits Dale Shaw Race Cars. Shaw, the 1994 NASCAR Busch North champion, has built his own cars for years in several disciplines. Shaw’s chassis are popular with a handful of PASS and ACT teams. His son DJ is the standard bearer for the chassis shop, but Shaw also runs a “house car” on a part-time basis for research and development purposes.
A new arrival on the scene in the last two years is Davis Chassis Works. After running Shaw chassis for a while, Tamworth, NH’s Jeremy Davis struck out on his own at the end of 2016. Davis has focused primarily on serving teams in the ACT and GSPSS ranks, entering his own car as his schedule allows. Davis entered his own “house” chassis at last year’s Oxford 250, making the race through the last-chance qualifier in a thrilling three-wide battle. Time will tell if the DCW chassis makes inroads into the PASS pits in the coming years.
A handful of teams prefer chassis from one of the big shops like Lefthander, Hamke, or (to a smaller extent) Fury Race Cars. Others, like the Bernhardt Automotive team for Wayne Helliwell, Jr., build their own. But throughout the season, many of the winning cars will feature either a Distance or DSRC decal. For those who enjoy the battle waged from the shop, the chassis choice of PASS North teams is certainly worth following.
LOOKING BACK TO LOOK FORWARD
Last year’s PASS North season was one of relative parity. No driver scored more than two wins, though five (Benjamin, Luce, Griffith, Lanpher and Curtis Gerry) achieved that milestone. Veteran Ben Rowe came within inches, but went winless on the season. A weekly racer (granted, an experienced weekly racer) won the biggest race of the season. At most races, at least eight or ten cars were in the conversation as potential winners.
In a field replete with experience, it is risky to gamble against experience. Travis Benjamin has the tools at hand for a repeat title, but Glen Luce was one bad race short of dethroning Benjamin for the season-long honors. Rowe and DJ Shaw were not far off either. With luck on his side, Derek Griffith should be a contender week in and week out. And if either Garrett Hall or Reid Lanpher opt to chase points, a champion at year’s end could be anyone’s guess.
But this is short track racing. And as soon as that green flag drops at Thompson, all bets are off.