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Griffith Wins Icebreaker, MacDonald Goes All-In: Northeast Late Model Update

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.

PASS NORTH: GRIFFITH BREAKS THROUGH WITH ICEBREAKER 100 VICTORY

Mother Nature was determined to ensure that Thompson Speedway’s Icebreaker opening weekend lived up to its name. Only a couple days before the race, a fresh (but light) blanket of snow was dropped throughout southern New England. And while the skies were clear of anything but clouds on Saturday and Sunday, temperatures hovered in the low forties at best.

And as long as the skies were clear, cold or not, the Icebreaker could go on.

The PASS North Super Late Models were the top-billed fendered class of the Icebreaker, an opening weekend centered around NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour but including regional touring series and Thompson’s own weekly classes. The first race of the PASS North season was one of two scoring points toward PASS’ National Championship, so a couple Southern-based teams were on hand to collect points as well.

Twenty-two teams answered the call on Saturday for two heat races to set Sunday’s field. Alongside the usual points contenders for the PASS North championship were Maine’s Garrett Hall, the 2016 Icebreaker winner, and Reid Lanpher. Teenage rookie Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. was on hand for his first Thompson start. Trevor Sanborn was entered in the black-and-yellow #80. Eddie MacDonald, defending Icebreaker winner, was an unsurprising late entry in his red #17MA. Two drivers, Jared Irvan and Kodie Conner, represented the PASS South contingent.

One big surprise in the pit area, as teased on the entry list, was the absence of the familiar Petit Motorsports #7 entry. Defending champion Travis Benjamin was entered instead in a black and white #14 from the Matt Frahm Racing shop. The car was listed on the entry list as a Petit Motorsports entry, and social media posts suggested that the team had borrowed the car for the Thompson event, with plans to have the red #7 back on track at Oxford Plains Speedway in a week. Thompson is demanding on equipment, so perhaps the Petit team felt that the Frahm car would perform better at the fast track. (Benjamin has been a fill-in driver for the Frahms in Granite State Pro Stock Series competition, and has a relationship with the team.)

Another surprise was the absence of PASS veteran Johnny Clark. Clark and his familiar #54 entry were not on the entry list and not in the pit area for the Icebreaker. With the exception of 2015, when Clark missed a few races due to a work injury, the six-time champion had been full-time on the schedule since 2002. Clark is on the entry list for Oxford, but apparently will not chase a championship in 2018.

Reid Lanpher and DJ Shaw won their respective heats. Lanpher had a second entry in his heat; after Kodie Conner suffered engine problems on his tiger-striped #45, Lanpher’s team lent him their backup car, numbered with an orange “X,” to collect points.

Derek Griffith, by virtue of a third-place run in his heat, started the 100-lap feature fifth. Griffith was already well into his 2018 racing schedule. The Hudson, NH driver and his team headed south for Speedweeks, competing in New Smyrna (FL) Speedway’s World Series festivities before the Daytona 500. Griffith followed the World Series with a win at Dillon (SC) Motor Speedway in the first PASS South race of the year. Armed with a new Lefthander chassis and backing from the Kulwicki Driver Development Program, Griffith and driver-turned-mechanic Louie Mechalides were looking at a big breakout year.

There was no better place to serve that notice than the high-banked, high-speed oval in Thompson, Connecticut. Griffith carved his way through the top five, dueling with front-row starters Lanpher and Shaw. A caution flag a fifth of the way through the race put Griffith and Shaw in a two-car race for the lead. The race went green from there. Over the long stretch run, Griffith eventually bested the two-time PASS North champion, taking the lead and lapping half the field en route to his fourth career PASS North victory.

Shaw had a reprieve in the closing laps, cutting into the lead as Griffith battled stubborn lapped traffic, but in the end he had to settle for second. Jared Irvan, son of retired NASCAR star Ernie Irvan, finished third after losing power steering early in the feature. Reid Lanpher pitted from second under the early yellow flag, believing that he was only a couple adjustments from driving away from the field. Lanpher was indeed fast, but without the benefit of a late yellow, he could only drive back to fourth place. Vermont’s Todd Stone won a spirited fight for fifth, beating out defending event winner Eddie MacDonald with a few laps to go.

Championship hopefuls Travis Benjamin, Glen Luce and Ben Rowe were non-factors during the feature. Benjamin finished the best of the three in his borrowed ride, ending the day ninth on the lead lap. Luce finished twelfth after battling Griffith aggressively to stay on the lead lap. Ben Rowe lost two laps under green and finished fifteenth. Derek Ramstrom ran well most of the day, but pulled down pit road with 33 laps remaining.

Nick Sweet’s return to PASS was over almost as soon as it started. The Vermonter grenaded an engine in turn four with one lap complete. He finished second-to-last, as Nick Cusack was unable to make the green flag. Kodie Conner parked his borrowed ride sixteen laps in, hoping to avoid scratching up the rental car.

Thompson is a hallowed battleground, and a great place for the Super Late Models to stretch their legs. However, the fast track highlights the equipment differential between the best and the rest. Thompson puts demands on the drivetrain that few other tracks do. Many teams were audibly hitting the rev limiter three-quarters of the way down the straightaways. Some teams were just a bit off the pace all day long. Three were at least four laps in arrears by the end, most of those laps lost in green-flag racing. And with a few visible absences, perhaps some teams opted to stay home rather than show up and run poorly.

An alternative could be to score the Thompson race similarly to the special event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a few seasons ago. The NHMS race was scored as a PASS National Championship event, but North teams in attendance could use a strong run to substitute for a poor finish during the season. That way, committed North teams would still have an incentive to turn out for the event. All but one of the series’ top contenders were on hand for the one-off event.

Of course, with nothing to lose by not attending, teams could still choose to stay home. Whatever approach makes the race more welcoming for more teams to participate is better for the series and the fans, but that could be anyone’s guess.

PASS NORTH: SECOND RACE, SECOND RAIN DATE IN PLAY FOR OXFORD

The PASS North teams were scheduled to continue their 2018 campaign back home at Oxford Plains Speedway this coming weekend. The 150-lap feature, sponsored by Oxford’s own Honey Badger Bar & Grill, was initially scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

Earlier this week, though, a change in the forecast suggested cold and potential rain or snow for Sunday, prompting PASS and Oxford Plains officials to move the race to Saturday with a few hours of shakedown practice on Friday afternoon.

On Thursday, an updated forecast looked more grim for Saturday, with cold temperatures and potential rain and sleet. Citing the potential for afternoon storms and risky weather for the trip home, PASS and Oxford Plains officials moved the race a second time.

Oxford’s opening weekend will now commence with practice and the first weekly racing of the year on Saturday, April 21. The Honey Badger Bar & Grill 150 for the PASS North teams will run on Sunday, April 22. The new date gives PASS North teams three weeks of consecutive racing, with Oxford followed by the Beech Ridge 300-lapper and a 150-lap feature at Star Speedway.

The second rescheduling may be a boon to Reid Lanpher. Lanpher raced Saturday for Jefferson-Pitts Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro East Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway, finishing eleventh. As such, the #59 team was not on this weekend’s PASS entry list. Lanpher and team should be free to file an entry and make it to Oxford, and continue a bid for the championship if they so choose.

Lanpher’s entry would make him an instant favorite. The Manchester, ME racer won his first career PASS feature a year ago in the Oxford event, following it up a week later with his second career PASS feature win at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway.

ACT TOUR: EDDIE MACDONALD FILES FULL-SEASON BID

Despite a long list of full-season entrants for the ten-race ACT Late Model Tour championship, Scott Payea is an easy favorite to repeat. The Rick Paya Motorsports team is hard to bet against, and most of the top threats under Payea have yet to establish themselves as regular feature winners on the Tour.

That changed this week, when Eddie MacDonald filed a full-season entry for the ACT Tour.

“The Outlaw,” the son of retiring Lee USA Speedway promoters Red and Judy MacDonald, has been a fixture in New England short track racing since joining the NASCAR Busch North Series in 2001. As the series transitioned from a regional Northeast tour into the developmental K&N Pro East Series, MacDonald was of the last full-time New England natives to race in the division, running his last full season in 2013. Along the way, MacDonald collected seven series wins, including one on the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.

As MacDonald’s NASCAR involvement tapered off, he increased his schedule closer to home. Driving for car owner Freddie Peterson in the ACT Tour, he became a competitive force on a limited schedule. MacDonald and Peterson ran a full schedule in 2016; despite two wins and eleven top-ten runs in thirteen starts, MacDonald finished third in points to Payea and champion Nick Sweet.

For a part-time series racer, MacDonald’s numbers are worth noting. MacDonald has nine ACT feature wins in 56 starts, and two Oxford 250 victories under ACT rules. MacDonald has another five wins in the annual ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and a 2014 win in the famed Vermont Milk Bowl.

In 2017, in four ACT Tour starts, MacDonald won twice. Eddie added to his total with one PASS North win (in three starts) and one GSPSS win (in two appearances). Driving once again for Peterson and working with long-time crew chief Rollie LaChance, Eddie MacDonald presents a serious threat for the ACT crown.

SERIE ACT: A RIFT IN PLAY WITH AMERICAN TOUR?

The ACT Tour made an announcement this Wednesday that Série ACT promoter Marc Patrick Roy would “no longer be associated with the organization.” The announcement cited a difference of direction between Roy and Tour director Cris Michaud, and addressed a commitment to maintaining a presence in Quebec.

In the last couple days, new social media accounts for Les Promotions Shamrock have surfaced, with the Série ACT Twitter account directing fans to “the new home of Quebec’s elite stock car series.” A lengthy release on the LPS Facebook page explains that “the new Vermont Management team . . . have methods and a vision which is incompatible with the projects and the vision we have for Championship caliber stock car racing in Quebec.” The result, according to the release, was a dissolution of the relationship between the ACT Tour and the Quebec-based Série ACT.

The release promises further details at the end of April, by which time Roy and partners Gerry and Karine Paquette intend to have a new name for the Quebec Late Model tour, as well as a schedule for the season. It appears the Série will go on without the name it has borne for years.

The American-Canadian Tour was founded by design as a cross-border series, with events throughout Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes on the schedule. When the Pro Stock Tour folded after 1995, ACT continued to promote the Late Model Tour, though with fewer visits to Canada and most of them centered upon Quebec, the province closest to ACT’s Vermont headquarters. In 2007, the ACT acquired a Quebec-based touring Late Model series, renaming the organization the Série ACT. Since then, the Série ACT has operated under the ACT rulebook and in cooperation with the American Tour, but with some level of autonomy.

At the end of the 2016 season, signs of a rift surfaced just prior to the ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as a group of promoters promised a new Late Model tour to replace the Série ACT. Through the winter, Marc Patrick Roy and others worked with Tom Curley to reactivate the Série ACT, cobbling together a six-race schedule with the support of long-time ACT partner teams. After a successful 2017 season, Roy and team drafted a nine-race schedule that avoided all but one conflict with the Tour’s American schedule. A tenth race, a second at Chaudière, was announced a few weeks ago, and a driver roster was published a day before the ACT Tour’s release.

Economic factors and the challenges of border clearance have stifled cross-border competition for the ACT in the last few years. The last Tour points race in Canada was in 2015, with only ten of 28 starters making the trip from the United States. Through the Série ACT, though, the Tour was able to maintain a Canadian presence, with many Série regulars dipping a toe in the American Tour before their season was in earnest. Last time, teams sided with Tom Curley and the ACT as a new Canadian presence emerged in the offseason, and the rumored replacement tour never came to fruition.

Who will teams side with in this latest schism? The pit area at Lee for next week’s Tour season opener might provide a hint.

NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

With this weekend’s racing postponed by weather, fans in the Northeast should be able to enjoy this weekend’s big-league racing in Bristol, Tennessee without a conflict of interest.

The PASS North teams will instead continue their season next Sunday, April 22, with the Honey Badger Bar & Grill 150 at Oxford Plains Speedway.

The ACT Tour will kick off 2018 an hour and a half south at Lee USA Speedway with the annual Governor’s Cup 150, also on Sunday.

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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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