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Canadians claim ACT and PASS North wins, weather cooperates at last: 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.

ACT TOUR: LAPERLE TOPS TOUR FIELD FOR FIRST US VICTORY IN EIGHT YEARS

Following a week off after a three-straight-race delayed start to the season, the American-Canadian Tour headed north Saturday night for its first of two races at Speedway 51. The Groveton, New Hampshire quarter mile, promoted by ACT and Thunder Road veteran Joey Laquerre, was absent from the 2017 schedule, but Saturday’s Caron Fabrication 151 was the first of two scheduled Tour races in 2018.

Twenty-three ACT Late Models were in the pit area for the feature, with a fair bit of local color sprinkled through the field. Full-time Tour entrants Corey Mason and Bryan Mason, the 2017 Fall Brawl 151 winner, were accompanied by locally-based drivers like Shawn Swallow, Russ Clark, and Mike Kenison. Brandon Atkins, whose Tour start at Thunder Road was his first since 2016, was back in his #4NY Dodge. The track’s close proximity to the Canadian border meant that Claude Leclerc was not the only Quebecer in the field; Remi Perreault and veteran Patrick Laperle were in the lineup as well. Thunder Road regular Matt White, sixth in points after three races, was a no-show, as were most of the Thunder Road regulars who had made spot Tour starts in 2018.

The local color was on display in the heats, with Kenison and Corey Mason winning two and Rich Dubeau winning the third. Shawn Swallow continued the trend with a consi victory. However, the plus-minus scores moved Miles Chipman to the front of the field, with Brandon Atkins lining up on the outside of the front row.

A few years ago, Brandon Atkins was touted as one of the ACT Tour’s rising stars. The Au Sable Forks, NY driver joined the Tour as a teen, racing in cars purchased from Rick Paya Motorsports. Atkins showed progress as he learned the Late Models at a variety of tracks, improving in his first full seasons. Then Atkins’ third season was cut short by a non-racing injury. Academics and a foray into racing on dirt occupied Atkins’ 2017 season, with only a spot start or two in a Late Model.

But when Atkins worked past Miles Chipman to take the race lead eight laps in, all that was in the past. Atkins pulled out to a lead as Jimmy Hebert moved from the fourth starting position to the runner-up slot. Hebert was reeling in Atkins when a yellow flag drew the two leaders together, and for the next several laps, Hebert pressured Atkins, looking to improve his Oxford finishing position by one.

Hebert made his move on lap 62, pulling inside Atkins to take the lead. But the two drivers made contact, and as Atkins tried to hold onto the car, he caught the rear of Hebert’s #58VT, turning both cars head-on into the frontstretch wall. The hard hit brought out a red flag for cleanup. Atkins’ promising night was over. Hebert, who had been bitten by bad luck in the first two races of the year, was left with a demolished car and a last-place finish.

Rich Dubeau, meanwhile, found himself in the lead when the race resumed. Dubeau was still looking for his first career Tour victory, and as he established a lead over the next thirty laps, it looked like the fourth-year driver might finally break out with that victory. Dubeau’s handling began to fade nearing the two-thirds mark of the race, though, and there was an orange car waiting to capitalize.

Patrick Laperle, in the orange #91, was not looking for his first victory. “Le Grand Laperle,” as announcers often introduce him, already had a long list of trophies: 24 wins and four championships in the Quebec-based Série ACT, another eighteen wins and a title in the US-based ACT Tour, and a few wins in a Super Late Model to boot. The 2017 Série ACT runner-up was not looking for his first win, but as he took the lead from Dubeau on lap 93, he was certainly in the hunt for his next win.

Laperle stretched his advantage while Scott Payea tracked down Rich Dubeau. By the time Payea cleared Dubeau for second place, Laperle was a half a straightaway ahead, and Payea could do little but try to shave off some time. Two late cautions gave Payea the reprieve he needed, with the defending champion taking the lead on the night’s final green flag with a few laps to go. Payea led laps 148 and 149, but Laperle dug back in, got past Payea’s Dodge, and led the final two laps en route to victory. Laperle’s win was his first on the US-based Tour since 2010, and the first Tour win for a Canadian driver since current NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Alex Labbe won at Airborne Park Speedway in 2013.

Scott Payea finished second, with Rich Dubeau matching his career best in third. Corey Mason finished fourth for the second race in a row, with heat winner Mike Kenison rounding out the top five. Russ Clark finished sixth ahead of fellow locals Craig Bushey and Shawn Swallow, each of whom survived a late-race spin. Chip Grenier was the first car a lap down in ninth, with rookie Dylan Payea finishing tenth.

After missing the season opener and running well off the pace in the next two events, Peyton Lanphear rebounded in a big way, finishing eleventh in the feature. Eddie MacDonald, who sustained damage in the Atkins-Hebert collision, was twelfth, ahead of hard-luck rookie Christopher Pelkey and veteran Claude Leclerc. Miles Chipman, who started first, faded through the field to a sixteenth-place finish.

With four races down, Scott Payea holds a healthy points lead courtesy of the bad luck for Eddie MacDonald and Jimmy Hebert. Rich Dubeau and Corey Mason, each with three top-tens in four starts, sit fourth and fifth. Ten drivers, including Claude Leclerc, have started all four races. That said, Chip Grenier, Matt White, and Brian Tagg are not far outside the top ten, should a driver miss a race or fall deeper in the points.

The ACT Tour will take a week off before resuming competition at Connecticut’s New London-Waterford Speedbowl on June 16th. Jimmy Hebert’s team will be one to watch in the next two weeks: the third-place driver in the points will have to rebuild his primary car from the firewall forward to race at Waterford, never mind to get back in the title chase.

PASS NORTH: COLE BUTCHER DOMINATES IN PASS’ FIRST TRIP TO PETTY

The Pro All Stars Series North went on its longest road trip of the season this weekend, with the officials and teams heading east of the United States border to Petty International Raceway in River Glade, New Brunswick. The trip was the first for PASS to the track in the Canadian Maritimes, and the only cross-border venture on the 2018 schedule.

The race at Petty was an opportunity for PASS to right a perceived wrong from the season before. Officials had opted to postpone a scheduled race at Speedway 660 in New Brunswick last June, but when a suitable rain date could not be found, PASS scheduled a make-up race at Oxford Plains Speedway. It was a compromise that kept a date on the calendar, and PASS still honored the promise of Oxford 250 provisionals to the top Canadian teams, though many Canadian fans felt slighted.

Canadian fans this year likely felt rattled, then, when rain fell on the speedway on Saturday. Officials were forced to postpone the race, but with the teams actually on the premises and a Sunday rain date in hand, they only needed to postpone activities one day. Sunday’s forecast would allow the Atlantic Fleet Completion Centre 150 to go green in the afternoon.

The official PASS entry list and the expected entries available to Petty International Raceway were two different lists, but the intersection of the two was an eighteen-car roster at the track on Saturday. Flying the Canadian flag were some of the Maritimes’ top Pro Stock racers, with Cole Butcher joining Shawn Turple and Darren MacKinnon. Lonnie Sommerville, a name familiar to PASS followers, was in the pits along with Kyle Reid, who ran the Oxford PASS race two weekends before. Dylan Gosbee and Jonathan Hicken represented the province of Prince Edward Island along with MacKinnon and Robbie MacEwen.

By comparison, the American contingent of racers was lean. Of the eight drivers who had started every PASS North race so far, only five were to be found. Ben Rowe and DJ Shaw had made the trip, as had Derek Griffith. Garrett Hall was a late arrival. The Petit Motorsports #7 was nowhere to be found, but Travis Benjamin was in Mike Hopkins’ #15 Toyota for the weekend. Neither Nick Sweet nor Glen Luce had made the trip to Petty. But the more shocking absence was that of Reid Lanpher. After taking the points lead following Thunder Road, the points leader would not be in Sunday’s field. The only other drivers from the States were Kirk Thibeau, from the border town of Fort Fairfield, Maine, and Cassius Clark, racing once again for Rollie MacDonald’s King Racing team.

While many of the Canadian short-track aces are not household names even among fendered fanatics in the States, Cole Butcher is one of the exceptions. The Nova Scotia native had seven prior starts in PASS North competition prior to Sunday, all at Oxford Plains Speedway. On the national stage, Butcher has a sixth-place finish in the Snowflake 100 in 2016 and a 15th-place run in the 2017 Snowball Derby, in addition to two starts in the Oxford 250. More recently, Butcher was honored as part of the Kulwicki Driver Development Program. But all of Butcher’s winning had all been done on his home turf, with eight victories in the Parts for Trucks Pro Stock Tour and a championship in 2016.

Butcher and Clark were fast in Sunday’s practice session, and lined up first and second for the 150-lap feature. On the first lap, though, Clark was eliminated in a grinding wreck. Clark was fine, but the white #13 was done for the day. About twenty laps later, another big crash left Dylan Gosbee, Darren MacKinnon and Shawn Turple with significant damage. Turple made a few more laps after the wreck but parked his ride shortly afterward.

With Clark out, Cole Butcher was in command, lapping well into the top ten by halfway. Derek Griffith and Ben Rowe rode in second and third. Rowe would work his way to second, taking the lead late in the going from Butcher and setting up a door-to-door battle between the young Canadian and the Maine champion. Butcher eventually got the best of Rowe, leading the final five laps for his first victory in PASS North competition.

Rowe, at last shaking off a streak of bad fortune, finished second for his second straight top-five finish. Derek Griffith finished third for only his second top-five finish of the year. Kyle Reid, who competed in the PASS race at Oxford a few weeks back, finished fourth ahead of fellow Canadian Jonathan Hicken. Darren MacKinnon came back to finish sixth, with Travis Benjamin seventh in the borrowed Hopkins car. Robbie MacEwen and Lonnie Sommerville were next, each a lap back, with Mainer Kirk Thibeau finishing tenth in his first PASS start of the year. PASS regulars Garrett Hall and DJ Shaw were eleventh and fifteenth, with Shaw several laps down despite running in the top five early on.

The race at Petty was also part of PASS’ “Roads To Oxford And Richmond” program, with the top five finishers awarded provisionals to be used either in August’s Oxford 250 or October’s inaugural Commonwealth Classic at Richmond Raceway. Ben Rowe opted to apply his provisional toward the Commonwealth Classic. Butcher, Griffith, Reid and Hicken chose to take a guaranteed start in the Oxford 250 instead.

There were plenty of positive takeaways from Sunday’s race. Despite a rain delay, the race did not need to be rescheduled or cancelled, negating the effort of those who traveled to get there. From all reports, the fans got a tremendous show in the closing laps, once again proving that more cars in the field is no guarantee of a great race. From an on-track perspective, PASS’ maiden voyage to Petty International Raceway was a resounding success.

But the number five still lingers. Only five full-time PASS North competitors made the trek to New Brunswick. Glen Luce, the winner of the last PASS race held in Canada, stayed home. Nick Sweet, seventh in that race, stayed home. Reid Lanpher, who has excelled on unfamiliar tracks in 2018, stayed home. Aside from the five title contenders, none of the other challengers in the field had attempted more than one PASS race in 2018.

Such is the risk of racing in Canada. For many teams, the trip to New Brunswick is the longest on the schedule. The cross-border trip also introduces logistical hurdles for a race team, such as border clearance for the driver and crew, appropriate bonding for the car and equipment, and the necessary authority to travel in Canada. For big professional teams, these hurdles are easier to manage. For smaller teams, they pose a greater challenge. Last year, Dave Farrington, Jr. was tested when his crew was turned away at the border en route to a race in Quebec. And even the veteran teams sometimes get stymied; last fall, Cassius Clark and King Racing made headlines when they were delayed at the border on their way to the Carolinas.

Cross-border competition is a hallmark of racing in the Northeast, with no shortage of notable Canadians in the record books in the various regional tours. However, crossing the border to race is a trickier endeavor now than it once was, and there are no apparent solutions at hand. If championship points and guaranteed starting positions are not incentive enough, would a non-points race actually draw more or fewer entries? Higher purses may help, but who is paying the prize fund?

Official points have not been released yet, but the points lead after this weekend should fall to either Travis Benjamin or DJ Shaw, with Derek Griffith and Ben Rowe making up some ground on the lead battle. Five of the top eight in points have made all seven starts so far.

What does this mean for former points leader Lanpher? It may not be as much of a blow to his title hopes as it first seemed. At worst, Lanpher could fall to sixth in points, still well ahead of seventh. With Ben Rowe climbing out of a hole and recent stumbles for DJ Shaw and Travis Benjamin, Lanpher could still be within reach of the top spot. Much as Ryan Preece was still in the NASCAR Modified Tour championship discussion despite missing races last year, Lanpher may be able to overcome missing the Petty race with some more strong runs and a victory or two.

The PASS North teams have a week off to prepare for a Sunday-afternoon race at Speedway 95 in Hermon, Maine, just on the outskirts of Bangor. With the series returning to its home territory, the starting field should look much more familiar next weekend.

WEEKLY RACING: VETERANS AND ROOKIES TRIUMPH ALIKE AS WEATHER STEPS ASIDE

For the first time in a few weeks, weather was not a factor in the weekend’s local racing schedule. Clear skies and high temperatures across the region meant that short tracks were open for business.

Beech Ridge Motor Speedway returned to weekly racing after two weeks off, one for a scheduled break and one for rain. Veteran Mike Rowe, in his second year of weekly competition at the Ridge, claimed his first win of the season in the Caruso-Fowler Racing #24. Statistical favorite Curtis Gerry seems to have traded weekly success for touring glory, as mechanical troubles doomed the #7G to an early exit.

Up the road at Oxford Plains Speedway, youth won out over experience as fifteen-year-old Austin Teras won the 50-lap SLM feature. Teras, a multi-time Legends champion at Oxford, prevailed over Scott Robbins and Tim Brackett. Gabe Brown finished fourth, taking the weekly points lead from eighth-place finisher TJ Brackett. Alan Tardiff finished fifth. Johnny Clark, not making the trip to New Brunswick for the PASS North event, finished 17th in the eighteen-car field.

Pro Stocks were back in action at Wiscasset Speedway, with Kevin Douglass taking the checkered flag in Saturday night’s 40-lap feature. However, a shock violation in post-race inspection handed the win to Brian Whitney, with Jamie Wright second and Jeremie Whorff third. Douglass was credited with 11th after a ten-position penalty.

White Mountain Motorsports Park’s weekly racing resumed after a two-week weather layoff, with Stephen Donahue winning the Late Model feature over opening-week winner Quinny Welch. Paul Newcomb finished third, followed by occasional ACT Tour competitor Oren Remick and Stacy Cahoon. At Star Speedway in Epping, Kris Schroeder had a big night, winning a Strictly Stock feature before earning his first win in the track’s Late Model class.

Seekonk Speedway in Massachusetts finally got its weekly season off to a start this weekend after multiple rainouts. Late Models were the weekend’s featured division in support of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, with Ray Parent winning in a wild finish after a six-lap sprint to the checkered flag.

NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

The ACT, GSPSS and PASS North teams share a rare off-weekend together. The ACT Tour returns to action next Saturday at Connecticut’s New London-Waterford Speedbowl. The PASS North teams race on Sunday at Speedway 95 outside Bangor, Maine.

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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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