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Pro All Stars Series North Preview

The premier Super Late Model division of the New England regions begins anew on Sunday at Thompson …

Thompson Speedway

In eighteen years of competition, the Pro All Stars Series has come a long way. In 2001, PASS was the latest answer to the question of what touring series could supplant the long-departed American-Canadian Tour Pro Stocks as the Northeast’s top touring destination for weekly racers who lacked the budget to compete on NASCAR’s Busch North Series.

In 2019, PASS enters its nineteenth season of competition, outlasting NEPSA, the International Pro Stock Challenge, even NASCAR’s regional touring efforts. PASS sanctions Super Late Models from the northern reaches of Maine to the short tracks of the Carolinas. PASS has its own budget division for pavement Modifieds.

On the high banks of Connecticut’s legendary Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, the nineteenth year for the Pro All Stars Series North Super Late Models begins in earnest today.

What are the big headlines entering this season? Who are the players looking to make their mark on regional short-track history? Short Track Scene proudly brings you this year’s preview of the 2019 PASS North season.

READ MORE: 2019 PASS North schedule breakdown

The Body Debacle

Interestingly, the look of the cars on the track might become one of the biggest stories of the year.

PASS had already announced last year that Five Star Bodies’ “Generation 6” bodywork would be legal in PASS competition, an announcement that rang hollow when the bodies were not even available until season’s end. When the refreshed body packages finally hit the market, though, rival sanctioning bodies, led by the ABC Committee, opted not to allow the new bodies in 2019.

So far, PASS remains the only sanctioning body on the East Coast to allow the Gen-6 bodywork, a fact the organization touted aggressively on social media leading up to last week’s Commonwealth Classic at Richmond Raceway. A handful of teams at Richmond were equipped with new Camaros and Mustangs and Camrys, while other teams held onto their ABC-approved sheetmetal for at least another race.

The Richmond results were balanced. A mix of ABC and Gen-6 cars ran at the front of both PASS features. An ABC-bodied car won one feature; a Gen-6 car won the other. For sure, Richmond Raceway is a more aero-sensitive track than the quarter-mile bullrings and flat ovals that comprise most of the PASS North schedule.

But one race (at a large short track unfamiliar to most of the teams) is a tiny sample size. And the teams are still learning.

Ultimately, Five Star, ARBodies and the Super Late Model community are getting exactly what they need: a full-scale real-world test. Computer simulations and wind-tunnel tests can only gauge so much. If ABC-bodied cars are struggling to crack the top five in October, perhaps the ABC Committee’s concerns will be confirmed. If the field is still relatively equal come Oxford and Seekonk in October, perhaps the supposed benefits of the body will have proven to be insignificant.

There’s only one way to find out.

BODY WARS: Super Late community is fiercely divided on body debate

A Return to Loudon

PASS North gained a marquée event in 2019 with a return to New England’s largest oval track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway. PASS will replace the Granite State Pro Stock Series as the top-billed fendered division in June’s New England Short Track Showdown, as the multi-division event enters its third year. PASS has visited the Magic Mile once before, hosting a National Championship event there in 2015.

The move makes sense by way of inevitability; in the Showdown’s prior two runnings, visiting PASS teams took the lion’s share of the spoils from the GSPSS regulars. The event could draw some big names from outside the tour as well. Of course, events at fast tracks always create greater risk for the teams and drivers; a crash at Loudon could leave a small team short a car. Such are the risks of competition.

If anything, PASS could prove to be a boost to the Showdown itself, bringing star power lacking from the other divisions on hand. The 2015 PASS race at NHMS included eventual development drivers like Canadian Raphaël Lessard, NASCAR Truck Series driver Dalton Sargeant, and a young Christopher Bell, who drove one of two entries prepared by Kyle Busch Motorsports.

No Races at The Ridge

Over the last many seasons, Beech Ridge Motor Speedway has been a natural venue for the PASS Super Late Models. Conveniently close to PASS’ home base in Oxford, similar in layout to Oxford, and with a weekly Pro Series class running very similar rules to PASS’ Super Late Models, the third-mile oval has hosted three or four PASS features for several years running. In some ways, Beech Ridge felt like a home away from home for the tour.

But Beech Ridge management opted to go in a new direction for 2019, eschewing touring racing to focus on their weekly shows. In addition, the weekly Pro Series teams will switch to American Racer tires from the Hoosier rubber shared with the PASS touring teams.

Beech Ridge was not the only track to drop from the 2019 schedule. But in losing Beech Ridge, PASS was left with three former “home” dates to fill. Indeed, additional dates were scheduled at Oxford to round out the season, with six points races to be contested at the sanctioning body’s home venue. Worth noting is that all the Oxford events are scheduled for Sundays, avoiding any direct conflicts with weekly racing at Beech Ridge.

How this affects the weekly competitors at both tracks remains to be seen. At least one Beech Ridge regular, defending track champion Curtis Gerry, will race at Oxford full-time this year, while running the PASS races close to home. Will others make a similar move? And will the Beech Ridge regulars continue to pack the starting lineup in Oxford’s PASS events?

This is the second eyebrow-raising move from Beech Ridge in recent years, after a decision a few years ago to ban coolers and bags from the stands. The controversial cooler ban was reversed within a few months. Will Beech Ridge revisit this approach, too, at season’s end?

A Northern Focus

When PASS released North and National Championship schedules back in December, one omission was unstated, but plainly clear: the PASS South tour, created in 2006, would not be racing in 2019.

Given some of the hardships and pitfalls associated with Super Late Model racing in the Southeast in general, the move is more than understandable, and allows PASS to focus its resources on a region where it remains the prevailing Super Late Model platform and tour.

The National Championship remains, though, absorbing some of PASS’ southern presence with appearances at Richmond (Va.) Raceway, Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway, and other renowned speedplants. The National Championship has attracted some new participants in 2019, including reigning GSPSS champion Devin O’Connell, who plans to work the National events in alongside his GSPSS title defense.

Some drivers remain committed to the southern dates, with 2018 PASS South champ Matt Craig preparing a car that, with its new Camaro body, will be illegal on any other regional tour. Few of PASS’ southern supporters make regular trips to the north, though. None are in attendance this weekend at Thompson.

The PASS National Championship is the only Super Late Model program on the Eastern seaboard that reaches beyond its home turf. But does the lack of regular competition from the south diminish its value as a “national” program?

All Your Favorite Stars

As the top echelon of fendered short track racing in New England, PASS has long been able to promote “your favorite short track stars” as part of the excitement. A glance at the early-season entry lists, as well as the qualifying order at Thompson, indicate that the usual boast will remain true.

For those at the top of the standings, little seems to have changed. Defending champion DJ Shaw (#60) will return for another season in PASS, in search of his fourth series crown. Shaw’s main rival throughout 2018, Travis Benjamin (#7), returns to Petit Motorsports for a fourth season. Garrett Hall (#94) and Black Point Motorsports, fresh off their first full season on the circuit, are entered for the first few events of the year. Derek Griffith (#12G), the 2018 PASS National champion, will chase North and National points again for Louie Mechalides. And series veteran and multi-time champion Ben Rowe (#4) will look to overcome a discouraging 2018.

A few other drivers have been entered for the year’s first two races, and will likely take a wait-and-see approach toward the season. Reid Lanpher (#59) led last year’s standings early before cutting back to a part-time schedule. Mechanical problems slowed Lanpher at Richmond, and Thompson will be an opportunity for redemption. Former American-Canadian Tour champion Nick Sweet (#40) struggled early last year, but his Mad Dog Motorsports program found their stride late in the year, winning at Thunder Road and running strong at Seekonk. Mike Hopkins (#15) ran for points in 2016, but has run part-time since. A win at Richmond may propel Hopkins’ team through the early part of the schedule. Six-time PASS champion Johnny Clark (#54) has a newly-wrapped car at Thompson and will be at Oxford as well. Fortunes will likely dictate whether these four chase season points or opt to run part-time instead.

One new face on the schedule this year will be 2018 Oxford Plains Speedway champion Gabe Brown (#47). Brown, who turned sixteen last fall, made ten PASS starts last year. He steps up to the full schedule with support from Dale Shaw Race Cars as he seeks his first Super Late Model win. Another rookie, Evan Hallstrom (#1VT), has a partial schedule of races planned beginning at Oxford next week.

A number of established drivers will pick and choose the races that suit their schedules best, including multi-time feature winner Derek Ramstrom (#35), 2015 Oxford 250 champ and 2017 points runner-up Glen Luce (#7L), Massachusetts veteran Eddie MacDonald (#17MA), rising SLM star and GSPSS full-timer Ray Christian III (#93CT), and Oxford ace Curtis Gerry (#7G). Spot appearances by other regional stars, like Maine legend Mike Rowe and NASCAR Busch North champion Kelly Moore, are always a possibility.

And for August’s Oxford 250 (and June’s Short Track Showdown feature), PASS may even draw from outside the region. Defending Oxford 250 winner Bubba Pollard has indicated he will return to defend his crown, and Floridian hotshoe Stephen Nasse hinted that the race was one of his considerations this year as well.

From full-time championship chasers to one-race barnstormers, each PASS feature will promise some of the country’s top short track talent.

Predictions & Conclusions

With races at the region’s most recognized tracks, with some of the Northeast’s best-known short track racers, and often aligned with the biggest weekends in regional motorsports, the Pro All Stars Series is primed for another year representing the top ranks of regional short-track racing.

However, predictions pose a challenge. These are professional racers, but they are regional racers. A car destroyed in a heat race can derail a season’s plans as easily as, say, a promotion at the driver’s day job or a family emergency.

Can DJ Shaw balance a new teammate with keeping his car at the cutting edge? Will Garrett Hall catch a break? Will Ben Rowe’s new Senneker chassis keep the team moving forward? Can Reid Lanpher match the consistency he displayed last year (12 top-ten finishes in 13 starts)? Will Gabe Brown learn the touring tracks as quickly as he did Oxford?

The answers will play a part in determining the drivers racing for the title in October at Seekonk (Mass.) Speedway. Those who make it to the title battle will have dodged misfortune both on the track and in the real world.

And it all starts today on the high banks of Thompson.

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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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