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New England Notebook: Surprises abound in ACT T-Road trip, Doiron claims bonus in GSPSS opener at Claremont

(Jeff Brown photo)

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: CORLISS WINS THIRD STRAIGHT AT T-ROAD, POINTS CONTENDERS SUFFER BIG SETBACKS

Only a week after opening the season, the American-Canadian Tour reconvened at Thunder Road International Speedbowl for the second race of a three-week opening stretch run. In an odd technicality, the Community Bank N.A. 150 was the second weather rescheduling of the season. With the original season opener pushed back to a planned rain date of April 28th, ACT officials moved the already-scheduled Thunder Road visit back one week to accommodate PASS’ open weekend.

Two years ago, teams arriving for early-season races at T-Road were greeted by a fresh coat of asphalt, laid as soon as Cris Michaud and Pat Malone took charge of the speedway. This year, teams were introduced to a new concrete wall encircling the high-banked quarter-mile. For some, the new wall introduced a barrier of safety between the edge of the pavement and the trees and landscape beyond; for others, the wall represented a change to the track’s unique character.

The new stretch of concrete did not deter teams from showing up for one of the Vermont-based tour’s home games, though, with 36 teams on the entry list approaching the weekend. Many were from the weekly ranks of Thunder Road’s Late Model program; track champion Scott Dragon, Marcel J. Gravel, Brooks Clark, Matt White and Cody Blake were among the weekly stars in attendance, along with defending race winner Jason Corliss. Season opener winner Bryan Kruczek would be at the track Sunday in Bobby Webber’s #19NH, with Brandon Atkins visiting from across Lake Champlain with his #4NY Dodge. ACT and Thunder Road champion Nick Sweet was in a familiar #40VT entry, shaking down the car for car owner Eric Chase, who hoped to run for Thunder Road points while Sweet chased PASS success.

Michael Lavoie joined fellow Quebec racers Jonathan Bouvrette, Mathieu Kingsbury and Claude Leclerc to make four Canadian entries for the race. New Hampshire racers Corey and Bryan Mason, both of whom made full-season attempts last year, and Mainer JR Robinson were among those at Oxford who did not make the trip to Vermont.

The field dropped to 35 with a social media announcement on race morning, when Wayne Helliwell, Jr. announced that he would be sitting out the race with plans to return next week at White Mountain Motorsports Park. Helliwell’s post-practice withdrawal had clear championship implications as well: one of Scott Payea’s fiercest competitors had effectively dropped from the title chase.

Unlike Oxford, where forty cars or more routinely take the green flag in major events, Thunder Road’s tight confines and tradition dictate that only 26 cars will start the feature. This gave a new sense of gravity to the ACT qualifying process. Sophomore Tour racer Christopher Pelkey edged out Kruczek for the first heat, with Jimmy Hebert and Brandon Atkins winning the other two heats. The remainder of the field was sorted into a pair of consis, with Matt White and Jonathan Bouvrette winning and four other drivers advancing to the field. Fourteen drivers took the green for a 20-lap B-feature, with two drivers advancing and three drivers earning provisionals into the field. Brooks Clark and Dylan Payea raced into the event, with provisionals going to Chip Grenier on Tour points, Mathieu Kingsbury from Quebec, and weekly racer Brendan Moodie.

That left Scott Payea on the outside looking in. The defending Tour champion started deep in the field in his heat, spinning late in the going. He had been unable to rebound in either the consi or the B-feature, and Chip Grenier’s top-five run at Oxford made him eligible over Payea for the Tour provisional. With no other protections afforded the reigning champion, Payea failed to make the field.

Payea had plenty of company; rookie Ryan Kuhn, sisters Peyton and Reilly Lanphear, and veteran Claude Leclerc were among the nine racers loading their haulers early.

On the other side of fortune, the ACT plus-minus system anointed defending Thunder Road weekly champ Scott Dragon as polesitter, with weekly challenger Trampas Demers alongside. Jason Corliss and Matt White lined up behind the front row, with Christopher Pelkey and Jimmy Hebert leading the charge among the Tour regulars in fifth and sixth.

Demers shot out to an early advantage, but Jason Corliss reeled him in to take the lead for his own 24 laps in. Corliss had established himself in recent years as one of Thunder Road’s top weekly competitors, earning a bunch of feature wins, sweeping the Tour events in 2018, and winning the prestigious Milk Bowl in 2017 and 2018.

Three yellow flags in quick succession before the halfway point stole Corliss’ advantage, giving Scott Dragon a shot at the race lead. The two-time track champion kept his nose out front for six laps in all, but Corliss took the lead back on lap 69, and he never looked back. Building a lead that exceeded a second and a half at the checkers, Corliss sailed home to his third career ACT Tour win, and his third Thunder Road Tour win in a row.

Battling from twenty-first starting spot after clinching a spot through a consi, Nick Sweet drove his Mad Dog Motorsports entry all the way to second place at the finish. Scott Dragon held on for third with early leader Trampas Demers fourth. Rich Dubeau rounded out the top five, the highest-finishing Tour regular in the field. Jimmy Hebert was sixth, followed by Marcel Gravel, Tour rookie Stephen Donahue, B-feature winner Brooks Clark, and Matt White.

Thunder Road racers dominated the afternoon, leading all the laps and claiming most of the top half of the running order. Title hopeful Jonathan Bouvrette was a lap back in 13th, with second-year racer Dylan Payea 15th and Chip Grenier 16th. Christopher Pelkey finished 19th, with Bryan Kruczek surviving a brush with the wall to finish two laps back in 20th. Mathieu Kingsbury was 22nd, the final car to finish the race. With only four yellows, the event was far cleaner than the season opener.

The success of the Thunder Road regulars, coupled with the drama for the Tour stars, jumbled the points heading into the Tour’s third event at White Mountain Motorsports Park. Jimmy Hebert and Rich Dubeau sit atop the standings, separated by four points. Third in points is Bryan Kruczek; however, Kruczek is entered for Saturday night’s PASS showdown at Star Speedway and will probably not be at WMMP. Chip Grenier and rookie Stephen Donahue round out the top five, with Dylan Payea sixth.

Defending champion Scott Payea remains seventh in the standings; despite missing the race, he earned points as a full-time entrant and sits only 48 points out of the lead. While quite a distance to make up, it is hardly insurmountable. Payea’s failure to qualify is remarkable in the sense that officials opted not to fall back on the time-honored “promoter’s option” or other tricks to ensure his participation. It speaks to the ACT’s adherence to Tom Curley’s assertion that no driver is greater than the show. And it echoes the purity fans find in short track racing, where nothing is guaranteed on anything but performance.

Payea’s opportunity to rebound will come in the Granite State, as the Tour heads to White Mountain Motorsports Park to open the speedway under the ownership of ACT bosses Cris Michaud and Pat Malone. The Spring Green 119 marks the return of a legendary ACT moniker in the form of a quarter-mile sprint race. Once again, the touring faithful will have to battle the weekly WMMP warriors for a shot at the trophy.

GSPSS: DOIRON STARTS LAST, FINISHES FIRST IN CLAREMONT LIDLIFTER

A week after an open test at the newly-named Claremont Motorsports Park, the Granite State Pro Stock Series returned to the third-mile New Hampshire oval Saturday night to kick off its eighth full season. The race was the first since the track changed hands in the offseason, with new owners Norm Wrenn and Ben Bosowski guiding operations of the speedway.

The race had originally been scheduled for Claremont’s customary Friday night, but a poor forecast forced the promoters to nudge the event to Saturday, when only clouds would threaten competition at the speedway.

The GSPSS promoted a deep and diverse field throughout the offseason, and they were rewarded with twenty-three entries in the pit area, a solid draw for the tour. Topping the list of entries were 2018 series champion Devin O’Connell, runner-up Joey Doiron, and season finale winner Ray Christian III, who had already started his season with some strong runs in PASS competition. Former series champions Mike O’Sullivan and Barry Gray, as well as longtime GSPSS supporter Josh King, were joined by other familiar faces like Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. and Matt Frahm.

One series newcomer was Pro Stock and NASCAR Busch North Series veteran Tommy Rosati, coming out of retirement to drive for car owner Wright Pearson with GSPSS feature winner Tommy O’Sullivan spotting. Also planning to compete for the GSPSS title was Dennis Spencer, Jr.; the Oxford Plains Speedway regular’s car sported a new-for-the-series look with the door number moved back to the rear quarter panels. Legends racer Jake Matheson prepared for his GSPSS debut earlier in the week by earning his New Hampshire driver’s license. Angelo Belsito and Seekonk Speedway star Bobby Pelland made the trip north, with Ricky Bly and Guy Caron entered as local stars. Late entries came from PASS rising star Gabe Brown, whose car was wrapped to commemorate Dale Shaw’s stint driving for Phoenix Racing in the late 1990s, and Maine’s Nick Jenkins.

The strong field came despite some notable absences from last year’s title contenders. Cory Casagrande, Nick Lascuola, and defending race winner Jacob Dore were not on the entry list, nor were hard-luck New York racer Mike Scorzelli or Vermont ace Todd Stone. Jeremy Davis was at the track, but as a car builder; in preparing customer cars for the race, Davis had run out of time to complete his own mount. PASS points leader DJ Shaw was roaming the pits in a similar role.

Joey Doiron showed speed throughout practice, earning fast-lap honors in pre-heat qualifying. With pole honors in hand, Doiron opted to take advantage of a bonus offered through the New Hampshire Short Track Racing Association; the “Back of the Pack Challenge” would post an additional $1000 to the winner’s earnings if he could do so from the tail of the field. Accordingly, Doiron dropped out of his heat early to save the car as he was locked into the field; however, officials requested that he run some hot laps before the start of the race so as to eliminate any tire advantage.

With Doiron out of the qualifying battle, Luke Hinkley, Guy Caron and Matt Frahm earned wins in the three heats, with a redraw moving Kyle Welch and Gabe Brown to the head of the field for the start.

While local stars like Welch and Hinkley battled out front early in the race, Joey Doiron’s march from the rear of the field was the story to watch. When Doiron announced he would run for the GSPSS title in 2018, the temptation to call the trophy engravers was strong. With multiple PASS feature wins and a National Championship trophy in his case, Doiron as the chief title contender seemed like a foregone conclusion. But bad luck sprinkled through the season kept the Mainer from putting the title away, and Devin O’Connell prevailed in the end.

Doiron’s small team has always had fast cars, though, and by the midpoint of the race, Joey had already cleared most of the field on his march to the front. With a third of the race remaining, Doiron closed in on leader Luke Hinkley, engaging in a close but clean battle for the race lead. Doiron inched out into the lead, but Hinkley stayed close, hoping to pounce on any slip-ups for a chance at a home-track victory.

A series of cautions in the final ten laps kept Hinkley’s hopes alive, as he was able to challenge Doiron on the restarts. On the final restart, though, Doiron cleared Hinkley and held on to take the win and the $1,000 Back of the Pack Challenge purse. Doiron’s first win of the season was only his second in GSPSS competition. It was also his first in a traditional race format; his victory at New London-Waterford Speedbowl last May was in a unique triple feature where Doiron had the best overall finish.

Luke Hinkley held on for second, as the former ACT regular still seeks his first GSPSS victory. Matt Frahm finished a stout third. Ray Christian III and Devin O’Connell rounded out the top five; both drivers had to fight from the rear after getting together earlier in the race.

Angelo Belsito in sixth was ahead of a number of top-ten surprises. Rookie Jake Matheson was seventh in his first Pro Stock race. Local racer Ricky Bly was eighth. Rhode Island’s Bobby Pelland was the last car on the lead lap in ninth. Outside polesitter Gabe Brown, who weathered a couple incidents through the evening, rounded out the top ten.

Outside the top ten, short nights and struggles were the name of the game for many contenders. Rookie Jacob Perry was eleventh, with Josh King 13th. Late addition Nick Jenkins, who had to resolve some mechanical gremlins before the feature, was 15th, ahead of unretired racer Tommy Rosati. Early leaders Kyle Welch and Guy Caron were 17th and 18th. Mike O’Sullivan wound up 20th, ahead of Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., Dennis Spencer, Jr. and last-place finisher Barry Gray. All will have a long road ahead to move into title contention.

Fortunately for the back half of the field, there is a week off before next weekend’s “May Madness” gathering at Lee USA Speedway. The nearly-coastal speedplant will host a rare Sunday feature with the GSPSS teams going a slightly-longer 150 laps in their first 2019 visit to “New Hampshire’s Center of Speed.”

LOCAL RACING: LANPHER, GERRY SPLIT OXFORD DOUBLE FEATURES, ROWE STARTS 2019 IN VICTORY CIRCLE

After last week’s Saturday rainout, Oxford Plains Speedway opened their weekly Oxford Championship Series program with double features for the Super Late Models and other local competitors. With reigning track champ Gabe Brown moving to PASS full-time and 2017 champion Alan Tardiff running the bulk of the PASS North schedule himself, some new faces will step up to challenge the venerable Brackett family for weekly supremacy while preparing for August’s Oxford 250. 2017 Oxford 250 winner and two-time Beech Ridge Motor Speedway champion Curtis Gerry announced this winter he will race full-time at Oxford, bringing along Rusty Poland from the Beech Ridge weekly ranks. Rising Street Stock regular Tyler King and two-time PASS Modified champion Ben Tinker have both moved to SLM competition, providing the fans with an exciting rookie battle.

On Saturday afternoon, though, it was Reid Lanpher securing the first trophy of the season. Looking to shake off the gremlins before next week’s PASS feature at Star Speedway, Lanpher put on a clinic in the first feature, leading all fifty laps and beating Curt Gerry by over 2 seconds. Ryan Deane finished third. Glen Luce, another PASS visitor, finished eighth.

In the second feature, Gerry improved by one position, winning a much closer race over veteran car builder and multi-time Oxford champion Jeff Taylor. Taylor, who counts both Lanpher and Gerry among his clients, rarely has time to race beyond the annual Oxford 250. His runner-up performance came on the heels of a seventh-place finish in the first feature. Ryan Deane finished third a second time, with a hard-charging Reid Lanpher driving from the rear to finish fourth.

At Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, the weekly Pro Series entrants were adapting to new rubber, following an offseason switch from Hoosier tires to American Racers. The move did not deter veteran Mike Rowe; back behind the wheel of Caruso-Fowler Racing’s black-and-green #24 Ford Mustang, the 68-year-old hall-of-famer locked down his first feature win of 2019. Dave Farrington, Jr. and Brandon Barker rounded out the podium, with PASS winner Gary Smith, Trevor Sanborn, and other Beech Ridge fixtures in their mirrors.

Star Speedway’s second season of ACT Late Models kicked off in the track’s weekly opener last weekend, with Bryan Kruczek using the night’s race to dial in Bobby Webber’s #19NH for the following day’s ACT Tour feature. Kruczek finished third behind Joshua Hedges and feature winner Charlie Rose.

After a couple false starts due to weather, Wiscasset Speedway in Maine opened its doors for the season, with veteran racer Jeremie Whorff winning the first Pro Stock race of the season. Far south on the Rhode Island border, Seekonk Speedway was rained out for a second week, with the track still trying to get a race weekend in this year.

NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

The Pro All Stars Series and American-Canadian Tour teams go head-to-head on quarter-mile ovals Saturday evening. Up north, the ACT Tour will run the Spring Green 119 at White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, N.H. Down south, the PASS North Super Late Models return to action at Star Speedway in Epping, N.H. for 150 green-flag laps. The GSPSS teams are off this weekend to regroup before their second race of the year.

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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