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New England Notebook: Payea rebounds at WMMP, Shaw celebrates twice with Star win

Johnny Clark (54) leads Saturday night's Little Webb's 150 PASS feature at Star Speedway while Joe Squeglia (03) and DJ Shaw (60) give chase. (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: PAYEA BOUNCES BACK WITH WMMP FEATURE WIN

The American-Canadian Tour Late Models wrapped up a torrid three-week stretch run to open the season with a trip to North Woodstock, New Hampshire. In a sense, Saturday night’s Caron Fabrication Spring Green 119 was a second “home date” for the touring series. Saturday’s visit was the first race at the track under the ownership of ACT partners Cris Michaud and Pat Malone, who acquired the quarter-mile from the founding Avery family shortly after the 2018 season wrapped up.

Saturday’s race was an interesting revival of the “Spring Green” moniker, long used by ACT for one of the early-season events. The last Spring Green was held in 2017 at Devil’s Bowl Speedway, a half-mile oval that reverted to a dirt surface later that season. The Spring Green 119, by contrast, would be at a track half that size, making it a short sprint to the checkered flag.

Saturday’s race would also answer a question that had only been burning a few days: How would Scott Payea bounce back from Thunder Road? At the risk of belaboring a question, the two-time champ’s failure to qualify at a track where he swept the Tour features in 2017 was easily the biggest surprise of the young season. And to rebound successfully, he would face a similar challenge, a quarter-mile oval with a deep field of local racers looking to knock off the touring big shots.

Thirty-six ACT Late Models were checked in for practice, to be precise. Taking the fight to the touring stars were plenty of WMMP’s own weekly stars. Track champions Quinny Welch, Stacy Cahoon and Oren Remick led the charge, along with Jesse Switser, David LaBrecque and rookie Cody LeBlanc, moving to the big cars after winning the 2018 North East Mini Stock Tour title. And the track’s northern proximity once again made it an inviting stop for the Tour’s Quebec-based faithful. Regulars Jonathan Bouvrette, Mathieu Kingsbury and Claude Leclerc were joined by Jean-François Déry (in his second attempt) and ACT veteran Patrick Laperle (making his first of the year).

With only thirty cars slated to take the green in the feature, qualifying again held a measure of gravity. Mathieu Kingsbury and Quinny Welch claimed heat victories, as did Scott Payea, eliminating the possibility of missing a second straight race. Points leader Jimmy Hebert spun late in his heat, forcing him to the consis along with Rich Dubeau. Oren Remick won the first consi, while Hebert and Dubeau went one-two in the second so as to avoid a second week of championship upsets. WMMP regular Jeff Marshall won the B-feature to set the remainder of the field. Rookie Cody LeBlanc was one of those who missed the cut for the field, along with Mike Bailey, Matthew Morrill, Steve Fisher, Jason Larivee, and Allison Menard. Only Larivee, who missed the show at Thunder Road as well, was in the running for Tour points.

Among those in the field, Wayne Helliwell, Jr. was awarded the pole after scoring a plus-eight in his heat, with sophomore Christopher Pelkey lining up on the outside. WMMP regulars Jesse Switser and Oren Remick made up the second row, with Ryan Kuhn starting fifth after missing Thunder Road. Scott Payea would line up seventh. With Oxford winner Bryan Kruczek racing in the PASS feature at Star Speedway and Jason Corliss not in attendance, the evening would celebrate a third different winner for the early-season stretch.

Helliwell led the first lap, but Pelkey would use a quick caution to take the lead briefly before Helliwell regained the point. From sixth place, Rich Dubeau worked around Pelkey to take second. After another caution, Dubeau shot into the lead, leaving Helliwell to fend off Scott Payea for the runner-up spot. Payea moved into second as the yellow flew on lap 48. Under caution, Helliwell peeled off into the pit area from third. Citing illness, he parked the #27NH for the evening, unable to continue.

Once again, the outside line proved the fast line on the restart. This time, the driver taking advantage was Scott Payea, making quick work of Dubeau to take the race lead. A win would certainly erase some of the disappointment of Thunder Road. However, moving up from a twelfth-place start was seven-time WMMP champion Quinny Welch. Welch was no stranger to the ACT Tour; he had 46 starts on the Tour since 2004, with a fourth-place run at WMMP his best to show for it. A Tour win would be a huge prize, and with WMMP regulars earning track points in the ACT Tour feature, it would be a tremendous start to an eighth track title chase.

Welch stalked Scott Payea, even stealing the lead on a restart after the fifth caution flag of the race. But Payea marched back into the lead two laps later, and the track champion was unable to keep pace with the Tour champion. The race went green for the stretch run to the checkered, and Payea kept Welch at bay to take the Spring Green 119 checkered flag. Payea’s win was his sixteenth overall and his eleventh since joining Rick Paya Motorsports in 2016.

Quinny Welch finished second, his best career Tour finish and the best finish for a WMMP regular in ACT Tour competition at the track. Rich Dubeau finished third, with Jimmy Hebert climbing from deep in the field after the consi to finish fourth. Patrick Laperle rounded out the top five.

Ryan Kuhn notched his best Tour finish in his brief career with a sixth-place run, ahead of Christopher Pelkey, who earned his second career ACT Tour top-ten finish and his first since joining the Tour full-time. Tyler Cahoon, Mathieu Kingsbury and Stacy Cahoon closed out the top ten finishers.

Just outside the top ten, Jean-François Déry placed a third Canadian in the top eleven. Rookie Stephen Donahue, with plenty of laps at WMMP, finished 12th, ahead of B-main winner Jeff Marshall. Tour full-timer Joel Hodgdon was the last car on the lead lap in 14th, with the ageless Claude Leclerc the first driver a lap down. Twenty-one starters finished the race.

Among those who did not make the finish were Tour regular Chip Grenier (22nd), Reilly Lanphear (23rd), WMMP star Jesse Switser (24th), polesitter Helliwell (27th), and Jonathan Bouvrette, who finished last after completing only one lap.

Unofficially, Rich Dubeau takes over the point lead by three markers over Jimmy Hebert, while Scott Payea’s win will move him to third in the standings, 26 points out of the lead. At first glance, it feels as if Payea missing a race (when his key competitors have managed top-ten finishes in all three races so far) will prove to be more of a handicap than a season-ending catastrophe. Stephen Donahue and Chip Grenier are a distant fourth and fifth in the title battle. While fortunes could change through the summer, the points race appears to be a three-way battle only three races into a ten-race season.

The ACT teams have two weeks off in anticipation of the Claude Leclerc 150. The race named for Quebec’s “Ironman,” still actively racing in his late seventies, marks the Tour’s points-paying return to La Belle Province. It also marks the first half of a unique Quebec doubleheader, with the Jean-Paul Cabana 125 non-points race running the following day at nearby Circuit Riverside Speedway Ste-Croix.

PASS NORTH: SHAW SURVIVES CARNAGE TO WIN LITTLE WEBB’S 150

Working their way slowly from larger tracks like Richmond (Va.) Raceway and Thompson (Conn.) Speedway, the Pro All Stars Series North Super Late Models convened on one of the smallest tracks on the schedule, New Hampshire’s Star Speedway. The traditional early-season visit to the quarter-mile oval was the first of two stops in 2019, and the first of three bruising quarter-mile dates in a row leading into June.

The Little Webb’s Tires & Fuel 150 was also the first PASS race of the season to face legitimate competition, with weekly racing in action at the tracks hosting Super Late Models and Pro Stocks. All the same, an impressive field of 23 entries was on hand for the third points race of the year. Former Star PASS winners Joey Polewarczyk, Derek Ramstrom and Mike Hopkins were in the lineup, with Hopkins borrowing a gray #01 car from fellow Mainer Andy Saunders. Local flavor was strong, with ACT Oxford winner Bryan Kruczek (in his own #00) joined by Joe Squeglia and Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., the winner of last fall’s GSPSS Star Classic feature. Angelo Belsito, a former Seekonk Speedway champion, and Jake Johnson made the trip from Massachusetts, with GSPSS veteran Cory Casagrande making his second PASS attempt of the year. Scott Chubbuck climbed into Chad Dow’s #39 entry for his first PASS start since 2012, while Jeremy Davis and Bobby Therrien looked to make their first PASS starts of the season.

One driver absent from the pit area was points leader DJ Shaw. The defending champion had a family wedding to attend in Maine, after which he hightailed it to the track. GSPSS regular Joey Doiron dialed in Shaw’s #60 in practice, so when Shaw arrived minutes before qualifying, all he had to do was wheel the car to a heat victory. Joey Polewarczyk and Ben Rowe won the other two heats; with Shaw awarded the traditional feature winner’s handicap, Pole and Rowe would lead the 23-car field to the green flag.

Joey Pole led the opening lap, but Rowe asserted himself at the front of the field quickly. The four-time PASS North champion had shown plenty of speed at Star a year before, until contact removed him from contention. This evening, Rowe’s #4 looked every bit as fast. Back in the pack, contact between Travis Benjamin and another car forced the 2018 title runner-up to a stop in turn two with a flat tire on lap 32, drawing the first yellow flag of the race.

On the restart, Joey Pole missed a shift at the head of the pack, stacking up most of the field diving into turn one. Few cars were spared in the maelstrom. Pole and Derek Griffith got the worst of the damage, with Mike Hopkins joining the two in the pit area, unable to return. Reid Lanpher limped to the pits with most of the left-side sheet metal torn loose; Gabe Brown reported to his crew to have the hood flattened. Cory Casagrande and Alan Tardiff would soldier on, but dropped out after their cars never regained competitive speed.

Ben Rowe and Joe Squeglia were among those who escaped the turn-one fiasco, and the PASS vet and local ace brought the field to the green flag. Squeglia led for a few laps, but Rowe closed the gap after a brief yellow flag. Rowe made a bid for the lead, and in a near-repeat of last season’s Star event, contact between the leaders ended Rowe’s time at the front with a spin in turn four. Squeglia soldiered on, but complaining of handling issues with his #03, he soon yielded the top spot to Johnny Clark.

While Clark distanced himself from Squeglia, two stories developed deeper in the field. One was the rise of drivers like Derek Ramstrom, Bryan Kruczek and Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., who had patiently worked through traffic to break into the top six. The other was retribution. Whether cars were left in an ill-handling state after the early wreck, or whether tempers had been set aflame, many in the field had become less than shy about contact. With fifty laps to go, a fading Kruczek got turned by Jeremy Davis, setting off a multi-car incident that sidelined Angelo Belsito. Eleven laps later, Davis was involved in another crash with Gabe Brown, with Davis taking his car to the pits for good.

Derek Ramstrom started alongside Johnny Clark with 39 laps left on the board, and the three-time Star feature winner jumped into the lead as Clark was shuffled to the outside groove. Clark’s night went bad in a hurry, as he dropped through the top ten before spinning off the top of turn two to bring out another yellow.

Ramstrom led through a brief green-flag stint as fifth-place Garrett Hall went spinning off the front bumper of Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. On the next restart, DJ Shaw started outside Ramstrom and quickly made a battle out of the top spot. Shaw and Ramstrom fought door-to-door for the lead, but Ramstrom caught the apron of the track in turn three and lost control, bringing out another yellow with 26 laps to go.

Shaw, who had one of the cleaner cars in the field after dodging the early wreck, had the lead for his own now, and left Bryan Kruczek in his wake on the restart. A spin for Scott Chubbuck with 13 to go gave Kruczek another shot, while moving Nick Sweet and Renfrew back into the picture as well. Kruczek tried to hang with Shaw on the start, but instead he dropped back through the pack while Joe Squeglia and Johnny Clark climbed back into the top five.

Another spin for Rowe with seven laps to go brought the field back to DJ Shaw, but the defending PASS North champion let the field sort out second place instead. Shaw built an advantage over the final seven laps as he coasted to his second PASS North win of 2019 and his third top-two finish of the year. In his second celebration of the day, Shaw thanked not only Joey Doiron for dialing the car in, but spotter Jacob Dore, a former Star weekly competitor, for guiding him through the early wreck. Shaw’s car was the cleanest car in the top ten.

Joe Squeglia rebounded from his earlier troubles to finish second, with Nick Sweet bringing his #40 entry home in third. Johnny Clark came back after his spin to finish fourth. Reid Lanpher had the redemption story of the night; after starting last and making multiple pit stops to repair damage from the early pileup, Lanpher ran just outside the top ten before a spirited charge in the final laps. In a car missing its left door and stitched together with yellow tape, Lanpher rounded out the top five.

Garrett Hall finished a half a car back from Lanpher in sixth, with Derek Ramstrom fighting back to seventh. Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. was eighth after scraping the wall late in the going. Bryan Kruczek faded to ninth at the finish, with Gabe Brown crossing the line tenth.

After bringing out the first yellow of the evening, Travis Benjamin soldiered home in 11th, with Bobby Therrien finishing 12th despite losing a lap early on. Scott Chubbuck was 13th after his late-race spin from the top ten. Ben Rowe was the last car on the lead lap in 14th. The only other finisher was Dan Winter; Winter finished eight laps back in 15th after making extensive repairs to his car under green.

Short track slugfests are nothing new, but with twelve caution flags and many cars showing more than the usual scuffs and scrapes, this was an uncharacteristic show for PASS, enough so that officials called a driver’s meeting following the victory celebration. However, the race rundown and the post-race photos only tell part of the story. There is a difference between incidents borne of competitiveness and incidents borne of incompetence.

In the case of Star, the racing through the field was generally clean and competitive. Much of the damage through the field came from the lap-32 wreck, which was the result of a mechanical miscue. The other multi-car skirmishes were largely rooted in competition pushed too far, versus a driver in over his head. And at least four of those yellow flags were thrown for single-car spins, spins that might not have drawn a yellow at a larger track. Fans and teams were critical of a late-season touring show at Star last year where officials were late in throwing cautions for stalled cars; this was by far the better option.

On a warmer night, on a warmer track, would some of Saturday’s contact have resulted in a car sliding to the outside instead of spinning to the infield? Perhaps. Were some of Saturday’s spins avoidable? Most likely. But the racing and the results were far preferable to one driver running away from the field and lapping into the top six.

Shaw’s win marks the second PASS North win of the year for the Gen-6 body, a statistic worth noting but not worth analyzing. Race leaders Ramstrom, Clark and Squeglia were all in ABC-bodied cars, as was first-lap leader Joey Pole, and Clark led fifty laps of the race with the hood of his car caved in from the big wreck. More surprising was that teams with multiple cars brought their new toys out to play at all. Reid Lanpher brought an ABC car to Star, a wise choice in retrospect. For Gabe Brown, Travis Benjamin, Ben Rowe and others, the next couple weeks will show how well the sculpted bodies can be beat back into shape before being replaced.

With three races complete, DJ Shaw leads the points over Garrett Hall, Gabe Brown, Johnny Clark and Travis Benjamin. Derek Griffith sits sixth in the standings, ahead of Nick Sweet, Ben Rowe, Dan Winter and Reid Lanpher. Ten drivers, all in the top ten in the points, have competed in all three events so far, with a 105-point spread from first to tenth. With plenty of races remaining, it remains anyone’s game, but DJ Shaw and his team certainly have shown their speed early on, while others seek the results to match their potential.

A long week for many teams will culminate in Sunday’s afternoon feature at Speedway 51 in northern New Hampshire, where the fast Super Late Models will again face a tight quarter-mile oval.

LOCAL RACING: TAYLOR EARNS FIRST WEEKLY SLM WIN SINCE 2006, DARLING DOES DARLING THINGS AT SEEKONK

Oxford Plains Speedway’s victory lane welcomed back an old friend Saturday, as Jeff Taylor drove to victory in the evening’s SLM weekly feature. Taylor, who has only run a couple races a year in recent seasons as he focuses on growing his chassis business, has three top-ten runs in three starts in Oxford’s Budweiser Championship Series this year. Taylor was followed across the line by Curtis Gerry and Ryan Robbins. Former PASS regular Glen Luce finished ninth in the 15-car field. The nine-time Oxford champion ended a long drought of weekly wins; his last weekly feature win came in an ACT Late Model in 2011, while his last SLM feature win came in his final title year of 2006. Taylor did earn a PASS victory at Oxford in 2015.

So far, all three of Oxford’s weekly features have gone caution-free.

Bill Rodgers won Beech Ridge’s second Pro Series feature of the year for the second year in a row, beating Donnie Colpritt, former PASS regular David Oliver and Dave Farrington, Jr. Corey Bubar finished fifth with last week’s winner Mike Rowe sixth.

Seekonk Speedway held its opening night Saturday after a one-week rain delay. Multi-time Seekonk champion David Darling is in title form already, beating Fred Astle and Ryan Vanasse to win the year’s first Pro Stock feature. The fifteen-car field had few surprises, though a couple regulars have branched out into touring events after some off-season rules changes were implemented. In the Late Model ranks, Gerry DeGasparre, Jr. topped a field of eighteen cars to win his first of the year. With reigning champion Ryan Kuhn moving to the ACT Tour this year, the championship slot is open for a new face (or a familiar face) to take the crown at season’s end.

NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

Lee (N.H.) USA Speedway opens its 2019 season with a visit from the Granite State Pro Stock Series, with teams practicing Saturday and racing features on Sunday afternoon as part of Lee’s “May Madness” opener. The Pro All Stars Series North marches on with its own Sunday feature a few hours north at Speedway 51, where they will do battle for 151 green-flag laps.

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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