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Despite Challenges, Reilly Lanphear Striving to “Learn and Have Fun”

Reilly Lanphear prepares for a practice session at Oxford Plains Speedway in August. The 20-year-old is the only woman racing full-time in the American-Canadian Tour ranks this season. (Jeff Brown photo)

When Reilly Lanphear’s team unloaded her new American-Canadian Tour Late Model for June’s postponed season opener at White Mountain Motorsports Park, the rear bumper of her car was stickered with a unique but appropriate message: “SOCIAL DISTANCE, STAY BACK SIX FEET.”

Call it a sign of the times. Or call it a tacit acknowledgement of the struggles of a young racer trying to earn results and respect in one of New England’s top touring series.

Both, at times, have been tough to come by.

“I feel like sometimes [other drivers] forget that at one point, they were where I am,” Lanphear says.

Though very few drivers have been precisely where Reilly Lanphear is.

The Duxbury, Vt. native is, along with younger sister Peyton, one of two women competing regularly on the ACT Tour, and one of three women competing in New England’s touring Late Model circuits. At twenty, oldest among the three, she stands as one of the youngest series regulars as well.

Where Reilly Lanphear is isn’t quite uncharted territory, but it’s certainly rarely-traveled.

Reilly Lanphear has been the more active of the sibling duo on the ACT Tour this year, with six starts in seven attempts. (Jeff Brown photo)

With her sister’s schedule pared back this season, Reilly has carried the torch for the racing family in 2020. Armed with a new chassis and two years of Tour experience, the older Lanphear sister is closing out her strongest touring season so far. While that strength has yet to manifest itself on the results sheet, it becomes more evident with context.

“I came from a four-cylinder to a touring late model series,” Lanphear explains. “And that takes a long time to learn and get used to.”

The Lanphear sisters entered the world of stock car racing together. Too young to race at their home track, Thunder Road International Speedbowl, the two cut their racing teeth instead at New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway in four-cylinder Street Stocks. After earning their way into the Thunder Road circle and picking up a few wins, the sisters looked to their next step up the racing ladder.

Rather than advance to Thunder Road’s Flying Tigers, though, the Lanphears skipped a grade. “We actually had one Late Model already that we played around with in 2017,” Reilly says. “We had a lot of fun in it and just decided that we were going to race it. Of course we didn’t want to share it, and we both wanted to race every week, so we were able to sell our Street Stocks and purchase another Late Model.”

With the guidance of their father Mark, a former Thunder Road racer and veteran crew chief, Reilly and Peyton Lanphear braced for the leap into crate-engined perimeter-chassis ACT Late Models riding on eight-inch tires.

“The original plan was to just go to a few tracks to learn and have fun,” says Reilly of their early goals.

Fun is a word rarely used to describe the Lanphears’ home track, a steeply-banked quarter-mile ranked among the most challenging short tracks in the nation. “Thunder Road is tough,” Lanphear conceded, adding that they “originally did plan to go a few times for weekly shows.”

But rather than racing at T-Road, the family team went on the road, racing with the ACT’s Late Model Tour. While the Tour lacked the Thursday-night challenge of the high banks and veterans of Vermont’s only paved oval, it presented the challenges of new tracks, travel-tested touring specialists, and a rotating cast of local ringers looking to steal a win from the Tour visitors.

“A few tracks” translated to a full touring schedule in 2018, with ten visits to seven different speedways, from Thunder Road and WMMP to Lee USA Speedway in southern New Hampshire and the high-banked Thompson Speedway in Connecticut. In their first full season, Reilly started six features and Peyton made eight, finishing sixteenth and fifteenth in the points standings. “Going to different tracks is definitely tough,” says Reilly. “Especially being new to all this, and my dad being away from late models for almost 20 years.”

Five of those tracks remained on the ten-race 2019 schedule, giving Lanphear some experience to draw from. “Returning to tracks is a lot easier and a weight off the shoulders,” Reilly admits.

“But it’s still hard, as I’m still learning and there’s a lot of competition.”

The American-Canadian Tour has never lacked for competition. The typical ACT Tour feature draws entries from touring regulars like Jimmy Hebert and Bryan Kruczek, weekly heavy-hitters like Thunder Road’s Jason Corliss or WMMP’s Quinny Welch, and part-time veterans like former champions Joey Polewarczyk and Wayne Helliwell, Jr. or Canadian visitor Patrick Laperle.

Consider this: when the Lanphears could not race their way into the 2019 Community Bank 150 at Thunder Road, reigning champion Scott Payea joined them on the sidelines. Payea faltered in a heat race and never recovered, and the driver who had not finished outside the top ten in a Tour race in three years was forced to load up before the green flag flew.

The Lanphears stand out in a deep driver roster, and with good reason. The last woman to race regularly on the ACT Tour was Emily Packard, who turned her last Tour laps in 2016. The only woman to win on the ACT Tour was Tracie Bellerose, who raced to three feature wins in 2000 and 2001. The Lanphears are hardly the first women on the Tour, but they are in rare company.

And gender is not the only thing setting the sisters apart from the rest of the pack. At seventeen and eighteen years old upon their debut, Peyton and Reilly Lanphear were two of the youngest Tour competitors in their rookie year. “There’s no doubt a huge age gap between drivers,” Reilly says. “In 2018 it was just Peyton and me, not even close to the age range of other drivers.”

In a sport that worships at the altar of youth, the ACT Tour’s younger contingent has long been overshadowed by its established veterans, not only in numbers but in results. A driver under the age of 25 has not won an ACT Tour feature since Brad Babb won at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in 2016.

Since then, the sisters have gained some peers to fall back on. “Ryan Kuhn and a few others joined the tour last year, and it was nice to see other drivers our age…that we could relate and talk to,” Lanphear says. “Ryan has actually become one of my best friends, and he’s always there giving me advice and setup tips, and even the emotional support that I sometimes need.”

At Oxford in August 2019, Lanphear’s struggles started with being crashed out of her heat race, leaving the team with work to do just to start the feature. (Jeff Brown photo)

The peer support was essential in what proved to be a challenging sophomore season. The sisters made seven of the ten races, with Peyton again edging Reilly in the final standings. Season-best finishes of 17th at Star Speedway and Thunder Road were offset by early exits at Oxford and Thompson. “2019 was not a good year overall,” says Reilly in reflection.

Though on many weekends, the sisters had little time to dwell on the struggles. In the spring and fall, after the races were over, a new race was on to get the sisters to the nearest airport.

“I attended college at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, so I’m pretty far away from my family and the races up north,” Lanphear says of her academic plans. “I have to plan my class schedules carefully so I don’t miss much when I have to fly to and from races, as I usually leave on Friday and get back Monday. It’s actually really hard to juggle classes for two majors, work on a race car, and race in such a short period of time.”

But despite the challenges, the family team pressed forward with plans for the next season. “We had already decided in the beginning of [2019] that I was getting a new car,” explains Lanphear. “The one I was in was outdated and just not working for us.” Two new Port City chassis from Crazy Horse Racing in Maine would serve as the foundation for the sisters’ third season.

Even in a cost-conscious touring series like the ACT Tour, though, the reality was that it might be a partial season. “When the ACT schedule first came out, it was very intimidating,” Lanphear says. “More races, new tracks, and we already didn’t really have the budget to do the entire season, so we planned to pick and choose.”

Lanphear has been an integral part of the sponsor search throughout her career. “I truly would not be where I am today without them,” she says of her backers, both past and present. Replacing those that have not renewed is yet another challenge. “We still have to find the money to race, or else the cars will sit there in the shop all year. Over time with more experience we have changed how we word things, but [we are] still just as eager, if not more, to find funding. But it’s still super hard.”

While sister Peyton has tended to other priorities this year, the two siblings have still been able to share time at the track this season. (Jeff Brown photo)

Lanphear even reached out to the Kulwicki Driver Development Program, a scholarship program that has been represented by New England drivers such as recently-crowned Oxford Plains Speedway track champion Dave Farrington, Jr. and SLM ace Derek Griffith. Lanphear was named a KDDP semi-finalist before the program was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was very surprised and humbled to even be a semi-finalist for the KDDP program, but also it was a good confidence booster that I needed,” she says. “I don’t have the experience or stats the other semi-finalists have, but I’m always motivated to be and do the best I can, and I just hope next year I can be a finalist.”

With a little more bare space on the cars, the Lanphear sisters planned to take 2020 one race at a time. “Our expectations stayed the same: improve each race, learn, and have fun.”

And then came a global pandemic.

An ACT Tour season that was supposed to open at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in April was nudged into May and then June. The season opener at NHMS was postponed to 2021, and the cross-border trip to Autodrome Chaudière was canceled, taking some of the intimidation out of the new schedule. Lanphear’s travel schedule lightened up as well, with her academic routine going remote: “Luckily I have not had to fly home at all this year due to the pandemic, and it also saves a lot of money.”

Reilly rolled her new car out at WMMP in mid-June, starting last and finishing 23rd. Peyton failed to qualify, opting at that point to adjust her schedule with a focus closer to home. Reilly crashed out early at Oxford Plains Speedway, then endured a practice crash en route to a 21st-place finish at Thunder Road in July.

After missing August’s Midsummer 250 at WMMP, Reilly rebounded with a career-best 15th-place finish at Riverside Speedway. Back-to-back 19th-place finishes at Oxford and Thunder Road, two tracks that had been daunting for Lanphear, helped to build momentum to close out the summer.

Going into the final races of 2020, Lanphear was eager to finish the job she started. “We were able to start the season with the Tour due to the changes in the schedule,” she said shortly after September’s visit to Thunder Road. “Now that we have been having solid runs and are happy where we are at in the points and feel like we can gain, it’s really hard to step back from it. I’m not going to put financial stress on myself to finish the season.”

Unfortunately, time and finances have kept Lanphear from finishing the season as she planned.

Lanphear took to social media before the penultimate points race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, selling hood “sponsorships” to cover the team’s tire bill. “This actually came about before COVID, getting ready for the [April] race at NHMS,” Lanphear says. “Since ACT didn’t go there in the spring, I thought, why not bring it back?”

But despite raising the required funds, the car could not be turned around fast enough for Friday’s heats at the “Magic Mile.” To keep Lanphear’s owner points intact, they received help from James “Scruffy” Linardy, a Boston-area diesel mechanic and ACT journeyman.

“Jimmy Linardy has always been super nice to us,” Lanphear said. “He was planning on going to NHMS, so he said ‘I’ll run a 21 for you’ so I could keep my owner points. My dad helped crew for him all weekend.” Reilly contributed to the effort as well, cutting the vinyl needed to turn Linardy’s white #77MA into a #21VT for the week.

The next milestone on Lanphear’s calendar was this weekend’s Vermont Milk Bowl at Thunder Road. Rather than run the grueling 150-lap, three-stage Late Model race, her team planned to change one of their cars to a Super Late Model configuration, allowing Reilly to make her Pro All Stars Series debut. “I have raced a SLM before at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway, and finished seventh my first time there,” Lanphear says.

Lanphear’s PASS debut would have pitted her against the other woman to run full-time in stock cars in the Northeast this year, sixteen-year-old rookie Kate Re. But again, time and finances interfered, with the team unable to prepare a competitive car for Friday night’s feature.

That leaves the ACT season finale at Oxford Plains Speedway in two weeks. In August, the morning before the Oxford 250, Lanphear battled to stay on the lead lap for the first half of the race before fading to nineteenth at the end. A repeat performance, if they can make the trip, would give Lanphear top-twenty runs in her final four starts of 2020, something to build on for next season.

So what awaits Lanphear next season?

“I am unsure of my plans right now, but I will still be racing,” she says, leaving the door wide open for possibilities. “It may be with ACT, PASS, a handful of both, or even contend in championship points at a weekly track.”

Because despite all the hardships and headaches, in some capacity, Reilly Lanphear wants to be behind the wheel.

“Driving is something I always want to do for as long as I can,” Lanphear says. “Obviously I’ll have to put my career first…but I plan on being at the track whenever possible. I just want to race as much as I can.”

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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.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Luke Comeau

    October 2, 2020 at 8:50 am

    Great article.Love it !

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