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Observations From An Unusual 2020 New England Racing Season

Kyle Souza interviews DJ Shaw after a PASS North race at Thompson (Conn.) Speedway. Face masks and minimalist victory celebrations were one of the visible artifacts of the "new normal" of a peculiar 2020 racing season. (Jeff Brown photo)

Early in the summer, a New England racing writer reached out with words of support and an observation phrased as a question: “Do you agree this is a very strange season we are witnessing?”

Call it an observation. Call it a prophecy.

From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, simply walking into a race track in 2020 seemed like a good goal. As racing and other outdoor sports began drafting mitigation strategies and re-opening procedures, that goal seemed more likely.

But with myriad rules and restrictions and the risks that still persisted, it quickly became clear that, as with all sports contested in the shadow of a global health crisis, the 2020 racing season would be acknowledged with an asterisk. Records books rarely have room for asterisks. Records books are about results: touchdowns completed, runs scored, who crossed the line first.

History books, on the other hand, provide context.

As the local writer recognized only a month into a delayed racing season, the short track racing ecosystem in 2020 was replete with oddity, oddity that would never emerge from the raw facts and figures of the records books. And while New England was spared the harshest impact of the pandemic’s menace, it was hardly spared the oddity.

For the history books, Short Track Scene looks back at some of the oddities of New England’s fendered short track racing season, a season that might look normal enough by the numbers, but for those who experienced it, a season that was anything but normal.

SCHEDULE CHANGES

New England’s three major fendered touring series had published their planned schedules for the 2020 season before anyone had considered the word “pandemic.” Those schedule releases, all coming before the dawn of the new year, were equal parts ambition and optimism, with big races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and cross-border competition in Canada and visits to new venues standing out among the more typical stops of each series.

After a global public health crisis was declared, and as states began making tough decisions on public responses, those ambitious December schedules began to look like Christmas wishlists.

When states began rolling back some of their protective measures, opening the door for motorsports and other outdoor entertainment, each series was left to cobble together a schedule from the pieces that remained.

The American-Canadian Tour was surprisingly unscathed, starting late but managing to hit most of the planned stops on the schedule from mid-June on. An extra date at Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine and some relocated events in July and August padded the remainder to a nine-race championship run.

The Granite State Pro Stock Series leaned on its new home track, Claremont Motorsports Park, to jumpstart the season, with three of the first four races of the season at the quirky New Hampshire oval. But with a heavily backloaded schedule, most of the late-season dates were able to run as planned.

The Pro All Stars Series took the most visible hit, with its Maine tracks stymied by tough local restrictions and only Oxford Plains Speedway able to host the series. Venues out of state suffered as well. PASS managed a fourteen-race slate, but eleven of those events were shared between Oxford and White Mountain Motorsports Park, an ACT-friendly venue in New Hampshire.

Major events that were axed included the inaugural Northeast Classic ACT-PASS doubleheader at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, rescheduled for the 2021 season, and a mid-summer midweek doubleheader at Seekonk Speedway in Massachusetts.

AN AMERICAN-ONLY TOUR

Two events on the ACT Tour schedule were outright canceled because of a further restriction: the closure of the Canadian border to all but essential travel. With race cars hardly meeting the definition of “essential,” Quebec’s traveling racers were stuck on their side of the international border for the year.

That meant that for the first time in years, not a single Canadian driver scored points toward the American-Canadian Tour championship.

The Tour has had a complex relationship with its Canadian associates, with a few drivers opting to race full-time in recent seasons while most run only selected cross-border events. In 2019, three Canadian drivers ran the bulk of the schedule.

ACT is planning both the for-points Claude Leclerc 150 and the non-points Bacon Bowl at Autodrome Chaudière for 2021, provided the borders are open by then. And the Canadian contingent, idle on their own soil for most of the year, will be ready and waiting.

WHERE PIT GATES CLOSE, OTHER GATES OPEN

Closed tracks and revised schedules, however, opened the door for some teams to test the touring waters on a larger scale.

With weekly racing on hold at their home tracks, Seekonk Speedway regular Derek Gluchacki and Thompson racer Tom Carey III turned their attention to the ACT Tour, with Gluchacki named Rookie of the Year. Vermonters Jesse Switser and Marcel J. Gravel ran their first full ACT Tour seasons as well.

PASS’ limited roadtripping proved to be particularly driver-friendly, with three competitors making first-time full-season efforts. Ben Ashline, who had not raced full-time since 2014, stepped out from the shop to wheel Ajay Picard’s car to top rookie honors. Scott McDaniel, a regular part-timer focusing on the Maine events, ran full-time with a best finish of third at WMMP early in the year.

And with Oxford Plains Speedway’s weekly program in doubt early in the year, one rookie driver made the big leap from PASS Modifieds to the PASS North touring circuit.

PASS’ LEADING LADY

Kate Re pauses before a PASS race at Oxford. The Maine teenager is the first woman ever to contest the full PASS North schedule, racing into the Oxford 250 and finishing 10th at Thompson. (Jeff Brown photo)

Kate Re’s 2020 was to be an educational season. The multi-time PASS Modified feature winner was expected to run weekly at Oxford Plains Speedway while running selected PASS North features. But with Oxford’s weekly program on hold, Re instead made her Super Late Model debut in a 150-lap PASS feature, finishing one lap down in 17th at White Mountain Motorsports Park.

Going race by race, Re and her family team ran the full PASS North schedule, adding weekly shows at Oxford whenever possible to keep the young racer’s on-track schooling in session.

Re, the only woman ever to run more than a handful of PASS North features in a season, was eighth in the year-end standings. In August, she raced to a qualified position in the Oxford 250, becoming only the fourth woman to start the legendary race and the only woman to qualify without a provisional. A tenth-place run at Thompson was Re’s best result of the season.

Re turned seventeen in December. There is plenty of time for the young racer to mature.

THE UNEXPECTED CHAMPION

Kate Re had no plans to run a full-time touring effort in 2020. Neither did 2020 Granite State Pro Stock Series champion Joey Polewarczyk.

Joey Polewarczyk went from GSPSS ringer to GSPSS champion in 2020, winning twice in his first full racing season since 2015. (Jeff Brown photo)

The 2014 ACT Tour champ and Super Late Model ace had not chased points in any series since 2015. Nor was Polewarczyk ever a major presence on the GSPSS, though in all three of his series starts prior to 2020, he had gone to victory lane.

June’s season opener, then, was the first time “Joey Pole” failed to win in a GSPSS race. But as the series schedules came together, Polewarczyk kept turning up at GSPSS events, his consistency keeping him in the thick of the points battle despite strong starts for Ray Christian III and Angelo Belsito.

As Christian and Belsito faltered down the stretch, Polewarczyk’s veteran savvy prevailed. The Hudson, N.H. driver picked up wins at Star Speedway and New London-Waterford Speedbowl to secure his first championship trophy in any series since 2014.

That Polewarczyk won the championship was little surprise. The question, at least through the first half of the season, was whether he would choose to go for it at all.

THE UNEXPECTED DOUBLE

In the ACT Tour pits, a similar week-to-week question manifested, with PASS veteran DJ Shaw playing the role of the unanticipated championship challenger.

Shaw, who had not started an ACT Tour event since 2015, only had six ACT Tour starts to his credit ever. That Shaw was even at June’s Tour opener at White Mountain Motorsports Park was surprising; that he was in a brand-new car to match his #60 PASS entry was even more shocking. Shaw drove the new car to a fourth-place finish in the Spring Green 120, saying he planned to run as many ACT Tour events as he could fit around his Super Late Model plans.

2020 ACT Tour champion Jimmy Hebert chats with DJ Shaw before the season finale. Shaw finished second in points, but supplies chassis for Hebert’s title-winning team. (Jeff Brown photo)

At the season’s second race at Oxford, Shaw instead climbed into the #04VT of car owner Arnie Hill, a car from the Dale Shaw Race Cars stable. Shaw finished second at Oxford, then went on to complete the Tour schedule in Hill’s car. Despite not winning a race, Shaw stayed quietly within reach of the points lead all season, ending the year second in points to Jimmy Hebert a week before clinching his fifth PASS North championship.

Shaw nearly pulled off a double back in 2016, running the bulk of the GSPSS schedule and finishing second to Barry Gray for the title while winning his second PASS crown.

Shaw’s week-at-a-time double effort will likely be a one-off, though; a schedule conflict in September, pending any rescheduling, will keep drivers from contesting both the full ACT and PASS schedules in 2021 without missing a race.

AN OFF-YEAR FOR TITLE DEFENSES

With DJ Shaw at the wheel of a customer’s ACT Tour car, he was free to direct more energy to his successful PASS title defense. But it took until October, in the third-to-last race of the year, for Shaw to shake the spectre of a winless championship season.

Coming into the Sunoco World Series at Thompson Speedway, Shaw had five runner-up finishes to show for his PASS efforts, plus a GSPSS win at Monadnock Speedway in August. Shaw, who won at Thompson in 2019, came on strong in the second half of the 75-lapper to best Eddie “The Outlaw” MacDonald for his first and only PASS win of 2020.

Joey Doiron enjoyed success as a hired gun in 2020, but was rarely afraid to get hands-on to find that success. (Jeff Brown photo)

Shaw went on to win the championship, the only one of the three reigning champions to attempt to defend his 2019 title. GSPSS champion Joey Doiron had hinted at an “outlaw” schedule in 2020, and ended his title defense quietly in July. While Doiron was consistent but winless in his own cars, he made the most of opportunities as a gun for hire, picking up his first PASS win since 2017 for car owner Wright Pearson and wheeling Greg Curtis’ car to several solid PASS finishes and a weekly feature win at Oxford Plains Speedway.

Rich Dubeau’s ACT Tour title defense, sadly, ended on a tragic note. Dubeau lost his brother and crew chief David in early August, then withdrew from racing for the rest of the year in David’s memory.

And so at the end of the season, Shaw’s Thompson win stood as the only 2020 victory for a 2019 reigning champion in his own series among all three major tours.

SWEET BEGINNINGS, SOUR ENDING

Four of DJ Shaw’s five runner-up finishes in PASS came to Vermont’s Nick Sweet. Sweet, the 2016 ACT Tour champion and a two-time Thunder Road “King of the Road,” had four feature wins, a plethora of punny headlines, and a head of steam going into the Oxford 250.

Then Sweet’s season turned sour in the way that points-system architects and analysts spell out as a worst-case scenario.

Nick Sweet was a dominant force in PASS in 2020, but back-to-back engine failures buried his chances at a first Super Late Model championship. (Jeff Brown photo)

Sweet dropped through the Oxford 250 field not long after the green flag flew, retiring to the pits with a failing powerplant after only 17 laps. In the deepest field of the year, last place was 44th, a blow in the points. Sweet was down, but not out. The next race was at White Mountain Motorsports Park, a track where Sweet had scored three of his 2020 victories.

But in practice at WMMP, the Mad Dog Motorsports team lost another engine, leaving Sweet on the sidelines for the start, and earning no points toward his title chase.

Sweet rebounded at Thunder Road with his fifth win of the season, but the one-two punch of engine failure left him at an insurmountable deficit to Shaw and company. Sweet ended the season sixth in points, a bitter pill to swallow. But Sweet and his team have a handle on their Super Late Model, making them a clear threat for 2021.

THE ONE-DAY SHOW OF SHOWS

The Oxford 250 is a New England tradition. Now the cornerstone of the PASS schedule, the Oxford 250 is billed as Super Late Model racing’s biggest one-day show, with practice, qualifying and the 250-lap feature all on the same day. This year’s 47th running of the legendary event, though, set a new record for grandeur.

With heavy rain forecasted for Saturday’s preliminaries, ACT and Oxford Plains Speedway officials elected to postpone on-track activities before traveling teams had left for Maine. Saturday’s feature racing became a Sunday-morning card, while the 250 and its support events would go on as scheduled in the afternoon.

The moon rises over Oxford Plains Speedway, with a long day of features, heats and practice sessions pushing the big race’s start time a bit later than usual. (Jeff Brown photo)

Mercifully, Sunday’s morning skies were overcast, but dry.

Because from the opening of the track gates to the final checkered flag around ten o’clock, officials had to fit in a marathon that included Oxford’s entry-level Rebels, twin Street Stock features, a North East Mini Stock Tour appearance, 50- and 75-lap main events for the PASS Modifieds, the morning’s 150-lap ACT Tour feature and the evening’s Oxford 250.

That comes to 700 laps of feature racing, plus practice sessions and qualifying heats—five heats, three consis and a last-chance qualifier for the Oxford 250 alone—a jam-packed day for any track to oversee. Any one incident could have derailed the schedule.

But the hustle of so many drivers and crews, spurred on by Oxford’s trademark pit-area efficiency, kept the program on target from start to finish.

SMALL TRACKS, BIG MONEY

While big-dollar special events are nothing new to racing, the Oxford 250 has long set the regional standard for prize money, with $25,000 plus lap-leader money on hand for the victor. The ACT-sanctioned Milk Bowl and the more recent Midsummer Classic 250, at $10,000 a piece, have been the closest comparison in terms of payout, albeit for a slightly-different race car platform.

But New England’s Super Late Model racers were graced with more opportunities to pick up a five-figure paycheck in 2020.

Derek Griffith cashed in big in September, winning back-to-back $10,000-to-win features and tacking on an early-October win before turning his attention to his ARCA schedule. (Jeff Brown photo)

The GSPSS made the first move, announcing a $10,000 top prize for its third annual Labor Day weekend 150-lapper at Claremont Motorsports Park. Not long after, Lee USA Speedway unveiled plans for the Freedom 300, a multi-division Friday night blowout culminating in a 150-lap, $10,000-to-win “open-comp” Pro Stock/Super Late Model feature.

In the end, the races shared more than a big top prize. Derek Griffith rebounded from a late Oxford 250 crash to dominate the Granite State Nationals, leading from flag to flag to win the GSPSS’ richest race ever. A few days later, Griffith captured the big Freedom 300 check, prevailing in a feature event shortened by the local curfew.

In a season where races were cancelled due to attendance restrictions and the challenges of meeting purse promises, GSPSS promoter Mike Parks and Lee owner and promoter Norm Wrenn deserve credit for pulling together two big-ticket events in short order.

Both events appear to be on target for the 2021 schedule. The GSPSS 150-lapper will move earlier in the summer to avoid a Labor Day scheduling conflict, while Lee has yet to confirm its 2021 itinerary.

THOMPSON’S SAVING GRACE

Mike Parks and Norm Wrenn were only two of the many promoters whose inventiveness and tenacity kept the racing season moving through the uncertainty of the pandemic. But ACT managing partner Cris Michaud and PASS president Tom Mayberry took a step well outside their comfort zone and, in the process, may well have saved oval-track racing at one of New England’s most storied speedways.

Thompson Speedway’s oval racing program was already in doubt before the pandemic interfered. Enter Michaud and Mayberry, who pooled their resources and talents this summer to promote two big events at Thompson, including October’s Sunoco World Series.

Suddenly, two track owners and Late Model series promoters were responsible for overseeing and financing major NASCAR-supported events at a track hours from either’s home base. Michaud and Mayberry had no ties to Thompson, aside from a history of racing there and an appreciation for Thompson’s place in New England’s short track lore. Neither ACT nor PASS had even been on the track’s 2020 schedule.

Michaud and Mayberry gambled big, and both September’s midweek Modified throwdown and October’s World Series were incredibly well-received.

Well-received enough that Michaud and Mayberry will promote a bigger schedule in 2021, with four midweek weekly-style features bookended by April’s Icebreaker and October’s World Series. For yet another year, Thompson’s oval racing is safe.

PAY-PER-VIEW: THE NEXT BEST THING

Part of the success of October’s World Series at Thompson was because of the state of Connecticut’s call to allow more fans than anticipated, while still far short of capacity, through the gates. The decision was a stark contrast to the early pandemic days of June, when the racing season opened with teams filing through the pit gate but racing in front of vacant grandstands.

Fortunately, fans who were not allowed to attend races had options to follow along from home.

The Vermont-based Northeast Sports Network partnered with ACT and PASS for many events through the year, providing pay-per-view streaming coverage for races at White Mountain Motorsports Park, Oxford and Thunder Road. An agreement between GSPSS and Speed51 had been forged in the offseason to provide video coverage, and that agreement was crucial in getting the season’s first race in front of an at-home audience.

Speed51 would ultimately partner with PASS to cover the Oxford 250 per usual. But in the absence of other streaming coverage, and with grandstands forced to remain vacant, NSN’s broadcasts kept fans engaged where they might otherwise only have had photos and race reports to remember the season by.

THE PANDEMIC

The schedule changes, the sparse grandstands, the streaming coverage, the unexpected winners and surprising droughts and driver decisions, all boil down to the monumental unknown that befell the world in the year’s early weeks.

As states announced open-ended lockdowns and races were canceled with no obvious end in sight, the 2020 season looked like a year best forgotten.

New England’s six states were quick to harmonize their pandemic policies early on, but their re-opening strategies diverged just as quickly. Promoters, fans and racers alike were frustrated, left wondering why fans could file into the stands in one state but could only follow from home a couple hours away. Critics often took to social media, venting to anyone who would listen.

At Oxford Plains Speedway, large sections of the grandstands were marked off with caution tape to enforce social distancing. (Jeff Brown photo)

Ultimately, the sport’s decision-makers were only along for the ride.

And so this season was visibly different from the past. Victory lane interviews fell victim to empty grandstands and distancing guidelines; celebrations with families and crews were reserved for the pit area. Sections of seating were roped off with caution tape, or concessions were closed down, to force some measure of distancing for the fans. Some tracks were forced to limit media access as well, in the interest of reducing nonessential personnel. Mask-wearing expectations progressed from suggestions to requirements, as track owners were faced with the threat of fines and shutdowns for a lack of compliance.

From week to week, the question remained, even if few had the nerve to vocalize it: Was another lockdown a matter of if or when?

But against all odds, and against all fears, there was a 2020 season.

It was a season of oddity, a season that challenged expectations of what short track racing could be. But in between the quirks and the challenges, it reinforced the resilience of New England’s short track racers.

And it reinforced what we love about short track racing.

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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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