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Checking out the Challengers: Your guide to the Oxford 250

The Scott’s Recreation Oxford 250 presented by Fastway Trailer Products is somewhat unique among big-ticket Super Late Model events. While it is prestigious enough to attract national attention and national participation, the local racers from New England’s short tracks and regional tours have an equal shot at stealing the glory.

With today’s event scheduled to be broadcast on Pay-Per-View, and with many viewers tuning in from outside New England, this is your opportunity to get to know some of the Northeast’s top challengers going into the 44th Annual Oxford 250.

THE DEFENDING CHAMPION

Last year, Wayne Helliwell, Jr. (#27NH) and car owner Bruce Bernhardt reached a crossroads in August. While their ACT program remained winless, their SLM program was shaping up nicely, with Helliwell scoring a couple victories by mid-season. Heading into the Oxford 250, Helliwell set aside his ACT title bid and put his full focus into the SLM. The gamble paid off; Helliwell was fast in the 250, took the lead late in the going, and walked away with his first Oxford 250 trophy.

Then he fell off the radar. The 250 triumph was Wayne Helliwell’s last race of 2016. In an early-2017 interview, he announced he had been fighting a flareup of multiple sclerosis, a disease he has battled for several years. While Wayne worked on getting his health in order, Bernhardt and team built a new chassis for 2017, preparing for an “outlaw” SLM schedule once Wayne was ready to drive.

Since then, Wayne and his team have returned to action. The results have been mixed. But the Oxford 250 has a lot of meaning for Helliwell and Bernhardt, a former crew member for New England legend (and three-time 250 winner) “Dynamite” Dave Dion. Wayne and Bruce are bringing the old car, last year’s winner and still dressed in Dion’s orange #27 Ford livery, for a shot at a second-straight 250 victory.

THE HOT HAND

Momentum counts for a lot in racing. One solid run or a surprise victory can be enough to elevate a team to a new plane of performance. Leading up to the 250, a number of teams find momentum on their side.

Reid Lanpher (#59) has carried that momentum from the start of the season. The Manchester, ME driver brought a brand-new car to Oxford in April for a PASS race. He won that race, then won the long-distance PASS 300 at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway the next week. Lanpher added wins in both Oxford’s and Beech Ridge’s weekly SLM classes, plus another Beech Ridge win in a 125-lap event in June. Lanpher enters the 250 on the back of three straight feature wins at Beech Ridge, including Saturday night’s weekly event. The young racer finished second in the 250 in 2015, and hopes to improve that on Sunday.

Travis Benjamin (#7) carries momentum from the touring ranks, too. The two-time Oxford 250 winner set aside his family-owned equipment to race for Petit Motorsports in 2016. After struggling through the beginning of the season, Benjamin and the team found the winner’s circle in the second half of the year. This year, Benjamin has had no such struggles. He leads the PASS point standings with ten top-ten finishes in twelve starts and two wins, including one at Oxford in July. The veteran contender will be stout as he looks for a third 250 victory.

Journeyman driver Glen Luce (#7L) might be the very picture of momentum as it applies to the Oxford 250. Luce won the 2015 Oxford 250, his first big triumph behind the wheel of a Super Late Model. Since then, Luce has carried that momentum back to victory lane five times. Second in PASS points, Luce has won twice in 2017, including the last PASS race at Lee USA Speedway. Luce and his black Toyota will be a force to contend with on Sunday night.

THE FORMER WINNERS

Helliwell, Luce and Benjamin are only three of the former winners among the entries for the Oxford 250. As many as fifteen of the 43 previous Oxford 250 victories could be represented in Sunday’s starting field.

Hudson, NH’s Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. (#97NH) won the 2012 event, the last under American-Canadian Tour sanctioning. The 2014 ACT Late Model champion transitioned to SLMs in 2015, winning 3 of his 9 starts in 2016 and 1 event in a limited 2017 campaign. “Joey Pole” is always fast at Oxford, and if his team can avoid the mechanical issues they have encountered this season, they will be in contention for the win at the end.

Eddie MacDonald (#17MA), a two-time winner in 2009 and 2010, also did so under the ACT Late Model rules. “The Outlaw,” a native of Rowley, MA, splits his time between NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East, ACT and PASS competition, and has a PASS North win this season in the season opener at Thompson Speedway. Eddie does not have a lot of laps at Oxford, but his long-distance prowess will likely serve him well.

Ben Rowe (#4) is another two-time winner of the 250, in 2003 and 2004. The Turner, ME driver has been a competitive fixture in the PASS SLM ranks for years, not only in North competition but in PASS’ South division as well. Rowe will seek his third Oxford 250 win in a Toyota prepared by his long-time car owner, Richard Moody.

A win for Rowe would tie him with the only active three-time Oxford 250 winner, his father. Mike Rowe (#24) won the 250 in 1984, 1997 and again in 2005. The 67-year-old Rowe won three races and the PASS North title in 2015, but in 2017 stepped away from the tour to run weekly at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. Rowe has overcome uncertainty before; in 2005, he won the last-chance race just to start 37th, then went on to claim his third 250 trophy.

Three more racers own a single victory in the Oxford 250. Jeremie Whorff (#8) won in 2006, Scott Robbins (#72) in 2002, and Gary Drew (#71) in 2001. The three Mainers are likely longshots to win in 2017, but if they can advance through the qualifying heats, anything is possible.

THE INVADERS

The first Oxford 250 was conceived as an open-competition event, drawing entries not just from Maine but all over the East Coast. With PASS also sanctioning National and South tours, and with the 250 paying points to the National rankings, a number of teams from south of New England will make an appearance.

Leading the charge from down south is PASS South racer Kodie Conner (#45). The teen from Kannapolis, NC sits third in the South standings after six races, though he struggled in his 2016 attempt at Oxford after getting caught in an early wreck. Also representing the south is Jay Fogleman (#4F). The North Carolina veteran will be looking for his first 250 victory.

The initial entry list also featured entries for PASS South points leader Matthew Craig (#54) and Washington native Garrett Evans (#64), who hauled east for last year’s 250. So far, neither racer has appeared on the track, but they may arrive in time for Sunday morning practice.

The invaders may have a tall order ahead of them if they intend on taking home first-place honors. Not counting Cup series “ringers” Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who won 250s in the ACT-sanctioning years, the last drivers from outside the area to win were Tommy Ellis (in 1983) and Chuck Bown (in 1990, when the 250 was a NASCAR Busch/Busch North combination race).

THE CANADIANS

Don Biederman won the fourth Oxford 250 in 1977, the first of four Canadian drivers to win the Oxford 250. Interestingly, all four have hailed from the province of Ontario.

This year features a healthy crop of Canadian drivers hoping to take the trophy north of the border for the fifth time. The majority have roots to the Canadian Maritimes, visiting from the regional Pro Stock Tour or other divisions. Leading the way is Nova Scotia’s Cole Butcher (#53), a participant in the Kulwicki Driver Development Program. Butcher has had to split his time this weekend with a Pro Stock Tour event in New Brunswick, but will be back at the track Sunday for the 250.

Joining Butcher are veteran John Flemming (#97F) of Halifax, Nova Scotia and Craig Slaunwhite (#99S) of New Brunswick. Slaunwhite is entered in a car prepared by car builder Gary Crooks. Lonnie Sommerville (#2S) is another New Brunswick racer hoping to score big in Oxford. Representing the province of Quebec is ACT touring veteran Donald Theetge (#80QC), who is on the entry list but has not appeared yet at the track.

One driver whose province may have never been represented in the 250 is Sarah Cornett-Ching (#99), entered in Tony Blanchard’s Race101 entry. The Summerland, BC native, who famously worked as an oilfield welder to earn her racing budget, has focused on SLMs in 2017 after racing ARCA and NASCAR K&N Pro Series events the last two years. Cornett-Ching is also, so far, the only woman on this year’s entry list.

The Canadian contingent shows promise, but it has been a while; Dave Whitlock (in an ACT Pro Stock) was the last Canadian to win the 250, back in 1995.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

For a racer from New England, the Oxford 250 is a pinnacle of achievement, perhaps the regional equivalent of winning the Daytona 500. For a handful of veteran drivers who have yet to win “the big one,” winning the 250 would be a matter of resolving unfinished business.

One such veteran is Strong, ME native Tracy Gordon (#41). Gordon was a top contender for the 250 in the mid-1990s, finishing second in 1997 and 1998. After a successful career in NASCAR’s Busch North Series, Gordon returned to the short tracks briefly in the mid-2000s before disappearing from racing to focus on fatherhood and his lumbering business. After a ten-year hiatus, Gordon returned to racing a few years ago, running a limited PASS schedule. One of his main goals is to capture the Oxford 250 that eluded him in his younger years.

Another driver whose Oxford 250 fortunes were perhaps curtailed by his NASCAR schedule is Kelly Moore (#47). The Scarborough, ME veteran and 1995 NASCAR Busch North champion was a fixture on NASCAR’s regional tour from the series’ inception in 1987. From 1987 to 1992, the Oxford 250 was a points-paying Busch North event, but Moore never won it in those years. Moore runs a limited SLM schedule now, and while he is likely a longshot to win, he cannot be counted out.

Six-time PASS North champion Johnny Clark (#54) of Farmingdale, ME is another veteran who has yet to win the big prize. Clark is winless this season, but captured a memorable PASS 300 victory at Beech Ridge at the end of 2015, so seeing him go the distance is not out of the picture.

Cassius Clark (#13) is another former PASS champion who has come close to the big win at Oxford, but has yet to bring home the first-place trophy. Clark, from Farmington, ME (and unrelated to Johnny), has spent most of the last few years racing in the Maritimes for Nova Scotia-based car owner Rollie MacDonald. A win in the 250 would be a first not only for Clark, but for the veteran MacDonald as well.

Second-generation racer DJ Shaw (#60) was notable in 2015 for withdrawing from the 250 amid a dispute with PASS officials. The driver and the sanctioning body cleared up their differences, and Shaw responded in 2016 with his second PASS championship. Shaw’s father Dale, a former NASCAR Busch North champion and notable car builder, never won the Oxford 250. DJ would like to change that this season.

The Cinderella story in the field could belong to veteran racer Jeff Taylor (#88) of Fairfield, ME. Taylor has several track championships at Oxford and has won everything under the sun except for the Oxford 250. The chassis builder, who owns Distance Racing Products and furnishes cars for several local racers, has not raced at all in 2017. However, the allure of winning the big race was enough for Taylor to dust off his trusty green #88 in hopes of a surprise win.

THE RISING STARS

As drivers like Mike Rowe and Jeff Taylor wind their careers down, new stars need to step in to fill the void. The PASS ranks have a number of young rising stars who could, in time, fill the shoes of the departing local legends.

Derek Griffith (#12G) of Hudson, NH is certainly one of those rising stars. The 2015 Granite State Pro Stock Series champion moved to PASS competition in 2016 with car owner Louie Mechalides. Griffith has two PASS wins to his credit and is a consistent contender with plenty of potential.

Running his first full PASS schedule in 2017 is David Farrington, Jr. (#23). Farrington is the 2015 Beech Ridge Motor Speedway track champion, a former participant in the Kulwicki Driver Development Program, and won his first feature at Oxford earlier this season. Farrington and his family-owned team from Jay, ME have shown the dedication to compete against the odds. At Autodrome Montmagny this year, Farrington’s crew was unable to make the trip, so he towed the car to Quebec solo, borrowed a spotter, and soldiered on sans crew to a sixth-place finish.

Garrett Hall (#94H) is another of Maine’s rapidly rising stars. The Scarborough, ME driver was runner-up to Reid Lanpher in 2014 at his home track, Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. In 2016, he caught attention with two early-season wins on the PASS schedule while focusing on his weekly racing at Beech Ridge. This year, Hall has split his attention between the local tracks and PASS competition, with 5 top-ten runs in 7 starts. As the winner of Saturday night’s GSPSS feature, Hall will be on the list to contend in the long-distance race on Sunday.

A dark horse pick for the 250 could very well be Joey Doiron (#73). Doiron, the pole winner for 2016’s Oxford 250, has one win in nine starts in PASS competition this year, that win coming at Oxford. His limited schedule this year, not only in PASS but at Beech Ridge, has the young Berwick, ME racer flying under the radar.

THE LOCAL HEROES

With PASS Super Late Model rules closely matching the area’s weekly SLM programs, a number of local drivers will be in attendance, all hoping to score the apparent upset with a long-distance win.

Curtis Gerry (#7G) is yet another driver finding success under the charmed #7. The 2016 Beech Ridge track champion has defended his title well, with three straight feature wins earlier this summer. His sporadic PASS appearances have hinted at long-distance potential as well, with top-five finishes in 2 of his 3 starts this year.

At Oxford, weekly racing is often a family affair. Father Tim (#60B) and son TJ (#61) Brackett have contended for the points championship, each with feature wins at the track this year. TJ would especially like to avenge last year’s performance in the 250, where a failed rear gear sent him to the pits before ten laps were complete.

Two drivers making a bid for a 250 start actually had long journeys back home to New England. Sebago, ME local Derek Kneeland (#90) has a paying gig in the Carolinas as a spotter for NASCAR star Kyle Larson, but traveled home to race his Super Late Model in a spot start. Also venturing north is Ben Lynch (#7NC), a Dover, NH native who works for Brad Keselowski Racing’s Truck Series operation. Both crewmen hope to take advantage of their week off with strong performances in the 250.

An interesting story to watch could be that of rookie Gabe Brown (#47). The fourteen-year-old from New Hampshire transitioned to SLMs from go-karts earlier this summer. He has adapted well to the big cars, quickly becoming a fixture on the podium in Oxford’s weekly features. The youngster made it through Saturday’s GSPSS feature and appears to be poised to make an attempt at the longest race of his short stock-car career.

Saturday’s practice session saw over 70 drivers turning laps in preparation for the weekend’s races. Just over forty drivers will fill the starting grid. For some, years and years of preparation could come down to a few laps’ worth of luck just to take tonight’s green flag. Will a veteran claim a long-awaited 250 victory, or will one of the region’s rising stars make their mark on Maine racing history?

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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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