For most of Friday night’s Let’s Go Racing 100 at Claremont Motorsports Park, Ray Christian III ran just inside the top five, watching as Angelo Belsito tried to pull off an upset against a stacked Granite State Pro Stock Series field.
With eight laps to go, “RC III” spoiled Belsito’s party, taking the lead and holding off a visiting DJ Shaw to capture the first trophy for a touring series in New England in 2020.
The postponed season opener, held just over a month after its original date on the calendar, was the first sanctioned motorsports event in the six-state region in the recovery phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. In cooperation with the New Hampshire government and in accordance with public health guidelines, fans were not permitted at the speedway, though the race was streamed live on Speed51.
SETTING THE STAGE: GSPSS set to open racing season next Friday
Christian, the 2019 GSPSS championship runner-up, was one of the favorites among the series regulars. The Groton, Conn. racer won last year’s season finale at Claremont, capping off a resurgent second half of the season. But despite a second-place finish in his heat and third place on the grid, the third-year GSPSS full-timer settled into a rhythm just outside of the battle of the lead, never challenging for the top spot, but never dropping from the top five.
“I told the guys before a restart, we can’t win the first fifty, but we can win the last fifty,” Christian told series announcer Andy Hall in victory lane.
Instead, Angelo Belsito was the story of the first half of the race. The Seekonk Speedway graduate started outside the top five, but carved a path into the top three by the race’s first caution flag. When racing resumed, Belsito wasted little time in pursuing the top spot, passing reigning series champion Joey Doiron for the lead and holding the advantage on a long green-flag run.
Belsito, who broke into victory lane in last fall’s D.A.V. Fall Classic at Seekonk, looked poised to earn his second GSPSS feature win.
But a caution for Mike Mitchell’s spin just in front of the leaders erased Belsito’s lead. And on the restart, the Auburn, Mass. native would have to fend off not only Doiron, but Pro All Stars Series regular Gabe Brown, GSPSS regular Christian, and defending PASS North champion Shaw.
Belsito cleared Doiron easily on the restart, but aggressive racing just outside the top five kept Doiron, Brown and the rest of the top five well within grasp of dashing Belsito’s dreams of a victory. Shaw, winner of the last two GSPSS Labor Day features at Claremont, worked past Doiron into second place late in the going, and was pressuring Belsito for the race lead when Devin O’Connell spun to bring out the race’s final caution.
Christian dispatched Doiron for third on the restart, then got around Shaw for second. With Shaw in close pursuit, Christian worked the low line around the third-mile oval to get under and past Belsito with eight laps to go. As Shaw raced Belsito for the runner-up spot, Christian was free to cruise to victory.
Shaw, an eight-time GSPSS feature winner, got the better of Belsito in the closing laps to finish second. Belsito, in only his tenth GSPSS start, crossed the line in third.
Gabe Brown ran a clean race to finish fourth, with Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. rounding out the top five. Pole’s fifth-place run is the first time the Hudson, N.H. driver has not won a GSPSS start, with victories in his three series starts prior.
Joey Doiron, who won last year’s season opener at Claremont, struggled on the last two restarts and wound up sixth at the end. Local favorite Luke Hinkley rebounded from an early spin to charge back to seventh. Cory Casagrande ran a patient race and finished eighth.
Rookie Casey Call, making his GSPSS debut, started fourth and ran second early on before getting shuffled back through the leaders. Call held on for a ninth-place finish, with fellow rookie Cody LeBlanc rounding out the top ten.
Christian’s fourth career series win was the first in GSPSS competition for Five Star’s “Gen-6” body package, newly allowed in the GSPSS rulebook this season. Christian ran the updated body in a limited PASS schedule last year. While a few of the visiting PASS stars ran the updated bodywork, most of the series regulars opted to stick with their ABC-compliant sheetmetal.
PASS visitors Travis Benjamin and Garrett Hall struggled all night to come to terms with the quirky track. Benjamin, a three-time Oxford 250 champion, made a late charge to eleventh, while Garrett Hall could only climb to 14th at race’s end.
Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. was the reason for the night’s first caution flag, as contact from Joey Polewarczyk ended his night early in turn two. Mike O’Sullivan suffered a similar fate at the hand of Jeremy Davis while racing for sixth. Renfrew and O’Sullivan went home with hot tempers, wrecked cars, and deep holes in the points standings.
But Friday’s race was about more than the points battle. It was about more than the GSPSS season opener, or GSPSS president Mike Parks’ first race as Claremont’s promoter.
Friday’s race was about a proof of concept, within and outside the racing world, that short track racing can comply with the brave new (and hopefully temporary) world of social distancing and pandemic mitigation. The potential to prove racing’s readiness to comply brought a gravity that Parks readily acknowledged in the days leading up to the event.
And with the diligence of all involved, hopefully state and local authorities will be inspired to greenlight future events on the calendar.
The next event on the original series schedule is slated for next weekend at Riverside Speedway in Groveton, N.H., but as with all future events in the state, that race is subject to government authorization. A decision will likely be made based on the outcome of Sunday’s PASS North event at White Mountain Motorsports Park. Both tracks are in largely-rural parts of the state that have not been impacted significantly by the pandemic.
Christian, for one, is ready for the unknown, as he promised in victory lane.
“Wherever we go next,” he said, “we’ll be there too.”
Unofficial Results, GSPSS Let’s Go Racing 100 at Claremont Motorsports Park:
1. (93) Ray Christian III
2. (60) DJ Shaw
3. (8) Angelo Belsito
4. (47) Gabe Brown
5. (97) Joey Polewarczyk, Jr.
6. (73) Joey Doiron
7. (31NH) Luke Hinkley
8. (7CT) Cory Casagrande
9. (90NH) Casey Call
10. (55) Cody LeBlanc
11. (7) Travis Benjamin
12. (52NH) Jake Matheson
13. (43) Devin O’Connell
14. (94) Garrett Hall
15. (48) Ryan Lineham
16. (29S) Trevor Sanborn
17. (N40) Dan McKeage
18. (16) Kyle Harvell
19. (17) Kevin Folan
20. (40) Mike Mitchell
21. (08) Mike O’Sullivan
22. (00) Jimmy Renfrew, Jr.
23. (29) Barry Gray
24. (09) Jeremy Davis (DQ)