David Darling rarely strays far from home, if at all. But if he had any intention of racing in 2020, he had no choice.
Saturday night, one of Darling’s rare road trips ended in victory lane.
The seven-time Seekonk (Mass.) Speedway Pro Stock champion fended off fellow visitors Ryan Kuhn and Gabe Brown to win the Granite State Pro Stock Series’ long-awaited return to New London-Waterford Speedbowl, earning his second-ever feature win in the touring series.
“We were just kind of riding in third, biding our time, trying to save tires,” Darling told series announcer Andy Hall after the long-distance affair. “I’m not used to these 150-lap races, or even 100-lap races.”
Troubles for the GSPSS series regulars at the front of the field cleared a path for Darling, while jumbling the balance of power for the touring specialists with only two races left in the season.
Ray Christian III drew the pole position and hoped to parlay his home-track advantage into a rebound in the points battle, after losing the lead to Joey Polewarczyk in last Friday’s bout at Star Speedway. A battle between Christian and Maine’s Corey Bubar turned physical, though, with the two drivers ending their night in the turn-one wall on lap 56.
Polewarczyk had been racing DJ Shaw for the lead, but Shaw pitted under the caution for Christian’s wreck, moving Angelo Belsito into the role of challenger for the ensuing restart. Belsito, a two-time winner in 2020, pressured Polewarczyk for the top spot, but the duel between the two GSPSS regulars grew increasingly chippy, with Belsito apparently winding up on the losing end as he spun from the lead battle.
Polewarczyk was dealt a penalty for his end of the altercation, though, and as the former leaders lined up at the tail of the field, that moved Darling into the lead.
Once he was at the point, Darling took command, driving away from the field and turning up the wick as Kuhn emerged as a contender.
For Darling, the win was a bright spot in a year that had been more dim than outright dark.
After briefly testing the waters of the NASCAR Busch North Series in the early 2000s, the Seekonk, Mass. native established himself as a force to be reckoned with at his hometown speedway. Racing on Saturday nights at the “Cement Palace,” Darling picked up Pro Stock championships in 2006 and 2007, in 2012 and 2013, and another three straight from 2017 to 2019. When the touring series came to town, Darling was often a threat, winning a Pro All Stars Series event in 2010 and a GSPSS feature in 2017. Indeed, all was on track for Darling to chase an eighth championship in 2020.
But Darling’s home track was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Massachusetts, one of the New England states hit hardest by the novel coronavirus, put strict limitations in place for group gatherings and sporting events. As the only speedway in the commonwealth, Seekonk was grouped with larger sporting facilities like Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium.
While surrounding states made provisions for their speedways to reopen with limited attendance, Seekonk was lost in the shadows, despite attempts to get back on the radar. A midsummer opening without fans seemed possible, but a spike in cases in neighboring Rhode Island resulted in a brief travel ban. Seekonk was granted the option of requiring extensive weekly testing of out-of-state participants, but with over half of its attendees hailing across the state line only a couple miles from the track, Seekonk officials opted not to pass that hardship onto the racers.
A couple weeks later, Seekonk pulled the plug on 2020’s Saturday-night program altogether, including big dates for the Pro All Stars Series, the Tri-Track Open Modified Series, and even the Granite State Pro Stock Series, which had assumed sanctioning of Seekonk’s annual D.A.V. Fall Classic in 2019.
While some of Darling’s fellow regulars tested the touring waters amidst the uncertainty, including fellow Pro Stockers Angelo Belsito and Ryan Lineham as well as Late Model contender Derek Gluchacki, most held out hope of even a shortened weekly championship at Seekonk. When those hopes were officially dashed, Darling made a trip to Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, running one of the track’s open shows in preparation for the GSPSS visit to the Maine bullring. Darling skipped the GSPSS appearance, but made his way to Lee USA Speedway for early September’s Freedom 300, finishing seventh in the shortened $10,000-to-win feature.
New London-Waterford Speedbowl had its own issues to contend with when it came to hosting a race in 2020. The beleaguered track sat idle in 2019 while planned renovations were delayed for numerous reasons. All the same, the track was granted a place on the 2020 GSPSS schedule, assuming those renovations were complete. Further delays, plus pandemic-related reschedulings, nudged the track further down the schedule. Ultimately, NLWS reopened this summer, giving the GSPSS the green light to firm up two late-season appearances at the Waterford, Conn. bullring.
Darling’s win is fitting, then, given that NLWS ultimately assumed the slot on the schedule held by the D.A.V. Fall Classic at Seekonk when Seekonk could no longer host the signature race of its Pro Stock season.
Kuhn, who won a Late Model championship at Seekonk before advancing to the American-Canadian Tour, improved on his finish a week before at Star Speedway with a second-place run. Behind him, Gabe Brown rebounded from an early incident with Alexander Pearl to finish third. Two-time GSPSS champion Mike O’Sullivan and rookie Casey Call rounded out the top five.
Tom Scully, Jr., another displaced Seekonk regular, was sixth, followed by early challengers Joey Polewarczyk and Angelo Belsito. DJ Shaw could only find his way back to ninth at the finish, with Craig Weinstein finishing tenth.
Ray Christian III was credited with 19th following his crash. While troubles for Pole and Belsito lessened the impact, it was still a blow to Christian’s championship hopes on a night where a home-field advantage was surely on his mind. For Polewarczyk, the crash opened up a little breathing room as the Hudson, N.H. driver seeks his first GSPSS championship.
The Granite State Pro Stock Series moves on to Lee USA Speedway next weekend, with the penultimate round of the series title race anchoring the Sunday schedule of Lee’s annual Oktoberfest event. Derek Griffith played the role of spoiler at “New Hampshire’s Center of Speed” last fall, holding off Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. to win his first GSPSS event in years in a one-off attempt.
Unofficial Results, GSPSS 150 at New London-Waterford Speedbowl:
1. (52) David Darling
2. (72) Ryan Kuhn
3. (47) Gabe Brown
4. (08) Mike O’Sullivan
5. (90NH) Casey Call
6. (2RI) Tom Scully, Jr.
7. (97) Joey Polewarczyk
8. (8) Angelo Belsito
9. (60) DJ Shaw
10. (90) Craig Weinstein
11. (40) Mike Mitchell
12. (31NH) Luke Hinkley
13. (76RI) Tyler Tomassi
14. (12) Bobby Pelland III
15. (87) Alexander Pearl
16. (17) Kevin Folan
17. (16) Kyle Harvell
18. (12B) Corey Bubar
19. (93CT) Ray Christian III
20. (29) Adam Gray
21. (52NH) Jake Matheson
22. (16MA) Austin Blais