When the green flag dropped on the Pro Stock/Super Late Model feature of Friday night’s Freedom 300 at Lee USA Speedway, the assumption was that it would be 150 green-flag laps before the $10,000 winner’s purse was awarded.
Fortunately for Derek Griffith, even races that are cut short still pay the same.
The rising star from Hudson, N.H. started deep in the field, but drove to the front and dominated the feature. And when officials were forced to call the feature early, Griffith was exactly where he needed to be.
So when did Griffith know that the race would be shortened to 100 laps?
“[Dolly] came over the radio with about twenty to go,” he said with a laugh.
Joey Polewarczyk led the opening laps from the pole, with home-track veteran Eddie MacDonald on his heels. When Late Model Sportsman ace Frankie Eldredge spun to bring out the yellow flag, Griffith had already driven from tenth to third. And with only twenty-five laps complete, Griffith’s spotter Dolly Mechalides tipped him off to an added sense of urgency.
“Earlier in the race, they said we got twenty-five minutes to do it, or 125 laps,” Griffith explained. “And I’m like, there is no way we’re running 125 laps in twenty-five minutes. So…I decided it was time to pick off a few guys there.”
MacDonald made a play for the lead on the restart, and Griffith followed suit, moving to second. Griffith stalked MacDonald for the next ten laps, finally making a move to the high side that handed the young racer the lead with 37 laps on the scoreboard.
“I think I probably went a little hard,” he said of the charge. “But I had a feeling they were going to do something.”
“They” were the race officials, who were in a race of their own against the clock. And with the exception of a beloved trilogy of 1980s films, the clock always wins.
With the evening’s midnight curfew approaching quickly, officials threw the checkered flag on lap 100, handing Griffith his second big Pro Stock/Super Late Model payday in only six days.
Mike Hopkins, in a joint effort with Port City Race Cars distributor Crazy Horse Racing, finished a distant second in a car normally driven by Granite State Pro Stock Series points leader Ray Christian III. Eddie MacDonald’s handling faded down the stretch as he slipped back to third at the checkered flag.
Joey Doiron, making his second start driving for Wright Pearson, pitted on the lap-25 caution and drove back to fourth, with early leader “Joey Pole” rounding out the top five.
The shortened race threw a wrench into the strategies of drivers like Doiron, who counted on a long green-flag run to keep Griffith and the other leaders from being able to pit. Doiron and sixth-place finisher Dave Farrington, who pitted with 45 laps remaining, were among those who took advantage of a tire change to sail through the field. But with another 50 clean laps, they may have risen to the top.
Instead, Griffith was able to celebrate a win that, while it came on the heels of another big victory, had not come without work itself, starting with post-race inspection after last week’s Granite State Nationals win.
“It was a long few days,” he said. “[The Granite State Pro Stock Series] took our motor from Claremont, so we had to get the motor in, set up the car . . . the way the setup is, it’s just so much different, so we unloaded and it was off. We never run the car like this.”
But Griffith and car owner Louie Mechalides tuned the car into submission. “I’ve got a lot of laps around here,” Griffith said of the track where he earned his first-ever Pro Stock win. “This place has always treated me well.”
Friday night’s feature was the main event of an action-packed racing card including a $5,000-to-win Street Stock feature, twin features for the Northeastern Midget Association Midgets and NEMA Lites, plus Lee’s own weekly Six-Shooters.
The planned procedural march of time trials, heat races and features, coupled with strong turnouts for the Street Stocks and Pro Stocks, got the night off to a slow start from the outset. Race directors tried to accommodate, cutting Pro Stock heats and keeping the racers on as short a leash as possible during the features.
With the first of the evening’s feature races taking the checkered flag just shy of ten o’clock, time was on no one’s side. The two biggest features were saved for last, and after a couple of major incidents, the Street Stock feature was called after only 25 laps. Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., winner of all but one weekly Street Stock race at Lee this year, was awarded the win and the $5,000 prize, while Lewis “Dirty Lew” Anderson and Adam Lovejoy were left wondering what might have been with a full-length race.
Had the race run to completion, though, the Pro Stock feature could not have gone green without violating the local curfew.
And based on the social media commentary following the race, it was an outcome that was not exactly unforeseen.
Norm Wrenn and his team deserve a lot of credit for getting a big-ticket event approved and organized in a short amount of time. The Freedom 300 was not on the season schedule earlier in the year. And in the wake of a number of big-dollar short track shows in the last few weeks, asking teams to turn out for yet another big-money big-expense race was a gamble. Doing so without the promotion assistance of a regional sanctioning body was an additional risk. And doing so in a world stifled by attendance and monetary restrictions in response to a global pandemic might be the biggest risk of all.
To that end, Wrenn and the Lee USA Speedway and New Hampshire Short Track Racing Association teams have earned their kudos.
But Lee has long struggled in the race against the clock, a struggle that pre-dates Wrenn’s tenure as owner. Perhaps that reputation only enhances the criticism. It will be up to Wrenn’s team to rise to the challenge for future events.
Because after the checkered flags and the fireworks, a hundred laps of feature racing were left on the table. And fans and racers alike were left to wonder what might have been.
Unofficial Results, Freedom 300 Pro Stock Open at Lee USA Speedway:
1. (12G) Derek Griffith
2. (93CT) Mike Hopkins
3. (17MA) Eddie MacDonald
4. (16) Joey Doiron
5. (97) Joey Polewarczyk, Jr.
6. (23) Dave Farrington, Jr.
7. (52) Dave Darling
8. (35) Derek Ramstrom
9. (88) Brandon Barker
10. (61) Nick Cusack
11. (46) Dylan Estrella
12. (40) Mike Mitchell
13. (09X) Jeremy Davis
14. (30) Fred Astle
15. (48) Larry Gelinas
16. (94) Garrett Hall
17. (17) Kevin Folan
18. (09) Frankie Eldredge
19. (82) Bobby Baillargeon
20. (7CT) Cory Casagrande
21. (93) Ryan Green
22. (01) Bill Helliwell