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Granite State Pro Stock Series

New England Notebook: Christian, Sweet open GSPSS and PASS seasons with wins, without fans

GSPSS Claremont 2020
DJ Shaw (#60) finished second in Friday night's GSPSS event at Claremont, third in Saturday's Late Model feature at WMMP, and second again in Sunday's PASS season opener for a well-rounded weekend effort. (Jeff Brown photo)

Each week, Short Track Scene looks back at results and news from northern New England’s Late Model and Super Late Model competition, from the region’s premier tours — the American-Canadian Tour, the Granite State Pro Stock Series, and the Pro All Stars Series — to the tracks and drivers that support them. Thanks to the local journalists and fans who report in from the track each week to keep their fellow fans informed.

GSPSS: RC III OPENS NEW ENGLAND SEASON WITH CLAREMONT VICTORY

The Granite State Pro Stock Series basked in the national spotlight last Friday, as the New Hampshire-based organization was the first touring series in New England to stage a race in 2020, a month and a half after the originally-scheduled season opener.

As planned for the month of April, the GSPSS season opened at Claremont Motorsports Park. The fan-free lidlifter, broadcast as a Pay-Per-View stream via Speed51, was the first race at the third-mile oval under the eye of GSPSS president Mike Parks, who signed a deal last fall to promote the track for owners Norm Wrenn and Ben Bosowski.

READ MORE: Christian charges late for season-opening GSPSS win

Despite the spectre of an event held elsewhere in the state against pandemic protocol, New Hampshire officials gave Parks the green light to hold the event. In turn, the GSPSS struck fast, with teams given about a week to make their arrangements for the Friday-night feature. And with several extra weeks of offseason, teams were champing at the bit to get to a track.

The early roster for the Let’s Go Racing 100 featured 29 cars, with the series’ usual supporters atop the list. Reigning champion Joey Doiron, 2018 champ Devin O’Connell, two-time titleholder Mike O’Sullivan and 2016 victor Barry Gray were back to open the season. Doiron’s chief challengers from 2019, Ray Christian III and Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., had freshened their fleets for a run at championships of their own. Luke Hinkley and Mike Mitchell, who ran the majority of the schedule in 2019, returned for 2020, along with sophomore Jake Matheson. Former feature winner Jeremy Davis had a new car at the ready for what he announced this winter would be a full-season GSPSS effort.

Cody LeBlanc, the 2018 North East Mini Stock Tour champion, was one of the rookie entrants in Friday’s feature. LeBlanc made his GSPSS debut in last season’s finale at Claremont while racing ACT-spec Late Models at White Mountain Motorsports Park. Legends racer Casey Call had a new car on hand for his own GSPSS debut, in search of rookie honors.

The entry list also had a strong lineup of the series’ part-time supporters, drivers like Connecticut’s Cory Casagrande and Seekonk racers Angelo Belsito, Kevin Folan and Ryan Lineham. New York’s Kyle Harvell towed up from Long Island for the event.

But with no other races on the calendar at the time of the announcement, a handful of PASS racers and Maine Super Late Model aces were planning on the trip to Claremont. Defending PASS champion DJ Shaw and teammate Gabe Brown were no strangers to the GSPSS. Three-time Oxford 250 winner Travis Benjamin had run a few races for Matt Frahm’s team, but headed west with his Petit Motorsports PASS entry. Trevor Sanborn and Dan McKeage, regulars at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway and PASS part-timers, would make their GSPSS debuts. Garrett Hall, who won his only GSPSS attempt at Oxford, and three-time winner Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. both hoped to remain perfect in their GSPSS records.

By Friday night, a couple teams had withdrawn, but twenty-four Pro Stocks were in the pit area with a deep field of supporting entries for three of Claremonth’s weekly divisions. Among those not making the trip were Michael Scorzelli and Ryan Kuhn. Dan Winter was in the pits, working with Joey Pole’s team. Josh King, who finished fifth in points last year, was also at Claremont, but without a car; a busy winter and spring for the electrician had kept him from getting his Pro Stock ready for 2020.

Local favorite Luke Hinkley blistered the track in time trials to set the fast time of the evening, going on to win his heat over Ray Christian III. Gabe Brown and Angelo Belsito won the other two heats, with the redraw putting Brown and Joey Doiron on the front row for the feature. Hinkley would start back in fifth.

Doiron, who started 2019 on the right foot by winning at Claremont, had left his plans up in the air regarding the season opener, lending to the usual cocktail of business responsibilities, budgetary concerns, and family time. But Doiron and his wife welcomed their latest arrival in late May, eliminating at least one of the stressing factors. And at the drop of the green flag, the reigning champion set off to start 2020 with the same strength he had a year ago. Rookie Casey Call, starting fourth, got past Brown and Ray Christian III and settled into second.

Just five laps into the feature, Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. got together with Joey Pole, hooking the black #00 into the turn-two wall. Renfrew, hoping for a strong start to the season, was visibly frustrated with Pole, as his car was done for the evening. As Renfrew’s car was towed to the pits, power to the scoring tower failed, leaving the night’s Pay-Per-View broadcast in the dark. In deference to the fans watching from home, the race was red-flagged while power was restored.

Doiron asserted himself once again when the race restarted, pulling away from Casey Call and the rest of the field. Call held on in the runner-up spot for several laps, but began feeling pressure from Angelo Belsito and Gabe Brown.

Once Belsito cleared Casey Call, the rookie plummeted through the top five while Belsito set his sights on first place. The Massachusetts racer broke into GSPSS victory lane in last fall’s D.A.V. Fall Classic at Seekonk Speedway. As he took the lead from Doiron and pulled away by a couple car lengths, it appeared the series part-timer was on track for his second career win in his last three GSPSS starts.

A long green-flag stretch allowed Belsito to pad his lead with the help of lapped traffic, but a spin for Mike Mitchell as Belsito closed in brought out the race’s second yellow flag well past halfway. Belsito’s lead evaporated, with Doiron, Brown, Christian and DJ Shaw closing in.

Belsito fended off Doiron on the restart, but a caution came out quickly as Luke Hinkley was spun just outside the top five. Belsito lined up alongside Doiron again and held him off at the drop of the green, but contact between Jeremy Davis and Mike O’Sullivan brought out another yellow, one that ended with O’Sullivan backed into the turn-one wall and quite frustrated with Davis.

Cautions for Mike Mitchell’s stalled car and a Devin O’Connell spin handed short runs to Belsito, who kept Doiron, then Gabe Brown, at bay. As the field lined up for the restart after O’Connell’s spin, DJ Shaw had climbed to second, looking for a follow-up to his win in last September’s Rocky Ridge 150.

Sitting fourth on the restart was the winner of October’s season finale, Ray Christian III. Christian started third and hovered just inside the top five for most of the race. He had told his crew the car was not a winning car in the first half of the race. But he felt like he had a good car for the second half.

On the restart, Christian dispatched Gabe Brown, then stalked Belsito and Shaw as they battled for the lead. Christian got to the inside of Shaw, made the pass, then used the slightest bit of front bumper to get Belsito loose and make a move for the lead. With eight laps left, “RC III” got out front for the first time. Shaw followed Christian into second as Belsito settled into third.

For two years running, Christian had won the season finale. In 2019, the momentum faded quickly as Christian’s speed failed to translate into winning results. But this time, the yellow flag stayed stowed and Shaw could not run down Christian, as the third-year star held on for his fourth GSPSS win and his first of the season.

Shaw crossed the line in second, with Belsito holding on for a third-place finish. Gabe Brown came home fourth with a clean car. Joey Polewarczyk’s streak of winning in his three career GSPSS races came to an end, with the Hudson, N.H. veteran recording his worst career GSPSS finish in fifth.

Joey Doiron, whose car faded on the late restarts, fell to sixth at the finish. Luke Hinkley drove his damaged car back into the top ten for a disappointing seventh-place finish at his home track. Cory Casagrande overcame handling struggles to finish eighth, with rookie Casey Call ninth in his first GSPSS start. Jeremy Davis crossed the line tenth, but was handed a disqualification, moving rookie Cody LeBlanc into tenth place on the final rundown.

Surprisingly, most of the visiting Mainers never found the speed they wanted. Travis Benjamin climbed to eleventh at the finish, with Garrett Hall, Trevor Sanborn and Dan McKeage behind him. Devin O’Connell bounced back from his spin with a thirteenth-place result.

For Mike O’Sullivan and Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., the search for a title will start deep in the hole, with both drivers hauling home wrecked cars. By no means is the season over after one race, but if Christian keeps his momentum from last year well into this season, Renfrew and O’Sullivan will struggle to catch up.

Fortunately for those with battered cars and bruised egos, the next GSPSS event remains up in the air. The next scheduled event, to be held in northern New Hampshire at Riverside Speedway, was called off while officials try to coordinate with state guidelines in planning the next event.

PASS NORTH: NICHOLAS FINDING HIS SWEET SPOT AT QUARTER-MILES WITH WMMP WIN

Facing logistical challenges and pandemic delays of its own, the Pro All Stars Series finally roared to life last Sunday with a season-opening tilt at White Mountain Motorsports Park in New Hampshire.

The Maine-based Super Late Model circuit had planned to start the season in the Granite State anyway, with an opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway followed by a home bout at Oxford Plains Speedway. Maine’s pandemic-mitigation protocol is among the toughest in New England, though, with large social gatherings on hold well into the summer, as well as a fourteen-day self-quarantine mandated for out-of-state visitors. The quarantine rule would prevent some of PASS’ biggest stars from visiting the series’ own home track in Maine.

With the GSPSS swinging into action, though, PASS collaborated with track owners Cris Michaud and Pat Malone, who manage the American-Canadian Tour and Thunder Road Speedbowl in Vermont, as well as New Hampshire’s White Mountain Motorsports Park. With the state’s blessing, WMMP assembled a two-day program with weekly features on Saturday and a PASS-anchored Sunday touring program to kick off the series’ twentieth season.

Even on short notice, thirty-one teams filed entries for the Sunday-afternoon showdown, with eleven of last year’s top twelve points finishers headed to WMMP. Brandon Barker planned to join the full-time ranks with a new look to his #88 entry. Former GSPSS racer Nick Lascuola was in his own #39, while past champion Cassius Clark was in Chad Dow’s #39 piloted in 2019 by Scott Chubbuck. Ben Ashline, whose late-season deal with friend Ajay Picard had culminated in a win at Lanier Raceway in Georgia, was back in the black-and-green #99. Eddie MacDonald was in the familiar red #17MA.

Plenty of Oxford’s regular racers were in the lineup, too, with former Oxford champions TJ Brackett and Alan Tardiff joining reigning champ Curtis Gerry. Even an Oxford rookie was on the entry list; PASS Modified feature winner Kate Re would make her Super Late Model debut not as a weekly racer at Oxford, but within the PASS touring ranks. Re, who was slated to race for Crazy Horse Racing in 2020 before inking a deal to run a Fury car instead, would attempt to be the first woman to start a PASS North feature since Sarah Cornett-Ching in 2017.

Five drivers—DJ Shaw, Gabe Brown, Travis Benjamin, Garrett Hall, and Trevor Sanborn—had raced Friday’s GSPSS feature and would be performing double-duty over the weekend. Two more, Ryan Kuhn and Mike Scorzelli, had opted to focus on the PASS event once it was announced. Dan Winter, who was in Claremont as a mechanic, was behind the wheel for Sunday’s feature.

With only twenty-four slots on the starting grid, the pressure was on before qualifying. Travis Benjamin, Nick Sweet, Trevor Sanborn and Alan Tardiff won the four heats, with Bobby Therrien and Derek Griffith winning the two consis. However, PASS elected to start thirty cars, with only Mike Scorzelli not making the starting grid for the 150-lap feature. Benjamin and Sweet would lead the field to green.

For Travis Benjamin, 2019 was a season of mixed emotions. In three years driving for Peter Petit, the 2012 PASS North champion and two-time Oxford 250 winner had added six wins and the 2017 PASS North title to his record. But nine races into 2019, Benjamin had a season-best result of fourth without ever posing a real threat to win.

The team regrouped mid-season with a laser focus on the Oxford 250, and Benjamin was rewarded with his third win in the big race. But it was still one of three top-five finishes in fifteen PASS North starts, hardly the numbers the pairing had become used to.

In the early laps at WMMP, though, Benjamin looked like he had returned to his pre-2019 form. Benjamin and Nick Sweet eventually gave way to Johnny Clark, who paced the field approaching halfway.

A wreck in front of the leaders on lap sixty-one collected Clark and Sweet, along with Jeff White and Derek Griffith, handing the race lead back to Benjamin not long before halfway. Ben Rowe and Trevor Sanborn lined up behind Benjamin, but Benjamin kept his Maine challengers in the mirror as he looked for his first win since August’s 250.

Sweet was on the rebound from the lap-61 skirmish, and closed in on Benjamin as the hundredth lap ticked on the scoreboard. The former Thunder Road Speedbowl and ACT Tour champion had plenty of laps on tough quarter-mile ovals before, and he put that experience to the test tracking down and passing Benjamin for the race lead.

With Benjamin relegated to battling DJ Shaw for the runner-up spot, not even a couple late cautions could keep the defending Oxford 250 champ in striking distance of the win. Building a lead of almost a straightaway at times, Sweet sailed home to his fourth career PASS North win, all in his last nineteen starts.

Finishing second was DJ Shaw, who set aside his familiar #60 for a throwback scheme bearing the #122 of his grandfather, Steve Blood. Shaw’s race was his first PASS start in a car other than the #60 since 2017, when he made a start in his team’s #49 development car at Star Speedway.

Benjamin held on for third at the stripe, his first podium finish since the Oxford 250, with Derek Ramstrom and Alan Tardiff rounding out the top five.

Like Benjamin, Trevor Sanborn improved on his GSPSS performance Friday by finishing sixth, ahead of Johnny Clark and Mike Hopkins. Wayne Helliwell, Jr., the 2016 Oxford 250 winner and winner of the ACT-sanctioned Midsummer 250 at WMMP last year, came home ninth, with Garrett Hall rounding out the top ten.

Gabe Brown finished eleventh, with Ryan Kuhn, Austin Teras, Travis Stearns and Dan Winter closing out the top fifteen and the lead-lap finishers. Ben Rowe was the first car a lap down in sixteenth. Rookie Kate Re finished seventeenth, marking a solid Super Late Model debut for the Maine teenager.

Ben Ashline and Brandon Barker were eighteenth and nineteenth, with veteran Kelly Moore rounding out the top-twenty just ahead of Eddie MacDonald. Derek Griffith was 25th, completing only 76 laps after getting caught up in the lap-61 incident. He still fared better than Curtis Gerry; the defending Oxford track champion was out with mechanical failure early, finishing 28th.

Griffith’s misfortune puts him behind the eight-ball early in the championship battle, much as he spent the first part of last season. However, whether he will be able to chase the title at all will depend as the summer goes on. After an impressive debut in February, Griffith signed with Chad Bryant Racing to compete in the ARCA Menards Series East this year. Griffith’s schedule with the team has since changed, but with neither the ARCA nor PASS schedules set in anything firmer than sand at present, it remains to be seen if his national commitments will impede a championship effort with Louie Mechalides’ operation in PASS.

Even if Griffith steps back, strong runs from Sweet, a resurgent Benjamin and others could make DJ Shaw’s run for a third-straight and fifth-career title that much tougher.

For now, the next event on the PASS calendar is a return to WMMP on Sunday, June 21, planned in conjunction with loosening restrictions on event attendance in the state of New Hampshire.

WEEKLY RACING: PANDEMIC PLANS REIGN SUPREME, BUT WMMP BACK IN THE SADDLE

For weekly tracks in New England, survival and flexibility have been the name of the game. While all six states in the region were initially working closely in conjunction with one another to avoid encouraging greater travel to states with lessened limitations, the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired differing strategies in the month of June.

With travel restricted, most short tracks in the area have been limited to fan-free private test sessions, allowing them to earn some back-gate income while trying to present pandemic-mitigation strategies to their respective government officials.

Thus far, New Hampshire has made the greatest leaps, announcing this week that outdoor events will be able to reopen at reduced attendance effective Monday, June 15. An early exemption was granted to White Mountain Motorsports Park, and fans will be welcome at this evening’s ACT Tour opening event. Other tracks will wait until next weekend to welcome fans back to the grandstands, provided proper mitigation procedures are in effect.

Without fans in the stands, WMMP kicked off its weekly racing season Saturday, with plenty of ACT Tour teams invading the weekly Late Model wars. Jason Corliss topped Joel Hodgdon and DJ Shaw Saturday night in a field that included Modified star Woody Pitkat, Thompson regular Tom Carey III, and three-time NASCAR Busch North champion Jamie Aube. Defending track champ Quinny Welch was tenth in the 30-car field.

Vermont’s approach to the pandemic has kept Thunder Road quiet, while former ACT track Devil’s Bowl Speedway will reopen Monday for its usual dirt-racing program, sans fans of course. Devil’s Bowl shared a map from Vermont’s COVID-19 Recovery Resource Center delineating approved leisure travel within the state. Currently, only residents of nearby counties with low spread of the virus are welcomed in the state, excluding areas like eastern Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the populous southern counties of New Hampshire.

Tracks in Maine and Connecticut continue to work with their local government officials to determine COVID-19 mitigation plans that will allow them to open, with or without fans, for racing. For the time being, the tracks remain closed for full-scale racing events.

UPCOMING EVENTS

The American-Canadian Tour season will finally get off the ground with tonight’s Spring Green 120 at White Mountain Motorsports Park. The grandstands will be open at half capacity, but fans stuck at home can tune into Northeast Sports Network for Pay-Per-View streaming coverage.

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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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