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: GRIFFITH TAKES FIRST SERIES WIN SINCE 2015 IN LEE OKTOBERFEST
Since the mid-1980s, Lee USA Speedway has ended its circle-track season with the weekend-long Oktoberfest special. Drawing in cars not only from its own weekly divisions, but from myriad other short track classes and tours, Oktoberfest can feature as many as twenty different forms of racing through a three-day stretch at “New Hampshire’s Center of Speed.”
For the second year in a row, the Granite State Pro Stock Series was part of the Sunday bill at Russ Conway’s Oktoberfest, named this year for the recently-departed journalist and promoter who helped to nurture the event in its earliest days.
Lee had featured Pro Stocks on the Oktoberfest roster for years, dating back to when the class was a weekly division at most short tracks in New England. In recent seasons, the Oktoberfest open-competition Pro Stock event usually enticed teams familiar with the GSPSS rule set. For 2018, the event became a stop on the GSPSS schedule, paying points and enticing the Tour regulars to make a visit.
With twenty-four cars on hand, the Oktoberfest date was one of the strongest fields of the year, with a diverse cast of newcomers. A few were easy picks to win. Brandon Barker, the defending Oktoberfest winner and a winner at Lee in May, was back in the black Wright Pearson #16. Wayne Helliwell, Jr., fresh off a top-three finish in Speedway 51’s Fall Brawl in his ACT car, had his Pro Stock at the ready. Jeremy Davis and his trusty chassis named “Jolene” were looking for a second GSPSS win in 2019. Dillon Moltz, the 2014 GSPSS champion, was returning to the series for the first time since 2016. And PASS title contender Derek Griffith, the 2015 GSPSS champion, was making his twelfth series start since moving up the short track ladder.
Luke Hinkley, who missed the green flag of the last race at Lee, was back for another shot, as was Josh King, who missed the Seekonk feature. Rookie Jake Matheson was in the pits helping Devin O’Connell’s team, though his own #52NH was back in the shop at home. Gabe Brown had brought his Dale Shaw “throwback” #47 to the track, with Dale and son DJ in the pits to help their young protégé.
A few other faces in the pits were new, or at least new-ish, to the series. Seekonk Speedway regular Ryan Lineham and Claremont Speedway regular Ricky Bly had towed to Lee. Griffith’s Louie Mechalides-owned team had fielded a second car for veteran racer Bill Ahern. Maine’s Barry Poulin, a racer at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, was making his GSPSS debut. So was Alby Ovitt, who had famously dominated Street Stock competition in southern New Hampshire in 2018 and 2019. Ovitt, who drove for the Renfrew family’s Street Stock operation, was in a #35 Renfrew-prepared car for his maiden GSPSS voyage.
Brandon Barker’s drive to win three out of the last four Lee races took a hit early in the afternoon, when he lost an engine in his #16. While the rest of the field made their way to staging for qualifying and heats, the pits got to work, with Barker’s car sourcing a spare engine from Dillon Moltz’ team. A tow truck hoisted the spare across the pits and to Barker’s car, while Barker, DJ Shaw, and team members from other cars worked on swapping the two powerplants in time for the feature.
On the track, Derek Griffith surprised few by going to the top of the leaderboard in time trials. Dillon Moltz scraped the frontstretch wall on his lap, joining Barker in the pits to make repairs. The 22 remaining cars set the field in the heat races, with Griffith, Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. and Wayne Helliwell, Jr. each winning a heat. Alby Ovitt, who finished third in his heat, drew the pole position, with Griffith bumped back to sixth.
A slight shift in schedule due to some crashes in the Modified Racing Series event introduced a wrinkle for the polesitter, though, as Ovitt would have to run the 75-lap Street Stock main event immediately before the GSPSS feature. Ovitt, who won the race handily, celebrated briefly before being strapped into his waiting Pro Stock on the frontstretch. At last, the field assembled for 100 laps as darkness began to settle in on the track.
As the green flag fell, the field stacked up in the turn, with Devin O’Connell getting turned and Mike Mitchell going to the tail of the field. On the next attempt, Alby Ovitt’s car wouldn’t go, with Ray Christian III and Helliwell quickly dispatching the slow #35 out front. Ovitt dropped to the back of the pack as “RC III” set the early pace.
Points leader and July Lee winner Joey Doiron started seventh, but he pulled to a stop on the apron of the backstretch on lap 17. Doiron came to Lee with over a race’s lead on Devin O’Connell with three races to settle the championship. As Doiron’s car was removed from the track, the title race had a new sense of life in it.
Out front, Christian continued to show the way as Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. closed in. Renfrew, like Christian, had earned his first podium of a trying season a month before at Star Speedway, with Christian winning and Renfrew finishing third. On lap 27, Renfrew reversed the Star results, taking the lead away from RC III and asserting himself at the head of the field. A win would build some serious momentum going into the 2020 season.
Christian eventually slipped to third, as Derek Griffith patiently cut through traffic. Griffith closed in on leader Renfrew as well, but the second-year racer was dominant through traffic, working around lapped cars and using them as a pick to keep the veteran Griffith at bay. A long green-flag stretch run gave Renfrew the look of a driver who might be on his way to a second career GSPSS victory.
But on lap 62, Griffith found a lane and made his move for the lead, cleanly taking the top spot as Renfrew stayed tight to Griffith’s bumper in second. Two cautions put Renfrew at Griffith’s door, but the sophomore was unable to keep pace with the series graduate, with Griffith pulling ahead at the drop of the flag.
Gabe Brown spun down the frontstretch racing for position with just under 25 laps remaining, setting off a chain reaction that caught up Devin O’Connell and Mike O’Sullivan. Both drivers continued rolling, but came to a stop after turn two, necessitating some track cleanup and a tow to the pit area. O’Connell’s problems suddenly minimized Doiron’s early issue, as he would only lose a few points to his closest competitor.
Once again, Griffith and Renfrew brought the field to the green flag, with Griffith showing the way and Renfrew shadowing the former champion. Ray Christian III ran third, with Jeremy Davis, Luke Hinkley and Ryan Lineham battling for fourth. Out front, it was a two-car breakaway for the win.
The fourth-place battle heated up between Davis and a charging Lineham, and it came to a head with three laps to go, with Lineham sending Davis hard into the turn-three wall. Officials were preparing to park Lineham for the contact as the cars came around under caution, when Davis and his battered car took out their frustrations on Lineham down the frontstretch. Both cars came to a stop in turn one, with Lineham driving back to the pits with minimal damage. Davis and two crew members walked back to the pits while a wrecker loaded a badly-damaged “Jolene” for the trip back to the paddock.
Griffith lined up first for the final restart with Renfrew alongside him, and while Renfrew could keep pace, it was not enough to beat the 22-year-old veteran. Derek Griffith took the checkers for his first GSPSS victory of 2019, the fifth of his career, and oddly enough, the only one not scored in his championship year. In his eleven starts since 2015, Griffith had never returned to victory lane.
Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. improved on his third-place finish at Star Speedway with a second-place run, best among the series regulars. Ray Christian III was third, a solid result after struggles at Seekonk. Brandon Barker, after the late-race fracas, came back from starting shotgun on the field with a borrowed engine to finish fourth.
Dennis Spencer, Jr., making his first GSPSS start since July’s race at Lee, finished a season-best fifth with some help from Reid Lanpher’s PASS crew. Luke Hinkley was sixth, with Wayne Helliwell, Jr. rebounding in the final laps to finish seventh. Joe Squeglia, Mike Mitchell and Dillon Moltz rounded out the top ten.
Jeff Fagan finished 11th, with Gabe Brown 12th and Ricky Bly 13th. Josh King was 14th after a late crash, with Barry Poulin ending his first GSPSS start in 15th. Bobby Pelland, who was caught up in two incidents during the evening, was the final finisher in 16th.
Polesitter Alby Ovitt, who had trouble on restarts most of the night, parked his car early and was credited with 17th. Mike O’Sullivan and Devin O’Connell were 18th and 19th after their crash, with Bill Ahern 20th. Joey Doiron was 21st, with only Barry Gray withdrawing from the race before him. By virtue of their late-race incident, Jeremy Davis and Ryan Lineham were credited with 23rd and 24th.
As spread-out as the points were entering Lee, troubles for Joey Doiron and Devin O’Connell helped to shake up the standings, while O’Connell’s misfortune and the late-race incident certainly lessened the impact of Doiron’s early exit. Ray Christian III leapfrogged O’Connell to take second by six points, but he still sits 55 points behind Doiron. Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., the only other driver to start all ten races, is another 23 points behind O’Connell.
The GSPSS title chase marches on this weekend, as part of Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park’s Sunoco World Series. Rain on Friday cancelled the evening’s festivities, with the day’s features squeezed into Saturday and Sunday’s schedules instead. The GSPSS will now run as a doubleheader with the ACT Tour Saturday evening, with two races remaining to settle the championship battle.
SPEEDWAY 51: GRAVEL BREAKS THROUGH WITH FALL BRAWL 151 VICTORY
In northern New Hampshire, the leaves are not the only change in the fall air. Speedway 51 in Groveton, nestled along the banks of the Connecticut River separating the state from neighboring Vermont, hosted a pivotal Fall Brawl 151 last Saturday. With track owner Joey Laquerre selling the speedway to the Humphrey family of Maine this fall, the Fall Brawl would be the first race under new track ownership. The race would also be the last for the Speedway 51 moniker, a tribute to Laquerre’s late grandson Joey M. Laquerre. The track would revert after the race to the name it held prior to Laquerre’s ownership, Riverside Speedway.
In what proved to be a transition year for the track, a five-race ACT-rules Late Model championship had been held, with Corey Mason and Thunder Road regular Marcel Gravel finishing 1-2 in the points. Another fifteen cars were in attendance, some regulars at the quarter-mile, others traveling for a shot at a big extracurricular payday. Three-time ACT Tour champ Wayne Helliwell, Jr., White Mountain Motorsports Park champion Quinny Welch, and Canadians Steve Côté and Michael Lavoie were among those making the trip.
While Mason and Gravel were guaranteed front-row starting positions by virtue of their points finishes, the other 15 cars had to qualify in via heats. Shawn Swallow and Bryan Mason earned heat victories, with Helliwell lining up seventh for the start of the 151-lap feature.
Gravel took the early race lead from polesitter Mason, but heat winner Swallow moved into the runner-up spot and began pressuring the Thunder Road racer for the lead. On a lap-100 restart, the two made contact, with Gravel spinning out of the lead. Race control moved Swallow to the tail of the pack, with Gravel awarded the lead once again.
From there, Gravel had new threats, with Helliwell and Steve Côté pressuring the young Vermonter for the top spot. Côté snuck past for a lap as Helliwell and Gravel made contact, but Gravel battled back into the lead. From there, he held the point all the way to the finish, scoring the biggest victory of his career. En route to victory lane, though, Gravel stuffed the car in the wall, limping into the winner’s circle and surely earmarking part of the $5,000 winner’s purse for offseason repairs.
Steve Côté was second with Wayne Helliwell third and Matt Smith fourth. Quinny Welch was sixth. Early contender Shawn Swallow finished last on the lead lap in 14th.
NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE
Uncooperative weather has forced a Saturday-evening doubleheader for the Granite State Pro Stock Series and the American-Canadian Tour, as both series will race as part of Thompson (Conn.) Speedway Motorsports Park’s year-ending Sunoco World Series of Asphalt Racing. The ACT Tour will also award its champion in its final race of the year.