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.
PASS NORTH: HOPKINS RETURNS TO VICTORY LANE, SHAW CAPTURES FOURTH CHAMPIONSHIP AT THE CEMENT PALACE
The Pro All Stars Series was the first touring program to open New England’s fendered racing season back in April. With November only days away, it was fitting that PASS would be the series to close it out as well. Saturday’s visit to Seekonk Speedway would put a wrap on the 2019 PASS North season and crown a champion.
And while the championship battles in the American-Canadian Tour and Granite State Pro Stock Series were faits accomplis upon the wave of the green flag, the PASS North championship would come down to the checkered at Seekonk. DJ Shaw had started the season on fire before tapering off to an average pace. Derek Griffith was inconsistent in the opening weeks before finding a winning stride late in the season. As Shaw and Griffith packed up after last week’s visit to Oxford Plains Speedway, Griffith held the advantage, a scant eight-point lead to bring to southern Massachusetts. Shaw was the clear pursuer, with Ben Rowe mathematically in contention but in need of bad days for both Shaw and Griffith. Gabe Brown was far back in the points and out of the title hunt.
While a big field at Oxford was not a surprise, it was a surprise at a track that was well off the beaten path for the Maine-centric series. Thirty-one entries were on hand for the season finale, eleven more than 2018’s Seekonk stop. Curtis Gerry and Ben Ashline were at the track for rare starts away from Maine. Part-timers Dan Winter and Alan Tardiff were there to round out their seasons. As a PASS National Championship event, the race also drew part-timers Mike Hopkins and Jake Johnson. Canadian J.P. Josiasse, a regular on the defunct PASS South circuit, was there for his second PASS North start of the year.
Granite State Pro Stock Series competitors Angelo Belsito and Bobby Pelland, both of whom had plenty of Seekonk laps, were in the house for rare PASS attempts, as was Craig Weinstein. Oxford 250 polesitter and former Seekonk Late Model champion Ryan Kuhn was in his Super Late Model. And, of course, a number of Seekonk’s Pro Stock regulars had tweaked their cars for the PASS rulebook, including reigning track champ David Darling, Dylan Estrella, Fred Astle, Ryan Lineham, Ryan Vanasse, Tom Scully, and “Radical” Rick Martin. Local racer Derryck Anderson, Jr. was making his first PASS start in several years.
A cast of ringers was on hand as well, with 2018 D.A.V. Fall Classic winner Wayne Helliwell, Jr., Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., and Eddie MacDonald all primed to take a win from the established regulars.
A blown engine forced Wyatt Alexander to load up early, leaving thirty cars to divide evenly into three qualifying heats. With points awarded for heat wins, the championship contenders would certainly be on the charge. DJ Shaw fired a warning shot to Derek Griffith, dominating the first heat for a five-point victory. Dylan Estrella took a heat win for the Seekonk pros in the second. In the third, Griffith lined up behind defending race winner Travis Benjamin for the start. Griffith made a bold move for the lead before the first lap was complete, but caught the infield grass and looped it in turn three to draw the caution flag. On a restart, Ryan Vanasse and Tom Scully got together, collecting the championship points leader. Griffith pulled behind the wall for repairs. Ryan Kuhn stormed to the lead and won the heat.
Vanasse, who led much of last year’s contest, would load up early, too damaged to make repairs. PASS opted to scratch the afternoon’s consi, with the 29 cars remaining moving directly to the feature. Heat winners Estrella and Kuhn would lead the pack to green. DJ Shaw would begin his points pursuit from 11th on the grid. Derek Griffith would start 24th to defend what was now a three-point lead. Essentially, the title would come down to two positions on the track.
Dylan Estrella held a brief early lead before Ryan Kuhn went to the front. But while the Seekonk aces battled, the points chase was the more intriguing matchup. In a reversal of their heat-race fortunes, DJ Shaw was free-falling through traffic, his heat-race mastery looking incredibly past-tense, while Derek Griffith was charging. Shaw pitted under the first caution to make adjustments, but little seemed to help long-term. Fifty laps in, Griffith was up to 12th, with Shaw struggling to hold onto 15th.
Kuhn continued to set a fast pace out front, with a visiting Ben Ashline slipping into second and Ben Rowe challenging Estrella for third. Mike Hopkins, who started tenth, worked past Estrella and Rowe to get into the top-three battle. Griffith continued his march forward, breaking into the top ten as Shaw continued to struggle. Griffith had the clear upper hand, with Shaw complaining that he was unsure if another pit stop would even help.
With 49 laps remaining on a restart, Griffith sat eighth, with Shaw clawing his way to 11th. It was still a close race. Three laps later, it all came unglued.
Alan Tardiff made contact with Griffith’s left rear racing for position, sending the #12G spinning in turn four with a flat tire. The caution flew and Griffith was able to replace the tire under yellow, but he rejoined the field a lap down and several positions behind Shaw. With few lapped cars on the track, Griffith had to hope for a quick caution to receive the free pass.
Before Griffith’s drama, Mike Hopkins had climbed to second and was putting pressure on Ryan Kuhn. The view of the leader was especially familiar for Hopkins; Kuhn’s Super Late Model was one he had acquired from Hopkins’ shop outside Bangor, Maine. Hopkins shadowed Kuhn for several laps, the two racing door-to-door before Hopkins nosed in front.
With 31 laps to go, Griffith’s wish was granted, with Jake Johnson spinning in turn four and bringing out the caution. Griffith was in the free-pass position. But as the field took the yellow, Griffith clipped the back of Johnson’s stalled car, tearing the whole left door of the car loose. Griffith was in a tough spot: he had to pit to remove the dangling bodywork from his car. But he could not pit until he had taken the free pass. If he were to pit after taking the free pass, he would not have time to make repairs in Seekonk’s outside pit area before the field returned to green.
A few drivers, notably fellow Hudson, N.H. native Joey Polewarczyk, charitably tried to catch the dragging door with their cars in hopes of tearing it free and sparing Griffith a pit stop. But with none of them succeeding, Griffith’s team took their chances. Griffith took the free pass, lined up for the start, and began working through traffic, with his car billowing tire smoke from the dragging sheetmetal. Griffith was hoping for one more caution, and with 22 laps to go, his wish was granted again. However, this time, Griffith was the source of his own caution, spinning down the frontstretch after a tire let go. Griffith was lapped again as the field took the yellow, putting an end to his spirited charge for the championship as long as DJ Shaw could avoid any late misfortunes of his own.
Out front, it was still Mike Hopkins in charge, with Ryan Kuhn hanging on for second. And while Kuhn had been able to put up a fight earlier, in the sprint to the checkered flag, he had little left to challenge Hopkins. For a moment, Kuhn appeared to have been granted a reprieve, as David Darling and Dylan Estrella crashed in turn four while racing for fifth. The yellow flag came out, but as Hopkins had already taken the white, he came around the final turn at reduced speed to take the yellow and checkered flags at the same time.
Hopkins was a PASS winner earlier in the year, claiming one half of March’s Commonwealth Classic double-feature at Richmond (Va.) Raceway. In PASS North competition, his only prior win had come at Star Speedway back in 2016. After showing speed all season, Hopkins was glad to be in victory lane once again.
Ryan Kuhn was second, with Hopkins also happy he had not lost the race to his old car. Reid Lanpher paced himself through the middle of the race and came away with a third-place finish, ending his season on a strong note after struggling most of the year. Ben Rowe was fourth at the line, ending a winless season with another good performance to build on.
Gabe Brown benefited most from the last-lap crash, sneaking through to score his fourth fifth-place finish of 2019 and his third in the last four races. Alan Tardiff was sixth after close calls with both championship contenders earlier in the race. Ben Ashline was seventh, ending his late-season PASS run with top-ten results in four of his five starts. For all his struggles in the race, DJ Shaw came away with an eighth-place finish, with Eddie MacDonald and Travis Benjamin rounding out the top ten.
Wayne Helliwell and Joey Polewarczyk were 12th and 13th in the final rundown. David Darling was scored 17th, while Dylan Estrella dropped to 22nd after running in the top five all day. Derek Griffith was 20th, a lap down, after his late-race spin. Nick Sweet was 24th after being caught up in multiple incidents. Curtis Gerry, too, was caught up in a couple incidents not of his own making, ending the afternoon in 27th.
Despite spending most the race against the ropes, Shaw’s perseverance earned him his fourth PASS North championship, and his second consecutive crown. Shaw acknowledged that both he and Griffith had experienced bad days on the track. Griffith’s had simply been worse.
In the final rundown, Shaw went from an eight-point deficit to winning the title by 21 points over Griffith. Shaw, with three wins to Griffith’s five, matched his rival with 13 top-ten finishes in 17 starts, making the most of his worst days where Griffith could not. Ben Rowe ended the season third in points, closing within 46 points of the lead despite spotting the champion by two top-ten runs. Gabe Brown was fourth in the final standings, ending a frustrating but promising year for the seventeen-year-old series sophomore.
Nick Sweet, who missed one race for his brother’s wedding, ended the year fifth in points with two wins. Travis Benjamin, who skipped two events, won the Oxford 250 en route to a sixth-place points finish. Garrett Hall, an early title challenger, missed three of the last four events on the schedule and fell to seventh in points despite two wins at Oxford. Reid Lanpher ended the year eighth with one win late in the season. Bobby Therrien and Johnny Clark, neither of whom were at Seekonk, rounded out the top ten in the PASS standings.
Hopkins’ win and Griffith’s misfortunes also played out in a second way, helping Hopkins’ advantage in the PASS National Championship standings. With one race remaining in November, Hopkins holds a 76-point lead over Griffith heading to Lanier Raceplex in Georgia. Travis Benjamin, Ben Rowe and Jake Johnson round out the top five in the National standings.
Hopkins’ win was the seventh of the year for the highly-touted Gen-6 body package, joining DJ Shaw (three), Nick Sweet (two) and Garrett Hall in showing off the new bodywork in victory lane. The new body turned heads on the track and introduced a more modern edge to Super Late Model competition, though it was not the competition mismatch that critics feared when PASS approved it for competition. Among the top ten in PASS points, only Nick Sweet took the body to every race he entered, while Derek Griffith and part-timer Bobby Therrien never fielded the new body at all. With the GSPSS and Seekonk yet to approve the new body for competition, it remains to be seen how many more of the newly-styled body shells come to play in the spring.
The twentieth season for the Pro All Stars Series North is slated to open in mid-April at Oxford Plains Speedway. It bears noting that last year’s schedule announcement similarly staged Oxford for the PASS North opener until a repeat appearance at Thompson Speedway’s Icebreaker was scheduled for earlier in the month. Whether Thompson is added to the schedule or not, the PASS teams have a long five-month break in which to recover from this year’s 17-race grind and prepare for next year’s title assault.
CONCLUDING THE SCHEDULE
The PASS North finale marks the end of the short track season in New England. The New England Notebook will return in April as the region begins to thaw for the 2020 season. Stay tuned to Short Track Scene for off-season features and retrospectives.