The 2022 racing season is getting off to a fast start in the Northeast. Literally.
Two weeks after the Pro All Stars Series made its New England season debut in Connecticut, the Maine-based organization finds itself at the center of another big opening weekend.
Sunday’s Northeast Classic at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, delayed a day by a damp forecast, features the PASS North Super Late Models alongside four other regional touring series at the longest, fastest speedway on their schedules.
It’s a big way to start the year in earnest.
Playing host to New England’s short track touring ranks is nothing new for NHMS. Upon its opening in 1990, the “Magic Mile” became the crown jewel of the NASCAR Busch North Series and Modified Tours, hosting the regional touring series long before a Cup Series date was a certainty. The track earned a reputation as New England’s Daytona, a track where victories carried a special gravity, and where rising stars could test their further ambitions as far as their talent and finances could carry them.
As the significance of NASCAR’s regional divisions waned in the 2010s, NHMS was quick to welcome the region’s other touring programs, with cars from Super Late Models to four-cylinder Mini Stocks testing the flat corners of the one-mile oval.
For the last two years, that commitment has been expressed through the Northeast Classic, a joint venture between PASS and Vermont’s American-Canadian Tour. PASS and ACT prepared to stage the first Northeast Classic in April 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic stifled that intent. Instead, last April’s event served as the inaugural.
The PASS North Super Late Models and the American-Canadian Tour Late Models headline Sunday’s program, with the Modified Racing Series, North East Mini Stock Tour and EXIT Realty Pro Truck Challenge playing crucial supporting roles. An open-competition Street Stock contingent rounds out the six planned features for the day.
PASS first visited NHMS in 2015. The event seemed destined to be a one-time show, until PASS returned as part of the New England Short Track Showdown in 2019 in the multi-division event’s final season. Of PASS’ three features at NHMS, Eddie MacDonald has won two, with seven-time PASS North champion Johnny Clark taking the win last April.
There may be no series off to a faster start than PASS in terms of its opening venues. The PASS North calendar kicked off at the high-banked Thompson (Conn.) Speedway two weeks ago. A week after the Northeast Classic, PASS returns to Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway for the first time since 2012 as part of the Spring Sizzler. Thompson, NHMS and Stafford are easily the three fastest speedways on the schedule.
Those high speeds have already taken a toll on a couple teams. Third-year star Kate Re demolished a car in the opening laps of practice at Thompson, Austin MacDonald suffered a similar problem during the Thompson feature, and Cory Casagrande’s tire failure in a practice session at Stafford left his Loudon car in need of major repairs.
But with plenty of teams favoring the short trip to Loudon, there will not be a short field at the long track.
The same goes for the ACT Late Model Tour. Over forty teams filed entries for the 50-lap season opener, a tremendous turnout for the popular crate-engined Late Models.
ACT was one of the first true short track series to grace the NHMS pavement, with the ACT Invitational joining the track’s fall NASCAR weekend in 2009. ACT’s all-star event pitted top Tour racers against weekly track heroes, with Eddie MacDonald holding off Nick Sweet for the first-ever Invitational victory. In nine ACT Invitationals through 2017, “The Outlaw” claimed five of them, adding to his big-track accolades.
NHMS has not been a mere playground for the Tour’s elite. The Tour supported NHMS’ IndyCar weekend in 2011 with a points-paying race won by veteran Brian Hoar. After a few years away, ACT returned to NHMS in 2020, supplanting the NASCAR Pinty’s Series in that September’s Full Throttle Fall Weekend. And last year’s Northeast Classic feature positioned NHMS as the home, for now, of the Tour’s season-opening race.
Contributing to the impressive field at NHMS is the return of Canadian drivers to the ACT roster after a two-year COVID-inspired hiatus. In a strange twist of fate, Quebec’s Jonathan Bouvrette won the 2019 ACT Tour season finale, only months before international travel restrictions would prevent Canadian racers from crossing the border. With those restrictions largely relaxed now, a strong cluster of Quebec’s Late Model stars will be vying for a place in Sunday’s starting lineup.
ACT, interestingly, has served as both a main event and a supporting series at NHMS. The North East Mini Stock Tour has also been a little of both. The four-cylinder touring series opened its 2014 season in unique fashion, with Emerson Cayer winning on a road course layout utilized for Legends car racing. Justin Larsen won a second event later that year on the oval, and NEMST returned in 2015 for PASS’ one-off show.
But in 2017, NEMST founder Bob Guptill stepped up to co-promote the New England Short Track Showdown, a collaboration that united touring series to represent the cornerstones of weekly short track racing. While Pro Stocks and Tour-type Modifieds were the big draw for the Showdown, NEMST proudly represented the growing ranks of four-cylinder racing.
Guptill promoted the Short Track Showdown at NHMS for three years, but ultimately stepped back after 2019, citing the financial risk in staging such an event. PASS and ACT quickly filled the void with plans for the Northeast Classic.
Last year’s Northeast Classic included an open-competition Tour-type Modified feature, but this year the Modified Racing Series will sanction the open-wheel portion of Sunday’s show. The MRS, founded by former NASCAR Modified racer Jack Bateman, first visited NHMS as part of the inaugural New England Short Track Showdown. In all three MRS features at NHMS, the winner’s spoils fell to a ringer with ample big-track experience, with Woody Pitkat, Ron Silk and Ronnie Williams all celebrating in victory lane.
With four-time MRS champion Jon McKennedy and Tour veteran Matt Swanson expected to compete, the trend may well continue.
No such trends are apparent for the EXIT Realty Pro Truck Challenge, as the touring truck-bodied series makes only its second visit ever to the “Magic Mile.” The Pro Trucks got their 14-race season underway at Thompson, with Gerard Giordano, Jr. taking the win on the high banks.
Rounding out the big day of racing is the R&R Race Parts NH Street Stock Open. Street Stocks have been a featured class in the other short track events at NHMS, usually in an open format that accommodates everything from Thompson Speedway’s Limited Sportsmen to the ACT Flying Tigers. This year’s event boasts a $2,000 payout to the winner.
But purse money aside, the biggest prize on the day for many drivers is the chance to race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. With fewer NASCAR-backed touring options to aspire to for regional racers, events like the Northeast Classic give local stars a special opportunity to compete at the biggest track in their area.
An opportunity, even, to compete for a win.
And while rain on Saturday may dampen and delay this year’s Northeast Classic, it will prove a lot harder to dampen racers’ spirits.