With the readiness of New England’s short tracks always a wild card in the waning weeks of winter, a road trip is a far more certain way to ensure a timely start to the season.
The Pro All Stars Series and American-Canadian Tour will kick off their respective schedules this weekend at Hickory Motor Speedway, running back-to-back Easter Bunny 150 doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday evening.
The North Carolina voyage is another volume in the history books for PASS, a first edition for ACT, and another chapter in the growing relationship between the two touring organizations.
A Southeastern presence is nothing new for PASS, despite its Northeastern roots. After establishing itself in the early 2000s as northern New England’s top destination for short track talent, the Maine-based Super Late Model series began sanctioning a full slate of events in the Southeast in 2006. The first-ever PASS South race, held that April at Hickory, was the inaugural Easter Bunny 150.
PASS South was quietly dissolved in 2018, owing to declining participation. However, the Easter Bunny 150 has lived on as a staple of PASS’ National Super Late Model Championship, maintaining the delicate connection between PASS’ northern base and its remaining loyalists in the Southeast.
Last year’s Easter Bunny 150 was one of the early casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, canceled in the early weeks of the global public health crisis. Rather than shoehorn a makeup event into a fluid and ever-changing 2020 schedule, PASS opted to hold off until 2021, setting the stage for this weekend’s double feature.
Friday night’s Easter Bunny 150 will be credited as the 15th running of the event, with Saturday’s Easter Bunny 150 serving as the 16th and latest iteration.
While PASS builds on its history this weekend, ACT will be making history. Despite the similar name and exterior shell, the ACT Late Models are a different breed from the Late Model Stock Cars so entrenched in the Carolinas. With eight-inch tires, crate engines and strict shock rules, the ACT Late Models are a unique and somewhat cost-effective take on the discipline, a staple at weekly tracks throughout New England and the Canadian province of Quebec as well as on the road.
But few road trips have taken the ACT Tour quite as far. Friday’s Hickory 125 and Saturday’s Easter Bunny 125 are the first races in the ACT Late Model Tour’s 30-year history to be contested in the state of North Carolina. Indeed, the Vermont-based Tour has never run a points race farther south than Connecticut’s New London-Waterford Speedbowl, or farther west than central New York.
That will not change this weekend, as the Hickory events are not part of the twelve-race ACT Tour championship schedule. A decision was made not to penalize teams unable to make the long haul. But even with only prize money and bragging rights on the line, twenty-nine cars were in attendance at the historic oval for Thursday’s practice session.
Similarly, the PASS Easter Bunny 150s are part of PASS’ revived National Super Late Model Championship, but pay no points toward the already-hectic 19-race PASS North title race. Fans of the two series will note the similarities to the 2019 Commonwealth Classic, a one-off ACT-PASS road trip held at Virginia’s Richmond Raceway.
The co-sanctioned Hickory weekend is the first of several this season where the PASS Super Late Models and ACT Late Models will share space in the pits, whether in support of one another or in a strict double-feature format.
Seven years ago, such a doubleheader would have never been a consideration.
The two organizations have unique origins, oddly bound by turns of circumstance. Veteran promoter Tom Curley founded ACT in 1986 when NASCAR pulled support from the Curley-run NASCAR North Tour. Despite NASCAR’s return to the region with the Busch North Series, Curley’s ACT Pro Stocks prospered, even succeeding NASCAR in 1993 as the sanctioning partner for Oxford Plains Speedway’s marquee Oxford 250.
Conflicts with Oxford management, coupled with funding issues, forced Curley to disband the ACT Pro Stocks after 1995. The all-new North East Pro Stock Association and International Pro Stock Challenge filled the vacuum of touring Pro Stock action in New England and eastern Canada, while Curley focused ACT’s efforts on its fledgling Late Model Sportsman circuit.
Pro Stock competitor Tom Mayberry broke into the promoter role in 2001 with PASS, which instantly supplanted both NEPSA and the IPSC to become the Northeast’s premier Pro Stock/Super Late Model tour. ACT and PASS coexisted for the next several years, balancing disparate racing platforms with their own pools of talent and supporters. ACT even returned to racing at Oxford, with the track’s new ownership shifting the Oxford 250 to an ACT Late Model event in 2007.
Tensions rose, though, after the Mayberry family purchased Oxford Plains Speedway in 2012. When PASS announced in the fall that it would assume sanctioning duties at Oxford for the 2013 season, including the Oxford 250, Curley fired back.
The inaugural International 500, anchored by a $25,000-to-win 300-lap ACT Late Model feature, was scheduled at Airborne Speedway in upstate New York for the same weekend as the Oxford 250. A bitter rivalry between ACT and PASS had been forged.
Following the 2014 season and a second International 500, Curley and Mayberry convened to make peace. The first outward sign of a truce was an ACT-PASS doubleheader to start the 2015 season, held at Oxford Plains Speedway. Later that spring, the PASS Super Late Models made their debut at ACT’s home base, Thunder Road International Speedbowl. And in July, PASS road-tripped to New York, running their own 200-lap feature as part of the third and final International 500.
ACT and PASS have worked in close concert ever since.
Curley passed away in early 2017, shortly after he and Ken Squier sold Thunder Road to former ACT competitor Cris Michaud and real-estate developer Pat Malone. Michaud and Malone purchased ACT itself at the end of the season, with Michaud building on the cooperative groundwork laid out by Curley.
And amid the pandemic, the ACT-PASS relationship reached new heights. White Mountain Motorsports Park, another track owned by Michaud and Malone, became the epicenter of New England racing last June, jump-starting the PASS schedule by hosting three of the series’ first four races. By season’s end, ACT and PASS had shared five race weekends, either as proper doubleheaders or with one tour racing in support of the other.
In addition, Michaud and Mayberry joined forces mid-season to promote oval racing at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, saving the Connecticut speedplant’s annual World Series and earning the track a deserved reprieve.
This weekend’s Hickory doubleheader is the first of eight race weekends featuring the PASS Super Late Models and ACT Late Models in 2021. Five more proper doubleheaders are on the schedule, including April’s inaugural Northeast Classic at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and October’s season-ending tilt at Seekonk Speedway. The ACT Late Models will play a support role at August’s Oxford 250, and PASS will play a similar support role in October at the ACT-sanctioned Milk Bowl at Thunder Road.
The ACT-PASS alliance at Thompson Speedway has been expanded as well, with next week’s Icebreaker opening a six-race schedule including an all-new Tour-type Modified track championship, two PASS North appearances, and the October return of the Thompson 300 Modified race for its first running since 2005.
This weekend’s Hickory doubleheader, then, is so much more than a road trip for two New England racing series looking to break out of the cold.
It is a reflection of how misfortune for one tour paved the path to the creation of the other.
It is a reflection of how hallowed racing ground both divided and united them.
And it is a reflection of how those tours not only coexist, but thrive together today.