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New England Notebook: On an off week, we look back

DJ Shaw (60) has been outright dominant in the PASS North ranks this year. Will he have the speed to guarantee a fourth series title? (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.

With no touring racing scheduled this past weekend, Short Track Scene looks at the early-season results from the ACT, GSPSS and PASS North tours thus far.

ACT TOUR: DUBEAU LEADS, BUT CAN PAYEA REBOUND?

This weekend’s American-Canadian Tour feature at Thompson Speedway marks the halfway point of the Tour’s ten-race schedule. The Tour’s second year under owners Cris Michaud and Pat Malone has seen strong participation, with teams chasing more and richer opportunities under the ACT banner. And in four races so far, a number of twists and turns have given unexpected form to the year-long championship battle.

A change of venue for the 2019 season opener was not enough to avoid the influence of Mother Nature, with early-April snow delaying the first two events of the schedule. As a result, the year opened with three events in quick succession. Oxford Plains Speedway hosted the Tour in a doubleheader with the Pro All Stars Series in April, followed by a trip home to Vermont’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl. A Sunday-afternoon show at White Mountain Motorsports Park closed out an opening stretch run of three races in three states in three weeks.

After a brief reprieve, the Tour made its first points-paying visit to Canada since 2015, with Autodrome Chaudière hosting the Tour for the Claude Leclerc 150.

Thirty-eight ACT Late Models turned out for March’s non-points Commonwealth Classic, a preamble to the ten-race Tour schedule. Thirty-six rolled out at Oxford, only a couple years after low turnout left Maine’s tracks off the schedule altogether. And with strong weekly Late Model classes at the other tracks on the schedule, car counts have been stellar so far, a testament to the popularity of the ACT-rules Late Model.

The deep fields have resulted in a dynamic rarely seen at the front of the field, with qualifying heats and B-features taking on a new gravity. Defending champion Scott Payea stunned everyone by missing the cut at Thunder Road, along with rookie Ryan Kuhn and veteran Claude Leclerc. Quebec’s Mathieu Kingsbury did not make the field at Chaudière. Indeed, only six drivers have made all four Tour starts, but another seven have failed to qualify for at least one race while attempting them all.

The four races thus far have been evenly split between new winners and established victors, as well as between Tour regulars and regional stars. Bryan Kruczek, a winner in the PASS ranks, scored an upset driving for Star Speedway owner Bobby Webber, Jr. at Oxford. Jason Corliss, a Thunder Road regular who earned top Tour rookie honors in 2017, won at Thunder Road for his third straight Tour win at the track. Scott Payea captured the checkers at WMMP in the return of the Tour’s “Spring Green” event. And fifth-year regular Rich Dubeau broke through at last with a win at Chaudière.

Dubeau’s win, with three other top-five runs, puts him atop the points standings ahead of Jimmy Hebert, who is still searching for his first win in 2019. Third in points is Scott Payea, who has whittled his deficit to 42 points behind Dubeau with most of the season still ahead.

Behind Payea sits a cast of characters far different from last year’s top ten. Payea’s younger cousin Dylan, in his second year on the Tour, is fourth in points with two top-ten finishes. Rookies Ryan Kuhn and Stephen Donahue sit fifth and sixth. Sophomore Christopher Pelkey is seventh, a big turnaround after struggling through the first half of last year. Quebec teammates Jonathan Bouvrette and Mathieu Kingsbury are eighth and ninth; Bouvrette experienced bad fortune in a deep field at Oxford, and Kingsbury’s failure to qualify at Chaudière dropped him through the standings. “Ironman” Claude Leclerc rounds out the top ten; the 77-year-old veteran is still looking for his first top-ten finish of the year.

Conspicuously absent from the title battle is Wayne Helliwell, Jr. The three-time champ threw his hat into the ring during the offseason, but unexpectedly withdrew from the Thunder Road race after practice. Helliwell has since adjusted his schedule, skipping the Chaudière race, but won a weekly show at Star Speedway. Eddie MacDonald, last year’s runner-up, has not made a single Tour start, with his race teams focusing on Super Late Model competition this season.

MacDonald is not the only Tour full-timer to cut back this year, but a few new faces have stepped up to full-time competition. Ryan Kuhn, the 2018 Seekonk Speedway Late Model champion, and Thunder Road/WMMP fixture Stephen Donahue are running for rookie honors. From Quebec, Jonathan Bouvrette and Mathieu Kingsbury are running full-season campaigns, with no local tour to follow. Vermont’s Scott Coburn has made a full-season effort thus far. Fellow Vermonter Joel Hodgdon and Massachusetts’ Trent Goodrow ran the first three events of the year, but neither were present at Chaudière.

The biggest question in the coming weeks will be whether Scott Payea can make up the 42-point deficit to contend for the title. Excluding the DNQ at Thunder Road, Payea has not finished outside the top ten in an ACT race since 2016. That sort of consistency will be tough to beat. But as long as Hebert and Dubeau turn in top-five runs, Payea will be challenged to make up much ground in a hurry.

The Tour’s next stop is a headliner at Thompson Speedway this weekend, after NASCAR cancelled the K&N Pro East Series half of a planned doubleheader. The Tour’s first visit to the high-banked oval is the second leg of the three-race Summer Kickoff Series, with $5,000 on the line for the race winner. More importantly, it sets the stage for the second half of the season and what could be an intriguing title battle.

GSPSS: AN EARLY THREE-WAY RACE

While the American-Canadian Tour nears its halfway point, the Granite State Pro Stock Series has barely reached the quarter-point of 2019. This weekend’s J.P. Sicard 100 at Speedway 51 will mark only the fourth event of the fourteen-race schedule. As such, the season picture is still very much coming into focus.

Weather and scheduling delays played a part in reshaping the three races to open the season. Rain nudged the season opener at Claremont Motorsports Park back by a day. The third race of the year, a planned three-leg feature at New London-Waterford Speedbowl, was postponed when the Connecticut track could not commit to having new grandstands in place. Instead, Monadnock Speedway, a track that had faced its own grandstand delays after a rainy April, welcomed the GSPSS as part of its opening weekend. With a mid-May bout at Lee USA Speedway serving as the meat in the sandwich, the GSPSS opened its season with three races that kicked off the year for track owner Norm Wrenn’s three speedways.

Unlike the ACT and PASS North, few of the tracks on the GSPSS schedule host Pro Stocks or Super Late Models as a weekly class. Despite this hurdle, attendance for the series has been encouraging, with between eighteen and twenty cars at all three races this year. The series’ commitment to a lower-dollar approach, along with rising purses and bonuses for many events this year, has created an attractive formula for Pro Stock and Super Late Model racers with an eye on touring.

Maine’s Joey Doiron, in his second season with the GSPSS, was the first to claim one such bonus. After setting fast time in qualifying at Claremont, Doiron forfeited his fast lap, starting last in the feature and working his way into the lead at the finish. Doiron pocketed an extra $1,000 for his patience, and his strategy of avoiding the heat races inspired officials to adjust the bonus rules the next time out. At Lee, Doiron was fast again, but Brandon Barker was faster, dominating the extra-distance 150-lap feature for his second straight win at Lee. Two-time GSPSS champion Mike O’Sullivan missed the race at Lee due to needed repairs from the Claremont opener, but took advantage of a flat tire for a visiting DJ Shaw to win the third race of the year at Monadnock.

Three races is barely enough to set the baseline for the points battle, but not quite enough to settle on any firm trends. Joey Doiron leads the points on the back of his win and a third-place run at Monadnock. Ray Christian III is second in the standings, with defending champion Devin O’Connell third. Both racers are still searching for their first GSPSS podium finish in 2019. Luke Hinkley, second at Claremont, sits fourth, with rookie Jake Matheson fifth. Behind them, the field is wide open, with many drivers still trying to shake off a bad run or two to start the year.

Matheson, a sixteen-year-old graduate from the world of Legends cars, is one of the new names to the series this year. His competition in the rookie race is Modified racer Jacob Perry, running as a teammate to Ray Christian III with support from Maine’s Crazy Horse Racing. Seekonk regular Bobby Pelland III appears to be set for the GSPSS schedule this year, as well as Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. and Oxford Plains Speedway racer Dennis Spencer, Jr. Also racing the full GSPSS schedule this year is Tom Rosati; the Massachusetts veteran and former Oxford 250 winner scored his first top-ten finish at Monadnock for car owner Wright Pearson.

Meanwhile, a number of last year’s top racers have scaled back. Jacob Dore has one start this year at Lee. Cory Casagrande, the points leader for much of last season, has cut back to an “outlaw” schedule with a couple PASS events under his belt so far. Nick Lascuola’s #39 remains sidelined after last year’s Rocky Ridge 150 at Claremont.

The halfway point for the GSPSS schedule is in early August, with New London-Waterford Speedbowl slated to host the midway race. Even then, the nature of the series is that the title battle may not emerge until late in the year. Last year’s champion, Devin O’Connell, did not break through as a title hopeful until the waning days of summer. And late in the summer, the GSPSS engages in a six-race closing stretch that positions the series as part of some of the region’s biggest race weekends all year.

For now, the points battle is a three-way race between Doiron, Christian and O’Connell. Luke Hinkley could join the race through consistency, if he runs the full schedule, but the veteran racer still seeks a GSPSS win, a milestone the other three have already proven. The same goes for rookie Matheson and the contenders behind them. However, a bad wreck or an engine failure or a real-world commitment could easily pause or end the season for any competitor, as it did last year for Cory Casagrande, Nick Lascuola, and others. Should that happen, last week’s fifth-place contender can easily become this week’s title outsider.

For that reason, this weekend’s race in New Hampshire’s North Country may be early on the schedule, but what plays out at Speedway 51 might matter significantly in a few months’ time.

PASS NORTH: WILL SHAW’S DOMINANCE PERSIST?

Like the Granite State Pro Stock Series, the Pro All Stars Series North season is only a quarter complete. With two extra races down, the PASS standings have a more established look as the premier Super Late Model touring series in New England approaches its sixth race this weekend. But that still leaves fourteen events, the entirety of the GSPSS schedule, to decide a season-long champion, and in a season, a lot can happen.

Indeed, in the fourteen races ahead, New England’s top SLM stars face a fair share of novelties: the series’ first big-track visit in four years, a midweek bullring bash, and the biggest one-day show in Super Late Model racing in the United States.

For many teams, the year started in Virginia with the first PASS Commonwealth Classic at Richmond Raceway. But the official start of the North schedule was April’s Icebreaker, with the PASS SLMs joining NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour for a season opener at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut. A mid-April snowstorm nudged the second race of the year, a home visit to Oxford Plains Speedway, back two weeks. Back-to-back-to-back quarter-mile races followed at Star Speedway, Speedway 51 and Vermont’s Thunder Road; however, the Speedway 51 event was moved to August with inclement weather promised for that Sunday. From Thunder Road, the road show moved back to Oxford, opening the month of June with the second of six stops at the series’ home track.

An early exit in Richmond was no hint of how DJ Shaw’s season would open. Shaw won the Icebreaker with a late-race pass. At Oxford, Garrett Hall earned his first PASS win since 2017, with Shaw finishing second. Shaw survived a brutal race at Star where making it to the track was his first victory of the day. Derek Griffith reversed the Thompson results at Thunder Road, taking the win while Shaw finished second. At Oxford, Shaw broke early, finishing last while Garrett Hall claimed his second win of the year.

Hall, who opened 2016 with two wins in the year’s first four races, leads the point standings after struggling through much of 2018. Shaw’s opening drive, with top-two runs in the first four races, powered him to second in points, with teammate and 2018 Oxford champ Gabe Brown in third. Former ACT Tour champion Nick Sweet, who found his groove late last season, is fourth ahead of Thunder Road winner Griffith. Behind Griffith sit Ben Rowe, Travis Benjamin and Reid Lanpher. Rowe has struggled through a mix of average cars and below-average fortune. Benjamin and Lanpher have taken early hits in deep fields, though both have shown the speed needed to overcome misfortune long-term. Ninety-seven points separate point leader Hall from Lanpher, the last driver to make all eight starts.

Brown, who ran over half the schedule last year in a Shaw-built car, is the only new full-time competitor in 2019. A few drivers have increased their touring schedules; rookie Evan Hallstrom has moved from Thunder Road’s weekly Late Models to an SLM program, and 2017 Oxford champion Alan Tardiff plans to run more touring shows this year. Beech Ridge regular Dan Winter has run four of the five races so far. Bobby Therrien, whose early bid for ACT Tour honors was cut short with a disqualification in the season opener, appears to be increasing his PASS participation as well. They will compete for points with drivers like six-time PASS North champion Johnny Clark, Derek Ramstrom, veteran Mike Rowe, and rookie Jake Johnson.

Where other tours have a more widespread base of potential weekly competitors, the bulk of PASS’ part-time participation hails from western Maine, with respect to the weekly programs at Oxford and Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. As a result, the PASS fields ebb and flow, particularly when the series runs head-to-head against those weekly programs. Twenty-one cars raced at Thompson, bolstered by some regional competitors. Deeper fields showed up at Oxford, where teams often use Saturday’s weekly feature as a warmup, and Star, which has struggled to break twenty entrants in recent years.

But only twelve cars took the green at Thunder Road, which suffered the multiple hurdles of running outside the usual PASS radius, the day after Saturday-night programs, and on a rare holiday weekend. It bears considering that a number of teams and drivers that were even strong part-time operations have cut back to running a few races a year, if at all. Super Late Model racing is not an inexpensive pastime, and with few New England tracks running weekly SLM programs, there are fewer opportunities to justify having the car.

One cost concern early in the season was PASS’ acceptance of Five Star Race Car Bodies’ new “Gen-6” body kits, which replace the familiar “ABC” silhouette with bodies styled after the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Toyota Camry. PASS is the only touring sanction on the East Coast to approve the bodies for competition, with the ABC Committee holding firm against it. The result has been a real-world test of the advantages and disadvantages of the new bodywork, with many teams adopting the new cars before the start of the season.

After five races, the Gen-6 body has been to victory lane three times. DJ Shaw’s win at Thompson, perhaps the most aero-sensitive track on the schedule so far, followed a race-long duel with Derek Griffith, whose team remains committed to the ABC body because of their schedule outside of PASS. So far, the body has not produced any surprises; those who have been fast with it have traditionally been fast without it. The biggest test for the body may be the series’ pending trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway next weekend, especially with PASS requiring crate engines for the event this year.

Indeed, the schedule that follows for the Pro All Stars Series includes some of the biggest events in New England, not just for the tour. PASS replaces the Granite State Pro Stock Series as a featured division in this year’s running of the New England Short Track Showdown at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, returning to the superspeedway for the first time since 2015. In July, PASS will run a rare midweek feature, with 200 laps at Star Speedway on a Tuesday evening. All of this builds up to August’s Oxford 250, the richest race in the region and one of the biggest one-day Super Late Model shows in the country. And in the hangover following the 250, there are still five points-paying races on the calendar, including a support race for September’s Vermont Milk Bowl and the season-ending doubleheader with the Tri-Track Open Modified Series at Seekonk Speedway.

The points race may shake out differently after Speedway 95; neither Sweet nor Lanpher appear on the entry list so far, though entry lists are hardly gospel. But Garrett Hall’s lead in the standings may be a bit deceptive. DJ Shaw was a heat winner at Oxford; if he had not broken early, he would likely have been in the top five at race’s end. If Shaw maintains that kind of form, he will be a challenge for anyone to beat for the title. If Shaw settles into a merely-good pattern of top fives and top tens, Hall and Sweet have shown the speed all year to make it an honest battle. Gabe Brown has consistency but needs top-five speed; Derek Griffith has shown the speed, but needs the consistency. Rowe, Benjamin and Lanpher need a golden horseshoe.

Five races may be complete, but there is still a long way to go, and the chase continues this Sunday just west of Bangor, Maine at Speedway 95.

LOCAL RACING: RC III BREAKS THROUGH AT OXFORD, TOURING RACERS KEEP BUSY

With a week off from GSPSS competition, Ray Christian III towed north to Oxford Plains Speedway. After narrowly missing a first career PASS victory a week before, RC III took the top spot from early leader Ryan Deane. The Connecticut native held on for his first victory at Oxford, with Oxford veterans Deane and Shawn Martin rounding out the podium. Calvin Rose, Jr. was fourth with Tracy Gordon fifth. Curtis Gerry raced back to sixth with his car bandaged together after an incident early in the day. Beech Ridge regular Brandon Barker was 11th. Gabe Brown finished 13th in his first weekly race at Oxford since winning last year’s track championship.

At Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, Corey Bubar took his first checkered flag of 2019 over David Oliver and Gary Smith. A week after an altercation that made the social media rounds, Dave Farrington, Jr. finished seventh and Mike Rowe ninth. Oliver leads the point standings over Travis Buzzell, with Farrington and Rowe slipping down the standings a few spots.

Jeff Marshall ended Quinny Welch’s opening win streak at two at White Mountain Motorsports Park, with the multi-time track champion finishing second in the week’s Late Model feature. Oren Remick was third with ACT Tour rookie Stephen Donahue fourth. Chip Grenier was ninth, running his second weekly feature at WMMP after skipping the Tour race at Chaudière.

Star Speedway’s Late Models featured a first-time winner, with Mike Toner, Jr. taking the early lead and holding on to win ahead of Erick Sands and Josh Hedges. Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. was sixth, returning to his home track. Renfrew’s father, Jimmy Sr., was third in the night’s Street Stock feature.

Seekonk Speedway’s weekly divisions were back in force Saturday, with Vinnie Arrenegado winning over Tommy Adams and Derek Gluchacki in a nineteen-car feature. David Darling was back to form in the Pro Stocks, winning easily over Kevin Casper and Dylan Estrella. Bobby Pelland was eighth and Mike Mitchell 11th in an off night for the GSPSS teams.

Thunder Road International Speedbowl’s Thursday-night opener was rained out this week after one of the weekly features was complete. A rain date is pending for the Late Model feature.

NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

The American-Canadian Tour and Granite State Pro Stock Series come off their off-week with head-to-head features this Saturday. The ACT Tour Late Models are at Thompson Speedway for their 75-lap main event; the GSPSS Pro Stocks will battle at Speedway 51 in Groveton, N.H. in the J.P. Sicard 100.

The Pro All Stars Series North teams will compete Sunday at Speedway 95 outside Bangor, Maine in their sixth event of the season.

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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