SANTERRE ERA ENDS AT BUSCH NORTH BANQUET By Mike Twist
After Winning Four Titles, Popular Driver Steps Aside
The story of this year’s NASCAR Busch North Series banquet (and actually the last four banquets) got started on April 21, 2002. That is when a white Chevy dually and matching trailer pulled into the pit area of the Lee USA Speedway.
Inside the dually was a single racecar and behind the wheel of the truck was Andy Santerre. The Maine native was towing up from North Carolina with his own bare-bones team with hopes of running a full schedule in the series for the first time since 1997. In the meantime, he had chased racing fame and fortune down south and was pretty successful at it – winning the 1998 NASCAR Busch Series Rookie of the Year title and a Busch race at Pikes Peak Speedway (CO).
But Santerre wasn’t happy with the middle of the pack Busch Series rides available to him, so he decided to build a Busch North car in some borrowed shop space. He talked a few longtime contacts into sponsorship help and managed to get to Lee after many sleepless nights (at the time, Santerre was his only full-time crew member).
Santerre won that race at Lee and except for a few races here and there since then when the point lead momentarily slipped away, he has maintained control of the Busch North Series ever since. He has won the last four championships for three different teams and captured race victories everywhere from New Hampshire International Speedway to Dover to Seekonk to Virgina’s Motor Mile Speedway.
And on Saturday night at the Busch North banquet, he announced that his latest record-setting championship would be the end of an era. Santerre will step aside from his #44 Grizco Racing ride in 2006 to working behind the scenes for the team.
“There will be no ‘drive for five’ from me,” said Santerre. “I am going to take some time off from driving and hone my managerial skills at Grizco Racing. I have built relationships that will span a lifetime, not just a driving career. As I hang up my helmet, I know that I have had a successful driving career by anyone’s standards, and that I am walking away on my terms. I have accomplished more than I ever dreamed possible.”
Andy Santerre shows off some of his latest hardware. (Mary Hodge Photo)
That is an understatement. Santerre became the first ever four-time Busch North champion and only the third driver in NASCAR Touring history to win four championships in a row. Only West Series driver Ray Elder (1969-1972) and Midwest Series driver Steve Carlson (2000-2003) have done that before.
Despite his recent dominance in the series, Santerre’s best weekend in Busch North might have come over 10 years ago.
“I met my wife Sue the Sunday night after winning my first Busch North race in Apple Valley, New York,” said Santerre on stage at this year’s banquet in front of a crowd that included his smiling wife, who now works in the front office for Grizco.
It’s hard to say why Santerre hasn’t made it to NASCAR Nextel Cup racing. He certainly has the talent and the personality. But even that wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that he lacked a famous last name, big bank roll or the right luck to get to the top of the racing world.
“I have a very short list of drivers who should have made it to the big dance in racing,” said banquet emcee Mike Joy, nodding towards Santerre. “Jack Ingram, Richie Evans and that man right there.”
“Andy, I think that you’ve been wrong about one thing,” said crew chief Roger Tryon in his speech. “You say that you’re not a great racecar driver. Well, I’ve worked with a lot of drivers and you definitely are a great racecar driver. Four championships in a row is something that might never be matched.”
Then again, one of the reasons might be because Santerre has wanted to win so badly that running around midpack in a Busch race waiting to be noticed wasn’t an option to him.
“People questioned the decision that I made [to leave the Busch Series for Busch North],” said Santerre. “But I wanted much more out of racing than to just finish 20th on a good day.”
That attitude earned Santerre the respect of his competitors. The standing ovation that he got after being introduced as the champion lasted longer than some speeches.
So it was no surprise, except to him, that Santerre was also named the Most Popular Driver.
“It’s amazing to be up here for the third time to accept this award,” said Santerre. “I really didn’t expect it this year. I was busy for most of the year managing three teams and then in the summer, I had back problems that hurt so bad that I pretty much hid in the trailer. I didn’t spend as much time with the fans this year as I would have liked to.”
Then again, the respect was mutual. When Mike Olsen made it to the stage to accept his trophy for finishing fourth in points, Santerre and the entire Grizco crew stood up to applaud him. Olsen had been caught with illegal wheels at the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown last month and lost his victory in the event. It was a black eye for Olsen and his team, but the standing ovation from Grizco showed that there are many in the series who think that Olsen is one of the classiest guys on the Tour, despite his team’s penalty.
Santerre accepts the Most Popular Driver award from NASCAR's Don Hawk. (Mary Hodge Photo)
There was a little bit of business to attend to at the banquet as well. NASCAR’s Don Hawk announced that the series will be renamed the NASCAR Busch East Series for 2006. This change is because of the probably addition of several southern events for 2006. This will mark a major change in strategy for the tour that was born in 1987 with a race at Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine.
Speed51.com will have more banquet coverage later this week. Stay tuned.
Sue and Andy Santerre (Mary Hodge Photo)
The new NASCAR Busch East logo was shown off for the first time. (Ken Spring Photo)