Speedway (CT) champion Dennis Botticello of Suffield, CT, multi-time Thunder Road champion Joey Laquerre of East Montpelier, VT, Multi-time ACT Canadian champion Claude Leclerc of Montreal, Milk Bowl winner Patrick Laperle, Thunder Road points runner-up Chad Wheeler, ACT feature winner A.J. Begin, and Thunder Road feature winner Jerry Lesage.
WONDERBOY PAYEA HASN'T MISSED A BEAT
Scott Payea began his racing career the way many racers do: in a low-buck, family-owned, entry-level car. Two years later, he made the jump to the faster intermediate division, getting used to V-8 power. Some positive strides were made, but for a few years, Payea looked only like a kid having fun behind the wheel.
Then, in 2004, he broke out of his shell. Nine Top fives in 20 starts, and he missed the Thunder Road championship by just a single point. That turned more than a few heads. Over the '04-'05 winter, Payea and family readied for a run at ACT Late Model Tour Rookie of the Year honors.
Most ACT fans recognized Payea's standing as an up-and-comer, but their expectations were blown away as the youngster finished in the Top five in each of the season's first four races. By the end of the year, he had finished fourth in overall standings and picked up the moniker "Wonderboy". It looks as though 2006 will be a continuation of last season for Payea, if not better.
ACT LEFTOVERS: THUNDER ROAD By Justin St. Louis
Cyr, Nolin, Joey Pole, Payea, Pembroke and More
CYR HAPPY WITH WIN, SKEPTICAL ABOUT NEW COLORS
Jean-Paul Cyr has won everything there is to win in ACT racing. In 2006, he'll try for his fourth-straight championship, and sixth overall. He got off to a good start by winning the Merchants Bank 150 for the third time in his career. But what of the championship?
"Well, you know, we don't really try to think about that yet," Cyr said. "When we get toward the end of the year, if it looks good, then maybe we'll say we are. Right now we're just racing."
Cyr is looking forward to returning to Circuit Ste-Croix in Quebec, Canada this weekend. ACT last visited the 5/8-mile, paperclip-shaped track in 2003. Ste-Croix has been known to be rough on equipment. ("I came back with a bare chassis last time we were there," said New York's Mark Lamberton.)
"I like that track," said Cyr. "I've always been real strong there, and I've got a real good finishing average there. I'm
Jean Paul Cyr's new paint scheme included a little bit of black and white after Thunder Road. (Leif Tillotson Photo)
anxious to go, and I'm probably one of the only ones. It's way up there, it's a little bit of a haul for us, but I think we'll put on a good race like we usually do. If we tear it up, that's all on Keith's shoulders."
The "Keith" that Cyr refers to is long-time crew member and newlywed Keith Williams, who assumed car appearance duties in 2006 when regular body man Randy Ploof had prior commitments during the off-season. Williams' creation was a paint scheme far wilder than anything Cyr has run before, complete with florescent orange and yellow swooshes, a vast deviation from the familiar plain red Cyr has been tied to for more than a decade. Williams already has his work cut out for himself in covering up tire donuts from Thunder Road.
"I think Keith's going to be busy for the next couple of weeks," laughed Cyr. "He'll have to put in a couple days to get this thing looking good between here and Ste-Croix. He had his honeymoon already, so I think he should be good to go."
MANY TOP DRIVERS FAIL TO QUALIFY
One of the big stories at the Merchants Bank 150 was not who qualified, but who didn't qualify. With 45 cars vying for 26 starting spots, competition was tough. Among the drivers that failed to make the cut were 2002 ACT Late Model Tour champion Phil Scott, and five-time ACT champion Brian Hoar, now a regular on the NASCAR Busch East Series.
Also not making the field were PASS Super Late Model champion Ben Rowe of Turner, ME, former Thompson
Patrick Leperle's wild ride cost him a shot at making it into the feature. (Alan Ward Photo)
After crashing heavily in practice on the eve of the Merchants Bank 150, Payea's crew members burned the midnight oil to repair their car. It worked. Payea steadily worked his way from eighth to challenge ACT king Jean-Paul Cyr for the victory.
It seems now that 24 year-old Payea, a Clarkson University graduate just five years removed from racing four-cylinder Ford Mustangs, is staring his first ACT win in the face.
"This team is capable of it," he said confidently. "I'm sure of that. If we're in the right position, hopefully it
works out. To run second to Jean, you know you've had a good day. It's like a win, it really is."
Five-time champion Cyr thinks there's a star in the making.
"Scott Payea is the real thing," Cyr said after his victory. "He's a good, strong racer, and he'll be tough this year just like he was last year."
Payea knows that all eyes are on him to challenge Cyr for the title, but remains humble and is taking one step at a time. "We just want to qualify for every race and stay out of trouble. Half the battle is finishing the race. I want to try to stay on the lead lap and let the finishes work themselves out. If we can run consistently that'd be great. Just run in the Top 10, that's our goal again this year."
WHAT'S FECTEAU DOING THIS YEAR?
Last season, veteran racer Pete Fecteau announced that Wolcott, VT's Marcel Gravel would be taking over the reins in 2006. After winning the 1997 Thunder Road championship and the 2001 ACT Late Model Tour crown, 50-something Fecteau had little left to prove. As a 29 year-old star in the making, Gravel had nowhere to go but up. At the Milk Bowl, Fecteau said he probably wouldn't race much at all in 2006.
But somehow, he ended up in victory lane at Thunder Road last weekend, hoisting a third-place trophy. So what's the story?
"You never know what's going to change," Fecteau said. "We brought both cars and I ran good, so now I'm debating. Maybe I'll run the tour with this car and have Marcel run Thunder Road weekly. It'll come down to sponsorship, I guess. Fecteau Homes is the only one I've got, but Marcel's got Tarrant (U.S. Senate candidate Rich Tarrant) and all the others on his car. We'll see how it goes, I'll have to think about it. We had a good run."
Judging by the way he spoke following the race, Fecteau might have some fire left in the belly.
"I had a flat tire in victory lane," he said. "We had a pretty nice run at the end, and if it hadn't been for that, boy, we might have had a little bit more for 'em. When we stopped after it was over, the tire was half-flat, so it had been going down for a while. The last caution I really thought I could push and get by them, but with that tire I couldn't get up there."
Stay tuned this season, folks. "Pistol Pete" may not be done just yet.
PEMBROKE ADJUSTS, THEN UN-ADJUSTS AND MOVES TO THE FRONT
ACT points runner-up and defending Merchants Bank 150 winner Dave Pembroke of Montpelier, VT had an up-and-down day. Luckily for Pembroke, it ended on the "up" side.
Jean Paul Cyr (#32) and Scott Payea (#89) settle the victory among themselves. (Leif Tillotson Photo)
After struggling early, Pembroke pitted during a lap 80 caution. Like a cannon ball, Pembroke shot through the field during the remainder of the race, picking his way from 18th to finish sixth.
"I had my hands full during the first half, I was just hanging on," Pembroke explained. "We had made some minor adjustments from practice for the heat race, but we had a bleeder valve that didn't work right, so the tires didn't come in the way we like them. We didn't get a good read in the heat race, and we thought that we needed something we didn't, so we changed it. Then we came in at halfway and took out all the changes. At the end I was pretty quick and the car was good like it had been in practice. Live and learn, I guess."
After the headache, Pembroke looked back on his race as a success.
"All in all, it's not a bad start. This is a tough race to start your season, going 150 laps here. Usually at the first race of the year it's 50 degrees and being in the car is the best seat in the house. Today it's hot, and 150 laps at this place is a battle anyway, so it was tough. I watched a little of the battle up front, Brent and Jean put on a show for the first half. I was kind of riding, but I couldn't get up there. Everyone had their hands full, and for the most part I was happy with the way everyone ran each other. Yeah, I guess I'm pretty happy."
YOUNG JOEY POLE TURNS IN BEST SHOWING
Hudson, NH high school student Joey "Pole" Polewarczyk, Jr. finally accomplished what many have thought of him to be capable of for a long time - finishing an ACT Late Model Tour event up front. From 19th starting spot, Polewarczyk sliced his way through the field, ranking as high as fourth before eventually finishing in seventh place.
It almost didn't get that far. Polewarczyk crashed with veteran Jerry Lesage in his heat race, driving up and over Lesage's hood on the frontstretch. The team patched the car up, and Polewarczyk earned a starting spot for the feature in his consi. From there, he stayed out of trouble and powered his way to the front. He was more than happy about it.
"Incredible," he said. "My dad, Brian, everyone on this crew, that's all their hard work. I couldn't do it without them. I almost blew it for us in the heat race, but we got it back together for the consi. Our whole plan was just to
complete all 150 laps and try to work up. We just kept getting closer and closer and closer, and at the end we were there."
Polewarczyk, maybe 110 pounds soaking wet, was wiped out at the end of the race.
"I need to work out, I'm beat," he laughed. "The worst thing was looking at the lap board. Lap 30, lap 40, that early. My helmet fan broke, too, so I had no cold air."
A late-race mistake nearly cost Polewarczyk everything, but he got some help from an old acquaintance. The youngster kicked his car sideways exiting Turn 4, but touched Thunder Road's "Widowmaker" wall just enough to set him straight.
"Did you see that move out of four, when I hit the wall?" he said. "I can't believe the wall saved me for once. The right rear just touched it and brought me back straight. My god, I've taken chunks out of that wall! For once it didn't get me."
DRAGON "DUE" AT THUNDER ROAD, DENIED AGAIN
Brent Dragon earned the pole position for the Merchants Bank 150 with a "+4" showing in his heat race, and was looking forward to battling Jean-Paul Cyr for what might have been his first ACT Late Model Tour win at Thunder Road.
"This doesn't happen very often (starting on the pole)," Dragon said before the start of the race. "It's hard to go out and pace yourself for 150 laps, that's the big thing. We're just going to go out and ride and see if Jean and I can get away from everybody and see what happens at the end, if that's possible. We have a real good car, I think we should be alright. We've been second in this race the last two years, so we're due to win one."
Well, Brent, maybe next year. Contact with Cyr after an intense 60-lap duel for the lead dropped Dragon back in the pack, and a lap 115 bump from Eric Williams sent Dragon spinning and out of contention.
"It went to hell after lap 60. When Eric spun me around it knocked the toe out bad. Someone came down and hit me and did it."
Dragon was disappointed with finishing tenth, but knows his season is just getting started.
"Oh well, you know? We won at Ste-Croix last time (at ACT's last visit in 2003), so we're hoping we can do it again. It's a long summer, and we've got a good car and a good team. We'll just pick up from here."
VANASSE COMING OF AGE ON ACT TOUR
When Warwick, RI's Ryan Vanasse announced he would be jumping from Seekonk (MA) Speedway to the ACT Late Model Tour in 2005, many people expected the youngster to be a major player. After all, he won 6 races at Seekonk the year before, and had the backing of his family's trucking company, Team V Transportation.
For Vanasse, the 2005 season was less than spectacular. In fact, it was almost a year to forget. Perhaps his only notable finish was his 4th-place effort at his home track in August.
At Thunder Road last weekend, a track he struggled to merely qualify at, Vanasse proved he could hang with the big dogs of ACT on their home turf. Until being caught in a crash with a lapped car on lap 80, Vanasse ranked no lower than 7th, far and away his best showing at the highbanks.
Despite the bad outcome, Vanasse's pride in his team and himself was palpable.
"We left a lot of races last year with our tails between our legs, and we vowed that if we were going to come back we were going to do it right," he said. "We gave it 110% over the winter; we've got a great team. This car is basically brand new, we re-did it all, and we've got another one ready to go."
Vanasse said he was biding his time, and that he was waiting to make his move later in the race.
"The car was stout, and I was just going easy. I still had a lot left and I was just trying to let it come to me. It's a shame that what happened happened, but I'll chalk it up to experience and go up to Canada and try to rip one off up there. We learned so much by running with the front runners all day. There's a big difference between running all 150 laps and ending up a lap or two down, or running only 100 laps but running with the lead five all day long. We did that, and I feel like earned some respect while we were out there."
Based on his showing last weekend, expect to see more of Vanasse up front in 2006.
"We're here to win. We loaded our guns over the winter and said we were gonna come out of here with our heads held high. So far, so good."
NOLIN LOOKING FORWARD TO TOURING
In his first four years of racing, 19 year-old Ryan Nolin has won Rookie of the Year titles in each of the three weekly divisions at Thunder Road, including the Late Model crown last year. This year, his team has decided to leave the weekly wars to join the ACT Late Model Tour full-time. His first Tour event of 2006 was frustrating, but also a great experience to build upon. A brake bias problem left Nolin spinning nearly every time there was an incident near him, but the seat time in a long race at his home track served as a good transition from the sprint-type races of Thursday nights to the long-distance events of the ACT Tour.
In his two Tour starts at Thunder Road last season, Nolin finished 12th in the Merchants Bank 150 and 10th in the season-ending Milk Bowl.
"My goal right now is just to qualify for every race," Nolin said. "I think if we can make it into the races, we can have some good runs. (In Tour events) last year I learned some patience and how to deal with traffic the right way. We struggle at Thunder Road in the Tour races sometimes, but our setup is pretty good for a lot of the other tracks."
Nolin tested the waters of Quebec's Castrol Series at the 1.3-km Sanair Super Speedway tri-oval last year, and is excited to return to Canada this weekend.
"I'm looking forward to Sanair, because we ran great there last year. Ste-Croix is similar as far as speed, so I'm looking forward to going over there for the first time. As far as the other tracks on the Tour, I've only been to Airborne, White Mountain, Sanair, and Thunder Road, but I think we'll be able to adapt alright. I went to a school at New Smyrna in February, and that was awesome."
Nolin's goals for ACT racing this season are lofty, but not unrealistic.
"I think I'd like to have a few Top fives," he said. "I'd like to have some good races where I can be up front and race up front without any problems. I'd love to be able to win a race, but it's just so tough, especially in this series because everybody's so close and the competition is so good. We just want to do our best."
RENY STORMS BY THE HURRICANE IN "B" FEATURE
Steve Reny, a former regular at Maine's Oxford Plains Speedway, is making a full-time attempt at ACT racing this season. After trailing former Thunder Road champion Jamie "Hurricane" Fisher for much of the last-chance "B" feature, Reny pulled to the outside lane that made Fisher famous and stole the win in the final corner.
"At Thunder Road, Jamie Fisher is incredible," Reny said. "It was a do-or-die situation, and I did. I'm on a cloud right now."
Motorsports broadcasting icon and Thunder Road founder Ken Squier gave Fisher the nickname. For years, Fisher has stormed up the tricky high groove at Thunder Road, daring to pass cars in places most drivers won't go. Reny beat Fisher at his own game, and realized his accomplishment.
"You know I didn't expect it, I thought second looked good, and the way things unfolded I got forced into a situation. Jamie's probably one of the cleanest drivers you will see. He gave me a lot of respect, and it let me win the race."
Not expecting to qualify, Reny had to borrow fuel from fellow Mainer Ron Henry for the feature. "This is the first time I've made it in the show at Thunder Road, and we really weren't prepared, but now we'll go for it."
Ironically, Reny and Fisher were the last two finishers in the Merchants Bank 150, finishing 25th and 26th, respectively.
CANADIAN IRONMAN LECLERC RETURNS TO THUNDER ROAD
Claude Leclerc was long-heralded as ACT's "Ironman" during the former Pro Stock years from 1979-1995. During that span, Leclerc attempted to qualify for all but five events held by ACT. The 65 year-old veteran ended his decade-long absence from Thunder Road and ACT last weekend. He was unsuccessful in his bid to qualify for the main event, but was happy to be back nonetheless.
"I'm not qualified, but I don't have the setup, you know?" he said with a heavy French accent. "Eleven years, that's a long time to not be here. It's a different car, different setup, different engine. Especially the engine, it's a big, big difference (from the faster, more powerful Pro Stocks)."
Fans can expect to see Leclerc more often this season.
"I would like to run five or six races this year with ACT," he said. "I miss (ACT promoter) Tom Curley and the organization. Tom treats me great. I've never had an argument with Tom in 29 years. We're going to go to Ste-Croix and we'll see how we do. It's fun, a lot of fun."
Ryan Nolin watches the action in his heat race after spinning. He came back just fine in the feature (Leif Tillotson Photo)
David Pembroke wheels his #52 around Thunder Road. (Alan Ward Photo)
Joey Pole goes for a ride in his heat race. (Alan Ward Photo)
Brent Dragon (#55) goes wheel to wheel with the #32 of race winner Jean Paul Cyr. (Alan Ward Photo)