The recipe for success in most short track races is simple. Try to start as close to the front as possible, pass any other cars that are between you and the lead and then stay out front until the checkered flag falls. If you can manage to do all of that while avoiding mechanical problems and wrecking, you get the trophy, the largest check of the day and sometimes a chance to kiss an attractive trophy girl.
When it comes to the annual Milk Bowl at Thunder Road Speedbowl (VT), you can throw out many of those instructions.
The starting up front part works for the race…sort of. Time trials set the front row for the event while heat races make up the remainder of the starting grid. A good start will only get you so far though as the race is divided into three 50-lap segments - with segments two and three being gridded in the reverse order of how the previous segment ended.
And winning one of those segments can only help so much. The finishing position of each segment is added up for each driver with the lowest score being declared the winning score. Consistency is king, while taking a checkered flag isn't as important. After all, Brent Dragon, Wayne Helliwell, Jr. and Jean Paul Cyr all won segments of this year's Milk Bowl, but none of those three men won the race.
The one who did was John Donahue - who used a score of 17 points to take the overall victory of the day over Dragon.
Donahue started his day off by finishing third in the first segment, which gave him hope for a good overall result.
“My car was flawless,” said Donahue. “It was just perfect. I knew it was my day. I knew that I had a good enough car to win.
“The first segment wasn't too bad. We started up front, so we just rode around pretty good. That second segment made me nervous. I knew that I had to get to the front. I didn't want to get roughed up, so I had to tip-toe around people. I was thinking more than I probably should. You don't want to piss people off and have them mad at you for the third one.”
Donahue entered the race's final segment one point in arrears of Dragon, who told fans after segment one that a simple top 10 finish in segment too would probably be good enough to win the overall race.
“I thought that we were in excellent shape,” said Dragon of what he thought as segment two was finished. “But that's just the way that the ball falls.”
Both Donahue and Dragon started near the back of the pack and both drivers raced hard in the middle stages of the final segment with each other. At one point, the two were beating and banging, rubbing and smoking, to battle for the 14th position on the racetrack - and what would prove to be the overall victory of the race.
“That was a pretty rough race, those 50 laps,” said Dragon. “It was pretty rough. It's fun racing like that, but I don't like being run in the dirt either. It gave the fans a show though. That's all it was.”
When Donahue was informed that Dragon might not have been too happy with him, he took it in stride.
“I know, but they said that rain was coming,” said Donahue. “So I pulled up to go around [Dragon]. He says that I cut him off…but whatever… he put me three wide. I don't like being put three wide. But good enough, it's the Milk Bowl. I said, 'you know what, I can put you three-wide'. So I did. What comes around goes around. He might be mad, but you know what? It's the Milk Bowl. It happens once a year. I don't know what to say other than I guess I wanted it more than he did. I got rough. I normally don't drive like that, but this is a once in a lifetime deal.”
Racing with Dragon though wasn't the only rough battle that Donahue had to be involved in. Several drivers were battling hard for positions all around the two “leaders” in the middle of the pack. In fact, on lap 21 of the final segment, Dave Pembroke, Scott Payea and Eric Chase even went spinning off the backstretch while battling hard in the same pack as Donahue and Dragon.
Donahue, with the help of crew chief Dale Shaw was careful not to get too excited about being in the middle of this battle though. In fact, Donahue was even especially careful to not start trouble with Eric Williams - who was in the thick of the battle on the racetrack and ended up finishing third.
“When we got behind Eric [Williams] and Pembroke, Dale was saying to just be patient,” said Donahue. “He [Dragon] was back a few spots. I would get Eric eventually because you don't want to piss Eric off. He gets mad. Dale kept saying, “Don't get rough with the #7, Don't get rough with the #7.
“I trust a lot in my spotters. So I just tried to focus on my thing. I have a mirror, but since Dale and those guys started helping me, I don't even need to use it anymore.”
While Donahue wasn't looking in his mirror, he was focused on what was in front of him though. Even with a few points on Dragon, Donahue never gave up passing cars in the final segment.
“How do I know that he wasn't going to start passing cars?” Donahue asked. “He was in front of me on the points. So I just had to make sure that I had enough of a cushion. I didn't want any doubts. So the next car in front of me was what I wanted. Then the next car in front of that. Besides the #7, because I didn't want to rough up those guys.”
Of course, Donahue is a simple kind of racer who really didn't want to bother doing math and adding up points while behind the wheel either.
“I want to think about hitting my marks and that's it,” said Donahue.
We've already told you how the Milk Bowl is different from other short track races and those differences carry right on through to the event's choice of a trophy queen. This year, that queen was none other than Larolupine - a three-year old prized Ayershire cow.
As is tradition, Donahue got to kiss the cow in victory lane.
“It didn't taste great,” said Donahue, who is a farmer himself. “I don't have much patience for cows, but I was happy doing it.”
Kissing the cow wasn't the only unique benefit to winning the Milk Bowl. Thunder Road also has three granite markers in the grandstand area where the names of the winners for the track's most prestigious races are chiseled. Donahue already had his name imprinted on the stones for the Labor Day Classic and the Memorial Day Classic, and now he will add his name to the third stone thanks to a victory in the Milk Bowl.
“That means a lot,” said Donahue. “A couple of months ago, Tom brought us up here…all of the drivers. We were looking on down through them and I thought that I'd really like to get my name on that one - The Milk Bowl one. That way, my name would be on all three of them. I've been thinking about it since then.”
Speed51.com will have more from the Milk Bowl later this week as we present our leftovers from the race.