Thunder Road Speedbowl (VT) isn't supposed to be a track where outsiders excel.
The fact that this tight quarter-mile oval is home to a turn known as the Widowmaker says a lot. Cars in various divisions of racing at the track often end up on their sides and roofs during a race event. Sailing off the banking and nearly landing into the pit area or parking lot is common. Making a pass is tricky and that art is learned by experience. This year's track champion, Nick Sweet, might be considered a young gun, but he advanced through the Street Stock and Tiger Sportsman ranks at the track before even thinking about wheeling a Late Model there.
The list of former winners in the track's most prestigious race, the Milk Bowl, includes plenty of legends, but no one-hit-wonders. You'll find names like Dave Dion, Kevin Lepage, Dick McCabe, Robbie Crouch, Randy Lajoie, Beaver Dragon, Jean-Paul Cabana, Jean-Paul Cyr, Brian Hoar, Butch Lindley, Patrick Laperle, Bobby Dragon and Stub Fadden on that list. You won't find anyone who took up racing as a hobby for a few years and then got out. In winning the Milk Bowl, only Hall of Famers need apply.
So that is why people were shocked in 2006. A then-teenaged Joey Pole came and sat on the pole for the race, won a segment of the three-part feature event and then nearly won the entire Milk Bowl.
It was rare enough for an outsider to win the Milk Bowl, much less a young guy from out-of-state. Many dismissed Pole's early success merely as a fluke.
Pole didn't see it as a fluke though. He just kept coming back. He won two more pole positions for the race in 2007 and 2008. He contended for the victory as well. He went on to win another prestigious race at the track, the 2009 Governor's Cup, and made quite a name for himself on the ACT Late Model Tour and in a limited number of starts in the NASCAR East Series.
But the Milk Bowl was still on top of Pole's “Must Win” list. This Sunday afternoon, he crossed that off though by taking the victory in the 48th annual running of the event. After five years of trying, Pole scored a dominating victory at Thunder Road's big show. When the math was done and the finishes of every driver's three segments were added up, Pole scored a 12 to runner-up Brian Hoar's 20. It was no fluke. Joey Pole earned his spot at the table of Legends and even after five years of effort, still became the youngest winner of the Milk Bowl.
“Someone said to me in '06 when we started on the pole and came close to winning that it wouldn't have been right for me to win then because I wouldn't have respected it as much,” said Pole. “At that time, I was like, 'Come on!'. I didn't believe it. But now that it's been five years, it really does mean more. We've been close so much. I've ended up on my side and crossed the finish line backwards. There's been so much that has happened that to be here as a winner right now it so surreal. I can't thank everyone in those years who has helped me out enough.”
The Milk Bowl victory caps off a span of three weeks in which Pole also won the prestigious ACT Invitational event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“It definitely has been [a few good weeks],” said Pole. “This is the first time that I have won two races in a row. Those were two good races to win in a row too. Words can't really describe it because it's been so amazing. Two weeks ago at Loudon was so big and now here….wow…the history of this race is just so great.”
While Pole is barely out of his teen years, he can still appreciate that history. While talking in tech after the race and victory lane celebrations, he looked over to see a few vintage Coupes that were part of a display for fans at the Milk Bowl being loaded onto a trailer.
“Just look at those cars over there that used to run this race,” said Pole. “Man…it's just unreal to be a part of this…to win this…now.”
Those five years between Pole's first attempt at Milk Bowl fame and his eventual victory in the race didn't just make him want the victory more. It also crafted him into becoming a better racer - as well as one who can turn a lucky break into tangible results.
“For this race, I was a lot more patient. Especially today in the second segment. A lot of this race is luck and I had some of that too. In the second segment, the inside lane went and I was fortunate enough to be in that lane. I picked up about nine spots there. Luck has a lot to do with it, but you need to be ready and prepared to take advantage of everything.”
Pole was quick not to take all of the credit for his victory though. He also gave plenty of praise to both his #97 team and the Ford crate engine that he brought to victory lane in the Milk Bowl for the first time ever.
“Our team is so good,” said Pole. “They are on top of everything. They know what they need to do and they all work so well together.
“Ford has been working with us along the whole way. It started out as a challenging year, but they have given us everything that we needed to built this program. They've got one hell of a product and it's just an honor to give them their first ACT victory and then to win at Loudon and now in the Milk Bowl.”
Pole's name will now be forever engraved on the granite at Thunder Road as a Milk Bowl winner. He hopes that could help him advance further in his racing career to possibly run down south in one of NASCAR's Big Three series like former Milk Bowl winners Lajoie and Lepage were able to do. But Pole doesn't just view his racing career as a driver development deal either. He's proud to be a short tracker - even if he stays at that level throughout his career.
“My dream is to make it all the way. That is a lot of people's dream though. Winning these races can't hurt things, but now a days, it is about how much money you can bring. So it's my goal and my dream to make it. But there are also a lot of people racing on the short tracks who are better than a lot of the guys that you see on TV. They just don't have the resources and the money to bring to a team. So to race against these guys is still great. If I don't get a sponsor or the money to make it, I'm not going to be upset. I'm going to keep enjoying what I'm doing and hopefully, we'll still be winning races.”