Back in the days when the NASCAR K&N Pro East Series was known as Busch Grand National North, the path to compete on the tour was pretty straightforward. First, you won at a basic level of racing. Then you advanced and won some more. Sometimes, you'd even dip your toes in the pool of a another regional tour (like ACT or the now defunct Pro Truck Tour) and after showing your mastery of that, you were worthy and ready to graduate to what at the time was the premier touring stock car series of the Northeast.
That approach worked over a few decades for guys like Ricky Craven, who started on Maine short tracks before progressing through the American-Canadian Tour and eventually to BGNN. It also worked for Mike Johnson, who got his start running weekly at Lee USA Speedway. Four-time champion Andy Santerre won frequently in weekly classes at tracks in Maine before getting the call to move up to the tour driving the O'Connor GMC machine and current East Series driver Matt Kobyluck advanced through the classes at his hometrack of the Waterford Speedbowl (CT) before hitting the tour and eventually becoming a champion.
But things changed in the series during the early part of the decade. Drivers with bankrolls and parents who envisioned them as the next Cup star, found their way into the East Series without really earning their way there. They hailed from all across the country, and sometimes even overseas, and usually they didn't last for very long. Sometimes they even moved up straight out of Legends cars and skipped the weekly racing divisions altogether.
Along the way, fans lost interest too. Who wanted to see a short track racing version of Formula 3000 where nobody knew who the rich kids were until they showed up to race?
But as the recession came, many things in life got back to basics and the East Series was no exception. This led a new class of entrants who were kids of modest backgrounds who actually moved up the ladder of racing into the series.
First, we saw Alan Tardiff graduate from PASS North Super Late Models into the East Series courtesy of car owner Archie St. Hilaire. Tardiff managed to finish in the top ten of the East Series point standings despite missing a race last year. D.J Shaw, son of 1994 series champion Dale Shaw also made plans to join the East Series in 2010, driving for Canadian car owners Julio and Rita Miglioli. Shaw won in weekly Late Models and then PASS North Super Late Models before his move up. Then, ACT late Model standout Joey Pole made a deal to start out the 2010 season in a Fadden Racing entry.
Now comes another young driver to move into the East Series on the basis of his short track successes. 18-year-old Derek Ramstrom announced last week that he would run for Rookie of the Year honors in the East Series driving the #35 Waste Management entry of NDS Motorsports.
Before coming to the East Series, where he ran three events towards the end of the 2009 season, Ramstrom was already an accomplished short tracker. He won the 2006 PASS Outlaw Late Model championship, the 2009 Thompson International Speedway (CT) Super Late Model championship and multiple features in PASS North Super Late Models. All of which have prepped him well for the season that lies ahead of him.
“I'm excited about this,” said Ramstrom. “I can't wait for it and it will definitely be a new challenge” said Ramstrom. “There's definitely a lot of competition in the East Series, so I'll have my hands full. I have been to a lot of these tracks already though with the PASS Series and that will help.
“Running in PASS prepared me well for this. It helped me to learn different tracks and to run long races where I needed to learn how to conserve my equipment. There was also a lot of competition in PASS that I had to get used to and there will be tough competition in the East Series as well. It's a different game, but I'm ready for it.”
Ramstrom isn't leaving his PASS roots behind either. He'll still run a limited schedule of events with his Super Late Model and a tight-knit team, led by his father Rick, this coming season.
“We're going to try and make as many of the PASS races as possible,” Ramstrom said. “Whichever races don't conflict, we're working on trying to be at.”
And then there is Ramstrom's home track of Thompson. That facility holds its events on Thursday nights, which creates an opportunity for Ramstrom to come out and run many of the features in between his East Series and PASS adventures. Ramstrom is definitely hoping to take advantage of that.
“We'll run [some] Thursdays at Thompson for sure,” said Ramstrom. “It's awesome that track is so close to home. It's a beautiful track. In my opinion, it is the best track in New England. I'm spoiled to be able to call it my home track. We're going to try and race there as much as possible.”
Thompson isn't just a pretty face to Ramstrom though. The 5/8th mile facility gave him a good primer for moving up in racing.
“Thompson is a track with long straightaways and high speeds. I'm really glad that my Dad decided for us to race there. That speed has helped me a lot. If I hadn't raced there, I'm not sure I would be ready for the speeds that we'll see in the East Series.”
Ramstrom ran three East Series events in 2009, driving for the same team that he'll drive for this season. It was the first time that he drove racecars for a team other than his family's operation.
“Those races got me familiarized with the car. It's a whole different type of racecar than a Super Late Model. Those three races also taught me who to work with the team. There was a little adjustment for me, but I've seen how they operate now and we work well together.”
Through the years, the East Series has evolved in name and practice from a Northeastern-based series to one that now competes at tracks from Iowa to Georgia to New Hampshire. That is something that Ramstrom is really excited about.
“I'm looking forward to the travel,” said Ramstrom. “I've never traveled this much in my career. I'm also proud to represent New England. There haven't been many drivers from New England who have raced in the series over the past few seasons.
Ramstrom, along with Shaw and Pole, all fit that bill in 2010.
“It helps to know people who I'll be racing against,” said Ramstrom. “I like racing against D.J. He's a good driver and he's going to be well-prepared for the year. I think we'll both be giving the Rookie of the Year award a run for it and it should be a race right down to the wire. I know Joey Pole too and have talked to him a few times. It helps to have someone to talk to.”
Ramstrom will also have one more thing familiar to him on his racecar in 2010 - the number on the side. The #35 of NDS Motorsports is the same one the team ran on its full-season entry for Steve Park in 2009 and the same number that Ramstrom used in PASS.
“That's pretty weird how it worked out with the number,” said Ramstrom. “It's good that happened and I'm very lucky to end up with that number again.”