It's not about keeping up with the Jones in PASS North competition. It's about keeping up with the Rowes and the Clarks. Ben Rowe and Johnny Clark have won all but one of the tour championships in the ten-year history of the series. Last year alone, those two won a combined eight of the 13 races on the schedule.
But there have been challengers to the throne. Adam Bates, Travis Benjamin, Richie Dearborn, Kelly Moore and Trevor Sanborn have all been contenders for the championship in recent seasons. Young drivers like Derek Ramstrom and D.J. Shaw have developed into multi-time race winners. A new set of fresh blood that includes Matt Frahm, Joey Doiron and Nick Ribbe all appear capable of winning.
So Rowe and Clark are beatable - and Travis Benjamin wants to be the guy to do it. He's making changes to his program to allow that to happen too. Benjamin has just signed Brian Burgess, who has won multiple championships as Ben Rowe's top wrench, as the new crew chief for his team. Benjamin got to work alongside of Burgess for half of the 2010 season at Richard Moody Racing. Benjamin drove a second entry alongside of Trevor Sanborn at RMR, but has decided to return to his family operation for 2011 - and he's bringing Burgess along with him.
”Just to be able to work with Brian is a big boost,” said Benjamin. “He is really patient and thinks things over. He doesn't get fired up or worried about things. It's a lot different from when we did thing alone. We would get behind and stressed and ended up in the shop throwing things at each other.
“It gives me confidence that he wants to come and work with us. With all of the wins and championships that he has, he is a proven winner. Last year, he was focused mostly on Trevor - getting him into victory lane was the main goal and I knew that going into the deal. But he also helped us too.”
The deal to bring Burgess over to the Benjamin Motorsports team is a fresh one - just coming together late last week.
“This just came together and we're still figuring it all out,” said Benjamin. “I could have gone back with the Moody team. We thought about that a lot. But we decided to go this way and I'm excited. Brian has been down twice now to check things over. He's coming on full-time the first of the year. One car needs a lot of work, but one car isn't too bad. That is the car that we raced at Fredericton. Brian did all of the work on that car for us, so it doesn't need much to change over this year.”
Benjamin knew Burgess through a mutual friend, Buster Bean, who was the tire specialist for Benjamin's team two years ago. Benjamin now hopes to be able to put together the funding to allow Bean to join the team as well.
“Brian is awesome to work with and so was Buster. Those two are really good friends and they approach things the same way. They go to the racetrack to win. They aren't happy with just a top five. I would love to bring Buster back to this team and maybe we will be able to. We need to come up with some sponsorship first though to make that happen.”
Benjamin is well known throughout Northern New England as one of the hardest luck drivers out there. He's lost races due to flat tires, mechanical failures, contact from other drivers and even once because a pit fight broke out around his team and they were mistakenly blamed for it and disqualified.
“I can't explain that stuff,” said Benjamin. “Sometimes, I create my own bad luck. I know that. So I've learned not to be impatient. Hopefully, the rest of the luck will turn around. When we have a full time person working on the car, like we did in 2008, the luck is usually much better. But our budget hasn't always been there to do things 100% like we should.”
But some bad luck can't be helped - like in the PASS North race at Spud Speedway near Caribou, Maine last year.
“At Caribou, we were running second and chasing down Johnny (Clark) when the tire bead broke. You can't control something crazy like that.”
Burgess might be able to change Benjamin's luck.
“He can clam me down and coach me through a race. At Riverside, I had a straightaway lead and I just used my stuff up. Brian told me that afterwards too. I didn't think that I was using my stuff up or going that hard either. I was thinking that if I could get four or five lapped cars between us and second place, we would be good. We did, but one car got the lucky dog and the others all pitted. How often do you have all those guys pitting? So it didn't work out and I just didn't have a car left to win with. But Brian can see things developing like that and he can think of ways that I can win races.”
The Benjamin Motorsports team is a family operation, and that's something that you hear a lot in racing. But it is a true way of doing things for the Benjamins. Travis' father Ron was a short track racer for a long time up in Maine before stepping aside to help Travis' career. Ron is one of the friendliest guys in the pit area these days too, and a great help to Travis' program.
“He's awesome,” said Travis. “He's always been there for me. He's always told me everything. From back when I started through now, he's been such a help.”
And there is also another Benjamin involved with the race team - and that is Travis' toddler son Kaiden - who could have a big future with the team
“I see myself doing this another three or four years,” said Travis. “Then it starts to be his turn. I'll get a kart for him if that's what he wants. Right now, he's got a plastic bike that he rides on through the house. He races with it. From when he gets up at six in the morning, he's going wide-open with it. It's the first thing that he wants to do everyday. So he races and I'm the flagger. He wins every race that way.”
That's a good thing because Kaiden doesn't like finishing second.
“If he races, he's going to be a bad loser I'm afraid,” said Travis. “Right now, he puts on a show when he wins...and if we race, he won't let me win. He'll take the checkered flag and does a victory lap complete with donuts. Then he gets up on his car, stands high and cheers. He takes his trophy and holds it up high.
“I love when he comes to the racetrack. I love it when he comes to the shop. The white car that we have, he thinks that it is his car. We started taking the body off it a few weeks ago and he came by. He looked at the car without the body and was all concerned. 'What did you do?' he asked. So he's very into it.”