As Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. scrolled through the Pro All Stars Series (PASS) website on Monday morning he was caught off guard by what he saw.
A picture of Polewarczyk’s No. 97 Super Late Model battling American-Canadian Tour (ACT) rival Wayne Helliwell, Jr.’s No. 27 was relatively small on the Oxford 250 promotional poster, but the meaning of it was large.
Had the promotional poster on the PASS website been created for Saturday’s ACT race at Oxford Plains Speedway (ME), it wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. The two drivers have combined to win 30 ACT races since 2007 and the last four ACT championships. But to see them on a promotional poster for one of the biggest Super Late Model races in the country, that was a surprise.
Prior to July, neither driver had even recorded a PASS North victory. That drought came to an end and the floodgates opened up on July 3 when Helliwell won the PASS Non-Winner’s Race at Oxford Plains. Polewarczyk followed that up with his first PASS win at White Mountain Motorsports Park (NH) on July 24, and then the two drivers split the win in a dead heat finish at Oxford Plains on July 31.
In just one month’s time, the two drivers from the Granite State made the transition from ACT dominators who had struggled in Super Late Model competition to favorites heading into Sunday’s HP Hood Oxford 250
“It’s crazy to think about. We’ve had so many battles on the ACT Tour, and then we both had a Super as well and we both struggled pretty hard,” Polewarczyk said. “Every now and then we’d have a good run but then we’d struggle again. This year we got a new car and I don’t know if Wayne got a new car or whatever, but we both have figured it out and gotten better at it. It’s pretty crazy if you look back at a couple years ago to now this year and we’re being talked about us having a shot to win it. That’s a pretty big deal going into a big race like that and having people talking about you.”
“To be honest with you, 100-percent no,” Helliwell answered when asked if he ever imagined being an Oxford 250 favorite. “I said it before, to be associated with Oxford and have a win under our belt and have the tie, and now going into the 250 as a favorite to win kind of blows my mind. It’s always been our kryptonite track.”
For Helliwell, his struggles at Oxford Plains Speedway were the result of having the wrong mentality and becoming too fixated on ACT Late Model racing. Once he was able to get out of that mindset, he’s had more success than any other non-weekly competitor at the track.
“I think it’s just, it was something last year that I finally realized that we were going in the wrong direction and had too much mentality of (ACT) Late Model racing,” he explained. “We needed to get rid of that. The Super Late Models are a totally different creature, different tires and the whole nine yards. Once I got that out of my head, because I can become fixated on something and I was fixated on something that was never going to work. I just needed to change our mindset on that and once we did that every time we’ve been there we’ve gone a little bit better.”
While Helliwell will be searching for his first Oxford 250 win after leading 145 laps in last year’s race, Polewarczyk enters the race as a former race winner. The driver from Hudson, New Hampshire won the race in 2012 and made his return to the prestigious event in 2015 with a fifth-place finish.
Like Helliwell, “Joey Pole” also enters the race with plenty of momentum as a result of his improved Super Late Model program and his recent performances at Oxford.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the momentum that we have with that car,” he said. “I honestly feel like ever since that Seekonk race that every time we’ve run it since then we’ve had a shot to win the race. The momentum definitely doesn’t hurt going into a race like this.”
Polewarczyk enjoys having his program in the spotlight heading into the big race, but admitted that his team didn’t live up to expectations the last time they were pegged as Oxford 250 favorites.
“When ACT ran the 250 we had a year like this where a lot of people were naming us to win the race and we ended up not having the day we wanted,” he explained. “I’m just kind of trying to go into this without thinking of that and just trying to focus on making the car drive good.
“I’ll be honest, I like flying under the radar. But at the same time it is cool to be able to have your team established and have it as something people are talking about. It is a lot of pressure because this is the biggest race in New England and one of the biggest races in the country right up there with the (Snowball) Derby. It’s definitely some extra pressure when some people are expecting the 97 to do well, which I think we can.”
Helliwell hopes that a few lessons learned by his Bruce Bernhardt-led team during last year’s race will lead to more success and a trip to Oxford 250 Victory Lane on Sunday.
“Ultimately looking back on it now we waited one caution too long to pit for tires,” Helliwell said. “We slowed ourselves way down and the second set of tires we took didn’t work. It left us high and dry without the ability to take a third set of (right side tires.) If we pitted earlier it would have given us the time to notice that, put on another set and possibly recoup from something.
“We learned some valuable lessons last year. There were some tire issues and for us it was basically a learning curve coming from the eight-inch American Racers to the 10-inch Hoosiers. We kind of got caught up in that and kind of got caught up in trying to lead too many laps and making money when we should have been thinking about the big picture and trying to win. Hopefully we have learned our lesson and we’ll be able to put a better game plan together.”
Helliwell and Pole will enter the race weekend with many folks still talking about their involvement in one of the most memorable PASS North finishes of all time. The two drivers battled tooth and nail over the final laps before finishing in a dead heat, as ruled by PASS officials, at the stripe.
If they happen to come off of turn four side by side again on Sunday evening, both drivers would be happy to be in that situation but want sole possession of the top prize.
“I’d like to have a sliding transponder at that point,” Helliwell joked. “At the end of the day if I had to do another photo finish it wouldn’t be the end of the world. What kind of story would that be to have a photo finish at the Oxford 250?
“Fans live for that kind of finish,” Polewarczyk said. “They want that exciting feeling of who is going to win it coming out of the last corner. I’ll just try to get to the gas a little bit sooner next time.”
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Norm Marx/Pro All Stars Series