For 21-year-old Ajay Cates, of Lyman, a breakthrough victory on June 20 at Hudson Speedway was huge. It was his first career PASS Modified win, yet it surely won’t be his last. In six starts this year, Cates has a victory and three top-five finishes. He’s hitting his stride, and loving life on the Mod series.
I had never even been to Hudson before that day,” Cates said. “The place kind of reminded me of when I was running a Street Stock up at Speedway 95 in Bangor. You have to be able to drive through the bumps and get that working for you. It’s a challenge for both driver and crew chief.
“In the Heat race, the car was a little bit tight. My stepdad made a little change to it for the feature, and the car handled like a rocket after that. We have a great race team that pulls together when it counts.”
Race fans in southern Maine are familiar with a popular youth development program, and how it teaches young aspiring racers what’s involved in competing on the oval. From there, Cates’ road to where he is today has been inspiring and filled with success.
“I’ve been racing for 12 years overall, and spent my first five years in the Whiz Kidz class at Beech Ridge,” he explained. “In 2015, I raced a Truck at Beech Ridge and learned a lot more there, as well.
“In 2016, I competed in the Truck class in Oxford’s Acceleration Series program. We won eight races and the points championship that year. I moved up to the Outlaw division in 2017, and won Rookie-of-the-Year honors. In 2018, I won four races and the points championship. I really loved that division.”
His ascent up the local short track ladder to where we are today had yet another step for Cates to climb.
“In 2019, we moved up to the Street Stock division at Oxford,” he continued. “That’s what taught me more about the skills I’m using today, and I learned a ton there. It was an older car, and we struggled to find speed and get it dialed in for me.
“My best race in that car was in Loudon, New Hampshire, where I started 33rd, then made my way up to 15th with three laps remaining before the engine started overheating. I was in 18th when it let go going down the back stretch on the final lap. That was one of my favorite racing memories.”
Last year, Cates finished eighth in points in the PASS Mods, with one top-five and three top-10 finishes. He’s amazed at the growth from 2020 to this season, and says it’s getting a lot harder to run up front.
This year is 100 percent better and more competitive than 2020,” he said. “Last year, you only had a few guys that were fast every race. Now, everybody has stepped up to the point where you have 12-15 cars out of 24 who can run strong. It’s super tough to win, but a lot more fun to participate overall.
When Cates and his team unload for the next scheduled race at Oxford on Sunday, July 11, the machine he’ll drive is one with an interesting background. It’s a well-built piece that’s had quite a life of its own.
“The car I drive was Spencer Vaughan’s old car back in the day,” Cates said with distinct candor. “It was built by Jeff Rich, and the late Ron Bryant raced it at Wiscasset at one time.
“We had a built motor in it last year, but we’ve switched over to a crate motor this year. They are trouble-free and have ample power for the tracks around here. The chassis/engine combination we’re using works very well for us.”
Along with that very reliable car and his raw natural talent behind the wheel, Cates also has several key people working behind the scenes to keep his program on-track.
“I need to give a special thanks to Cash Cates, Gary Babineau, Nichole Babineau, Jayson Beaulieu, Al Seal, Kevin Babineau, Ronnie Davis, Michael Sanford and Greg Peters,” Cates said. “I appreciate all they do for me.
“I’m also blessed with some great sponsors, including Casco Bay Ford, Deisel World, Chet’s Auto Sales, Albany Auto Tire & Transmission, Gold Rush Pawn, and M&M Auto Sales. They make it possible to compete at this level. I’m grateful and proud to represent them at every race on the series.”
As the heat of summer cranks up and those PASS Mod warriors look at the remainig races, Cates has a clear plan of attack that could easily see him back in Victory Lane.
“I just plan to finish this season with the same mentality I have every race; go to the track, be smart, and see what the car can do on that day,” he concluded. “If I can run up front and compete for a win, I’ll do it. If we’re a little off, I’ll take the best finish I can and go on to the next one. I’m really having fun.”
– Story By Phil Whipple, Speed51.com Northeast Correspondent
– Photo by Norm Marx/PASS