Saturday brought chilly weather to Thunder Road International Speedbowl (VT) for the first half of the 55th Vermont Milk Bowl weekend, but a number of Late Model drivers turned up the heat on the track throughout time trials and the 50-lap qualifying races. While the usual suspects went at it in the latter portion of the afternoon, the day started with a surprise in the two-lap time trials.
After a solid but normal morning of practice, 21-year old Marcel Gravel stunned everyone in attendance with a lap that was not only a pole time, but a record time. The 12.236 second lap recorded by Gravel was good enough to set a new Thunder Road track record. Afterwards, Gravel took a lot of time to come to grips with the accomplishment.
“I can’t even believe it. I was just sitting in the infield and I kept looking at the scoreboard and it said 86, 12.236. It’s just unreal,” Gravel told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I ran my fastest lap I had ever ran here earlier in the day, a 12.4, and I thought it was fantastic. It’s just so surreal right now, it’s hard to believe it’s really happening. A pole was always our goal, but you don’t want to over set your expectations. It was just unreal.”
While the lap will stand in the record books possibly long term, in the short term it gives the sophomore Late Model driver the privilege of leading the field to green for the first of three 50-lap segments on Sunday. The lap has also given Gravel more confidence then he has ever had for a race at the “Nation’s Site of Excitement”.
“That’s a really good day in Vermont. I think I’m going to kiss the cow at the end of the day tomorrow,” Gravel said confidently. “I hope to go on one of those plaques back there, they never take your name off those. Track record I hope I hold for a long time and if someone tops it I want to be here to see it because I felt like I could not have gone any faster. It’s a very special day for me.”
Time trials also set the outside of the front row and produced another surprise as Trampas Demers earned the second starting spot for Sunday’s race.
“We can’t complain at all; starting second with as stout a field as there is, it’s pretty respectable. I knew we had a chance at a top five, didn’t know about top two,” Demers admitted. “We knew it was in the car, we’ve been up here all year and I knew there was a chance for a good lap.”
Moving to the two 50-lap qualifying races which set positions 3 to 18 on Sunday, Nick Sweet showed off his personal No. 88 after it had sat in the shop following his Milk Bowl victory one year ago. While it was an impressive performance, it was even more impressive after it came on the heels of some early but minor troubles.
“We’ve had some gremlins all weekend,” Sweet said. “We had some fuel pump issues and coolant lines leaking, just things you probably wouldn’t have for problems if you raced every week. But you know what, we’re still having fun. We haven’t had any problems yet mechanical besides that stuff.”
The heat cranked up at the front of the second qualifier over the final laps as the red mist descended on the leaders with Scott Dragon and Jimmy Hebert mixing it up for a number of laps before Dragon broke away as the laps clicked down.
“The car was really good. It was real tight after restart. It would take a couple laps for it to settle back in. It would push really bad, that’s why I was having a hard time with Jimmy there,” Dragon explained. “I just couldn’t get the thing to turn the way I wanted to. Once I was able to get clear of him the last time I was able to get back down in my line and the car was good again.”
Behind Dragon, Hebert then went to battle with Jason Corliss for the second position. After the two made contact, Corliss edged Hebert for the position. For Corliss, it all came down to keeping a level head while still keeping up the intensity level knowing what was on the line.
“We just got nailed square in the bumper and had to save it. At the same time, you try not to burn your tires off, try to get a good feel for your car and see what you have for tomorrow,” Corliss said. “But yeah, you want to get the best starting spot possible. If you don’t pass them in the fifty laps here, you’re going to have to pass them tomorrow. We wanted to win that one, but we’re happy with second.”
Hebert would settle for third but was a little testy when it came to his fellow competitors.
“It’s a lot easier to drive when the rear tires are on the ground,” Hebert stated. “I just wheeled it for all I could and was off the backstretch a couple times getting hit still. It was a handful.”
While the majority of the usual names were fast and at the front, it was not the same for 2017 NASCAR Pinty’s Series champion Alex Labbe who struggled to find speed after troubles early on in tech.
“We struggled all day with the travel test. Today we just couldn’t go through tech at all so we changed a bunch of stuff and had to go to qualifying with a completely different track assembly and it just dragged the track all the way around,” Labbe stated.
Labbe hopes that the No. 48 team can turn things around in the last chance race Sunday afternoon, as it will be his final time driving for car owner Louis Larue as he pursues opportunities at the NASCAR XFINITY Series level.
“It’s my last race with Larue for sure. I talked to them and I just couldn’t commit enough. They want to race more and that’s normal.”
If you can’t make it to Thunder Road on Sunday afternoon you can watch the Milk Bowl live beginning with the last chance race at 12:15 p.m. on Speed51.com. Click here to order
-By: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com CT, MA, RI & Long Island Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com