At the age of 71 years old, many involved in the sport of auto racing may consider their time in the sport to be winding down. Some may have even already left the sport to enjoy life beyond the race track or pursue some other form of adventure. Joey Laquerre of Barre, Vermont isn’t part of that group of “many” or even that group of “some.”
The 14-time Late Model winner at Thunder Road International Speedbowl (VT) increased his presence in the auto racing industry in November when he purchased the race track formerly known as Riverside Speedway in Groveton, New Hampshire. He had a vision for the quarter-mile, high-banked oval that some know as “Grovetona,” but he didn’t know if that vision would come to fruition.
Fast forward over six months to this past Saturday’s season opener at the track featuring the American-Canadian Tour. Laquerre, his staff, the American-Canadian Tour and the thousands of fans that came out to support the track left no doubt. Speedway 51 is back on the map.
“To see the people come, they did it because they loved racing and because they want to stand behind us,” Laquerre told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “We appreciated that the fans came out and stood beside us. We gave them a good race, they gave us a good crowd and we really appreciate that. We thought it was very nice of the fans.”
Since purchasing the track for a reported $70,000, Laquerre and his staff have made tremendous improvements to the facility. Those improvements – which include new outside walls, a renovated pit area, new fencing around the quarter-mile bullring and fresh coats of paint spread throughout the facility – were well noticed by fans and competitors. For many in attendance, the changes made to the facility made it seem as though they were at a brand new short track racing facility.
“It was so nice to go to a track where they are actually investing in the track,” said Bruce Bernhardt, owner and crew chief for Saturday’s American-Canadian Tour race winner Wayne Helliwell, Jr. “The place looked fantastic. You can see where he’s going with it. The neatest thing was: I haven’t been to a race track where they’re holding up the heats because people are waiting in line to get into the track. Then you look down the road, because he’s cut all the trees down, and you can see cars waiting to get in.”
One of those cars waiting to get into the track on Saturday included American-Canadian Tour promoter Tom Curley in the passenger seat.
Curley, a lifelong friend of Laquerre, had been admitted into the Intensive Care Unit at a Barre, Vermont hospital for 17 days during the month of May, but nothing was going to stop him from supporting his good friend at Speedway 51’s opening event.
On Saturday afternoon, the veteran promoter called fellow ACT official (and partner) Darla Hartt asking her to check him out of the hospital. Already at the track, Hartt left Groveton, New Hampshire and made the 76.7-mile one-way trip to Barre to pick up Curley, and then headed back to the track for the rest of the day. Curley made it to the track, watched the event and couldn’t have been more proud of what his good friend Laquerre had put together.
“I was glad I got to go,” said Curley, who is recovering well and now at home rehabilitating. “Joey and I have known each other for 50 years and go way back to when we were teenagers and I first came to Vermont to go to school and he was a townie. We became friends because we both liked cars and we remained friends for a lot of years. I wanted to be there for that opening and we tried to help him as much as we could to try to get things organized for him.
“I was just totally impressed when I saw the crowd that showed up. I’ve been going there for a lot of years through a lot of hard times and I was shocked. I was equally happy that there was a zillion Thunder Road people down there. Joey is from Barre and has lived there all his life so he had a lot of friends there, both fans and competitors. That made for a real special moment for him, that’s for sure.”
Laquerre was also very appreciative of the help that Curley and the Thunder Road/ACT staff were able to offer him on their way to a highly successful event that included 37 ACT Late Models in the pit area and packed bleachers in the main grandstands.
“I have to thank Tom Curley for a lot of it,” said Laquerre. “He’s helped us with this. He was in the hospital not doing too well and he called Darla and said, ‘You come get me. I want to be there.’ She went and got him. That alone was just awesome, totally awesome just knowing that he stood behind us.”
Now six months and one race into life on the managerial side of auto racing, Laquerre says that he’s having a lot of fun with it. He’s enjoying watching the track grow and hopes to continue to make more improvements with the facility, as well as the on-track product, moving forward.
“I am, very much,” Laquerre said when asked about whether or not he’s enjoying his time on the other side of the fence managing a race track. “Especially when you have fans that are there for you supporting us. Of course it’s great having that. I am enjoying that. I’ve raced my whole life but I’ve never ran a race track. It’s all new, getting the right help and getting the right stuff for the spectators. It’s all about making them enjoy it.”
One of the new features that Laquerre has added in order to increase the fan experience is a new outside wall in turns three and four. The way the new wall was built allows fans to get a close-up of the racing action, while also maintaining a high level of safety for all spectators.
“We put up four-inch piping in turns three and four and put all new fencing all around the whole place,” Laquerre explained. “It made it safer and made the walls taller and tipped in, so that if they get caught in the wall they’re not going to climb out into the spectator area. Instead, they’re going to go back in the track. Therefore the fans can stand three feet, four feet from the fence. They’re right there. That really pumps them up that they can be right there as the race cars go by.”
In addition to big events like the Fall Brawl 200 and Granite State Pro Stock Series “Twisted Tea Firecracker 151” that will be held on the quarter-mile oval, the track will also be hosting weekly racing beginning at 5:30 p.m. every Saturday night. The weekly racing will include Late Models, Tiger Sportsman, Street Stocks, Dare Devils (V-6) and Pure Stocks.
Laquerre said that he’s ready to do whatever it takes and will spend the money in order to put on a good weekly show for the diehard racing fans in New Hampshire.
“We’re going to pay tow money,” said Laquerre. “70 miles or farther away are going to get tow money. The incentive is that we need car counts. Car counts bring people. Good cars and good racers will keep people here.
“Everybody that was here was energized, pumped and all excited. I had more people coming up to me telling me how excellent it was, telling me how they loved it and telling me they’d be back. To keep them coming, you can’t have a four-car heat race and a 10-12 car feature. You’ve got to have 20+ cars that are going to be racing to make it work. I’m going to do that and if we have to pay the big money to get them, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Laquerre’s plans for the facility don’t stop there, however. In order to make this venture successful, he knows he may have to think outside the box and host more than just stock car racing programs. So far, he’s already made plans to host a mud run, the “Blessing of the Bikes” festival for bikers, a three-day lumberjack contest and a jamboree for four-by-fours and rangers.
“When I did buy it, I did have more thoughts than just a quarter-mile, high-banked oval,” stated Laquerre. “I don’t think it’s going to last unless we have different venues. We really have a lot of activity planned for the Northeast kingdom of New Hampshire.”
Speedway 51, that Northeast kingdom of New Hampshire that Laquerre is referring to, will always hold a special meaning to him. Each time he arrives at the facility, he is reminded of one of his best friends, his grandson Joey M. Laquerre, who tragically passed way last fall in an ATV accident.
After Laquerre purchased the track last November, he renamed the facility previously coined “Riverside Speedway” to honor “Lil Joey.” Joey M. Laquerre raced the No. 51 Late Model with his grandfather in Thunder Road’s Late Model division. The 71-year-old Laquerre thought that it was only fitting to honor his grandson by renaming the track “Speedway 51” in his honor.
“That keeps him in our mind,” said Laquerre as he tried to fight back his emotions. “He’s there all the time. When we come here, it’s really a special deal.”
On Saturday prior to the start of the Generation Next 151 for the American-Canadian Tour, Jeff Laquerre, the father of the late Joey M., sat behind the wheel of Lil Joey’s No. 51 in the pole position as the field made its way around the track during pace laps.
For Joey Laquerre, all of the hard work put into Speedway 51 was worth it for that moment.
“It was a great feeling, but a sad feeling. It was and it is. It’s hard to explain. It’s overwhelming is what it is.”
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: TJ Ingerson/Vermont Motorsports Magazine