Jimmy Hebert threw down the gauntlet early at Thunder Road, setting the mark as the man to beat ahead of the 57th Annual Vermont Milk Bowl. Hebert topped all three practice sessions for the American-Canadian Tour on Friday afternoon in Barre, Vermont and is feeling confident heading into qualifying on Saturday.
“I’m extremely happy, the car’s really into the race track it seems, a ton of grip, it should be really good for the sprints we have on Sunday,” Hebert said. “But we’re still in race trim, we haven’t done anything for qualifying yet, and we already have qualifying speed, so we’re pretty happy.”
The Williamstown, Vermont native has always been a strong contender at the Milk Bowl. Hebert knows that to have a good race, he needs to be competitive through all three 50-lap segments – including the dreaded second segment, where he saw his victory chances come crashing down in 2018.
“We were picking our way up through [the field] and actually had gapped the other two guys we were racing for the lead there, and there just happened to be a wreck in front of us and we got taken into the wall,” Hebert recalled. “Couldn’t really change much from that other than just luck, which doesn’t seem to be very good to us usually, but if all the stars align we could definitely pull it off I think.”
Former Milk Bowl Winners Struggling Early in the Weekend
For the past dozen or so years, competitors hoping to capture the Vermont Milk Bowl crown accepted that they will need to fight their way through two Thunder Road heroes – Patrick Laperle and Nick Sweet. Laperle (’05, ’07, and ’08) and Sweet (’13, ’15, and ’16) have combined to win six of the last 14 Milk Bowls, a feat of consistency not seen since Robbie Crouch won four Milk Bowls between 1983 and 1990.
However, both drivers have struggled to find pace in the early sessions of the 57th Annual Vermont Milk Bowl.
Sweet, who calls Barre his hometown, is one of the busiest men on the property this weekend. He will be running in both the ACT and the PASS North features, as well as acting as the crew chief for his son’s go-kart team that competed at the track Friday night. In addition to all of that, he is the crew chief for his car owner Eric Chase, who is running the No. 40 ACT machine – even as Sweet runs the No. 88 in the same race.
Oh, and he also has his parts trailer at the track to assist his competitors with anything they may need throughout the weekend.
Wearing all these different hats has proven challenging, as Sweet is struggling to find the speed in his ACT Late Model.
“We unloaded with the Late Model and we’re definitely not happy with it,” Sweet said. “I think it’s like three tenths off and that’s a lot to be off in this class, so we have a lot of work to do tonight. It’s not handling bad, it just has no speed, so we have to figure out a way to make speed with that car, and hopefully we can do that tonight. It’s going to be a late night, but I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Patrick Laperle finds himself in a similar situation – the car seems to be handling well enough, but the crew just cannot find the speed they need to be competitive.
“For like five, six races in Quebec we’ve been top-notch, and we came here and I thought we had a good shot but now we’re working on setup because we’re not good at all,” Laperle said after practice. “I mean we cannot find speed. We’re struggling, we’re going to do something on the car tonight, we’ll see tomorrow morning what’s going to happen with that, but it’s tough.”
Despite having to go back to the proverbial drawing board, Laperle is confident his team can make the right changes and get themselves back into the fight.
“I think it’s going to turn around. Gary Crooks [from Port City Race Cars] is here, he came to see us. He and Eric [LaPerle, crew chief] have been talking together, that’s why Eric’s doing some stuff on the suspension. We’ll see tomorrow”
Pollard Eyeing Victory Ahead of Maiden Milk Bowl Start
Bubba Pollard has a history of doing extremely well in prestigious Late Model races. In 2019, for instance, he won $75,000 CAD (over $56,600 USD) at the Canadian Short Track Nationals at Jukasa Motor Speedway, then turned around and won $10,000 in the Speed51 Super Select at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis just one week later.
In 2018, the Senoia, Georgia man went north to the Oxford 250 and stole victory in his first attempt at the Maine classic, a feat he will try to replicate this weekend during his first-ever visit to Thunder Road. Despite having never driven the track before, Pollard is taking a liking to the quarter-mile bullring.
“I enjoy it, it’s a tricky little place, it’s fun,” Pollard said. “It’s going to be tough to pass. These guys (Joey Pole Racing) are good around here, they’re great to work with. Just great guys, willing to do whatever it takes for us to run well, and that’s who I like to be around. We’re working in the right direction and I’m excited, I feel like we have a good race car. We’ll see how it goes.”
Pollard’s road to get to the Milk Bowl has been far from short, though. On the Tuesday before race weekend, he was in North Carolina shaking down his new JR Motorsports ride at Ace Speedway. Wednesday, he was at Thunder Road testing his ACT machine. On Thursday, he was in Martinsville, Virginia practicing his Late Model Stock car for the upcoming ValleyStar Credit Union 300, and he returned to Vermont on Friday for the first day of the Milk Bowl.
With all the running around, Pollard and his crew found themselves without a way to get from the Burlington International Airport to Thunder Road – that is, until ACT stepped in with a rather unusual solution.
“We came up here the other day and we didn’t really have a way to ride, we were winging it with Ubers and things like that,” Pollard said. “We would never have gotten here today if it weren’t for [ACT] letting us drive the pace car back and forth to the airport. We made a few laps, they’re going to be getting a couple tickets in the mail, speeding tickets and things like that. But yeah, we had some fun with it.”
Governor’s Cup Winner Looking to Continue Thunder Road Success
Fresh off his Vermont Governor’s Cup win in July, Fayston, Vermont driver Brooks Clark is looking to keep his Thunder Road momentum rolling. Clark already looks like a potential contender come Sunday, having finished no lower than fourth fastest during Friday’s practice sessions.
“We were just trying a couple of things, seeing if we could make the car any better,” Clark said. “We kept the speed in it all day, we were on old tires all day. Didn’t really gain a whole lot of speed with what we were trying, so we’re back to where we were all year.”
Clark and his team are feeling confident ahead of Saturday’s qualifying, knowing they will need to put in a strong run in time trials and during his 50-lap qualifying race.
“We have a good car going in. We’ve had a pretty good short-run car all year, so hopefully we can use that to our benefit through the fifty-lap segments, but we have to get a good qualifying spot, that’s the key to this.”
Kiss the What?!
Perhaps the most well-known (and anticipated?) part of the Milk Bowl’s victory celebrations is getting a kiss with one of Vermont’s finest – dairy cows, that is! This year’s Miss Vermont Milk Bowl 2019 is a 10-year-old Ayrshire dairy cow named Ayris, back for her third year at the Milk Bowl.
So far, only Jason Corliss has laid a smooch on this beautiful bovine, forcing the rest of the field to find creative solutions for everything from race setups to how (and where) they are going to kiss the cow.
This year’s approach? Well, let’s just say that Ayris might want to watch her back.
“[My dad] always said if I win, he’ll kiss the other end,” Jimmy Hebert said.
Bubba Pollard made a similar deal with Joey Polewarczyk, Jr.’s father.
“Old man here said that if I won, I was going to kiss [the cow] and he was going to kiss it too somewhere else, so we’ll see. Hopefully he’ll stick by it if we win.”
Nick Sweet, who has kissed a cow three times in his life, is thinking along the same lines as Hebert and Pollard.
“Inappropriately, [maybe I’ll] try to go do something else. Maybe kiss the a– of it, I don’t know!”
Patrick Laperle is no stranger to kissing animals at race tracks this season. The Canadian already got to kiss a piglet, his prize for having won the 2019 Bacon Bowl 200 at Autodrome Chaudiere Vallee-Jonction in Quebec. Laperle has also kissed a cow before, but never two animals in the same year.
When asked if it was going to happen this year, Laperle said “That would be awesome! I hope so.”
But for Brooks Clark, just the opportunity to kiss the cow would be more than enough.
“Oh I haven’t thought that far, but as long as I get to kiss it, that’s what matters.”
-Story by Ian Pettigrew, Speed51.com Northeast Correspondent – Twitter: @ian_pettigrew
-Photo credit: Speed51.com