The New England Short Track Showdown at New Hampshire Motor Speedway kicked off on Saturday with practice sessions for the Valenti Modified Racing Series and the Pro All Stars Series.
Teams in both series worked throughout the afternoon, making what they hoped were the right adjustments to their cars in preparations for qualifying and features on Sunday.
Dowling, Christian Set the Pace in Practice
Chase Dowling was fast all day, putting his No. 00 at the top of the charts in both the second and third VMRS practice sessions. Dowling had a lot of success at Loudon last season, finishing second in the Eastern Propane & Oil 100 in July and winning the inaugural Musket 250 in September. He will be looking to continue that streak of success with a second straight modified win at the Magic Mile on Sunday.
“I’m just having fun,” Dowling said. “The track’s a lot different than when we came here in the fall. We made a few adjustments and got better and better each run. We’re pretty happy with the car and looking forward to tomorrow.”
Ray Christian III set the pace for the PASS Super Late Models and is looking good going into qualifying on Sunday. But Christian says he can’t quite put his finger on why he is so good at the larger tracks, such as New Hampshire and Richmond Raceway, on the PASS calendar.
“I don’t really know what it is. I get a great car every time I come here, maybe that has something to do with it! I feel comfortable on big tracks, the speed doesn’t really get to me so I get in a comfort zone. Really, it’s just the car drives great, I can’t really do anything but turn the wheel.”
Christian said that in order to park his car in Victory Lane on Sunday, there’s only one thing left to do.
“Beat Eddie Mac[Donald]. This is his playground, so if you’re going to win here, you have to beat Eddie Mac.”
Eddie Mac Looking for Eleventh NHMS Victory
As “RC3” I so eloquently put it, Loudon is indeed Eddie MacDonald’s playground. MacDonald is always a force to be reckoned with at NHMS – he is currently tied with Ted Christopher with ten NHMS wins apiece. Winning on Sunday would move him into second overall behind none other than NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Busch.
There’s more bad news for everyone trying to beat MacDonald – he believes he has the winning combination, even if he was playing things cool on Saturday.
“The car’s pretty good,” MacDonald said. “The guys have been working hard all day trying to make a bunch of changes. It’s got a whole new front clip; we wrecked this car out at Richmond so we’re just trying to get it back to where we need it to be. Hopefully we’ll have a good run tomorrow and try to be there at the end.
“We just have to keep the car going strong, make sure we’re there at the end, and don’t lose it on the last lap like last year. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that. Car seems like it’s pretty good, so we just have to keep tweaking it and getting it a little bit better, and hopefully it’ll last for the whole race.
Williams Looking to Overcome Engine Issues
Ronnie Williams’ team is facing an uphill battle heading into Sunday’s VMRS feature race. Williams blew an engine in the second practice session, confining them to the garage for the remainder of Saturday afternoon’s practice.
“There was no warning. Stuff happens,” Williams said in the garage.
However, the team is adamant that the car will be race-ready for the feature on Sunday, and Williams himself is confident that the car is good enough to score the win.
“I’m not worried about these guys,” Williams said. “Hopefully tomorrow we can put it in Victory Lane. It was going good, just some crap luck but we’ll be fine.”
Young Guns Making First Laps at NHMS
The VMRS and PASS fields often feature rising young talent, and this weekend’s Short Track Showdown is no exception.
Sixteen-year-old Andrew Molleur is making his first start at the Magic Mile in a ground-pounder and says driving the track in a Modified has been an eye-opening experience.
“I’ve been here once before just to watch the Tour race, but let me tell you, it’s a whole different animal when you’re actually out there versus when you’re watching,” Molleur said. “It’s so fast on the straightaways, but you have to be paying attention to the people behind you and in front of you with the draft and everything. This place is just crazy. The straightaways are so fast, these things are ripping down the straightaways. It’s the coolest feeling in the world.”
Austin Macdonald, the 15-year-old PASS rookie sensation from Canada, was not nearly as shocked by the speed as his counterpart Molleur was.
“It honestly felt a little bit slow once I got rolling out there, compared to New Smyrna or tracks at home where I’ve run,” Macdonald said. “I think it’s just the atmosphere of it being so big that’s really helping me get used to it better. It’s a lot of fun out there. I really enjoyed it today, it’s probably one of my favorite tracks. I’m really happy with [the car]. I think tomorrow is mostly about me getting more seat time and improving my racing skills, but I know we have the speed to back it up in case we can ever use it.”
Johnny Clark Wants a Magic Mile Victory
Six-time PASS champion Johnny Clark has won just about everything there is to win with a Super Late Model, but he is still searching for his first win at NHMS. His team made massive improvements to his car during practice, and Clark hopes that the team’s progress is enough to help him land that elusive victory.
“Big, big difference with the crate [motor], man. The more you turn, the more speed you’re scrubbing, it’s such a huge difference,” Clark said after practice. “We really got the thing rolling through the center a lot better now, I mean we picked up three-quarters of a second from the first to second practice, we’re pretty pumped now. We feel like we’ve given ourselves a top five or six car, and we still have some more speed under her we think.”
In terms of career achievements, Clark puts Loudon right at the top of the list, second only to the Oxford 250 that has eluded him.
“To go to Victory Lane at Loudon, it’s…it’s New England’s big track for us, it would be huge. The guys all love [this track], we’re all diehard racers, and to win Loudon and then go win the [Oxford] 250, I’d probably retire after that!”
Several Drivers Looking to Add to Modified History at Magic Mile
Tour-type Modifieds have a rich history throughout the northeastern United States, but few places offer the sort of prestige one can find at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Many of the best modified drivers in the country have found their way to Victory Lane at the Magic Mile, including Mike McLaughlin, Mike Stefanik, Reggie Ruggiero, Steve Park, Todd Szegedy, Ted Christopher, and Doug Coby.
It is the longest track on the calendar for several different Modified series, also playing host to the Musket 250, the longest race on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. The drivers say that winning at the Magic Mile is a career highlight.
“Obviously, it’s special [to win here],” Chase Dowling said. “We don’t get to race at mile tracks anymore, we’re all at half-miles, three-eighths, you know. We’re short track racing guys, and when we come here, it’s a lot of fun to draft and experience drafting with other cars. It’s a whole other different style of racing Modifieds up here.”
Anthony Nocella agreed with Dowling, saying he enjoys racing at the 1.058-mile oval.
“It would be awesome to win in anything here, but especially a modified, with the history of the Modifieds here,” Nocella said. “It’s an awesome place to race, a lot of fun, and hopefully it’s a good show tomorrow. It would mean a lot to win here, it would be pretty awesome.”
Speed51.com will be on-location in Loudon, New Hampshire Sunday afternoon with live Trackside Now coverage of the action. A variety of video content, including recaps, exclusive interviews and highlights will be available on the Speed51 Network throughout the weekend.
-Story by: Ian Pettigrew, Speed51.com Northeast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com / Derrick Canfield