Bill Clinton was in the third year of his first term as President of the United States, a stamp was 32 cents and a gallon of regular gas cost $1.15 the last time Super Late Models raced in front of the faithful short track racing fans at Barre, Vermont’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl.
Fast forward nearly 20 years… Barack Obama, the country’s first black President, is in the third year of his final term, stamps are 49 cents, the national average for a gallon of gas hovers around the $2.75 mark and the Pro All Stars Series (PASS) North Super Late Models will make history on Sunday afternoon when they make their first ever start at the tough, high-banked quarter-mile oval.
For the first time since the final ACT Pro Stock Tour event was held at Thunder Road on September 3, 1995, Super Late Models will be circling the track. Sunday, May 24 has been a date circled on many calendars since the Memorial Day weekend event was announced during the offseason. Not only is the new generation of race fans excited to witness history, but the older generation is also looking forward to taking a walk back through time.
“The old fan base just out of curiosity of going back in time a little bit are curious to see what the difference is now and what it’s going to look like,” Thunder Road co-owner Tom Curley told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I think it’s going to be very entertaining and I think it’s going to be a fun day. I hope they have a good experience.”
While the fan excitement and anticipation of the event is high, there’s a level of uncertainty among competitors heading into the event. A lot of the drivers that will be in Sunday’s race have never seen Thunder Road, never mind actually racing on the track.
“I think there’s a huge edge to Ben and Mike Rowe,” Curley stated. “They both have more laps than anyone else here. My guys that are going to be there, there’s probably at least six of the ACT guys that are going to run that race, and I think they get somewhat of an edge because they have ran a bunch of laps at Thunder Road recently.
“There’s a lot of factors that I think are going to be pretty interesting. I would guess that the ones you would expect to have pretty good days like Cassius Clark and Johnny Clark and Travis Benjamin and those kinds of guys, I don’t think they’ve ever even been on the race track.”
Among the American-Canadian Tour competitors who will be joining the PASS North Super Late Models on the track this weekend is eight-time ACT champion Brian Hoar. Although Hoar has logged thousands of laps at “The Nation’s Site of Excitement,” he doesn’t consider himself a favorite because of his lack of experience in a Super Late Model in comparison to the PASS regulars.
“If we had a thicker notebook on the race car itself I think we’d have an advantage, but that’s the great equalizer,” said Hoar. “Of course I have more knowledge of the track than those guys and that does help, but those guys just have so much more experience trying to get these cars to go at different race tracks.
“Thunder Road is unique and isn’t the easiest track to figure out but it has a lot of similarities to other small bullrings. They should be fine, and frankly the way Mike Rowe and Ben Rowe are going right now they have a lot of experience at Thunder Road themselves. That experience combined with the fact that they have their cars really dialed in this year, I’d be surprised if they weren’t really strong as good as Mike and Ben have both been this year.”
Mike Rowe, the 1994 ACT Pro Stock champion, enters the weekend with wins in two of the four PASS North events so far this season. In addition to Hoar’s kind words for the 64-year-old driver, Curley also believes that the driver of the No. 7 Petit Motorsports machine will be one to keep an eye on.
“I would think that particularly Mike Rowe is going to have a big day,” Curley stated. “He loves the place. He used to race there and he’s really looking forward to it. I would think that he would be an odds on favorite at this stage of the game.”
While Rowe is one of the handful of drivers with experience at Thunder Road, those that have raced at the track or witnessed a race at the track know that it can be one of the most challenging asphalt ovals in the entire country.
Famous for its sweeping turns and the “Widow Maker,” a green and yellow striped outside wall that sneaks up on drivers exiting turn four, Thunder Road is a track that can beat up on a driver when they least expect it.
“I would tell them not to trust it,” Curley said when asked what kind of advice he would give first-time Thunder Road competitors. “You can get very comfortable, it’s like a rocking chair when you get out there. You’re really intimidated by that turn four wall but then all of a sudden you’re comfortable because it’s that up and down sway motion on the banks.
“What happens is that it kind of lulls you into a feeling of complacency. You get in a rhythm. If you go 20 or 30 laps without a yellow you can get really comfortable out there and that’s the most dangerous part of the race track. You get comfortable at Thunder Road and you’re going to get bitten. Not by somebody else, but by yourself because you make one slip and it can get very volatile real quick.”
Heading into Sunday’s race, a lot of the drivers are concerned about keeping their cars in one piece and escaping Barre, Vermont unscathed. Curley assures those drivers that taking a conservative approach is the last thing that you want to do at Thunder Road.
“You’ve got to rub doors at Thunder Road, it’s just always been a tradition,” Curley said. “It’s the only way you can get around the place. If you’re running next to a guy and decide that you’re going to whack him, yeah you’re going to tear up some cars. That’s what they’re really worried about Ben (Rowe) was telling me when I was over at Oxford.
“They’re all really excited about it, but very nervous about tearing up their cars. If they get real conservative, they’re going to tear up their cars. I can guarantee that. You can’t race conservative because somebody is going to get a trigger finger and all hell will break loose. You’ve got to race the things. If they race them and they’re somewhat respectful of each other, they can get away with a pretty good race.”
As far as the speeds of the cars, Curley expects the Super Late Models to be about a half-second faster than the ACT Late Models that regularly compete at the track. If that holds true, the PASS Super Late Models could be turning laps of less than 13 seconds around the quarter-mile.
“I think with speeds you’re going to be very surprised,” Curley said. “I would guess they might be a half-second faster than our Late Models and on that track that is quite a bit. You buzz around there pretty good in a Late Model. I think the key is whether they have enough tire to get around each other. I think that will dictate what happens at the end.”
As the saying goes, “to finish first, you must first finish.” Surviving the track for 150 laps may be the biggest challenge for drivers come Sunday.
“It’s the track more than the competitors that you have to be very respectful of,” said Curley. “You’ve got to be focused 100% of the time because if it lulls you to sleep and you get comfortable that’s usually when you get bitten.”
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Photobucket (Justin1315)