(Editor’s Note: Justin St. Louis is the founder of VtMotorMag.com and has been a longtime fixture with his opinion column, “The Juice”. The views expressed in this column are his own and do not necessarily represent VtMotorMag.com and/or it’s partners)
–by Justin St. Louis (@Justin_StLouis)
All good things, they say, come to an end. As far as anyone can guess, Saturday night’s disastrous American-Canadian Tour Invitational race marked a screeching, grinding, sour end to Late Model racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, at least for the time being.
If it holds that the 18-lap Enduro that we all witnessed was ultimately the final Invitational, it will be the saddest possible conclusion to a string of what had otherwise been fantastically entertaining annual events that showcased local talent on the biggest stage in the land.
The “if” resides in the fact that NHMS management on Friday announced a three-division short track showcase for September 2018 to replace the departing Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race and that ACT is currently not a part of that program. NHMS General Manager David McGrath told reporters that his team is “still working through that now,” and that he doesn’t “have a definitive yes or no, but that is something we’re considering and looking at.”
If McGrath’s answer felt shaky at best before Saturday’s race, well…
I used to hear ACT leader Tom Curley say the phrase, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” and it never really clicked with me until now. In this case, that means that while Saturday’s race was horrible, don’t let it take away from the existence of the event in the first place, or from the eight previous years that each produced great ACT racing at NHMS.
The first Invitational in 2009 was one of the greatest spectacles that any of us had ever seen to that point. Curley had an improbable dream to put local racers and local cars in front of the biggest crowd in New England and he saw it through. The race delivered in spades, and it remained the best race of the weekend for years.
We should all be grateful that it ever happened to begin with. Grateful to Curley, grateful to the ACT staff, to the drivers and teams, to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and SMI, to Bond Auto Parts, and to everyone else behind it over the years. I truly mean that.
However, the ACT Invitational should probably have not been renewed for 2016 or 2017. Like racing dirt Modified cars on asphalt tracks, it was cool for a while but it probably outlasted its usefulness by a few years, and unfortunately Saturday’s race drove that point home.
The 2017 edition of the Invitational seemed to end up being a month-long sequence of cataclysmic events, and they all converged at the worst possible time in the worst possible way.
For starters, the annual practice day, which used to serve as a closely watched “audition” for drivers to be considered – not approved, but rather considered – for competition appeared to be a hastily organized affair that more than a few quality race teams received little to no information on ahead of time. I am aware of several teams who were contacted less than a week – in some cases, just 24 hours – before the test to gauge their interest.
It seems as though it was assumed that everyone knew when the practice day was and that if they wanted to race in September they had damn well better be ready for some random mid-week thing in August. A couple of them scrambled and made it to the track, but several were backed into an eleventh-hour corner and were forced to decline.
As a result, the talent level in this year’s Invitational field regrettably dropped off significantly from those of the last two or three years, and, if we’re being honest here, even those weren’t quite up to the level of the first few races.
The entry list on Saturday was far from the “best of the best” that the race had always been intended for. When star drivers like Scott Payea, Nick Sweet, Jason Corliss, Bobby Therrien, and Scott Dragon aren’t in the field, but Mark Hudson is rushed to the grid, then it’s obviously time to reevaluate things.
Racing on the mile at New Hampshire is both fast and incredibly dangerous. Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. both died there in cars that were designed to allow drivers to survive impacts at 200 miles per hour. The Late Models used by ACT and many local tracks aren’t even designed to reach 140 mph, much less crash that fast.
The late Tom Curley understood this, and therefore the vetting system for the ACT Invitational used to be strict and unapologetic: It didn’t matter how much experience a driver had, what mattered were car control, speed, and a brain – not necessarily in that order.
Mark Hudson is a nice guy, and to his credit he never caused any problems on Saturday and got far out of the way of the leaders when it was time to do so. No complaints there.
Here’s one big problem, though: Hudson has been hanging around ACT for more than a decade, earning exactly one lead-lap finish during his career (this year at Seekonk) while failing to qualify in more than 35 percent of his attempts since 2006.
In the Saturday morning practice session, Jimmy Hebert ran a quick lap of 31.514 seconds to pace the field. The top 30 drivers (out of 40 entered) were all within a second of each other, which is pretty admirable.
So here’s a second big problem: Mark Hudson, after 23 laps, turned in his best effort at 36.066 seconds – a full 15 miles per hour slower than Hebert, and almost three seconds slower than the next guy, James Capps III. (We’ll get to Capps, sit tight.) By comparison, the Northeast Mini Stock Tour was only about a second off Hudson’s pace at their event at NHMS back in July.
Nearly every driver that I spoke with after practice referenced Hudson without my asking, and all of them were horrified that he was allowed to be on the track.
Here’s another problem: On a good day, Gaetan Gaudreault is a backmarker on the Série ACT in Québec. In his 50 career starts north of the border, he has racked up 22 DNFs – almost half of them for crashes – and finished on the lead lap in just 18 percent of his races.
Gaudreault, of course, summarily destroyed his car one lap into his first start at Loudon on Saturday, leading to one of four very long delays.
And now, another problem: James Capps III. I don’t mean to sound boastful here, but I feel like I do a pretty good job of keeping up with what goes on around racing in this part of the country. I had never even heard of Capps until I got my mitts on a copy of the entry list a couple days before the race.
It turns out that James Capps III has been racing at White Mountain Motorsports Park for a couple of years and this summer he scraped together four top-10 finishes. In his 11 starts he gathered up an average finish of 13.0 in a division that averaged 17.5 cars – meaning he beat an average of 4.5 cars a night. In the two ACT events at his home track, he finished 27th in June (out of the race after 66 laps with ignition problems) and 20th in August (running five laps behind the leaders).
On Saturday at NHMS, Capps spun into the pit wall by himself during the first yellow flag on lap 12 and then again in Turn 2 six laps later, which turned out to be the yellow flag that decided an incredibly confusing finish order.
What it boils down to is this: Mark Hudson, Gaetan Gaudreault, and James Capps III had absolutely no business being in the ACT Invitational, and the race suffered greatly because of Gaudreault and Capps.
The blame here can be shared by ACT – for allowing them and several others who should not have been in the race to compete – and by the drivers themselves for being too proud (or maybe too dumb?) to realize that they should have sat in the grandstands.
NASCAR doesn’t allow unproven drivers to race at Daytona, and ACT should not have allowed just anyone to race at New Hampshire. No excuses. None.
Next, the in-race officiating was, quite simply, off.
A hard wreck on the backstretch between Andy Seuss and Mark Jenison after the initial green flag collected several others, leading to a lengthy cleanup delay.
With no laps officially complete, Chris Riendeau got turned around on the frontstretch on the restart. Riendeau was the only driver involved, there was no debris, and there were no problems anywhere else on the track.
What should have been a simple hurry-up yellow as daylight quickly turned to darkness turned into an agonizing delay as race control tried to get the lineup straight. Eight 1.058-mile-long laps were run under yellow – still with no official laps on the board – before the restart order was ready. Apples to apples, that would be just shy of 34 caution laps at Thunder Road to get the restart order right.
With the death of Tom Curley this May, and without his leadership both at and away from the track, ACT has had to juggle people this year to fill in here and there; that is absolutely understandable, and is something that I sympathize with greatly. It’s way-less-than-easy to find good people to fill in for Curley, and ACT has done its best this year.
But I don’t care who is race directing – even if it’s their first time in the tower (and it wasn’t this guy’s first time in the tower by a long shot, even with ACT) – the electronic scoring transponders can pretty much lead you through anything.
For example, I’m a mouth-breathing dolt and I hand-scored a whole night at Devil’s Bowl recently without the benefit of transponders and got the majority of the lineups done correctly in three laps or less.
In my head at Loudon, I could hear Curley yelling on the radio: “GODDAMMIT, DROP THE FOUR-V-T TO THE TAIL, COMPLETE RESTART, GIMME THE LINEUP!” and we’d have been back racing in two laps at the most.
Instead, more than a few restless fans booed while waiting under yellow, cheered when flagman Mike Wilder gave the field the “one to go” signal, and then got up and left when Gaudreault stuffed it in the fence one lap later. Thank goodness they weren’t around for the end.
That brings me back to the drivers – and this pertains to the “good” guys who should have known better: Just about everyone drove like idiots and should be ashamed of themselves.
I can’t remember which Tom Carey it was – Junior or The Third – but one of them made a save on one of the restarts that lasted from the frontstretch to Turn 2 because he was getting shoved by some leadfoot with a big right-front fender… for, like, 15th place… on lap 1.
Most of the big-shot contenders (and a lot of the guys who had no chance at all) were pulling the trigger and getting bumper-happy or going three-, four-, and even five-wide on restarts BEFORE THE START/FINISH LINE, which is just asinine. Eddie MacDonald, Patrick Laperle, Jimmy Hebert, Dillon Moltz, and a whole lot more were guilty of it.
I watched MacDonald lag way back on one restart, purposefully fall three car-lengths behind the car in front of him, then hammer the gas and (try to) be a hero before he got to the frontstretch. It would’ve worked, except that Aaron Fellows threw a timely block and MacDonald had to jack the brakes to save them both from wrecking, losing all of his momentum. Serves him right, I say.
Drivers, have some damn respect for the race, for the fans, for your car owners, and for each other. Play by the rules, both written and unwritten. Take 100 extra feet and relax for crying out loud. There would have been far more than 18 embarrassing laps completed without those sophomoric moves and the wrecks that followed them. If you don’t believe me ask Mike Ziter and Ray Christian – the guys who got turned around out of the top five and stuffed into the sand barrels coming to the green on lap 12, which stopped the race FOR FORTY-FIVE MINUTES for cleanup.
Hebert and winner Woody Pitkat (ACT fans are still asking “Woody who?”) played games on a couple of restarts, which not only took away daylight and time from the end of the race, but I believe that it cost Hebert the win. Hebert posted something on Facebook about a clutch problem early in the race costing him momentum on restarts, but it sure didn’t hurt him under green as he blasted through the field from 27th place in less than 15 laps.
There was no denying that Hebert had the best car and was going to win the race. Hebert, instead, didn’t relax and those two failed restart attempts on lap 18 screwed him out of the win. Had he just accepted the circumstances and dealt with the situation – like he did when he won at Sanair in 2013 while driving one-handed because he had to physically hold the car in gear the whole race – he would have had a couple of extra laps to officially put Pitkat away and drive off with the victory that he deserved both last year and this year.
Look, I get it. It’s Loudon. It’s probably the last one. It’s getting dark and it’s time to go-go-freaking-go.
But it didn’t work, and that play never will.
Frankly, Hebert winning the race would’ve made the whole thing feel a little bit better because he’s “one of us” on the ACT circuit and not a Modified-driving-Connecticut-outsider like Pitkat.
(At this point, I will say that Woody Pitkat is not unlike the late Teddy Christopher, and is one of the best drivers that Vermont Late Model fans have never heard of. Woody Pitkat should be welcomed with open arms any time he wants to try an ACT race. We, as ACT followers, should be begging drivers like Woody Pitkat to come race. I digress.)
So, then, that brings us to that god-awful confusing finish order. You might hate this opinion, but I applaud ACT for getting it 100 percent right.
“How,” they’re all asking, “does Kyle Welch wreck, miss two restarts, and still finish third? Eddie MacDonald seventh after pitting? What is this madness? FAVORITISM!”
This is where long-time ACT fans have selective memory and non-ACT fans get confused. Since caution laps do not count in ACT races, the running order was frozen at the completion of the last full green-flag lap – lap 18. That’s when my boy James Capps III spun out.
The running order at the end of lap 18, and the subsequent restart order at that point, was this: Pitkat, Hebert, Welch, Joel Monahan, Fellows, Josh Masterson, MacDonald, Bucky Demers, Adam Gray, and Tom Carey Jr. for the top 10.
The official finish order is the same. “BUT WHY?” you scream as you throw your phone across the bathroom. (I’m not stupid enough to think that this 2,900-word opus is above toilet-reading.)
Yes, there was a restart after Jeff Marshall wrecked, but there were no laps completed.
Yes, Welch got wrecked after another restart, along with MacDonald, Masterson, Demers, and Gray, but there were no laps completed.
Yes, there was yet another restart attempt (two more, actually), but – again – there were no laps completed.
With real, actual darkness blanketing the speedway, the field was told to go single-file and follow the pace car down pit road. That was it, the race was over. Lap 18 stands.
“BUT THEY DIDN’T GET TO HALFWAY! IT’S NOT AN OFFICIAL RACE! AAARRRGGGGHHHHTNSDVNWEROI843834NV&%#*^239VNWW797WMWJNWHHHH!!!!!!11”
And what do you expect everyone to do, wait overnight and finish that horror show at 9:00 on Sunday morning before the Cup race? Come back in October for 32 laps? Ain’t happenin’. It is what it is, and what it is, is over. Let’s all move on.
Saturday was a terrible ending to what had been THE highlight of the American-Canadian Tour season for almost a decade. Every series, every track, and every driver has a bad night once a year. It just so happened that everyone had theirs all at the same time during the ninth annual ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday, September 23, 2017. If you were there, you’ll never forget it. If you weren’t, you’ll ask about it for years.
Even with a weaker field, most of the green-flag racing was as exciting on Saturday as it was every year. The yellows and reds were historically bad, and the timing for this potato salad of a race to expire was unbelievably bad.
The fact that Tom Curley won’t be there to scream at everyone in the pit meeting for the Milk Bowl this coming weekend makes it suck a little more.
My heart and my appreciation goes out to everyone who poured literally decades of effort into making this race work. You didn’t deserve for it to end like it did.
But, man, we had a good run for a while there, didn’t we? Let’s be happy we ever had the opportunity.
(Guy Laroche photo)