-by Justin St. Louis
VMM Editor

I’ve done some thinking. Last weekend’s Merchants Bank 150 at Thunder Road was a great event, even if the racing wasn’t necessarily spectacular.

There are a lot of people — fans, media, racers, whomever — who don’t care for the pomp and circumstance that Tom Curley draws up for every season opener (or Milk Bowl or Governor’s Cup or Port-A-Potty Grand Prix or whatever), but the bagpipes and the pageantry are as much a part of Thunder Road as the wall or the maple trees or the race cars.

It’s rare that any race at any track features just a single caution, but it happened at the Merchants Bank 150. Oh well. The story was fun for the locals — hometown kid Nick Sweet opens the defense of his track title by winning his second-straight season opener — and fans from far away who maybe hadn’t heard much about Sweet got to see him at his best.

Aside from the 150-lap main event itself, the show was a home run: Qualifying for the American-Canadian Tour — with some 50 cars in town — was fast-paced, exciting, and meaningful. The support divisions had plenty of cars, entertaining racing, and a few decent wrecks. Like so many outsiders before him, New Hampshire’s Jeff Labrecque hit the ‘Widowmaker’ wall and got upside down in one of his first trips to the track. The weather was Chamber of Commerce stuff. And seeing over 100 brightly colored race cars packed into in the infield during the “Class Day” ceremony was as cool as it’s always been.

So it wasn’t the best ACT race of all-time. Big deal. Maybe it’s just me, but I still had fun.


Bear Ridge Speedway opens its gates on Saturday, thank goodness.

The Bradford quarter-mile is not only Vermont’s last dirt-track vestige, it’s also New England’s only DIRTcar-sanctioned facility. Heck, for that matter, there’s only one other dirt track even close to this part of the region, now that Big Daddy’s Speedbowl and Whip City Speedway have both closed.

Bear Ridge — and while, yes, I am going to be handling some of the announcing duties there this summer, I say this without bias — is one the fastest-growing tracks in the northeast. In 2008, a “good” field of cars in the headline Sportsman Modified class was eight. This year, promoter C.V. Elms anticipates 20 or more cars every week, which may necessitate a last-chance qualifying race at some events. The blessing from DIRTcar and the Charlotte, N.C.-based World Racing Group only adds credibility to the program.

Adam Pierson — at 27 years old — just wrapped up his sixth track championship and could very well win the Mr. DIRTcar title this year. But he’s not the only talented kid racing at Bear Ridge; Jason Gray, Justin Comes, Mike Dunn, Derek Graham, and Josh Sunn, are as good as they get. And veterans like Jack Cook, Jim Morgan, and three-time champion Gary Siemons are as tough as ever.

Plus, where the heck else are you going to see Coupe-bodied race cars banging nerf bars and going three-wide in a legitimate race?

The annual car show is at the Bradford Mini Mart from 10am to 1pm, and the racing begins at 6pm. Do yourself a favor and check out The Ridge this year.


One of the fun parts of the Merchants Bank 150 was the effort put together by Ben Ashline of Pittston, Maine.

Running on a shoestring budget, the 20 year-old is trying to put together a full-season rookie run with the ACT Late Model Tour. On a day when veterans like Cris Michaud, Joey Laquerre, Jamie Fisher, Mike Bruno, and Ricky Rolfe failed to qualify, Ashline hauled into Thunder Road for the first time and impressed from the start.

Not only did he qualify for the main event, he won a consolation race, remained competitive throughout the feature, and notched an eighth-place finish.

“It’s the same way every weekend. You go in hoping for the best and expect the worst. You work hard. We’ve spent a lot of time on the car these past two weeks,” Ashline said. “The car was good out of the trailer so we didn’t have the struggles that some of these teams had fighting their cars early on.”

Ashline said he set a simple goal for racing at Thunder Road: Don’t wreck the car.

“We didn’t see the bad side of this track,” he said. “Eventually I’m sure I’ll encounter the ‘Widowmaker’, but that was one of my goals — come down, make the race, and don’t hit the Widowmaker, and I did that. This [finish] is icing on the cake, I’m ecstatic.”

The next stop for the ACT Late Model Tour is Oxford Plains Speedway, where Ashline cut his racing teeth. He said he hopes he’s able to ride the wave from Thunder Road to Oxford and beyond.

“We’re about as low-budget as you can get,” Ashline said. “We’ve got some great sponsors on here — D.S. Norton Construction, Vertex has helped us with the lettering decals, T.H. Creations with the website, and LA Harley-Davidson — but about ninety percent of the funding comes out of my own back pocket. To come down here and run with these competitors and this kind of competition, this is just unreal.

“I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome for this weekend. I’m really hoping we can carry some of this momentum into Oxford. We’re quick at Oxford, we made some big gains with this thing last year and picked up our first victory over there, so I’m excited. The crew is pumped, and we’ll see what happens, I guess.”


If I see a show even half as good as the one the Valenti Modified Racing Series threw off at Monadnock Speedway last weekend during the rest of this summer, I’ll be surprised.

There isn’t much I can say here that will do justice to the competitiveness of the race — there were four, five, or six cars fighting for the lead for more than half of the 100-lap feature, and three drivers led in the final 11 laps — but the VMRS staff and teams should be very proud of their effort. Seriously.

And the “plus/minus” handicap system has done wonders for the series, by the way.

(Leif Tillotson photo)