PHOTO: Russ Stoehr (#45) leads the NEMA Midgets — and seven other open-wheel divisions — to Vermont this weekend. (Norm Marx photo)

-by Justin St. Louis
VMM Editor

Open wheel fans rejoice! Vermont will be a hotbed for fenderless racing this weekend, as the state hosts open-wheel Midget cars twice on the same weekend, maybe for the first time ever, or at the very least since the 1960s, as well as dirt-style DIRTcar and NASCAR Modifieds, the famous Sportsman Coupes of Bear Ridge Speedway, and the new Northeast Mini Sprint series.

On Saturday, the USAC-sanctioned Dirt Midget Association returns to Bear Ridge in Bradford, where “Flat Foot” Joe Krawiec defeated local favorite Kevin Chaffee with a late pass in the first-ever DMA event last month. Krawiec will square off against former Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Denny Zimmerman, former Thompson 300 winner Ray Miller, and a host of talented racers. (Zimmerman and Miller are both New England Auto Racing Hall of Famers.)

Bear Ridge also hosts its two weekly open-wheel divisions as the 1930s and ‘40s-bodied Sportsman Coupes will have their three-segment “Madness” event and the headline DIRTcar Sportsman Modifieds run a regular event. The new Northeast Mini Sprint series will make its first voyage to Bear Ridge with its 600cc-powered cars, and topping the whole thing off is the Atlantic Coast Old Timers series feature antique open-wheelers running exhibition races.

On Sunday, the famous NEMA Midgets return to Thunder Road in Barre for the first time since 1992, bringing along its younger cousin, the NEMA Lite division. The expectation is that lap times will be near the 12.0-second range, which is more than a full second faster than the top-shelf Late Models that compete weekly at Thunder Road.

The unofficial all-time single-lap record at Thunder Road belongs to NEMA legend Joe Csiki, who toured the quarter-mile in about 11.9 seconds in the early 1960s. By comparison, the all-time record for full-fendered cars is 12.245 seconds, set by Sylvain Metivier’s American-Canadian Tour Pro Stock in 1995 on new asphalt with wide tires and lots of horsepower. The modern-day Late Model record is 12.935 seconds, set by Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., in 2006, and average lap times over the last few years have been in the 13.1/13.2-second range.

NEMA stars Russ Stoehr and Randy Cabral are very accomplished racers, and NEMA Lites division driver Anthony Nocella has won two of the three races this year. NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion and part-time Nationwide Series driver Bobby Santos, III, is a recent NEMA graduate.

And, of course, Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven is in action with its weekly NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Modifieds. Joe Williams’s streak of six NASCAR Modified wins came to an end last week, but he is the clear favorite as the action cranks back up this weekend. He’ll have to deal with the likes of veterans Mike Bruno, Ron Proctor, and defending track champion Don Miller, though, as well as speedy youngsters Hunter Bates, Alex Bell, and Bobby Hackel.

All told Vermont is home to eight open-wheel divisions this weekend, which must be some sort of crazy record. Get out there and check it out!

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NEMA Midgets made their first appearance at Thunder Road in October 1960. Albany, N.Y., driver Bob Hart won the event. Midgets returned twice each in 1961 and ’62, then once each year in 1963-65.

West Wilmington, Conn., driver Joe Csiki won in July 1963, but survived a horrific crash that badly broke both of his legs the next year. From his hospital bed, Csiki said that the Thunder Road wreck was the only time in his life that he was certain he was going to die. He returned to win the Vermont State Midget Championship at Thunder Road in September 1965, but would eventually lose his life in a crash in Pennsylvania two years later.

NEMA returned for a stint in 1991 and 1992, when Massachusetts racers Jeff Horn and Greg Stoehr won in respective years. Sunday’s race will be the 11th Midget race at Thunder Road, and the first for the NEMA Lite division.

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I know that T.J. Ingerson wrote about this in his Under The Hood column this week (read it Friday!), but I’ve got to say something too: Anyone who thinks Richie Evans doesn’t deserve to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame is insane.

Evans’ name being called by NASCAR CEO Brian France on Tuesday as one of the five men that make up the Hall of Fame Class of 2012 — the others being Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Glen Wood, and Dale Inman — sent shock waves through the country.

Most of today’s race fans hadn’t heard of Rome, N.Y., legend Richie Evans, likely because he died in 1985 or because he was never a Sprint Cup Series driver. But Evans won nine national NASCAR Modified championships, 26 track championships at 11 speedways, and something in the neighborhood of 475 feature races during his career (one of which came in an All Star League event at Catamount Stadium in Milton in 1970). His car number, 61, is the only number to ever be retired in NASCAR history. Not even Richard Petty’s or Dale Earnhardt’s car numbers have been retired, and their career statistics — whether earned at the top level of the sport or not — don’t come close to those of Evans.

Simply, Evans is more than deserving of a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Many are up in arms over the timing of his election to the Hall — he is one of the first 15 entrants to the shrine, ahead of names like Red Byron, Joe Weatherly, Curtis Turner, Tim Flock, etc. — but the timing couldn’t be better.

I spoke with Thunder Road co-owner Ken Squier, who is one of the 54 people who has a vote in the NASCAR Hall of Fame each year, on Sunday. Squier asked me who I wanted him to vote for in Charlotte on Tuesday, and without hesitation I suggested Evans. Squier said he and other voters wanted to elect Evans, but that he didn’t think there was enough steam behind the campaign to get “The Rapid Roman” in this year or even in the next several years, saying that the short track racing and non-Cup arms of NASCAR likely wouldn’t get their due for a while.

Fortunately, Squier was wrong this time. I don’t know whether he voted for Richie Evans or not, but fifty percent of the voting panel did, and Evans is now in the NASCAR Hall of Fame where he belongs.

The fact that he is there backs up NASCAR’s original statement that the Hall wouldn’t be exclusive to Cup-level contributors. There may not be another non-Cup name voted in for five or six years, and that’s fine. Jack Ingram, Jerry Cook, and Sam Ard will someday be recognized. Eventually Ron Hornaday, Jack Sprague, and Mike Stefanik will get their due as well, and hopefully five-time national short track champion Larry Phillips will get his, too.

Their inclusion will never diminish the accomplishments of men like Flock, Turner, et al, and are no more or less important. Everyone who deserves a spot will get in at some point. But Evans’ election to the third Hall of Fame class is a monumental breakthrough and an affirmation that overall, NASCAR does in fact care about every facet of its structure and history.

NASCAR got this one right.