PHOTO: Dave Pembroke (right) and team celebrate their 2011 Thunder Road track championship on Friday night. (Leif Tillotson photo)
BARRE — Dave Pembroke swore up and down that racing at Thunder Road was all about luck. He wore a t-shirt with the word “lucky” on it.
The Montpelier driver needed the luck, but he also needed a race car that would perform. He had neither.
After switching from the American-Canadian Tour Chevrolet 603 “spec” engine to Ford’s new S347JR powerplant — and the corresponding chassis changes that went along with it — the former champion struggled mightily. With just two top-ten finishes through his first seven starts, Pembroke decided it was time for his “lucky” shirt to find something else to do.
“I threw that away. I don’t wear that anymore,” Pembroke said. “Luck helped me a little bit, but we had to get better before the luck was a part of it. We weren’t any good. We couldn’t rely on luck.”
Pembroke’s crew members went to work to try to turn their season around and did so in a big way with back-to-back victories on July 7 and again in the double-points Mid-Season Championship on July 14. The wins vaulted Pembroke from 11th in the point standings to the lead in a matter of seven days.
Suddenly the luck started to come back to Pembroke. Combined with a few miscues from point leaders John Donahue, Phil Scott, and Nick Sweet, Pembroke became established at the top of the heap, and on Friday night he sealed up his second “King of the Road” Late Model championship.
“We just had to figure [the car] out, and we did and it was good. We were struggling and we were searching, and John was really good at that point,” Pembroke said. “We had to go after it and find what was missing. Now it drives good. We can adjust a little bit here and there and make it better. It’s a lot of work, but we figured it out and it’s good.”
Entering Friday’s Aubuchon Hardware 100 event with a 38-point lead over Donahue and 45 points on both Scott and Sweet, Pembroke showed early how good his car was by driving from seventh on the outside lane to win his qualifying heat. Donahue, Scott, and Sweet mustered no better than fourth place in their heat races, giving Pembroke a 48-point cushion before the feature race.
Scott, a three-time Thunder Road champion and the sitting Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, did his part by dominating the main event and becoming the first known high-ranking elected government official to win a stock car race. Donahue posted a top-five finish, and defending champion Sweet recovered from an early crash that damaged his car to finish tenth.
Pembroke, though, rode patiently for the first half of the race, waged an entertaining battle with Donahue and Jamie Fisher, and eventually finished seventh. Scott moved into second place in the standings, but Pembroke held on for a 36-point margin of victory for the title, his second since 2007.
“It’s a relief,” Pembroke said. “It’s nice to win one, but to win a couple is awesome, [especially] to start off a little rocky and come off the champion at the end.”
It had been the opposite for a handful of years, Pembroke said.
“We’ve been coming out really good and had the point lead at mid-season for the last I don’t know how many years only to not win the title,” he said. Thunder Road tradition stipulates that the mid-season point leader takes part in the annual “Port-A-Potty Grand Prix” push cart race every year, an event Pembroke has been in seemingly every season for the last half-decade. “Finally the port-a-potty race was worth doing this year,” he chuckled.
Pembroke’s championship effort was sponsored by long-time backers Vermont State Employees Credit Union, Cabot Creamery, Kurrle Fuels, Tech Group, BAP, and Perry’s Service Station, along with new sponsors Lamoille Valley Ford, Twin State Ford, and Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center. The championship was the first for a Ford-powered car at Thunder Road since Scott’s 1998 crown.
The title, Pembroke says, is something he and others can look back and remember as the years go by. Pembroke thought of the granite monuments that are scattered around the speedway honoring winners of championships and important races.
“Any time you can win something like that, your name is in the granite again. They can’t take it away from you,” he said. “You build your history. You’re not here for a long time, so you do what you can while you’re here.”