–by T.J. Ingerson (@TJIngerson)
BARRE — They call the Milk Bowl the “Toughest Short Track Stock Car Race in North America” because it is. To win the Milk Bowl, a driver has to be nearly perfect.
Derrick O’Donnell put together a near-perfect Milk Bowl one year ago and led Nick Sweet by five points entering the final segment. But one miscalculation — tire strategy — likely cost O’Donnell the Milk Bowl and handed Sweet the victory in one of Thunder Road’s most thrilling moments in recent history.
The driver that wins the Milk Bowl is truly the overall best on that weekend. They had the perfect combination of car, driver, team, strategy, and luck.
Winning the Milk Bowl doesn’t start at the drop of the green flag on Sunday. The first real test to comes at 1:00pm on Saturday for single car time trial qualifying.
Each driver will run two laps against the clock in which their best lap is the lap of record. The three fastest drivers will lock themselves into the 54th Northfield Savings Bank Milk Bowl.
How important is time trial qualifying? Five of the last six Milk Bowl winners have come from inside the top-three.
After time trials, the field is split up into three near-equal fields and each run a 50-lap qualifying race. Finishing in the top-five in a qualifying race will punch a ticket into the 54th Milk Bowl.
Failed to qualifying through your 50-lap qualifying race? Well, if you are of the eight fastest drivers during time trials that remains unqualified, you’re now in. But, you face an uphill climb. Why? The last time a driver won from a double digit qualifying spot was 2004 with Cris Michaud, who started 16th.
Drivers that remain not qualified have one shot to earn their spot. But they’ll have to try to sleep through Saturday night and dream up what to do in Sunday’s last chance qualifier where only the winner transfer.
After the last chance qualifier, math comes into play on a driver’s chances of making the Milk Bowl. Finished inside the top-20 in Thunder Road Late Model points or ran the entire ACT Late Model Tour or Serie ACT Quebec seasons and you might find yourself in a provisional and become one of 30 starters.
Below is the breakdown of how the 54th Milk Bowl will be transformed on Saturday and Sunday.
1st – Time Trials – 1st
2nd – Time Trials – 2nd
3rd – Time Trials – 3rd
4th – 50-lap Qualifier 1 – 1st
5th – 50-lap Qualifier 2 – 1st
6th – 50-lap Qualifier 3 – 1st
7th – 50-lap Qualifier 1 – 2nd
8th – 50-lap Qualifier 2- 2nd
9th – 50-lap Qualifier 3 – 2nd
10th – 50-lap Qualifier 1 – 3rd
11th – 50-lap Qualifier 2 – 3rd
12th – 50-lap Qualifier 3 – 3rd
13th – 50-lap Qualifier 1 – 4th
14th – 50-lap Qualifier 2 – 4th
15th – 50-lap Qualifier 3 – 4th
16th – 50-lap Qualifier 1 – 5th
17th – 50-lap Qualifier 2 – 5th
18th – 50-lap Qualifier 3 – 5th
19th – Time Trials – fastest not qualified
20th – Time Trials – fastest not qualified
21st – Time Trials – fastest not qualified
22nd – Time Trials – fastest not qualified
23rd – Time Trials – fastest not qualified
24th – Time Trials – fastest not qualified
25th – Time Trials – fastest not qualified
26th – Time Trials – fastest not qualified
27th – Last Chance Qualifier – 1st
28th – Thunder Road Top 20 provisional*
29th – ACT Late Model Tour 100% provisional*
30th – Serie ACT Quebec 100% provisional *
(* — provisionals only available if at least five eligible are in attendance)
Then, the Sunday fun begins.
An opening ceremony that typically features the Catamount Pipe Band and Norwich Drill Team, along with the presentation of the drivers, cars, and teams. Then the first of three 50-lap segments.
A shortlist of potential Milk Bowl winners is created after segment number one. And then, the first big decision of a race team’s day — do they put their new tires on now or wait until the third segment. Wait until segment three and risk being kept out, or put on for segment two and risk a final segment that may lose a driver the Milk Bowl.
Whatever a team decides, a 24-car invert based on segment one finishing order takes place and the green flag waves for segment two. A smaller list of contenders is then created.
Another 24-car invert and another green flag, this time with a handful of drivers at most with a legitimate opportunity to kiss the cow.
One more green flag to start the final 50-lap segment. And when the checkered flag flies, one winner.
The overall winner of the Milk Bowl will have to likely drive his way through the field twice. The overall winner of the Milk Bowl will have played the perfect strategy with tires. The overall winner of the Milk Bowl will have had his team give him the best opportunity.
The overall winner of the Milk Bowl will be the the most perfect of his his competitor. He or She will have earned the Milk Bowl win.
And their name on a piece of granite forever enshrined in history.
PHOTO: The Milk Bowl is one of America’s toughest short track races to win. On Sunday, another driver will add their name to the granite monument that signifies Milk Bowl victors. (Alan Ward photo)