tigers

Drivers compete last year in the Flying Tigers division at Thunder Road.

BARRE — The Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel Flying Tigers are ready to open the 2019 championship battle at Thunder Road on May 5 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the Community Bank N.A. 150.

Early indications are that it could be one of the largest, most wide-open battles in years with numerous drivers capable of earning the crown. Craftsbury Common’s Joel Hodgdon ran away with the Tiger championship in 2018. However, Hodgdon has moved up to the Late Models for 2019, leaving the title open.

And there are lots of drivers looking to claim it. More than 40 drivers have already submitted Flying Tiger license applications between Thunder Road and White Mountain Motorsports Park. With most top runners returning and many others joining the weekly Thunder Road wars, a big season is taking shape for the track’s longest-running division.

The returning class is a diverse mix of longtime veterans and relative newcomers. Grand Isle’s Joe Steffen leads the veteran pack. The 2003 Tiger Champion enjoyed his best season in years in 2018, finishing second in points with two wins. He is back for his 30th season at Thunder Road and 28th in the Flying Tigers.

“We’re feeling pretty good,” Steffen said. “We’re not really going to change the car any, obviously — we had it rolling pretty well last year. We’re hoping to just pick up where we left off. We’d struggled in previous years, so last year we decided we were going to throw the kitchen sink at it and see what works. ... We finally hit on something that was working and stuck with it.”

Several other stalwarts will be in the running. Craftsbury Common’s Mike Martin has a Myers Container Service Triple Crown Series championship and is desperately trying to add a track title. Milton’s Robert Gordon has won Super Stock championships around the region and continues to improve at Thunder Road. Essex’s Mike Billado looks to rebound from a tough 2018 campaign. Barre’s Cameron Ouellette has been battling health issues but still plans to race. Waterbury’s Jason Woodard, a two-time champion, is currently uncertain whether he is running the full season, but he will surely be a factor.

They will have to hold off an ever-growing crop of up-and-comers. All of last year’s Flying Tiger rookie class will return, led by 2018 Rookie of the Year Brandon Lanphear. The Morrisville driver earned a surprising win in the first Triple Crown Series event and then showed it was no fluke by finishing third in points.

“The biggest goal this year is to have fun,” Lanphear said. “But I definitely want to win some races. I also want to finish every race this year. Last year I had some mechanical issues that kind of put a damper on some of the races. But I feel like I ran well enough last year to hopefully contend for a championship this year and win. In order to finish first, first you must finish, so that’s the goal.”

Waterbury’s Kelsea Woodard, Hinesburg driver Cooper Bouchard and Waitsfield’s Kevin Streeter are also racers to watch. Woodard was the Doc Nielsen Outstanding Rookie Award winner in 2018 while Bouchard scored two wins. All three finished in the top 12 in points last year and are looking for more.

The junior class of Flying Tiger racers is just as strong. Waterbury’s Kyle Streeter and Calais’ Tyler Austin each earned two wins in 2018 while finishing fourth and sixth in points, respectively. Others, such as East Burke’s Colin Cornell, Georgia’s Brett Wood and Williamstown’s Mike MacAskill showed flashes in 2018 and will try to put a full season together.

A number of other drivers are joining the Flying Tigers. Craftsbury Common’s Stephen Martin, the 2018 Allen Lumber Street Stock Champion, leads this year’s crop of first-year racers. He’ll be joined by fellow Street Stock graduate Logan Powers.

“I like to see that (the Tigers) have rebounded over the last couple seasons,” Steffen said. “That’s pretty nice. We were getting a little nervous about the division, but it’s rebounded quite nicely.”

Lanphear said the racing in the Tigers is either equal to or better than the Late Model racing.

“There’s a lot of new drivers coming up this year and a lot of the old faces that have been around for 15-20 years,” he said. “It will definitely be interesting to see what happens.”

Opening weekend begins with the annual Thunder Road Car Show on May 4 from 9 a.m. to noon. Cars will be parked on the track and fans will be treated to face painting, a bounce house and live music from local band Rumblecaddy. An open practice will follow from 1 to 5 p.m.

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