Pat Malone and Cris Michaud have certainly spent some money in their two years as the owners of Barre’s Thunder Road. New pavement, new lights, new concessions, new pits.
Virtually nobody saw that new wall coming, though. Two weeks before Sunday’s Community Bank 150 season opener, the internet went berserk as news and photos leaked. Many fans claimed that the place had been ruined for all of eternity. (Remember: Some people were also upset about new lights being installed last year, apparently preferring to barely be able to see the racing.)
Thunder Road sure looks different now, but it hasn’t lost any of its charm. It’s still Thunder Road, still the “nation’s site of excitement,” and still the same place you’ve always known. I watched every division very intently on Sunday, searching for signs that the wall had changed the racing or the way that drivers approach things.
It didn’t. Not even a little bit.
I know for a fact that the late Tom Curley would never have built a wall out of fear of changing the racing, but I’d argue that his construction of a wider backstretch in 1994 changed things far more than the new wall will. This is not a knock against Mr. Curley, but that 10 extra feet of pavement drastically changed the racing line. If anything, this new wall might bring the line a tiny bit closer to where it used to be.
Does the wall change the crashes? Yes, absolutely. There’s less runoff room — the only choice is the infield now — and surely there will be a few more cars that get torn up over the course of the season. However, several people incorrectly blamed a large pileup in the Street Stock division on the backstretch wall, even though there were only two or three cars (out of about 10) that hit it.
Was I skeptical about the wall? Maybe at first. After having seen it in action, though — and the other construction projects in progress, including improved seating and amenities in Turns 3 and 4 — I’m not even a little bit concerned. Neither are the racers, apparently, judging by the car counts.
Thunder Road had been in desperate need of being brought into racing’s modern age, and this should be the beginning of the finishing touches.
I’ve discussed this a few times with Cris Michaud: I’m over the American-Canadian Tour’s plus-minus handicap system. It was fun for awhile, but it has far outlived its usefulness and it makes races more predictable than they should be.
The system rewards performance in qualifying: The more cars that a driver passes in their heat race, the closer to the front they’ll start in the feature; conversely, more positions lost translates to an out-back start. Unfortunately, the system pulls some of the drama out of the main event, because generally the strong cars will start up front and run away with the race, not unlike a time trial format.
Jason Corliss is a great driver with a great car and a great team, and at Thunder Road he’s almost an even-money bet to win no matter where he starts. That’s precisely why it wasn’t much fun to see him line up third, knowing that he was probably going to have an easy day.
Nick Sweet had a hard time in qualifying and started 21st in the 150, and it was entertaining to watch him drive to second. The problem is that he abused his tires so much while passing 19 cars and lapped traffic, that he had nothing left to make a run late in the going, while Corliss had a trouble-free race up front and drove away. (Imagine seeing them battle from the back together for 150 laps and then deciding the win at the line.)
There are certainly times when the plus-minus creates a starting lineup that throws off a barnburner of a race, and other times when a mid-pack racer gets a lucky break to earn a plus-6 in their heat and ends up with a good day because they’ve started on the pole. Those situations are nice, but they’re rare.
In the three ACT races this year, the winners have started fourth (Joey Polewarczyk at Richmond), third (Bryan Kruczek at Oxford), and third (Corliss). The average starting spot for race winners last year was 7.6, and the worst starting position for a winner was 12th, when Jimmy Hebert won at White Mountain, and Hebert started that far back only because ACT has a rule that drivers can’t start better than 10th following their first win of the season.
All that said, do I have a better solution? I’m not sure that I do.
Prior to the debut of the plus-minus in September 2004, ACT used a three-race handicap average that placed fast cars in the rear, like many weekly tracks. Drivers who finished well over the previous weeks started near the back, while those who hadn’t started up front. (Drivers making one-off starts usually started out back.) That system provided constant passing as different groups of drivers rose and fell through the field. In 12 such races that year, five were won by drivers who started 13th or worse (including two from 19th place) and only three races were won by a driver who started in the top five.
It was a good system, but times have changed. There are only 10-12 regulars who attend every ACT race these days, and handicapping them would place them all up front, with 16-18 one-off starters behind them. That type of system is impractical, and penalizing the drivers making a one-off start discourages participation.
A system like the one at the Oxford 250 uses a random draw for heats with a heads-up start for the feature based on heat finishes. The winner of the first heat starts on pole for the feature, the winner of the second heat starts second, and so on. It has its positives, but it’s far from a perfect system and can also lead to runaways.
I liked the system at the ACT Invitational exhibition race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway: A handicap with four draw bags for different groups based on speed and experience — so-so racers, solid mid-packers, star drivers and field fillers, in that order, front to back. That system was wild and often led to the top guns starting 30th or worse, but it’s a totally subjective system that can easily be deemed unfair. (A similar system existed on the former Série ACT-Castrol in Québec about a decade ago, but that tour was an almost-exclusive club of the same 18-20 cars per race.)
I might suggest a random draw for heat lineups, then take a set number of the top heat finishers and do a re-draw for starting position, or maybe even a 10-lap pole position shootout.
Still, I’d rather watch the stars start toward the rear and earn their wins the hard way. I don’t mean to take a thing away from Jason Corliss or the Burnett team, because they work hard and deserve tons of credit, but there just wasn’t much exciting about this win. That’s simply a flaw of the system.
Again, I’m not sure that I have the right answer. Do you have any suggestions? Send me an email at email@example.com and we can discuss it.
Bear Ridge Speedway – Bradford
LAST WEEK: Robert Tucker, of Topsham, won Saturday’s DIRTcar Sportsman Modified race to open the season, with Fair Haven’s Bob Kilburn winning in the Sportsman Coupes. Seth Carlson, of Brimfield, Mass., won the USAC Dirt Midget Association race, while Kelly Miller, of Johnson, took the Limited Late Model win. Barre’s Kevin LaForest was a first-time winner in the Four Cylinder division. THIS WEEK: Racing is Saturday at 6 p.m. with the Sprint Cars of New England and the Granite State Mini Sprints highlighting the card.
Devil’s Bowl Speedway – West Haven
THIS WEEK: Practice sessions are scheduled for 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. The racing season opens on Sunday, May 19.
Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl – Barre
THIS WEEK: Thunder Road is off until the Memorial Day Classic on Sunday, May 26.
Airborne Park Speedway – Plattsburgh, N.Y.
LAST WEEK: Travis Bruno won the DIRTcar Sportsman Series 50-lap main and Luke Whitteker won the 358 Modified feature. THIS WEEK: Racing is Saturday at 6 p.m.
Albany-Saratoga Speedway – Malta, N.Y.
LAST WEEK: Rained out THIS WEEK: After three consecutive rainouts, the season opens Friday at 7 p.m.
Claremont Speedway – Claremont, N.H.
LAST WEEK: Joey Doiron won Friday’s Granite State Pro Stock Series race at the season opener, and Todd Patnode took the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Sportsman Modified feature. THIS WEEK: Racing is Friday at 7 p.m.
Fonda Speedway – Fonda, N.Y.
LAST WEEK: Rookie Dave Constantino was a first-time Modified winner on Saturday night, and Adam McAuliffe won the Sportsman Modified feature. THIS WEEK: Racing is Saturday at 7 p.m.
Lebanon Valley Speedway – West Lebanon, N.Y.
LAST WEEK: J.R. Heffner topped the Big Block Modifieds on Saturday as Andy Bachetti won the Small Block feature. THIS WEEK: Racing is Saturday at 5 p.m.
Monadnock Speedway – Winchester, N.H.
SEASON OPENER: Saturday, May 25
RumTown Speedway – Rumney, N.H.
LAST WEEK: Rained out THIS WEEK: After back-to-back rainouts, the season opens Friday at 7 p.m.
Speedway 51 – Groveton, N.H.
SEASON OPENER: Sunday, May 19
White Mountain Motorsports Park – North Woodstock, N.H.