-by Justin St. Louis

A fifteen-person panel – including media members from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Québec, officials from the American-Canadian Tour and Thunder Road, and a pair of die-hard race fans – have compiled their efforts to decide the “Top 25 ACT Drivers of 2007.”  The criteria for each panelist were simple: 1. Using your personal opinion, create a list of the ten ACT/Thunder Road drivers that you felt stood head and shoulders above the rest in 2007; and 2. Rank them in order.

From there, the 25 drivers receiving the most votes and/or praise would be ranked against the others, with an additional ten on the list of racers that missed it by “this much.”  The intent was, in theory, to pit ACT Late Model Tour Champion Jean-Paul Cyr against, say, Power Shift Online Junkyard Warrior Champion Bunker Hodgdon, at least on paper.  Also included were the Série ACT Castrol and Thunder Road’s weekly Late Model, NAPA Tiger Sportsman, and Allen Lumber Street Stock divisions.

All told, 79 drivers received at least one vote!

The list stems from an idea originally put together by this column’s author in 2003, and invited a large,
regionally diverse group to take part in it for the first time this year.  (It should be noted that one
participant went the extra distance, creating a list of 10 drivers for each of ACT’s six divisions and series, and a handful weighed overall attitude into their selections, as well.)  Each week, we will look at five drivers in the 2007 list, starting here with positions 25 through 21.

Without further ado, here are the first five honorees in the “Top 25 ACT Drivers of 2007”…

25. Matt White, #42 White’s Heating/Bethel Central Market Chevrolet NAPA Tiger Sportsman.  (Top 10 votes: 4)

It’s hard to believe that just three short years ago, Matt White had just made his Junkyard Warrior debut after winning the M&M Beverage Enduro 200 at Thunder Road.  How far has he come?  Try a starting berth in the 44th Annual Chittenden Milk Bowl, the first time he ever sat in a Late Model car.  In the mean time, White was a championship contender for the second-straight year in the Sportsman ranks, winning twice and giving fans plenty to talk about after ruffling some feathers on more than one occasion.

Dave Moody, Thunder Road announcer, MRN Radio personality: “(Matt has) a load of natural talent behind the wheel. Experience will allow him to temper his naturally aggressive style, and when he does, the championships will come.” Moody’s “naturally aggressive” comment is merited – White’s father, Wayne, drove the “Crazy 8” Flying Tiger to his share of thrills, spills, and victories in the 1980s.  Matt made highlight reels on local television with his jaunt off Turn 3 in July, and subsequent, um, discussion with a fellow competitor in the moments following.  Seems as though Papa Wayne’s flair for the dramatic was handily passed on to his boy.

Pete Hartt, Sports Editor at the Barre-Montpelier, VT Times Argus: “There were nights when it looked like Matt could have driven a go-kart to the front, he was that good.”

It would seem, though, that young White’s high level of driving talent is also a second-generation trait.  It’s not every day you see a driver as exciting to watch like White has the ability to be.  The next generation’s answer to Eric Williams, perhaps.

24. John Donahue, #26 National Guard Ford ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 4)

It’s no secret that “Irish” John Donahue has become one of the most popular drivers at Thunder Road.  That was obvious in his days as a multi-time Tiger Sportsman champion.  But it’s also no secret that when the timing is right, there may not be anyone as good as Donahue.  Driving for new team owner Kendell Roberts and a high-profile sponsor in the National Guard, Donahue put together some memorable moments in 2007, including his first career ACT Late Model Tour victory on Labor Day weekend.

Travis Barrett, Kennebec Journal & Central Maine Morning Sentinel:  “If there’s one thing I like, it’s drivers who rise to the occasion.  Donahue not only won one of the biggest races of the season – the Bond Auto Labor Day Classic 200 – but he also won at Oxford Plains Speedway in an emotional win for a guy that used to drive long hours round trip just to race a Strictly Stock there back in the day. I’m telling you, you can’t write a better story than that one.”

Donahue’s L/A Harley-Davidson Challenge victory at OPS was indeed an emotional one.  Early in the 2000s, Donahue would make the long trip from Graniteville, VT to the Maine oval each week, racing an entry-level Strictly to more than his share of checkered flags.  Since then, however, Donahue had struggled at Oxford behind the wheel of a Late Model.  His 100-lap score there in June was proof that he hadn’t lost his touch there, and his 200-lap Super Series win at Thunder Road established him as a solid ACT-level threat for years to come.

23. Mike Martin, #01 E.H. Danson/John’s Gun Shop Ford Allen Lumber Street Stock.  (Top 10 votes: 3; First-place votes: 1)

Street Stocker Mike Martin received a first-place vote in the balloting based his non-stop “nice guy” demeanor, but Martin was a bit of criminal at the Mekkelsen RV Memorial Day Classic at Thunder Road in May, stealing his first victory of the season.  In one of the most exciting moments of any race held in any division in 2007, Martin ran fourth on the final lap, but was in the catbird seat as the two race leaders took each other out.  The former Warrior champion dove from the far outside lane to the low groove, passing the spinning leader, the offending second-place driver, and third-place man Josh Demers to take the victory.

Pete Hartt: “It seems like whenever he was on the track, Mike Martin was always driving very, very well.  In my opinion, the Street Stocks are the hardest division to succeed in at Thunder Road, and Mike has plenty of success.”

That’s no lie. Martin started the 2007 season with eight-straight finishes of 9th place or better, including a pair of victories, and was playing the part of “Eventual Champion.”  A hard crash in July knocked him from the point lead, but three runner-up finishes in the final five races brought him back up to finish in third place overall.

22. Joel Hodgdon, #36 Watson Real Estate/Tofani’s Used Furniture Chevrolet NAPA Tiger Sportsman.  (Top 10 votes: 4)

Another one of the talented second-generation drivers, former high school basketball standout Joel Hodgdon is the first of three rookie racers to make the Top 25 list.  The 19 year-old outlasted one of the most talent-rich freshman classes the NAPA Tiger Sportsman division has seen in years, and outperformed most of the division’s long- standing veterans to boot.

Bethany Bell, Thunder Road fan: “The kid can drive.”

Alan Ward, photographer and Racin’ Paper columnist: “Joel was very consistent and drove like a veteran most of the time Hodgdon’s “veteran” style was apparent from the get-go.  In a division where not even the champion qualified for every feature race, Hodgdon worked out his rookie bugs early, missing three of the first nine shows.  But in the shows he did make during that time, he finished 8th or better four times, including a podium finish on Ferguson
Waterworks night and 5th place in the WDEV 100.  Oh, and on the night of that tenth race, the Times Argus Mid-Season Championship, Hodgdon won.  It all boiled down to third place in overall point standings and an easy stroll to the Rookie of the Year title.

21. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., #97NH Pole’s Automotive Chevrolet ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 3)

Marc-Patrick Roy, Série ACT Castrol reporter for Speed51.com: “A sentimental favorite since he set the fastest time at the 2006 Milk Bowl, Pole showed more than once he has the talent and the patience to make it at the top.” The future of the American-Canadian Tour record book potentially rests in the hands of young “Joey Pole.”  At just 18 years old, the Hudson, NH driver is already a three year veteran of the Tour, and he has found a way to get around the toughest short tracks in the northeast with the best of ‘em.  In fact, sometimes the “best of ‘em” have all they can do to try to keep up with the diminutive kid.  At the 1/4-mile Seekonk Speedway in August,
Polewarczyk smoked the field, passing perennial ACT champ Jean-Paul Cyr and cruising to his first victory.  But that wasn’t all: 3rd-place honors at the 3/8-mile Oxford Plains in April and 4/10-mile Kawartha Speedway in September, an edge-of-your-seat runner-up showing at tiny White Mountain Motorsports Park in June, and a second consecutive Booth Bros./H.P. Hood Pole Award at Thunder Road’s Chittenden Milk Bowl were all highlights to strong season.  It was recently learned that the youngster will be trying his hand during Speedweeks at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway, racing his ACT-legal Late Model in the week-long “World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing.”


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