-by Justin St. Louis

…And a Happy New Year!  Okay, it’s time to get serious – we’ve reached the first half of the top ten entries in the “Top 25 ACT Drivers of 2007” poll.  Recapping the honorees so far, we’ve seen 11 American-Canadian Tour Late Model division competitors, including drivers from the ACT Late Model Tour, Série ACT Castrol, and Thunder Road weekly wars.  We’ve also seen three NAPA Tiger Sportsman racers and an Allen Lumber Street Stocker.

They are:
25. Matt White, #42 NAPA Tiger Sportsman
24. John Donahue, #26 ACT Late Model
23. Mike Martin, #01 Allen Lumber Street Stock
22. Joel Hodgdon, #36 NAPA Tiger Sportsman
21. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., #97NH ACT Late Model
20. Kip Stockwell, #36 ACT Late Model
19. Joey Laquerre, #15 NAPA Tiger Sportsman
18. Joey Becker, #16 ACT Late Model
17. Donald Theetge, #80 ACT Late Model
16. Eric Williams, #7VT ACT Late Model
15. Brent Dragon, #55VT ACT Late Model
14. Jamie Fisher, #18 ACT Late Model
13. Cris Michaud, #6 ACT Late Model
12. Randy Potter, #02NH ACT Late Model
11. Alexandre Gingras, #27QC ACT Late Model

So who’s left?  340 different drivers earned points in an ACT-sanctioned event last year, and we’ve talked about 15 of them.  Which ten of the remaining 325 were the best ten?  Fifteen media members, track and series officials, and fans have spoken, let’s answer half of that question now with their nominations.

10. Chip Grenier, #9VT Streeter Concrete/Hill Side Mini Storage Ford ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 5)

It was only a matter of time before Chip Grenier graduated from the NAPA Tiger Sportsman division to Thunder Road’s Late Model class, but who knew he would be as good at the top level as he was in the minors?  Many speculated before the season that Grenier – who scraped together just enough cash to purchase the equipment of outgoing “King of the Road” Chad Wheeler – would eventually hold his own, but almost nobody thought it would be an instantaneous thing.

The rookie proved ‘em all wrong by winning his qualifying heat at the season-opening Merchants Bank 150 (over a star-studded lineup that included top racers Joey Pole, Roger Brown, Brian Hoar, Brent Dragon, and Cris Michaud to name a few) and then stringing together Top 10 finishes in each of the first three “regular season” events at The Road.  But he wasn’t done.  With tire budget fundraising help from his friends on Bud Hill, chassis advice from experts Troy Wheeler and Pete Duto, experience on the spotter’s stand from Keith Williams, and the support of his own family team, Grenier posted his first victory on Charter Communications night in July, finished 4th a week later in the CARQUEST Governor’s Cup 100, and then won the prestigious Times Argus Mid-Season Championship to close out the month.

Alan Ward, photographer and Racin’ Paper columnist: “(Chip) produced more than most expected, and on a small budget compared to others.”

Gene Gagne, photographer and operator of OutsideGroove.com: “Chip was as impressive as any Late Model rookie has ever been.  A fan favorite, he never failed to dazzle with hard runs and good clean driving all season.  Chip and his team had great equipment, but lacked the experience that is usually needed to run up front consistently.  They never let that show.  Expect great things in the future here.”

By the end of the season, Grenier had amassed enough points to finish 6th overall, less than 80 markers shy of the  title.  There’s no reason why Chip Grenier couldn’t be Thunder Road Champion in 2008.

9. Dave Pembroke, #44 VT State Employees Credit Union/Cabot Chevrolet ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 5; First-place votes: 1)

It finally happened for David Pembroke in 2007.  King of the Road.  Finally.  It seemed like a certain
inevitability that he would follow his 1999 Sportsman title with a championship in the Late Model ranks, but it was an unlikely bet that it would take eight years.  Pembroke has finished in the Top 10 in Thunder Road points every season since he joined the division in 2000, but had never been #1.  In fact, between the Thunder Road and his days on the ACT Late Model Tour, Pembroke had finished second in points in each of the previous three seasons.  Well, 2007 was his year, and what a year it was.

It’s no secret that the top point drivers in ’07 were seldom seen in victory lane.  Pembroke, in fact, only made two trips to the podium, but they were in the two biggest races of Thunder Road’s regular season – the Mekkelsen RV Memorial Day Classic 100 in May, which he won, and the CARQUEST Governor’s Cup 100 in July, when he finished third after a sensational battle with winner Eric Williams and long-time Pembroke rival Cris Michaud.  But it was consistency that kept him on top; only twice in 14 races was Pembroke worse than 10th, a statistic far better than that of his competition.

Dave Moody, Thunder Road announcer, MRN Radio personality: “(Dave Pembroke is) a consummate points racer who also knows how to win.  He charges when the time is right, and conserves when it's time to conserve. He grew up in the grandstands at Thunder Road, won a Tiger championship there, and outlasted one of the closest fields in history to win the 2007 Late Model title.”

But Pembroke’s chief highlight of the season (Track Championship aside, of course) was his positive change in attitude and his maturation as a competitor.  In a story printed in the Barre-Montpelier (VT) Times Argus in July, Pembroke and Michaud noted that their often tense feud had become much friendlier, and that as hard as they raced each other on the track, they had come to respect each other off it.

“Both of our attitudes have changed for the better,” said Michaud in the article.  “I guess we all forget why we were mad,” said Pembroke.  “(Cris is) a great driver, and he always was, but now we shake hands at the end of the night… in each other’s trailers talking about the race and congratulating each other.”

Maybe it was that weight lifted off of Pembroke’s shoulders that helped him capture the title.  Certainly taking time off from the Tour helped with focus at Thunder Road, but as they say, attitude is everything.  And the fans took notice.  Pembroke has always been popular among the Thunder Road faithful, but the roaring cheers he received each week during introductions this past summer were the loudest of his career.  For that, congratulations to the 2007 “King of the Road.”

8. Roger Brown, #99NH Roger Brown Trucking/Simon Labranche Trucking Ford ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 6)

It was completely impossible to ignore Roger Brown in 2007, whether you lived around New England, the Midwest, the Deep South, or the west coast.  “The Rocket” made national headlines with his $35,800 victory in the 34th Annual TD Banknorth 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine, and regionally, he was a season-long attention getter.

Travis Barrett, Kennebec Journal & Central Maine Morning Sentinel: “(Roger) won the Oxford 250 – the biggest stage and brightest lights for Late
Models.  Enough said.”

But, like we said, he earned people’s attention the entire year, earning him a couple of votes in the “Most Improved Driver” award category for next week’s annual ACT Banquet of Champions.  (By the way, he’s already won that award once, in 2005, so to be nominated again speaks volumes of his and his team’s progress.)  Brown began the ACT Late Model Tour season with Top 10s at Thunder Road’s Merchants Bank 150 and the Spring Green at Airborne, then grabbed a pick-me-up Top 5 in weekly competition at White Mountain Motorsports Park.  Following his win in the 250 – in consecutive races, now – he went second in the ACTion Super Series 200 at Autodrome St-Eustache, fourth at Seekonk Speedway and the Time Warner Cable 100 at Oxford, and second again at White Mountain.  Add to
that an 8th in the Chittenden Milk Bowl, another runner-up finish at Oxford in October, and the five-race L/A Harley-Davidson Challenge Series championship title at OPS, and ol’ Rocket had a pretty awesome year.  Were it not for a missed race at Kawartha Speedway (in which Brown’s car finished second with Ontario ace Pete Vanderwyst behind the wheel), he’d have been right in the hunt for the ACT title, as well.

Gene Gagne: “Roger Brown should be the poster boy idol for anyone that is thinking of becoming a Late Model driver in the Northeast, if they want to see what their chances are to succeed.  Hard work and clean driving brings home the big checks.”

7. Sylvain Lacombe, #3 R. Lacombe et Frère Démolition Chevrolet ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 4)

“The Terror of Terrebonne,” Sylvain Lacombe, was his old self in 2007, as he has been for a couple of decades in his native Québec.  In reality, the former Série ACT Castrol Champion’s battle royal with eventual title winner Patrick Laperle is one of the greatest in the history of the American-Canadian Tour sanctioning body.  No two drivers have been as consistently dominant at the same time since maybe the early 1990s or late 1980s.  And even in those days it was a stretch.  Lacombe is one of Canada’s great modern drivers, and could quite easily shake the Americans if he were to give racing a serious shot down stateside.  But we’re not here to speculate, we’re here to look at the facts.

Andy Boright, ACT and Thunder Road fan: “Lacombe has proven for a long time that he is one of the best racers around.”

Here’s why: In 12 Série ACT Castrol races in 2007, Lacombe finished on the podium in half of them, winning and finishing third once each in events at Montmagny, Ste-Croix, and St-Eustache.  And in the other six races, he earned a pair of Top 5s at Autodrome Chaudière, a 6th at Ste-Croix, 5th in La Québécoise 250 at Montmagny, 9th at St-Eustache, and one DNF (28th) at Ottawa’s Capital City Speedway.  For the record, Lacombe’s season-ending win at St-Eustache was his third-straight in the track’s historic 300-lap special event, and the fifth such of his career.

Lacombe finished second in Castrol points, only 16 markers shy of his second series title.  Like Champion Laperle, Lacombe earned Top 5 finishes in the final seven races and had just one finish worse than 9th.  So what was the difference?  In five of the six races when Laperle finished first or second during the year, Lacombe drove home 5th, 3rd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, beating him only at the St-Eustache 300.

But come on, can you really chastise a guy for finishing “only” third, fourth, or fifth every week?  No way, not ever, and especially not on a touring series as tough as the Série ACT Castrol.  Sylvain Lacombe may not have actually been the champion in 2007, but he sure drove like one.

6. Bunker Hodgdon, #20 Lazy Lions Campground/MH Cleaning Services Volkswagen Power Shift Online Junkyard Warrior. (Top 10 votes: 7; First-place votes: 2)

And now, as the Monty Python troupe used to say, something completely different.  Coming in at sixth place in the “Top 25” poll this season was Power Shift Online Junkyard Warrior driver Archie “Bunker” Hodgdon, III, thank you very much, of Hardwick, VT.  Why is a Warrior racer ranked higher than a multi-time Canadian champion, the winner of the Oxford 250, the King of the Road, and the Late Model Rookie of the Year?  Well, apparently, he earned it.  In fact, he even earned two first-place votes from our panel of 15.

Driving a VW Golf that wasn’t exactly pristine even on opening day, 27 year-old Hodgdon worked his tail off, powering his way from the back each and every week.  Add in the fact that sometimes the high-point drivers and noted top runners in the division are given “special” handicaps to level the Warrior playing field, his 11  Top 5s are incredibly impressive.  Oh, and did we mention that he quickly recovered from a hard ride, roof-first, down the Thunder Road frontchute?  The kid has talent, and he used it right.

Bunker carried Casella Mother’s Day checkers a week after his runner-up effort at the Merchants Bank opener, was on the podium on Sanel Parts Plus and Charter Communications Nights, and won the two-segment special event at the M&M Beverage Enduro.  He took a DNF on Calkins Portables/Pelletier Quick Lube Night after his celebrity guest punctured the radiator during the Media Madness race, and the aforementioned flip on WDEV Night was also nothing to write home about, but Hodgdon was superb the rest of the year.  Following the Media Madness debacle, Hodgdon was never out of the Top 10 in a race finish, and was in the Top 5 in each of the final five events to lock up the

Bethany Bell, Thunder Road fan: “He comes from the rear to win, or sometimes he’s smart enough not to, and he won the title.  He’s good, it’s time for him to move up.”

Incidentally, Hodgdon is one of the Warrior division’s nice guys, earning a nomination for the first-ever Junkyard Warrior Sportsmanship Award, the winner of which will be named on Saturday, Jan. 12 at the ACT/Thunder Road Banquet of Champions at the Sheraton-Burlington Hotel & Conference Center in Burlington, VT.  It was for that buoyant, fun-loving personality trait that Hodgdon earned his first-place votes.  And also, Bethany Bell will see her request granted, as Hodgdon has an Allen Lumber Street Stock car ready for battle in 2008.  He tested the division’s waters in ’07 a couple of times, and fit right in with the upper-level four-cylinder class.

Next Wednesday, it’s the big one, as we close out the “Top 25 ACT Drivers of 2007” poll with a look at the five
best racers in the region.  Comments keep rolling in, and we welcome as many more as we can get.  Send your
praise, gripes, salutes, and beefs to media@acttour.com, and check out the websites at www.acttour.com,
www.laserieactcastrol.com, and www.thunderroadspeedbowl.com!