-by Justin St. Louis

The votes are all in, and it’s now time to close out the “Top 25 ACT Drivers of 2007” by honoring the top five, as named by members of the regional media.  Before we look back at drivers 25 through 6, we’d like to thank the following folks for their expertise and participation in this poll: Alan Ward, photographer and columnist for the Racin’ Paper; Dave Moody, Thunder Road announcer and MRN Radio personality; Gene Gagne, photographer and operator of OutsideGroove.com; Lee Kittell, host of WDEV Radio’s “Score!” sports talk show; Marc Patrick Roy, Série ACT Castrol reporter for Speed51.com; Mark Thomas, Racin’ Paper Editor; Mike McGill, WCAX Channel 3 Sports; Pete Hartt, Sports Editor at the Barre-Montpelier (VT) Times Argus; Travis Barrett of the Kennebec Journal and Central
Maine Morning Sentinel; and die-hard race fans Andy Boright and Bethany Bell.

In case you’ve missed it, here are the first 20 drivers named in the poll:
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
10. Chip Grenier, #9VT ACT Late Model
9. Dave Pembroke, #44 ACT Late Model
8. Roger Brown, #99NH ACT Late Model
7. Sylvain Lacombe, #3 ACT Late Model
6. Bunker Hodgdon, #20 Power Shift Online Junkyard Warrior

Congratulations to all on a great season!  Like we said in last week’s edition, there were 340 drivers that raced under ACT sanction in 2007 – to be one of the best 25 of the year isn’t exactly an easy thing to do.  So here they are, the Top 5…

5. Bobby Therrien, #1 A.H. Fence/Pioneer Motors Dodge Allen Lumber Street Stock.  (Top 10 votes: 8)

It is pretty unlikely that a race driver will win a feature event in his or her first season behind the wheel.  So what do you say about a rookie that wins – pay attention, here – SIX times?  You pat him on the back and congratulate him for not only his Rookie of the Year title, but his Allen Lumber Street Stock Championship, as well.  As unlikely as it is for a rookie to win, it is absolutely impossible – impractical – to calculate the odds of any driver, rookie or otherwise, that will achieve the success that Bobby Therrien did in 2007.

A product of the Northeastern Kart Club, Therrien followed his older brother, Tommy, into stock cars.  What followed may have been a life-changing chain of events.  If young Bobby can repeat even half of his success in 2008 and beyond, he could be on the path to national superstardom, and that’s no joke.  With an immaculately-prepared race car and a knowle dgeable team behind him, the 20 year-old set new freshman records throughout the season.  He’s young, fast, humble, and sharp – just the kind of thing the big teams down south are looking for.

While we didn’t dare to predict the future, one of our panelists took a shot at it.

Dave Moody: “A Thunder Road Street Stock champion in his first year of stock car competition, Bobby Therrien has the racing pedigree to be a frontrunner for many years to come.  He and his equally talented big brother, Tommy, could be the second coming of Vermont's legendary Dragon brothers.”

And Moody’s right about Tommy, a NAPA Tiger Sportsman racer: he captured a win and finished fourth in points in his division.  But little brother stole the headlines in ’07, and has nothing but momentum on his side.

4. Scott Payea, #89 Ouellette Plumbing & Heating/Leahy Press Ford ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 9)

Ironically, this Scott Payea came from the same training ground as Bobby Therrien – the four-cylinder Street Stocks.  But Payea has picked up the ball, run with it, and is on the threshold of becoming the first driver to successfully unseat Jean-Paul Cyr, the perennial King of Late Model racing.  It’s been five years since the ACT Champion’s Trophy has left Milton, VT, and the way Payea ran in 2007, it might be at least one more year – but whose house it’ll reside in is a different story.

Chasing Cyr over the last three seasons is something Scott Payea has admitted had been a dream of his growing up. But challenging, and even beating his cross-town neighbor, and names like Dragon, Brown, Hoar, Potter, and big-money guys like Rowe, Leighton, Laperle, and MacDonald – that’s icing on the cake.  But it wasn’t really until 2007 (and this includes his days as a Street Stocker and NAPA Tiger Sportsman driver) that Payea stepped into the spotlight as one of the leading role-players.

Marc Patrick Roy: “This no-fluff racer is my 2007 revelation driver.”

Travis Barrett: “Seemed whenever I saw a race or read a post-race release, it was Payea’s name that always cropped
up at the front of the field somewhere. Impressive young driver, seems to go relatively easy on his equipment,

Payea pounced when Cyr slipped out of the lead at Thunder Road’s Merchants Bank 150 to pick up his first ACT victory in May, and followed it up in August with a rousing drive around Ben Rowe for the Kancamaugus 100 win at White Mountain Motorsports Park.  Between the two victories, he added a close third-place finish in the country’s biggest Late Model race – Oxford Plains Speedway’s TD Banknorth 250.  Payea also finished third at Seekonk, MA, and grabbed fourth at Kawartha Speedway in Ontario, three sixth-place finishes, a pair of sevenths, and a 10th in the Chittenden Milk Bowl.

According to those in the know, Payea has some great sponsorship backing returning in 2008 for a full-on run at Cyr’s crown.  Add in the expertise of crew chief Chris Companion and the dedication of Payea’s family team, and few doubt that he has what it will take to get the job done.

3. Nick Sweet, #50 Fortier’s Community Care Home/SymQuest Group Chevrolet NAPA Tiger Sportsman.  (Top 10 votes: 11)

NAPA Tiger Sportsman Champion Nick Sweet could be a big star outside of Vermont stock car racing if he wanted to be.  The 23 year-old wins an average of more than three times a season in a class where only one driver qualified for every race in 2007 (and that driver wasn’t Nick Sweet), has arguably the best equipment in the Tiger pit area, a solid team, and an increasingly large fan base.  In his first five seasons behind the wheel, Sweet has finished, in order, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 7th, and 1st in weekly point standings.  Hometown boys usually have plenty of supporters
in the grandstands, but winning hometown boys like Sweet border iconic status.  The number “50” is seen everywhere at Thunder Road these days, and the fans that wear said number are met by an appreciative driver.  In today’s made-for-TV world of racing, even at the local level, Sweet actually likes the people that pay to watch him race – and win.  He’s refreshing, this kid.

Darla Hartt, Vice President, American-Canadian Tour: “Nick is a very personable, quiet guy, always pleasant, always positive.  But strap that helmet on, and there’s no room for anything but concentration and drive.  Truly one of those with a natural talent, his style is exciting to watch and obviously quite successful.  Watching Nick progress through the ranks in future years should be quite show.”

Dave Moody: “He dominated a division that is just about immune to domination.  Nobody spent more time in the shop than Sweet and his team, and that effort paid off in a racecar that went anywhere he wanted it to.  You can't usually look at a kid this young and say, ‘He' s going to be great,’ but with Sweet, it's a no-brainer.”

But for what it’s worth, as nice a guy as he is, Sweet can dish it out on the track.  Take, for example, his 60-lap bumper-tag duel with Joey Laquerre at the Casella 100 on Mother’s Day.  Sweet and Laquerre had the fans on their feet as they slammed their way around the track for the win.  Laquerre had it crossed up badly in the final corner thanks to a love tap from his young rival, but Sweet’s “bigger picture” sense took over and allowed Laquerre to regroup and take the victory.  It may be the one race that defines his style: Hard-charging, but very

2. Jean-Paul Cyr, #32 Ehler’s RV/Sticks & Stuff Chevrolet ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 12; First-place votes: 3)

Strange as it is, it has sort of become customary to see Jean-Paul Cyr ranked second.  Second?  Really?  Cyr?  One single win may have been all it took to place him in the #1 slot for this poll, but there’s no need to pour salt in the wound.  There is absolutely one thing anybody and everybody could feel confident in doing in 2008: placing a bet on Jean-Paul Cyr to carry some checkered flags.

Cyr legitimately missed four ACT Late Model Tour wins by “this much” in ’07 (there’s a case for maybe even eight wins, if you want to get down to it), but he did a nice stroke of business in trying.  How about five consecutive podium runs to open the year, and couple more before it was over?  He let a pair of wins slip by at Thunder Road and another one at Seekonk after being just a hair off in the setup department, was muscled out of a probable win at Airborne, got stuck in the wrong lane at Ste-Croix, and ran out of laps twice at White Mountain and once at Oxford.  His average finish was 5.3 over 13 races.  Enough said.  It’s the same scenario, in essence, as Série ACT
Castrol driver Sylvain Lacombe, #7 in the poll.  You just can’t bring a guy down for finishing second or third every week.

Pete Hartt: “The difference between Jean and the other teams is that Jean always does well, while most of the other teams can’t.”

That difference was played out in dramatic fashion at June’s White Mountain 150.  The story has been told a hundred times – Cyr destroyed both ends of his car in a heat race crash, but his team (and seven others) fixed the car and rallied to not only qualify, but finish 3rd after starting 27th.  Not only was the fact that the car still drove properly a miracle, Cyr drove harder and better than he ever has in career, before or since.  It was the most Cinderella-like comeback story for a single event since Junior Hanley came from two laps down under green to win at Antigonish, Nova Scotia in the old GM Tour days.  Lee Elder, a representative from California for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., was in the press box that night.  His astonished look and every-tenth-lap claim “Here comes Cyr!” said it all that night, as did this quote by photographer Alan Ward: “The performance at White Mountain
after the wreck was just awesome.”

So what if Jean-Paul Cyr didn’t win any races in 2007.  Nobody else won the championship, did they?

1. Patrick Laperle, #91 JPN Racing/Patriote Auto Chevrolet ACT Late Model.  (Top 10 votes: 11; First-place votes:

Well, not the ACT Late Model Tour Championship, anyway.  Patrick Laperle took the best parts of his career – which have come in waves since the beginning – and meshed them all together for 2007.  His Série ACT Castrol Championship was… just… wow.

Cyr can have his Cinderella story for the White Mountain event, but nothing will be able to top Laperle’s actual, real-life brush with death before the 2007 racing season began.  In the days before the ACT Late Model Tour event at Oxford Plains Speedway in late April, Laperle was hospitalized with an infection in his back.  The infection spread quickly, and eventually entered his bloodstream.

Patrick Laperle almost died.  And then he won a stock car racing championship less than six months later.

He climbed out of his hospital bed, removed intravenous tubes from his arm, and went to Autodrome Montmagny to take a lap and collect points in the Paradis du Sport 100.  The plan was to drive around during the pace lap and have cousin Jacques Laperle, a well established racer in his own right, take over for the green flag.  Well, that was fine until Jacques wrecked the car on the first lap of the race.  Laperle’s season, which was already looking as bleak as his weakened body, was made infinitely more complicated.

Marc Patrick Roy: “On and off the track, Laperle is a fierce competitor.  He battled a life threatening bacteria and then climbed in a racecar when most would fear sitting in a rocking chair.”

But then he turned it on.  He nearly won the next time out, just a week later, at Autodrome St-Eustache, but spun out after contact with just a dozen laps to go.  And this where the “best parts of his career” thing comes into play: even after crashing while maybe racing a bit too hard, he still finished 8th.

At Ottawa’s Capital City Speedway in the next race, a still-recovering Laperle came home third, then he was 9th at Montmagny the next week.  From then on (eight more races), he never finished outside the Top 5.  That meant wins at St-Eustache and Ste-Croix, four seconds, a fourth, and a fifth.  A guy that almost died did this.  Oh, and for good measure, he won the three ACTion Super Series events he entered – Kawartha’s Summer Sizzler 200, Thunder Road’s Chittenden Milk Bowl (his second in three years), and a 200-lapper at St-Eustache which also counted toward the Série ACT Castrol title.

Travis Barrett: “I love Laperle’s whole barnstorming routine. And it seems wherever he goes, and whatever car he’s in, he’s a threat to win.  His Castrol title only illustrates that he can race for championships or race for wins, and still have success in either forum.”

Dave Moody: “The guy wins wherever he races, and has become one of the top big-event racers in the northeast. Thunder Road used to be his Achilles Heel, and now he's a two-time Milk Bowl champion.  No further questions.”

The fact that seven of Laperle’s eight first-place votes in this poll came from American observers who, at most, saw him compete just six or seven times during the year, should be an eye-opener.  You don’t need to watch for very long to figure  out how good Patrick Laperle is.

Mark Thomas: “Patrick Laperle.  Easy choice for me.”

Laperle is the ultimate hard-charger: Think back to his days driving to the front while maybe offering a hand gesture – out the window, in the air, under green – to a competitor he felt wronged him.  Think to his paint-swapping ACT Late Model Tour race at White Mountain in August, or the night before in Série ACT Castrol action at Autodrome Chaudière.  He’s the ultimate outlaw: Think of his ACT Late Model Tour victories in ‘07, or even his Pro Stock victories on another series in recent years.  But he’s also become one of the ultimate points racers: Think about his runner-up finish in the St-Eustache 300, the final race of the year.

For 2007, Patrick Laperle was the best driver with the American-Canadian Tour.  That’s just the way it is.