LOUDON, N.H. – Two years ago, Tom Curley was filled with an equal mix of anxiousness and hopefulness, eagerness and dread.
One can't be certain, but it's a good bet that the Hall of Fame promoter probably woke up to cold sweats in the summer of 2009, wondering if the teams on his short-track based ACT Late Model Tour could handle the challenge of racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the Tour's first-ever race at the facility neared.
On Saturday afternoon, following far and away the most entertaining and competitive ACT race ever held on the one-mile speedway, these short-trackers proved that they are a very quick study.
The 3rd annual ACT Invitational featured a half-dozen lead changes among four drivers, most notably the final four-lap side-by-side battle for the lead between Eddie MacDonald and Nick Sweet – one that MacDonald won off the final corner of the final lap in a drag race to the checkered flag.
Behind them, throughout the 50-lap feature event, drivers swapped positions, traded paint and routinely fanned out three- and four-wide across the sprawling surface of New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Even Curley himself admitted following MacDonald's second win in the event that in his wildest dreams – in those quiet moments of reflection leading into ACT's first trip to New Hampshire in 2009 – he'd never imagined his teams could put on the kind of race they did Saturday.
In fact, he didn't even think they were yet capable of such a race as recently as Saturday morning.
"No," was Curley's quick reply. "This was like magic."
Indeed, it truly was.
Prior to this weekend, there had been three ACT-sanctioned races at New Hampshire. MacDonald, Joey Polewarczyk Jr. and Brian Hoar – all of whom had previous NASCAR K&N Pro Series East experience at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – won those events.
And while each of those events featured some good racing, they were also bound together by a common thread: A driver who had competed enough on big tracks in his career and was comfortable racing in traffic was able to get around other competitors and sail off to victory.
In each of those three previous cases, the mad scramble of tight racing was more often than not a scramble to get into line and try and turn some laps.
But on Saturday, all of that changed. There was no predicting who would emerge from the MacDonald-Sweet battle at the front before the checkered flag was out. The marches of drivers like Hoar, Polewarczyk, Patrick Laperle and others was muted – a reflection that the competition level had raised significantly on the track.
And, in a strange bit of logic, the fact that there were caution flags for wrecked race cars proved one very important fact: ACT drivers are now comfortable enough at such high speeds to take the kinds of chances in a race car that don't always work out in their favor.
In short, the drivers are racy enough now to wreck.
"I was very happy," Curley said. "This is by far the best effort we've had here. The fact that a lot of people stayed – and once they stayed, they never left. They were on their feet for the first 20 laps and they were on their feet for the last 10 laps. As a promoter, you can't dream it up any better."
Sweet and fourth-place finisher Quinny Welch both compete in weekly Late Model divisions on quarter-mile tracks. Third-place Shawn Martin is a past Oxford Plains Speedway champion and winner this summer of a 150-lap Late Model event at tiny Spud Speedway in the far reaches of northern Maine.
Fifth-place Brad Leighton owns eight career NASCAR K&N Pro Series wins at the track. Brian Hoar, who finished sixth, is an eight-time ACT Late Model Tour champion. Ninth-place Karl Allard competes in the ACT Castrol Series in Quebec, where he is a past champion.
And on and on the list of finishers went, representing all walks of short-track racing lives.
Curley also thinks that having a part-time invader like MacDonald is only good for the ACT Late Model tour at New Hampshire. So, too, do the competitors.
"I think it was good racing – (MacDonald did) what you have to do to win these races," said Sweet, who had a birds-eye view of some of MacDonald's tactics behind the wheel – including how he drove the corners, how he crowded other drivers and where he put his car on the track in a variety of circumstances.
"I definitely got educated by him," Sweet said.
"Here, he's a great teacher," Curley said of MacDonald. "He did things out there to Nick Sweet that I saw from the tower and thought, 'Oh my God.' He goes way up against the wall and diamonds the corner and then just blitzes them (on the straightaways).
"He does stuff and guys know that. They're picking up on that. I've talked to a ton of teams, and they're all talking about what Eddie is doing out there. So, they're learning constantly."
And, credit to the weekly warriors and ACT touring regulars, they learned quickly enough to stage one of the most entertaining races – from start to finish – any of the multitude of divisions that have raced at New Hampshire over the years have ever put on.
"Now, our game is not to be at superspeedways, but from that standpoint, I think this was important for us," Curley said. "Overall, I was pretty pleased. I thought it was exciting."
So, too, did everybody else.