BARRE, Vt. – Deja vu, anyone?
In a near carbon copy of their spirited battle in the ACT Late Model Tour season opener two weeks ago, Brian Hoar and Wayne Helliwell Jr. were at it again on Sunday at Thunder Road International Speedbowl. And, just as was the case in the opener, Hoar held off Helliwell – who tried every which way but loose (and even a little of that, too) – to win the Merchants Bank 150.
The victory was the second straight to open the season for Hoar, the eight-time series champion, and his first in the Merchants Bank 150.
“I've been chasing this one a long time,” Hoar said. “It's the first time for us (in the Merchants Bank 150), and it's a big deal. Anytime you can win at Thunder Road, it's awesome.”
But Helliwell threatened to spoil Hoar's Victory Lane party. Twice in the closing laps, Helliwell got to Hoar's rear bumper and gave it a nudge. Both times Hoar wiggled a bit, but never enough to open the door so wide that Helliwell could squeeze his orange No. 27 through.
Helliwell would settle for his second straight runner-up finish, after finishing second to Hoar at Lee USA Speedway on April 15. Hoar now has 35 career wins, tops on the ACT all-time list.
“We tried something different today with a lot of help from a lot of different crews,” said Helliwell, who admitted to being worried about his chances at Thunder Road in the days leading up to the race. “We got something that really worked throughout the day... and it was good hard racing at the end with Brian.”
Hoar said he respected Helliwell's persistence, as well as his ability to maintain control behind the wheel.
“He's awesome to race with,” Hoar said. “He's a good, clean driver. We got it into it – he got into me a couple of times, but he didn't spin me. I like racing with him.”
Patrick Laperle crossed the checkered flag in third, and John Donahue closed for fourth. Jean-Paul Cyr, a seven-time ACT champion, had to settle for fifth after dominating the middle stages of the event. A decision to pit after the rest of the race's contenders killed Cyr's chance at victory.
While that Lap 109 caution ended Cyr's bid, it set up the winning move for Hoar. As Helliwell – who led three different times for a total of 17 laps – inherited the point and looked poised to pull away, Laperle, Nick Sweet and Hoar engaged in a three-wide battle for the second spot. Sweet and Laperle forced the issue, while Hoar sat back and planned his attack more methodically.
In the end, it was the move that likely won him the race.
About the only thing that went wrong for Hoar all day came after the checkered flag – when he looped his car all by himself in Turn 2. It was a victory slide gone wrong, he said.
“We were loose,” Hoar said with his trademark cheshire cat grin. “I got a little excited there after the checkered flag, and I just put my foot in the throttle and was celebrating a little early.”
The race was slowed six times by the caution flag, including a nasty wreck that also brought out a red flag on Lap 70. Randy Potter, Cris Michaud and Ben Ashline were the notable participants in melee that ended with several cars over the top of Turn 1 and into the foam barrier along the track's pit entrance.
All told, six different drivers swapped the lead a total of eight times on a cold, blustery day at the birthplace of the ACT Late Model Tour.
In the end, though, it was a finish that mirrored what had happened in the season opener between Hoar and Helliwell. Now they head out to Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven, Vt., next weekend – where Helliwell will try to end Hoar's season-opening hot streak.
“I hope so,” Helliwell said. “Last year, I ended up in the swamp there.”