Thunder Drivers Prove Again
Why They Are “The BEST”
What were you doing on Friday, July 18th?
If you weren’t at Scotia Speedworld watching the Thunder 50, you missed, in my opinion, the race of the year.
I’ve been to 47 race programs around the region this year and seen tens of thousands of laps in 2014, there’s no contest, the Thunder 50 was the race of the year.
For those that are at Scotia Speedworld every week, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our Thunder division is one of the most competitive at the race track each and every week. In 2014, the addition of a “spec tire,” which put everyone on the same racing rubber, leveled the playing field even more and brought the field that much closer. Add into the mix five full-time rookies looking to make their mark on the series and you had an interesting season to say the least on paper heading into the month of May.
At the end of the season, five drivers went to victory lane in 11 races and going into that eleventh race, three drivers entered with a championship chance.
A handful of races featured last lap passes or attempted passes, most of those involved Stevie Lively and eventual champion Dave Matthews in one way or another. The biggest field of the season showed up for one of the biggest races of the season in the 25-lap feature as the undercard for the Lockhart Truck Center 150 on the Parts for Trucks Pro Stock Tour. While 20 drivers showed up, it was “The Ironman” Drew MacEachern who was standing tall in victory lane, recording the biggest win of his career - to that point. MacEachern and the #13 Parkway Construction Management Honda would go on to win the second leg of the Twin 50s for Thunder cars on August 29th, holding off, you guessed it, a last lap pass attempt by Lively which came up a mere feet short at the finish.
The Pro Stock Tour undercard feature was big for the class. It was the first time in a decade that the class played as the appetizer to the big boys and girl of Maritime racing, which served as the stage for Dylan Blenkhorn’s first Parts for Trucks Tour win. By all indications, track management seemed happy with the event and we as fans can hope they are back on the card next year with the Pro Stocks!
As impressive as MacEachern’s breakout season was with three wins, it was Kyle Gammon who found his way back to victory lane late in the season. After a season plagued with mechanical issues, Gammon finally broke through to victory lane on August 22nd’s Strictly Hydraulics Night. After dispatching Nic Baker from the lead in the first five laps, “The Sheriff” set sail towards his first win. Only one caution for Merle Corbin slowed his pace, which saw Brandon Watson reeling in Gammon at the end but could not get to the #98 before the checkered flag. Gammon would lock down fifth in the overall season standings in a dogfight to the finish over MacEachern, Lively and eventual 2014 Tim Hortons At the Airport Rookie of the Year Brad Hayes.
Did we mention the clean racing and respect between the drivers in the class? Sure, there was a couple of rivalries brew including part timers Ross Harvie and Kyle MacMillan mixing it up with Shotgun Racing and Tim Webster, respectively, but for the most part, there were no feelings hurt or tears shed. Okay, Webster and MacMillan still haven’t made up yet though they were egged on to hug it out in Sydney on the weekend, but I digress.
Besides the little pushing and shoving matches on track, which every good short track division has (Cy Harvey vs Jeff Campbell in the Coors Light Trucks anyone?), the division still set the benchmark for racing in the region by running 214 feature laps, or their first seven and a half features of the season, caution free. The first caution of the season in a feature came out on August 10th when Matthew Warren lost a wheel on Lap 14 of 25 in the Thunder main event on Atlantic Cat 250 weekend. I would like to see a short track division in this region duplicate that effort with the type of competition that was seen in this class all season.
Which brings me back to July 18th. I know, I know, I’m jumping around a bit.
The Thunder 50 lap events are the pinnacle for the division. Win one, or more, of these races and you gain that instant credibility as a winner in the class. Like the Daytona 500, a Who’s Who of four cylinder drivers have won the race in the past, while some are still searching to put it on their resume. As mentioned, it took MacEachern 11 years to finally put his name on the list when he won the race in September.
While it was a memorable one, the first half of the Thunder Twin 50s in July stole the show.
Early in the event, Scott Williams of Dutch Settlement set the pace up front. There’s a name that has yet to win a feature at Scotia Speedworld, let alone the Thunder on the Hill 50, and it comes as a surprise to many. Williams has won a lot of big races in the region, including year end opens at Lake Doucette Motor Speedway and the CENTRE For Speed, and the man they call “Mr. Honda” has been behind many big wins and championships, including the run by Kyle MacMillan to the title in 2012. While he has accomplished almost everything in Four Cylinder racing in Atlantic Canada, he himself has never driven to a win in the most prestigious Thunder car race in the region.
July 18th almost changed that. Almost.
Williams set sail early in the event and held a pretty big lead as the field crossed the 20 lap completed mark. Then halfway. Then the 20 to go mark, that lead shrunk a bit. Any cushion was non-existent by Lap 35 of 50, as the field closed up on him. Now, I say field, I mean six other cars, who had been battling in close proximity for most of the feature, had reeled in Williams.
With 15 laps to go, the glass slipper, or in this case, a brake caliper, backed off the foot of Williams, and the #0 Shady Racing Civic lost the lead to Dave Matthews, who had Stevie Lively, Tim Webster, Matthew Warren, rookie Shane Lively and Drew MacEachern within a half straightaway and change of him.
Matthews, who had five consecutive second place finishes heading into this race, knew he had to put everything on the table in the final 15 laps. In the previous two weeks, he had one of the fastest cars on the track and lost out on frantic late lap scrambles to Warren and Lively. You knew when he took the lead, the bridesmaid of the last month and a half was finally looking to walk down the aisle as the bride on one of the biggest nights of the season.
If he was walking down the aisle in the last 15 laps of that race though, it was with close rival Stevie Lively. Lively, who has become the magic man in the late laps of these features, held the hand of Matthews and the #99 car as they tangoed side-by-side, swapping the lead numerous times in the last laps of the race, while the rest of the field put on a dance of their own behind them.
Matthews tried to make the last lead change his, but could not muster enough on the last lap to best the #32 to the line as Lively’s Hubley Auto Sales/Bud’s Top Soil Honda would go onto victory by a bumper over Matthews.
As the crowd watched that battle, a length back, Warren had to use a bit of muscle on multi-time Thunder on the Hill winner Webster to take third at the stripe. Webster was able to hold on to fourth while Williams stormed back with everything he had left for fifth as he edged out MacEachern at the stripe in another finish that had race control looking back at the tape. Shane Lively held on for seventh, while Andrew Lively, Gammon and Watson completed the top ten in the 17 car field.
To have seven cars with a shot at the win in a caution free 50-lap field, with the lead exchanged well over a handful of times in the final 15 laps is pretty impressive. It’s something that sticks out to me over any race all season and is one reason why these guys are the best.
I was reminded of that fact again on Sunday when I was in the booth in Sydney at Cape Breton Miners Memorial Speedway for their Mini Stock finale. Six drivers who had cut their teeth at Scotia Speedworld in the Thunder class were a part of the 23 car field on the tight bullring on Grand Lake Road, and when the dust settled after 35 laps, five of them were tops in the field. Tim Webster won his first race of the season in dominating fashion over JR Lawson. Drew MacEachern and Kyle MacMillan came sliding across the line in a photo finish that saw MacEachern edge out the 2012 Speedworld champion by inches. Tim Hortons at the Airport Rookie of the Year Brad Hayes scored fifth. “The Mayor of Cleveland” Art McNamara fought his way to the front but had to settle for tenth.
Think about that though, going into a track that only one of them had raced on before, racing against a bunch of drivers who have that race track in their back yard. When the first practices were done on Saturday, you could hear the rumblings of “oh, they’re fast, they must be cheating if they’re that fast out of the box.”
At the end of the day, they all passed technical inspection and all the hardware made its way to the mainland. It just goes to show that our drivers put the work into their race cars, they dedicate themselves to learning how to be fast and have each worked to perfecting their race craft. For example, to see how far Brad Hayes had come this season and how he drove Sunday impressed me.
We have a great base for another historic battle in 2015, and while I’m sure we may see a face or two come or go, the core group of the Thunder class is planning on coming back for this coming season. You never know, you may even see a new face or two come into the class to battle it out for the Tim Hortons at the Airport Rookie of the Year award.
The Thunder division drivers are coined “The BEST Four Cylinder drivers in Atlantic Canada,” and they continue to show it every time out. Hats off boys and Hollywood on an incredible season, each and every one of the 25 who hit the track this year. I am, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is, very proud of the product you put on the track for our fans this season and I look forward to 2015!
Until then, keep the hammer down and we’ll see you at the track!
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