Do you know one of the big differences between running in the middle of the pack and being a champion?
No more black firesuits.
For years, Ron Proctor wore a black firesuit. “I always bought black ones because, when you’re working on the car all the time, they’re a real pain to keep clean,” he said.
But now, black is out. The new one is a spiffy blue-and-white, with “Vermont State Champion” embroidered on the legs. It came courtesy of NASCAR, and if the 58-year-old Proctor has his way, he’ll get another one next winter.
After 35 years behind the wheel of a race car, beginning in 1976, when he followed in the footsteps of his father, George, and began racing late models at Devil’s Bowl Speedway, Proctor had the best season of his career in 2011. Taking advantage of the Champlain Valley Racing Association’s decision to join NASCAR and switch to crate motors, Proctor dominated the competition, winning track championships at both Devil’s Bowl and Albany-Saratoga Speedway.
By winning the Vermont State Championship, as well as the Rookie of the Year title, which he was eligible for because he had never run under a NASCAR sanction before, Proctor’s take in bonus money at the end of the season was just under $11,000.
The money was nice, but the banquet in Charlotte, N.C., was better.
“When you go to the banquet, they make you feel like a champion,” he said earlier this week in taking a break from working on his car, owned by Ron White and Debbie Eddy, “It’s like everything they’re doing is just for you. They go out of their way to make you feel like a champion.”
Champion is a new word to Proctor. All throughout his career, the adjectives have been more like low-budget and wily veteran. But thanks to a switch to asphalt, champion will stick for a while.
Proctor admits he thought about not racing on asphalt when Albany-Saratoga switched surfaces in 2010. but he stuck it out (“It’s just so close to home,” he said), and when former promoter Bruce Richards made the decision to switch to crate motors for 2011, Proctor liked his chances for success.
“I always felt the crate motors would save local racing in the long run,” he said. “I felt it was my best shot to keep racing and get
decent money to do it. In my whole career, I always ran with home-built motors and did decent, and every once in a while, I’d pick off a win, so I always felt I was good enough to do it [win]. I thought this would be best for me because the motors are more equal, and now, it comes down to set up and driving.”
Proctor is still running a crate motor at Devil’s Bowl, competing against a lot of full-blown 358s. But when Proctor wins a race, he gets a bonus for running the crate, and when he manages to pick up a hard-charger bonus, as well, his payday becomes $1,300, which is darn good for a crate package.
Handling a race car has never been a problem for Proctor. Last year, he became just the second driver in the history of Albany-Saratoga Speedway to win races in the premier division in four consecutive decades. The only other driver who can make that claim is Jack Johnson.
But until last year, when he won four features at the Malta track and two at Devil’s Bowl, Proctor had never won more than three modified races in a single season, and that only happened in 1991, when he sat in victory lane three times at Devil’s Bowl, and 1992, when he won twice at the Bowl and once at Albany-Saratoga.
Proctor admits he feels a little nostalgic about not running at Albany-Saratoga anymore, but he certainly doesn’t miss the clean-up that goes with campaigning a dirt car.
“Before, we had to unload the car in the yard and pressure wash it just to get it clean enough to work on,” said Proctor. “It was a mess, and now, I don’t have to worry about dirt eating at the heim joints, and things like that.
“I thought I would have a bigger tire bill, but the tires Bruce had worked well, and now Mike [Devil’s Bowl owner Mike Bruno] has switched to what Perrotte [Airborne Speedway promoter Mike Perrotte] uses to get the cars more in line for both tracks. The new tires don’t last quite as long, but they’re still good, so I’m not spending anywhere near what I thought I would.”
One thing that has given Proctor some problems this season is the decision by Bruno to switch his race nights from Sunday to Friday.
“It’s a problem,” Proctor admitted. “Now, I’ve got to get the car loaded up on Thursday so when I get out of work on Friday, my wife [Marcy] and I are ready to go. It’s also hurt as far as help, because some of the guys can’t go because they can’t get out of work early enough. When we raced at Malta, we could get out of work at 6 p.m. and still make it to the track.”
Proctor is in a unique situation at Devil’s Bowl, where two of his toughest competitors — Hunter Bates and Jessey Mueller — are still in their teens, and young enough to be his grandsons.
“They say a few things,” Proctor said with a laugh. “They don’t think I’m supposed to be winning at the age of 58.”
Proctor has won the last two modified features at the Bowl, and climbed into the points lead for the first time this season. If he can have another year like last year, it’s going to be tough to take the crown away from him, and he’ll be heading back to Charlotte next winter.
Although his focus is on asphalt, and repeating at NASCAR’s Vermont State champ, he’s not averse to at least thinking about getting back on the dirt.
“If the right deal came along, I’d go back,” he said. “But I wouldn’t go back and run with what we had before. I won’t leave this unless the situation was perfect.”
Show me the money
Sponsors keep coming out of the woodwork to support The Ridge, which announced two weeks that it was switching its race night to Sundays in a attempt to reverse a trend of low car counts and low attendance.
With last Sunday’s rainout, The Ridge has regrouped and has a blockbuster scheduled for this weekend.
The track will run Twin 50s for modifieds and sportsman Sunday, with the modified winner getting $3,711 and the sportsman winner taking home $1,000. The Lightning Sprints have also been added to the card.
Diamond Fabrications and Lost Boyz Auto Sales, which sponsor Marc Johnson, jumped on board with a $500 bonus this week.
After the modified feature, the winner will draw a number between one and 10, and the driver who finished in that position will receive the bonus.
The modifieds will also be running for $3,000 to win on June 17 and June 24, while the sportsman winner will receive $750 on those nights.
According to co-promoter Mike Romano, the list of confirmed drivers for this Sunday’s show include Matt Sheppard, Ken Tremont Jr., Andy Bachetti, JR Heffner (who never runs anywhere except Lebanon Valley, unless its in an ACRA car), both of the Varins, Danny Johnson, Marc Johnson and Dustin Delaney. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Ricci or two, either.
Follow the leader
Matt DeLorenzo’s second-place run to Brett Hearn at Albany-Saratoga last Friday got me thinking — who has the most second-place finishes at the Malta track?
The answer is Ken Tremont Jr., who has finished second a total of 68 times. I can document 40 runner-up finishes for Jack Johnson, but my records only go back to 1980, and I know he had some from 1976-79. Also high on the list are Bob Savoie (32), Hearn (31) and Don Ackner (30).
DeLorenzo has finished second 15 times, and on 14 of those occasions, he followed either Hearn (nine) or Tremont (five) across the finish line. During the 2002 season, when Hearn tied the track record with 12 victories, DeLorenzo finished second five times, including one stretch of four races in a row where he chased Hearn’s rear bumper across the stripe.
Around the tracks
Chris Ross dusted off his asphalt modified last weekend and made his 2012 debut at Devil’s Bowl, finishing 11th.
Fonda Speedway will be holding a meet-and-greet session prior to the racing action Saturday. Drivers representing all divisions will have their cars on the frontstretch and fans will have an opportunity to mingle and talk to their favorite drivers.