State champions bask in spotlight of award’s banquet
Charlotte, NC — Wayne Helliwell Jr. thought he had gotten a crack at this celebrating a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series title once before.
But after running away with the New Hampshire state championship a few years ago, Helliwell lost it after encountering what he coined “technical issues” with his home track of Lee USA Speedway in Lee, N.H. Given another opportunity in 2010, though, Helliwell finally capped off a Whelen All-American Series championship season at Lee USA with nine wins in the track’s Late Model division.
For the second-generation Lee racer, victory was understandably sweet.
“This is big,” said Helliwell, of Dover, N.H. “To overcome all that stuff before is just huge. Racing with my dad for so many years, he was never able to pull a win out of Lee. So to be able to win a championship out of there — and the state championship stuff that goes with it — is really big for the whole family.”
Helliwell posted 17 top-5 finishes in 19 starts at Lee this season. But that only paints half the picture for Helliwell, whose racing pursuits extend well beyond weekly division racing on Friday nights at the .333-mile oval.
He’s also a regular competitor on the regional American-Canadian Late Model Tour, and in 2011 he plans to run some weekly Modified races at NASCAR-sanctioned Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, N.H., as well as a Supermodified part-time at Lee. Helliwell said extending the team’s focus beyond Friday nights pays dividends in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series standings.
“We like to mix it up a little bit,” Helliwell said. “You learn a lot more that you can bring back to your home track. You pick up speed that way. It keeps us busy.”
And Helliwell plans to stay busy again in 2011, perhaps with an eye on winning another New Hampshire state championship.
“We’ve kind of been all over the place, but it pays off in the end,” Helliwell said.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Wisconsin racer Chad Mahder didn’t just go out and win six races in 2010 to claim the track championship at Cedar Lake Speedway. He also collected a serious bullet point for his racing resume by winning the national NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Rookie of the Year Award presented by Jostens.
“It’s somewhat hard to describe, I guess,” the thoughtful Mahder said, trying to put the Rookie of the Year title into perspective. “It’s not something you get a chance to do every day.”
With 13 top-5s and 17 top-10s in 19 races at Cedar Lake, Mahder narrowly missed out on the Wisconsin state championship won by Pat Doar. Still, in falling just 10 points shy of the state title, Mahder topped the rest of the nation’s Whelen All-American Series rookie contenders by more than 200 points.
Mahder finished 16th overall in the national standings.
“At the beginning of the year, I never really even realized I’d be involved with the NASCAR points at the end of the year,” Mahder said. “Then about halfway through the year, we realized we had a shot at winning the state championship and the Rookie of the Year. So we went after (the rookie title) and were able to tie that one down, so it was quite a big accomplishment.
“It’s great being Rookie of the Year. It’s great for all the sponsors and everybody on the team. Certainly there’s a lot more publicity available to you, too.”
MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES: Even in a small state like Maine, the NASCAR name carries big weight with it.
“It’s a gold seal of approval for us,” said Andy Cusack, the promoter at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, Maine. “It makes it easy when we deal with clients — they’ll ask, ‘Are you like NASCAR?’ and we can answer, ‘Well, yeah, we are NASCAR.’ It solves a lot of issues and it answers a lot of questions. It also makes us feel good as a track having that gold seal of approval hanging out there over us.
“It certainly makes the drivers feel good about what they’re doing, too.”
With two of his track’s drivers in Charlotte this week for championship week festivities — including state champion Mike Rowe and track champion Dan McKeage — Cusack sees firsthand the impact on his top division’s drivers as they pursue titles.
Part of it is the purse money NASCAR awards its Whelen All-American Series champions, and part of it is the prestige of taking part in something like the annual awards banquet and surrounding festivities all week.
“It’s lots of extra money that we can’t come up with as a small business,” Cusack said of NASCAR’s purses. “And until they’re here (as champions in Charlotte), everyone that comes here is like, ‘You can’t believe it.’ They go and tell everybody at home — but until you come, you think it’s like a Beech Ridge banquet with lipstick on it. It’s like, ‘No, you don’t understand. It’s this huge event.'”
BIG SEASON: All Justin Johnson wanted to do when he decided to race weekly at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.) this year was win one race.
Johnson did that. Ten times over, in fact, en route to the Super Late Model title at the facility. His efforts were strong enough to win the Las Vegas native the California state championship.
“We went into the year just trying to win one race. Turned out, we got the ball rolling with 10 wins and the championship,” Johnson said. “We didn’t really go in for the championship. Probably around halfway to three quarters of the way through the season, we saw we had a good chance to get the championship, so we started keeping track of the points and staying on top of it.
“Throughout the year we didn’t try to points race too much, because you can get all messed up in that game. Once we saw we were in contention, we just tried to stay with it.”
For Johnson, a change of scenery seemed to do the trick. He’d spent the previous seven seasons racing at his home track — the Bullring at Las Vegas — before opting to run with the Vision Airlines team at Toyota Speedway in 2010. The visibility offered by Toyota Speedway and its sterling reputation in the short track community was a big factor.
“We felt the track is more renowned for its celebrity — the drivers that have come out of that situation,” Johnson said. “We also felt like the caliber of drivers was much better and also the staff is more friendly. I think winning the championship in California — there’s more tracks in California than (Nevada) — was big for us.”
With 10 wins in 19 races, Johnson had nearly a 100-point cushion over second-place Dusty Davis in the California standings. Davis also competed at Toyota Speedway.
Sources: Travis Barrett, Special to NASCARHomeTracks.com