The Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel Flying Tigers are ready to open their 2019 championship battle at Barre’s Thunder Road on Sunday, April 28 at 1:30pm as part of the Community Bank N.A. 150. Early indications are that it could be one of the largest, most wide-open battles in years with numerous drivers capable of earning the crown.
Craftsbury Common’s Joel Hodgdon ran away with the Tiger championship in 2018. However, Hodgdon has moved up to the Maplewood/Irving Oil Late Models for 2019, leaving the title open to be claimed.
And there are lots of drivers who are looking to claim it. More than 40 drivers have already submitted their Flying Tiger license applications between Thunder Road and N. Woodstock, NH’s White Mountain Motorsports Park. New applications continue to arrive on a regular basis. With most top runners returning and many others joining the weekly Thunder Road wars, another big season is set up for the track’s longest-running division.
The returning class is a diverse mix of longtime veterans and relative newcomers to the Flying Tiger scene. Grand Isle’s “Double-O” Joe Steffen leads the veteran pack. The 2003 Tiger Champion enjoyed his best season in years in 2018, finishing second in points with two wins. He is back for his 30th season of racing at Thunder Road and 28th in the Flying Tigers.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” Steffen said. “We’re not really going to change the car any, obviously – we had it rolling pretty well last year. We’re hoping to just pick up where we left off. We’d struggled in previous years, so last year we decided we were going to throw the kitchen sink at it and see what works. We hit on some springs, shocks, tire management, and those kinds of things, and we paid a little closer attention to that stuff. We finally hit on something that was working and stuck with it.”
Several other stalwarts will be in the running. Craftsbury Common’s Mike Martin has a Myers Container Service Triple Crown Series championship and is desperately trying to add a track title. Milton’s Robert Gordon has won Super Stock championships around the region and continues to improve at Thunder Road. Essex’s Mike Billado looks to rebound from a tough 2018 campaign. Barre’s Cameron Ouellette has been battling health issues but still plans to race. Two-time champion Jason Woodard of Waterbury Ctr. is currently uncertain whether he is running the full season but will surely be a factor whenever he shows up.
They will have to hold off an ever-growing crop of up-and-comers. All of last year’s outstanding Flying Tiger rookie class will return, led by 2018 Rookie of the Year Brandon Lanphear of Morrisville. Lanphear earned a surprising win in the first Triple Crown Series event and then showed it was no fluke by finishing third in points.
“The biggest goal this year is to have fun,” Lanphear said. “But I definitely want to win some races. I also want to finish every race this year. Last year I had some mechanical issues that kind of put a damper on some of the races. But I feel like I ran well enough last year to hopefully contend for a championship this year and win. In order to finish first, first you must finish, so that’s the goal.”
Fellow sophomores Kelsea Woodard of Waterbury Ctr., Cooper Bouchard of Hinesburg, and Kevin Streeter of Waitsfield are also ones to watch. Woodard was the Doc Nielsen Outstanding Rookie Award winner in 2018 while Bouchard scored two wins. All three finished in the top-12 in points last year and are looking for more.
The junior class of Flying Tiger racers is just as strong. Waterbury Ctr.’s Kyle Streeter and E. Calais’s Tyler Austin each earned two wins in 2018 while finishing fourth and sixth in points. Others such as E. Burke’s Colin Cornell, Georgia’s Brett Wood, and Williamstown’s Mike MacAskill showed flashes in 2018 and will try to put a full season together.
A number of other drivers are joining the Flying Tigers. Craftsbury Common’s Stephen Martin, the 2018 Allen Lumber Street Stock Champion, leads this year’s crop of first-year racers. He’ll be joined by fellow Street Stock graduate Logan Powers of Middlesex among others. Several racers who competed at other tracks in 2018 have purchased Thunder Road licenses and plan to make the track their new weekly home. All in all, car counts and action seem likely to rise once again.
“I like to see that (the Tigers) have rebounded over the last couple seasons,” Steffen said. “That’s pretty nice – we were getting a little nervous about the division, but it’s rebounded quite nicely. I had a chance to look at the roster early last week, and it looks like we’ve got a pretty good field of cars. I think we’re going to see some good racing and some good fields.”
“I think the racing in the Tigers is either equal to or better than the Late Model racing,” Lanphear added. “There’s a lot of new drivers coming up this year and a lot of the old faces that have been around for 15-20 years. It will definitely be interesting to see what happens.”
The Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel Flying Tigers are part of the 60th Thunder Road season opener on Sunday, May 5 at 1:30pm. The American-Canadian Tour will be in town for 21st Community Bank N.A. 150 that also is expected to feature the top Maplewood/Irving Oil Late Model racers. The Allen Lumber Street Stocks and Burnett Scrap Metals Road Warriors join them on the card. Admission is $25 for adults and free for kids ages 12 and under.
Opening weekend begins with the annual Thunder Road Car Show on Saturday, May 4 from 9:00am-12:00pm. Cars will be parked on the track and fans will also be treated to face painting, a bounce house from Sky High Slides N Such, and live music from local band Rumblecaddy. An open practice will follow from 1:00-5:00pm.