As we journey into October of this ever so strange 2020, the signs of fall are once again prevalent in Vermont. The crisp morning air, the leaves on the trees trading out their usual green for shades of red and orange. But perhaps the surest sign of fall comes this weekend- the 58th Vermont Milk Bowl.
This year, the “Toughest Event in Short Track Racing” will look and feel different from years past. Attendance limitations and mask requirements as Vermont and the world continues to navigate a global pandemic will certainly make things a little bit different than what we’re all used to.
But it won’t take away from the valor of the event. With the way COVID-19 tried to cripple local race tracks financially, we’re lucky that this race is even happening in the first place. However, as soon as those engines fire, it has, and will, give off that slight feeling or normalcy that everyone craves these days.
We’ll once again face the question that comes to mind every time the American Canadian Tour makes a trip to Barre- can the “invaders” knock off the Thunder Road regulars? This year has belonged completely to the regulars. In fact, the only ACT regulars to even score a top 10 at Thunder Road this year are DJ Shaw and Jimmy Hebert, with Shaw’s 7th place run in the Community Bank 150 as the benchmark.
This will likely be a showdown between the best drivers to hit the highbanks each Thursday night throughout the summer, but don’t count out the likes of Shaw, Hebert and Ryan Kuhn, who will all have another shot at figuring this track out this weekend.
So, let’s take a look at who can win, and some dark horses who could make a major splash this weekend.
Jason Corliss, #66 Burnett Scrap Metals Ford
The obvious first choice here is the man who has absolutely dominated anything and everything at Thunder Road for more than a half decade now. His list of accomplishments and race wins at Thunder Road is vast, and growing almost every time he hits the track. He won the Milk Bowl in 2017 and 2018, and has now won the last two track championships, as well. The only man to be “King of the Road” and Milk Bowl champion in the same season? Current track owner Cris Michaud in 2004.
Corliss has finished 1st and 3rd in the two ACT races in Barre this season, and and sported an incredible 3.2 average finishing position in the 2nd half of the 2020 regular season. His unbeatable pace in the latter half of the season allowed for him to charge from behind and win the title by 50 points, even after an early season DNQ left him with one less start than his competitors in the points.
While it’s not a lock, Corliss enters the weekend with the best shot to win the race. Chris Burnett and Andrew Hill have given him the best resources, and there’s reason to believe Corliss is the best driver in the garage right now. The biggest question of the weekend will be whether or not anyone can catch the 66.
Bobby Therrien, #5 Fast One Motorsports Chevrolet
The defending Milk Bowl champion, Therrien won’t be short on confidence coming into this weekend, as the Fast One Motorsports team finally has their new car running up to par. The “Bad Boy” ran 3rd or better six times this year at Thunder Road, and won twice, including the Labor Day Classic 200 for the ACT. His epic battle throughout that race with Jason Corliss proved that he is not only as fast as the 66, but he can be faster.
Pete Duto and Derrick O’Donnell can put a car together like no one else, and Therrien’s driving style is the perfect mix of intelligence and aggression that’s needed to win a race like this. They seem to be peaking as well, which only helps their cause.
Scott Dragon, #16 Richard Green Trucking Chevrolet
How has Scott Dragon never won a Milk Bowl? The 16 team has been dominant at Thunder Road ever since Dragon got behind the wheel of this car. But they’ve never won the Milk Bowl. Is this the year? Dragon won three races this year, and finished third in the final point standings even though they missed a race early in the season.
The Milton, VT driver pounced on multiple opportunities this year. He started on the front row in a race he went on to win by five seconds. In the midseason championships, the seas parted for him when the leaders wrecked each other, opening the door for a double point counting win that helped save what could have easily been a lost season. Late in the year, a late caution allowed him to restart on the front row, where he drove off to an easy third victory.
Dragon also performed well in the Labor Day Classic, coming from behind to finish 4th on the day. Ever since the motor expired on his 16 machine in the second week of the year, the Richard Green team has been both lucky and opportunistic. Carrying those traits into the most challenging and unpredictable race of the year can give them an upper hand. I don’t think they’re quite as fast as the 5 and the 66, but he’s a lucky break away from finally checking the Milk Bowl off his list.
Drivers To Watch
Marcel J. Gravel, #86 Vermont Shifter Karts Toyota
Kicking off 2020 with his second career late model victory, Former Milk Bowl polesitter Marcel Gravel looked like a serious title contender for the first half of the season. He led the points for more weeks than any other driver at Thunder Road, but a string of bad runs when he needed them most relegated him to a 5th place finish in the final standings. He had an average finish of 5.6 in the first eight races of the year, finishing no worse than 8th. It was a completely different story in the final five races of the year, however, as the 86 team limped home with an average finish of 11.8, and just one top 10 run.
We’ve clearly seen flashes of greatness from the young driver from Wolcott, VT, most notably a 100-plus lap battle for the lead with Jason Corliss in the Governor’s Cup. He’s got the speed and talent to do it, but In order to pull off the victory, Gravel will need to find a way to perform better under pressure than he did in the championship stretch.
Tyler Cahoon, #38 P&H Transportation/Berlin Optical Chevrolet
One of the veterans of competition at Thunder Road, Tyler Cahoon seems poised for another good run in the biggest race of the season. It was a season of inconsistency for the Danville, VT driver, including a couple of badly wrecked race cars and a blistered tire during an event this year.
Perhaps more noticeable than his struggles, though, were his successes towards the end of the season. A feature win and a 2nd place in the final event of the year were signs of optimism for this team, and they’ve been getting faster and faster every week thanks in large part to their new alliance with Pard Brothers Racing, who also builds cars for Jason Corliss.
Cahoon won the final segment of last year’s Milk Bowl, and should be able to run up front again this year. If they can keep the car out of trouble, they can absolutely contend for a win.
Dylan Payea, #7 Payea Motorsports Dodge
The little team that could of the ACT, Dylan Payea has a knack for outrunning his equipment throughout his young career. He’s run the entire ACT schedule this season with almost no sponsorship at all, and currently sits 5th in the points. He had a top five car at Oxford last month, and runs Thunder Road better than most of the ACT invaders.
He had a solid run going in last year’s race before being involved in the “big one” in segment two. His biggest key to success this weekend will be taking car of his car and keeping it in one piece, but if he can do that, he’s got the potential to run up front. Can Payea pull the upset and get his first career win on the biggest stage?
The 58th Vermont Milk Bowl weekend kicks off Friday and runs through Sunday, with the three segment, 150 lap, $10,000 to win main event. The Inside Groove will be at the track all weekend long for live coverage of the race on Facebook and Twitter (@InsideGrooveTV).