Keeping Score: Road rage
Mike Stebbins is stirring things up at Monadnock in his No. 66. Mini-Stock Honda CRX. Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »
There’s nothing like an old fashioned rhubarb to liven up the dog days of summer at Monadnock Speedway, where Mini-Stock driver Mike Stebbins’ six wins in two months had his fellow competitors conspiring to snatch the checkered flag from him before the light could turn green.
Stebbins drives a Honda CRX with a four-cylinder Honda engine that’s superior to the Ford engines that other drivers use to barrel around the quarter-mile bullring.
Whether it’s legal is the question, and Stebbins steadfastly maintains his innocence. “It’s a good handling car in the turns and I’ve got thousands of laps over this track,” the 44-year-old wheelman protested.
NASCAR officials inspect the top three finishers after each race and pick another at random. They measure spoiler plates and look under the hood and weigh the vehicle to make sure everything’s copacetic. A lot of it’s for show; nobody gets fined or banned from the track.
It’s too small an operation to be heavy-handed and officials want nothing to do with controversy. “We get paid nowhere near enough to go through the hassles they put us through,” said one official, “so they rant and holler and I let it go through one ear and out the other.”
That left it to track owner Larry Cirillo, who was confronted with his own personal fireworks show on July 5 when drivers threatened to boycott the race. Cirillo is a passionate man who loves both the sport and his track and is stuck in the middle of trying to keep the peace.
“You can’t figure it out and you can’t even write about it. You’d have to do a 30-page article,” he said.
Not necessarily. General manager Michelle Cloutier summed up the circumstance in three short sentences: “Hondas are different. It’s a new generation of of Mini-Stock. The power is different coming into the corners.”
To which Cirillo concurred: “What you have is Ford technology from the 1970s against Honda technology from the 1980s, and that ten years’ difference is a moon jump.”
Stebbins owns an auto wholesaling and repair shop on Route 10 next to the track. “If the muffler falls off my truck I take it to him to get it fixed,” said Cirillo.
Before the season began, he encouraged Stebbins to switch to a Honda engine. “I wanted to keep the division alive and you can’t get those Ford engines anymore. They’re hard to find.”
Cirillo was unaware that he was giving Stebbins carte blanche permission to drive a car that, compared to the others, is on steroids.
Indeed, perhaps even Stebbins was unaware of how good his car would perform around the tight turns. Trying to explain the reason for Stebbins success, his crew chief Nore Veilleux said, “It’s a new car for the division and all the rules don’t fit. That and we spent a little money on new tires.”
As friendly a gentleman as he is, Veilleux wouldn’t make a good defense attorney.
Drivers were in such an uproar that at one point Stebbins’ car was transported directly from victory lane to Raymond’s Garage in Bernardston, where it was measured for torque and power. The verdict: his Honda engine delivers one horsepower more than the other four-cylinder engines.
“It’s not about horsepower,” said Cirillo, “It’s acceleration. He’s at full acceleration going into the turns and they’re not. There’s no smoking gun. He’s got a good car, he’s a good driver and he’s a good mechanic. He’s come in and upset the apple cart. He turned the cart over and they’re all pointing fingers.”
Yet the Honda technology has indeed given him a distinct advantage that’s made other drivers feel like they’re racing for second place. “There’s not a lot of incentive when you know you’re going to get blown away,” said Julia Raymond, whose 1989 Merkur is Germany’s version of a Ford Mustang. “If that’s what he wants to do OK, but it’s like beating up second graders.”
“He’s a nice guy,” she added. “Everybody’s nice enough till they get in the car.”
Stebbins doesn’t mingle with his fellow drivers. He keeps his trailer parked away from them on the western edge of the pit area near the Ashuelot River. On race nights he and Veilleux are joined by their wives and children, including Stebbins’ 12-year-old daughter Mariah who’s driving in the entry level Young Guns division.
“I guess it’s a compliment,” he said of the drivers’ remarks. “I think the world of them even though they talk behind my back.”
“Michael is as straight a player as you’re going to get,” said his wife Angela. “We’re a military family and it’s integrity first. He’s an amazing mechanic and he knows every part of these cars.”
“She’s always saying nice things about me,” smiled Stebbins.
Tired of being Stebbins’ foil, the drivers confronted Cirillo. “He became the King and they’re like, ‘Whoa! we can’t have that!’ So I said, ‘OK boys, what do you want me to do?”
What they wanted was to slow him down by putting 200 pounds of extra weight inside the car. “I’m keeping the peace. We have a big family. Without them I’m nothing, and without me they can’t race. My main goal is to keep the playing field even, and to make that happen I make changes.”
The improvising has had its intended effect. Three weeks ago Stebbins finished fourth, and last Saturday he finished third behind the winner Chris McTaggert and runner-up Kevin McKnight of Orange. He started the race in ninth place and methodically moved up. Another five laps and he might have won.
Afterward a fan seated behind me said, “That was a good race.”
“Just make sure you put in there I have the utmost respect for all my competitors,” said Stebbins. “When you’re into racing, you go to bed thinking about racing and you wake up thinking about racing, and I’m thinking about how we got to where we are now. We call it a racing family, and I’m starting to question that, which is sad.”
Working in the so-called “gray area” of rules-bending has always been an issue. “Some of them look right into my eyes and lie to me,” said Cirillo. “We’re going to start taking a look at the other cars that are accusing him of cheating and look at what they’re doing wrong.”
Wanting to put the controversy in the rear view mirror, Stebbins said he’d continue to drive with the extra weight and move up to Modifieds next year. “Open wheel, top division. I’ll buy a turnkey car that’s ready to go.”
He paused a moment and added, “So the Honda will be for sale, if you want to put that in the newspaper.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.