HERMON, Maine — Del Merritt has been around racing for a long time and has had his share of highs and lows.
But the owner of Hermon’s Speedway 95 is expecting his Late Model class to provide a real high this season, and the drivers share his sentiment.
Merritt said there were 17 cars in Saturday’s two Late Model features, and he expects to add at least five to seven more in the next few weeks.
“And around 12 of the cars are capable of winning a race,” said Merritt. “There’s a lot of talent in that division. I think there will be a lot of different winners this season.”
“It’s pretty impressive. Half of the field is certainly capable of winning on any night,” agreed Ellsworth’s Andy Saunders, the defending points champion. “Even the drivers who don’t have a lot of experience in Late Models have a fair amount of experience racing [in other classes].”
Saunders also pointed out that some of those drivers who don’t have as much experience in the Late Model class are the sons of former longtime drivers and will benefit from their fathers’ knowledge.
Three of those drivers are John Kalel II of Orrington, son of John Kalel; Andrew McLaughlin of Harrington, son of Dave, and Bangor’s Donny Blanchard, whose father is Mo.
“Most of us are within one-tenth of a second of each other [per lap]. That’s very unusual. And that makes for very exciting racing,” said Donny Blanchard. “It makes it more exciting for the drivers, it’s great for the track and great for the fans.”
“The fans want to see different drivers win. They don’t want to see one driver dominate,” added Blanchard. “There are a lot of nice cars with real good equipment and a lot of very good drivers.”
“The more cars the better. I love the competition,” said Winterport’s Ryan Deane. “I think you’re going to see really good racing every weekend.”
Deane said that when Merritt adopted a rules package similar to the American-Canadian Tour that included the economical Crate engines and a specific shock absorber set, that helped level the playing field.
“It’s a really good rules package and that’s why you’re seeing an overabundance of cars,” said Deane.
Blanchard said the fact drivers can buy just one new tire each weekend unless there is an extended-lap race also helps keep parity in the class.
“If someone was allowed to buy four new tires, they would have a big advantage,” said Blanchard, who noted that it helps him because “we have a very limited budget.”
Ten different drivers won at least one of the 18 Late Model races a year ago with Hermon’s Mike Hopkins leading the way with seven trips to Victory Lane. Saunders and Deane were the only other multiple winners with two victories each.
Saunders said it is going to be “very difficult” to defend his points championship and listed a host of drivers he expects to be in the thick of the chase, including Deane, brothers Wayne and Brenton Parritt, Kalel, Blanchard, McLaughlin, Deane Smart, Hopkins and Dale Swoboda.
The 41-year-old Saunders has a new Crate engine in his Toyota Camry, and he debuted with a second place and a win last weekend. Ryan Deane also had a win and a second place.
“The car drives totally different. When we first practiced in it, we were horrible. We didn’t make a lot of changes to the car, I just had to get time in it and get used to it,” said Saunders, who obviously got used to it based on his performance last weekend.
“We have to make a few adjustments. We have high expectations,” said Saunders.
Ryan Deane said he intends to race “more for wins than for points.”
Blanchard said he wants to “consistently be a top five car. I want to go out and be competitive. That’s all I can ask for.”
Racing will continue at Speedway 95 on Saturday at 5 p.m.
Cassius Clark headlines field
Farmington’s Cassius Clark won the Ripley and Fletcher Ford 150 at Oxford Plains Speedway last weekend and will look to make it two in a row in the Pro All-Stars Series Super Late Model North tour on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway for the Southern Maine Motors 150.
Berwick’s Joey Doiron was second at OPS with defending points champ Travis Benjamin of Morrill finishing third. Rounding out the top five were Turner’s Ben Rowe and Windham’s Bobby Timmons.
Fourteen-year-old Reid Lanpher of Manchester will be in the field, and the JR Motorsports development driver will have a veteran crew chief with him in Cherryfield’s Andy Santerre.
Lanpher failed to qualify at OPS.