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Monday, October 3, 2011
Updated: October 4, 2:57 PM ET
Rainy daze at Thunder Road

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

Thunder Road
Rustic Thunder Road, nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont, remains a showplace as envisioned by Ken Squier when he built the track more than 51 years ago.

BARRE, Vt. -- Now I know how you feel.

I had sloughed off your frustration for decades. I apologize.

You would plan for months to attend a race you'd always wanted to see. You had to squeeze it into your hectic life, but you found a way.

Then it rained, and you couldn't come back for the rain date.

I used to think you irrational when you complained about officials' handling of a rainout situation, no matter how they dealt with it. I couldn't understand how you could fault humans in uncontrollable weather.

Easy for me to talk. In a rainout, I would simply extend my hotel reservation, change my airline flight and just wait it out, covering the race whenever it was run.

Fans in rain
To all the die-hard fans who have ever weathered a storm to see an auto race: Ed Hinton feels your pain.

Now here I sit, stymied, over my last remaining must-see race in all the world.

I have been to Darlington, Daytona, Indy, Le Mans, Monaco, Sebring, Silverstone, you name it in the big leagues. I've covered the storied Knoxville Nationals sprint car races on the black dirt of Iowa.

But I still haven't seen a Milk Bowl run at the only track in America I can truly call idyllic, little Thunder Road.

When track owner Ken Squier, renowned for his CBS race telecasts of yore, told me he and the series director were calling the race, I shrugged and said, "You'll just run Monday, right?"

"No!" he said. "These are working people."

Squier meant not only his crowd but the drivers and crews. All of them had to go back to work at their regular jobs on Monday.

From the racing lieutenant governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, who had to be back at the Capitol building in Montpelier, on, nobody in the stands or pits had any margin built in for any such highfalutin plan as "next clear day."

They'll try again to run next Sunday. My job and my life preclude my coming back for that.

I'll confide to you something I didn't say to Squier, or to American-Canadian Tour director Tom Curley: In my mind I questioned their giving up more than a full day early. They called a Sunday race on Saturday morning.

Curley had been in close conference with the National Weather Service and had determined there was no hope for running Sunday. A bleak and drizzling system had settled in on northern New England. Still, in the back of my mind ...

Then you came to mind: You, the attending fan, at a rainout.

Thunder Road
The start is the best part of any race, Thunder Road track owner Ken Squier believes. Joey Polewarczyk Jr. of Hudson, N.H., and Scott Payea of Milton, Vt., lead the field down to give the crowd their money's worth.

Case in point, Atlanta Motor Speedway, just last month, just this past Labor Day weekend.

NASCAR had called the event on Sunday night and had immediately announced there would not even be an attempt on Monday, with the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee lingering over northern Georgia.

I was there, and I told you, the fan, that there really was no hope for Monday and that you had no grounds to complain that NASCAR had made the call so early.

I apologize.

There was no hope here, and sure enough, Sunday was as awful as Saturday. Curley and Squier had made the only sensible call, the only one fair to their fans and competitors.

Still, for the racing enthusiast, disappointment can trump reason.

And so it is with me and the Milk Bowl, the only race in the world where the winner kisses a dairy cow in Victory Lane ... the only race in the world that is a mulligan stew of motor racing, chess, golf (low score in three rounds of racing wins the Milk Bowl) ... "and you have to throw in roller derby," said two-time winner Scott, who was a racer and a working man before he was a politician.

The Milk Bowl is an enormous paradox, hidden in the Green Mountains amidst the bright foliage of New England autumn, on rustic Thunder Road, the quarter-mile oval track Squier built 51 years ago.

While the setting and the gathering are throwbacks to post World War II racing on the short tracks in the little towns, the race's format is a vast leap toward the future.

As the attention span of the American spectator dwindles, the Milk Bowl may be a way of racing that NASCAR, perhaps even IndyCar, should consider.

Wouldn't you know Squier invented it? Wouldn't you know it all came from the intellect of the walking, talking paradox himself, the embodiment of the tiny-town New Englander via Boston University who in childhood was mesmerized by blue-collar auto racing and grew up to knight the Daytona 500 as "The Great American Race" and anchor it for CBS in tones and phrases that made that race seem almost Shakespearean?

Thunder Road Crowd
The Thunder Road faithful span generations, so they feel at home. The hand-cut french fries, with plenty of vinegar, are the track's traditional delicacy.

If the Milk Bowl is still decades ahead of its time, that is only because of the reluctance of big-league racing to change. This race and this format are 49 years old, tried and proven enough to be billed correctly as "the toughest short track race in North America."

Plug the stars and cars of the Sprint Cup series into this format, and it might just be the toughest race, period.

"His concept was brilliant because it was so far ahead of its time," says Curley. "He designed this way back then because he thought it was a made-for-television type of entertainment. He felt if you had a volatile, sprint-race type thing, you could really sell it.

"It never got done as TV, but once he tried it at Thunder Road 49 years ago, the format sustained itself."

And now, methinks, the Milk Bowl's time has come, to embrace the fleeting attention span. The format has been half-done, dabbled at, sort of, as TV, by NASCAR. But the Bud Shootout (nee Busch Clash) is only 32 years old, and the All-Star Race but 26.

The Milk Bowl was the first "segment" racing, and it borrowed one of the best formats from the formative years of localized stock car racing -- an "inverted start," where the fastest cars start in the back and have to fight their way to the front.

Having covered 500-mile races for CBS, "I just thought this was a sensible solution," Squier says. "I thought, 'What's the most dramatic part of a race? The start.' This gave you four different winners, potentially. And three really good starts that were real."

There are three segments. But the overall winner of the Milk Bowl doesn't necessarily have to win a segment. It's scored more like golf, with low overall score winning.

Born and raised in a skiing state, Squier took much of his format from ski competition, "which includes three parts, the slalom, the giant slalom and the downhill." A winner of one of those disciplines may not necessarily win the event. The best performer overall wins.

In racing, so far, "Nobody has picked up on the basic concept, and when they do they screw it up," says Curley. "They screw up the rules. They pay segments and all that crap."

Thunder Road Cow
Kissing the cow in Victory Lane after winning the Milk Bowl is the race's quintessential tradition. Joey Polewarczyk Jr. of Hudson, N.H., had the honors in 2010.

To discourage sandbagging in the Cup-level special events, they pay winners of segments, and that detracts from the all-or-nothing, and yet multiple-chance, design of the Milk Bowl.

"We don't pay segments; you've got to do it all," says Curley.

But neither does it all come down to the last-segment winner, as in the NASCAR special events. In fact, "rarely does the guy who wins the last segment win it [the overall event]," says Curley.

There are segments of 50, 75 and 75 laps. Say you win the first segment. That's one point. But, with the inverted lineup for the second segment, you start toward the back. Say you finish 20th in that one. You're hit with 20 more points for a total of 21, but you get to start fourth in the last segment. Say you win it. You have a total of 22 points.

But say another guy finished seventh in the first segment, seventh in the second and seventh in the third, for a total of 21 points. He wins the Milk Bowl without winning a single segment.

So it's a thinking fan's race. You have to focus on it more than a spectator would at a 400- or 500-mile race, where the winner is simply the one ahead at the checkered flag.

Yet for all the math involved, the formula requires drivers to run hard, all the time, in every phase, from time trials through the race segments.

To prevent sandbagging in one segment in order to start up front in another, only the first 24 finishing positions are inverted. The other six, or more, finish in back and then start in back.

That keeps the best drivers from falling out early from one segment in order to start up front in the next.

This sort of thing, to me, is worth seeing. But I didn't get to.

And now I know how you feel in the rain.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.