Craig Murto: The milk bowl not just any race

Milk Bowl winners traditionally kiss a cow in Victory Lane, and in 2015 that honor went to Nick Sweet. Courtesy photo by Alan Ward

Vermont is beautiful this time of year, with fall foliage almost at peak, the brisk autumn air, and the sound of racecars for one more special event at Thunder Road International Speedbowl.

The Green Mountain State hosts an environment as hearty as those who call it home. The “moose crossing” signs are not there to keep tourists in awe. And it’s true that the Von Trapp family of “Sound of Music” fame moved to Vermont in the 1950s to live in an area that reminded them of their home in Austria. It’s a beautiful state, but it can be rough, and those who live here can handle it.

The track is in the quarry town of Barre (pronounced like the name Barry). During the regular racing season the quarter-mile track, built in 1960, usually runs on Thursday nights, a tradition started because the local quarry always paid on Thursdays, so best to get your fans in when they had money.

But special events, such as the 53rd running of the Milk Bowl, are held on weekends. The Milk Bowl is a unique race, almost as tough as the local racers who compete at Thunder Road on a weekly basis. Three 50-lap segments make up the 150-lap green-flag distance. Each segment is scored separately, with the winner receiving one point, second place gets two, third place three, etc., through the 30-car field.

The top 24 finishers of the first segment are inverted to start the second; if you win the first segment, you start 24th in the second. Likewise, if you win the second segment, you start 24th in the final 50-lap portion. At the end of three segments, the driver with the fewest points is the winner of the Milk Bowl. In case of a tie, the tiebreaker is a driver’s finish in the final segment.

It never fails that the Milk Bowl produces great excitement, especially in the final segment. Hearty individuals? Racers elsewhere in the country hate any kind of field inversion, and certainly would not accept starting a segment 24th after winning the previous 50-lap run.

Local hero Nick Sweet, 31, added to his growing legend on Sunday, slicing through the field in the final laps to win the final segment and capture his second career Milk Bowl win.

The multi-time Thunder Road Late Model champion entered the final segment trailing rival and three-time defending track champion Derrick O’Donnell by five points in the overall tally and was running seventh to O’Donnell’s 11th when the first of three late caution flags flew on lap 37.

Caution laps don’t count, but they do bunch up the field. Seeing the Milk Bowl within his grasp, Sweet seized the moment, needing just seven more laps to charge to the lead.

Sweet’s thrilling third-segment win gave him a final score of 13 points, one better than O’Donnell, who could do no better than seventh in the third segment rundown. Sweet’s comeback victory was greeted by a thunderous ovation from the large crowd (at least 6,000). The Milk Bowl winner traditionally kisses a cow in Victory Lane, and a photo of the kiss made the state capital’s newspaper’s front page, above the fold.

“This is my finest moment in my career right here,” Sweet said. “There’s nothing that has ever topped this. It’s just a perfect day. Words cannot describe it.

“Derrick is obviously a great competitor, and I know how he feels right now, because I’ve lost three championships to him in the last three years,” Sweet added. “But sometimes it’s good to be on the other end.”

Polesitter and first segment winner O’Donnell finished second in the final tally. Defending American-Canadian Tour (ACT) Champion Joey Polewarczyk Jr. took third overall followed by eight-time ACT Champion Brian Hoar and top local racer Cody Blake.

Phil Scott finished sixth. Scott is a 25-year Thunder Road veteran and two-time track champion. He’s also Vermont’s lieutenant  governor, and campaigning for the big chair in the state capital. An entire column will be dedicated to Scott in the future.

Many local Late Model fans went to see Tommy Lemons Jr. win the race at Martinsville. Many Midwest fans watched Erik Jones win the Winchester 400 in Indiana. But the fans who know what’s really good traveled to Vermont for the Milk Bowl, the most unique and exciting stock car race held in the country each year.

It’s beautiful in Vermont this time of year, so plan for a fall vacation next season. And wrap that vacation up with the Milk Bowl; you will not be disappointed.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.