Craig Murto: Tom Curley dies at 73

Longtime Thunder Road Speedbowl co-owner and promoter Tom Curley died on Friday following a lengthy illness.

Thomas M. Curley was 73 and was involved in Vermont and New England regional racing for most of his life. His career started at Thunder Road as a spectator and driver in the 1960s. He became the NASCAR Northeast regional director in 1978, and a year later created the NASCAR North Tour. He and Thunder Road founder Ken Squier then acquired the track in 1982.

NASCAR dropped the North Tour, and thus dropped Curley. But Curley always felt a loyalty to “his” racers, and created the American-Canadian Tour (ACT) sanctioning body in 1986. Both Thunder Road and ACT became household names throughout the Northeast, making the Barre, Vermont, high banks one of the most popular regional auto racing destinations. He created the ACT Late Model rules package currently used at Thunder Road and numerous other Northeast tracks.

During pavement Late Model racing’s heyday of the ’80s and ’90s, there were three top promoters and series: Bob Harmon and the All Pro Series; Rex Robbins and the American Speed Association; and Curley with ACT. At one time Curley arranged to have the three series run some combined races as The Stock Car Connection. A live television package for the events was prepared for The Nashville Network, and K-Mart was to be the official sponsor. But the deal fell apart when K-Mart pulled out to become the official something or other of NASCAR.

The annual Thunder Road end-of-season special known as The Milk Bowl is one of the most unique and exciting races in the country. The race is run in three 50-lap segments, each scored separately and points awarded. The entire field is inverted from the finishing order of each segment for the start of the next. The winner of the Milk Bowl – who gets to kiss a cow in Victory Lane – is determined by points following the three segments. Curley didn’t create the event, but under his leadership it became one of the biggest Late Model races in the country.

A family of four could get into Thunder Road’s weekly show for $20, and it was always filled with spectators. When asked why the track ran its successful weekly show on Thursday nights, Curley stated that it was because the local quarry paid its employees on Thursdays.

But Curley was driven by the philosophy that racing should be more exciting and affordable for the fans, and he believed it should be more affordable for the racers. His “ladder system” for weekly racing became known throughout the country. His ACT Late Models were among the first to use sealed “crate” engines to keep competitor costs down. And you didn’t dare mess with the rules, as Curley had no problem throwing violators out and suspending them for great lengths of time. If you were outraced in an ACT event or at Thunder Road, you knew you were beaten fair and square.

Many well-known figures in racing cut their teeth under Curley. Drivers who came up through Curley’s system include former NASCAR Cup competitors Ricky Craven and Kevin LePage. NASCAR Motor Racing Network’s Dave Moody honed his skills in Vermont radio and as the track announcer at Thunder Road. Even Vermont’s new governor, Phil Scott, won championships in ACT and at Thunder Road, and continues to race when his duties allow.

Curley was a frequent speaker at promoter workshops, and nationally recognized for his efforts. Racing Promotion Monthly named Curley the North American Promoter of the Year in 2004. He also received the Lowes Motor Speedway National Short Track Promoter of the Year Award in 2003, and the Trackside Magazine Promoter of the Year Award in 1992. In 2009 Curley was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Though his health declined, he continued to be a presence at Thunder Road. The last time I attended the track for the 2015 Milk Bowl, Curley continued to hold the drivers meeting and orchestrate the festivities behind the scenes despite requiring oxygen and a golf cart to get around.

He and Squier recently sold the track. It is hoped that it will continue to be operated in a fashion that would make Tom Curley proud. Other promoters around the country would be wise to study Curley’s methods. If they could be half as successful as Tom Curley, the sport will be in good shape.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.