Psssst. Don’t pinch Travis Benjamin. Don’t shake him awake. He’s pretending he’s not the driver to beat as the Pro All-Star Series nears the middle of its 2012 season.
Good luck with that, Travis. The PASS stock car tour comes to Beech Ridge Motor Speedway on Saturday night and after six races, you’re the driver on top of the point standings. You won one of the six races and finished in the top five in four others.
You’re trying to fly under the radar because after 10 years of tour racing you’ve never won a season championship. When stock car racing fans in Maine talk of the best, Johnny Clark of Hallowell is the first name mentioned and deservedly so. He’s won the title six times, including last year, and earned the right to have Victory Lane posted at the top of his driveway.
But Benjamin, from the small town of Morrill, just west of Belfast, is on the point this week with Clark chasing him. “First place is a good place to be,” said Benjamin. “No, it’s a great place. But I’m just playing it week to week.”
He is a third-generation racer. His grandfather, Harold Benjamin, raced at Unity Raceway in the 1960s and 1970s. His father, Ron, a regular at Wiscasset Raceway, tried tour racing in New England. Usually competitive but not consistently good enough to contend for a championship. Respected and cheered because they are part of stock car racing’s vast middle class.
Sure, Travis Benjamin would like a championship trophy to go with his most improved and most popular trophies. But he won’t sell his soul or spend what he doesn’t have.
The Benjamin family owns three stores in the Belfast area. More old-time variety or general stores than chain convenience stores. Places where you can buy a hammer, a quart of milk and boneless sirloin while catching up on local news.
Hey, did you hear? Travis is in first place in the standings.
We were talking on the phone but I could imagine him shaking his head, not wanting me to blow things out of proportion. All drivers live with heartbreak or at the least, frustration. Some drivers try to spend their way to the top of the standings and still fail. Racing luck can be very capricious.
“I was just planning on running four or five races and see how we were doing. I want to win as much as anyone but I know how things can turn. Then I picked up a couple of good sponsors. Now I’m getting the little sponsors who want to help, like buying tires for a weekend.”
Shurfine and Associated Grocers of New England replaced the familiar Irving Oil on his Ford race car. Benjamin got enough money to freshen his motor.
“I had the dream once of making it, just like everybody else,” said Benjamin, no different from any Little League ballplayer thinking he could someday play for the Red Sox. “But your family needs to have a lot of money or you’ve got a big sponsor to bring to a team owner.”
He’s 33 years old. His window of opportunity, even if it was just open a crack, slammed shut 15 years ago. Still, auto racing is a way of life. A fourth generation of Benjamins has been introduced to go-kart racing.
Only 50 points separate this Benjamin from the next four drivers in the standings. Clark is breathing down his neck. So is Joey Doiron of Berwick, a relatively new face on the tour. Cassius Clark of Farmington, no relation to Johnny, is fourth and Lonnie Sommerville of New Brunswick, driving for the Falmouth-based team of Scott Mulkern, is in fifth.
After the checkered flag waves late Saturday night, the standings could be scrambled. “Beech Ridge is tough,” said Benjamin. “I’ve done well there, leading a lot of laps and other times I can’t get out of my way. The weather (temperatures) can really affect the track.
“When it gets hot it gets greasy. We still don’t have a good grasp of that. I don’t take good notes.”
You could hear the fun in his voice. Better that than anxiety.
“It takes a ton of pressure off. Really, I’m just playing it week to week.”
I don’t think he winked.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: