Story by Frank Wood- Two of Canada’s top dirt track racers, Doug Lawrence of Mississauga, ON, and Mike Labelle from Welland, ON, failed to make it into the main event in their respective classes at the AMA Pro Flattrack Springfield Mile held on May 27 at the Springfield Illionois Fairgrounds.
In the Pro Grand National Championship Twins class, Lawrence came out of the combined timed qualifying in 30th position in a program that would only accept the top 51. Through his qualifying, Lawrence’s crew chief and father worked through several issues on the R&J Racing-sponsored XR750 Harley-Davidson, including a dragging rear brake and an oil line venting problem. On track, the ‘Mississauga Missile’ was dealing with a fresh motor that was notably down on speed. His qualifying speed of 98.103 mph, compared to Kawasaki-mounted fast qualifier Johnny Lewis, who posted 101.655, showed the challenge he and his team faced.
“The motor will get faster as it breaks in,” noted Lawrence Sr. And indeed, his son’s lap times did improve through each session.
“Those Kawasakis are so fast,” said Lawrence, shortly before his first qualifying heat race. “They’ve really got those things sorted out now. I’m going to have to get a good start and try to stay in the draft. My hope is for a big pack so I can catch the draft.”
Doug did not get the start he wanted and as the pack came off turn two for their first run down the back straight, Lawrence found himself in eighth. He would hold that position to race end, and then it was off to the semi-qualifier where he did get the launch he was looking for. Lawrence was first off the line but out gunned into turn one to accept third place on the exit of turn two. On his first pass through the timing lights, he had been passed and was in fourth place amongst a very tight pack. By the half way flags the pack had spread out a bit and Lawrence had been nudged back to sixth and out of a next chance. He finished his race in seventh. “Naturally, I’m disappointed,” he confirmed post-race. “If you don’t win you always want to have done better.”
Mike Labelle, competing in the AMA Pro Singles division had a race day that was similar to Lawrence’s. He started the day with a fresh motor and ended up not making the main event. “We just got the motor back from Woody Kyle last night. My dad was up into the wee hours putting it into the frame,” he said.
What differed between Lawrence and Labelle were the flashes of promise Labelle showed throughout the day. “Woody Kyle has given me a weapon,” Labelle joked after his first timed practice session where he sat atop the leader board posting a time of 37.066 seconds with a speed of 97.124 mph. Labelle has stood on the podium after a number of Pro Singles races and was a winner on the mile in Arizona last year. Hopes were high for a good performance at the Springfield Illionois Fairgrounds.
“I tried too hard to win practice,” he said after his final qualifying run that saw him slip to a 37.222 at 96.717 mph and into sixth fastest. Labelle was not overly concerned, noting he had a front row start for his qualifying heat race. “Three years in a row, this race has been won by a guy not even in the top ten the lap before. It’s where you are in the last corner, and you better not be in the lead.”
Throughout the early laps of his first opportunity, Labelle ran right up front with an unbelievably tight pack and looked poised to transfer with the top four into the main event but in the closing stages the going got rough and he was bumped off the groove. He ended up in tenth place and headed directly to the last chance qualifier. “Those guys are riding like this is a short track,” he said. “I got run into by four different guys.”
In his last chance to qualify for the main event, Labelle got down to business and once more, Canadian fans had something to hope for. Right from the get-go Labelle leapt into the lead and led the pack through most of lap one to record second place at completion of that lap. By lap four, Labelle was in fourth in the lead pack of four riders. At the half way flags Labelle led the pack once more before slipping to second spot at the two-laps-to-go point, exactly where he wanted to be, but there was one more lap to go— and, what a lap. The group of four who had run up front race-long were suddenly caught up by a trailing group of four who had used the draft to their great advantage creating a tight mass of eight motorcycles contesting the win of a race that had just two corners and mere yardage left in it. This pack of eight crossed the finish line as one with Labelle coming in seventh, having missing the cut by .071 seconds.