BY RICKY ST. CLAIR Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — With arguably the biggest race in Airborne Park Speedway’s 60-year history one day away, Bucko Branham and Brandon Atkins each know home-track knowledge should be beneficial, if nothing else.
The two drivers, along with Late Model teams from all of New England, southern Ontario and southern Quebec, will try their hand in the highly-anticipated $25,000-to-win American-Canadian Tour (ACT) International 500 at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Late Model portion of Sunday’s program is broken down into three 100-lap races, with an inversion of the top-33 finishers occurring after the first and second segments. The winner of each segment will be awarded one point, while each succeeding position earns an additional point.
The driver with the lowest combined point total will be awarded the checkered flag and a $25,000 payday.
Ken Squier, a longtime NASCAR play-by-play man for CBS and co-owner of Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vt., founded segment racing in the early 1960s. The layout puts emphasis on passing and has been used at Thunder Road’s prestigious Milk Bowl race since 1962.
Branham, a full-time Limited Late Model competitor at Airborne and 30-year veteran of the sport, is known for his aggressive driving style, which could potentially pay dividends Sunday.
“It all depends on setup,” Branham said. “If my car is capable, I know I’m capable. I’ve won the 4-20s race three years in a row. As long as I can keep the car underneath me, I should be all right.”
Branham has a significant amount of racing experience with the ACT. The Late Models headlined Airborne’s weekly divisions from 1992 until 2003, and Branham accumulated four wins during the span.
In two starts this year, he’s reeled off a 16th-place finish in his first-ever appearance at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven, Vt., May 5 before finishing 22nd at Airborne 13 days later.
“I feel comfortable (with the Late Model), but I’ve just got to get to know the car more,” Branham said. “These guys do it every week, and it’s hard for somebody that’s just getting back into it without any resources. I don’t have a lot of people to fall back on like a lot of the other drivers do. It’s a challenge doing in it all on my own.”
The Plattsburgh competitor currently sits atop the weekly Limited Late Model point standings, with wins June 1 and July 3, bringing his total to 40 in the intermediate division since 2000.
“This race is huge,” Branham said. “It’s actually the biggest race to ever hit this area. You could compare it to Syracuse. I think it’s going to be bigger than the Oxford 250, in my opinion.”
Atkins, a 16-year-old driver from AuSable Forks, has been competing full-time in a Limited Late Model at Airborne and an ACT-legal Late Model at Devil’s Bowl in 2013.
He currently sits eighth in the point standings at Airborne and fourth at Devil’s Bowl, managing a top-10 finish in all 11 races he’s competed in this summer.
Atkins hopes that success translates Sunday.
“We’ve had a really good car over at Devil’s Bowl every weekend,” Atkins said. “We’ve just had a couple bad breaks, getting in the wall once when we had a really good car in a heat race. It’s been a learning experience, for sure.”
Atkins finished sixth in the Vermont State Late Model Championship Series 100 at Devil’s Bowl June 6. Logging laps with some of the premier Late Model drivers in New England, he feels no intimidation going into Sunday’s race.
“After that and the opportunity to race with those guys at Airborne (May 18), I just feel like they’re all another one of the drivers,” Atkins said. “At that point, I hadn’t turned laps at Devil’s Bowl. Staying on the lead lap at the halfway mark and the confidence I gained throughout that 100-lap race was big.”
Atkins, who has one career ACT start on his resume, is excited for the weekend.
“We’re actually just trying to be competitive and do well, not just log laps anymore,” Atkins said. “I think if we made the show, it would be a win in itself, especially because of the number of cars coming. We’re going to have to be on top of our game.
“I think home-track knowledge is going to be huge. It’s where we race every weekend, and we have notes that should carry over. I just hope Bucko Branham and I can represent Plattsburgh and Clinton County well.”
Sunday’s front gates open at 9:30 a.m., with practice also starting at 9:30 a.m. and racing scheduled for 1 p.m.
Adult general admission is $30, while kids 12 and under are $5.