Any effort to marginalize Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is foolish. There are political foes who can testify to that.
Still, underestimating the connection of Scott’s political success with his auto-racing notoriety would be equally silly. He’ll be racing again this year at Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl, hoping to become the first four-time late-model champion. He’s already the career victory leader (26) at the quarter-mile asphalt bullring.
Scott, 53, a Republican, was elected to be strongly Democratic Vermont’s second in command last November after five terms representing Washington County in the state Senate. Barre, the home of the very successful Thunder Road, sits in Washington County. “When I initially ran for the Senate back in 1999 there was an open seat and I was elected because of my name recognition. I make no bones about that,” he says.
A good politician, he’s got a story. After his first run for office, he got a call from a fan. Her daughter woke her up on Election Day insisting she vote for Scott. When the surprised mother inquired about the concern for Scott, hardly the daughter’s favorite, she got the following logic: “Yeah, but maybe if he wins he won’t race anymore.” A vote is a vote.
No doubt Scott’s racing — he also won the 2002 ACT and Airborne Speedway crowns — helped him get started politically. While there’s more to political success now, racing remains a key factor. He usually doesn’t have to go any further than the track to garner signatures necessary to get on the ballot.
The Milk Bowl (Scott is a two-time winner) is Thunder Road’s biggest race, arguably as big as any sporting event in Vermont. Run in October, it can’t help but be part of a campaign.
“I had decals and they were big decals, big enough to go across the windshield or a bumper or whatever,” he says. “I was amazed at how many of my competitors had them on their cars, even their transporters. We’re out there pounding the doors off each other during the race, but they’re supporting one of their own and that was a great feeling.”
Last fall’s statewide run included a primary against a member of Vermont’s premier political family.
“A primary is like a B feature, a last-chance race,” says Scott, “but only one advances.” Thunder Road promoter Tom Curley played a major role in Scott winning it.
“You don’t vote, I’ll find out about it,” he told his competitors in a mock threat. They responded.
The final push was built on 14 — the number of counties in Vermont and the number Scott “has always been associated with.”
On the day before the election, Scott went on a 14-hour, 14-county tour, each stop 14 minutes. One of the stops was Goss Dodge in South Burlington, co-owned by archrival and seven-time ACT champ Brian Hoar.
“Brian is my nemesis,” Scott says. “We really fought for titles and he opened his doors to us at 6:30 in the morning with coffee and donuts.”
Finishing third in points in a car prepared by crew chief Pete Duto, Scott looks back on the 2010 season “as one of the most enjoyable I’ve had. In previous seasons Thursday was the biggest night of the week and you kind of wound yourself up in anticipation. Last season, in the middle of a 24/7 campaign, Thursday night was probably the least amount of pressure I had all week. I looked forward to getting away from the campaign, to getting away from being so public.”
While Curley helped run Scott’s campaign, it’s a “love-hate” relationship on race nights. “I’ve always said ‘that dog doesn’t just bark, it will bite,’” he says of Curley. “That’s what I respect about him. You’re just a number to him when you’re on the track. There’ll be times when, as friendly as we are, he’ll ding me, send me back to the rear for a reason I didn’t feel appropriate. It doesn’t matter because I’m not anybody special and that’s OK. Everybody has tangled with him at some time or another.”
It’s part of the magic at Thunder Road, a Thursday night institution and the top-drawing sporting attraction in the Green Mountain State. “A melting pot,” Scott calls the folks who gather to watch him go to the outside as soon as possible.