ACT
A Little Milk Bowl History
Tipping a cow, maybe. After all, this past time of Vermont and other North Country teens has recently been immortalized in the Disney/Pixar movie release Cars. But kissing a cow - never. To some it may seem silly, this simple ritual that could only take place at a stock car race track nestled in the hills of the Green Mountain State. Yet, since 1962, it’s what so many drivers from around the northeastern U.S., the county and even Canada, have aspired to do, but something not many have succeeded in accomplishing. Winning the New England Dodge Dealers Milk Bowl at Thunder Road, the toughest short track race in America, is leaving one’s mark in the local lore of stock car racing. Winning this race turns ordinary drivers into legends. And to celebrate they get to kiss a cow - a symbolic smooch honoring one of the state’s icons.

Broken into three 50-lap segments, the overall Milk Bowl champion is crowned by determining which driver has the lowest cumulative score where each competitor earns one point based on his (or her) finish in each of the 50 lappers (a win scores one point, a fifth gets five, etc). Thus, it is possible to win the race without leading a single lap or even taking a checkered flag. Consistency, any of the 30 previous winners will tell you, is the key to being a Milk Bowl champion.

The inaugural Milk Bowl (named for Vermont’s connection to farming and the dairy industry) was run in 1962. At the time there were no professional or big-time college sports in the state. But there were, at one time, more than 15 racetracks in the tiny Green Mountain State so the race was designed to be an event on par with the football bowl games of the South.

(PHOTO: Harold Hanaford (at left) accepts the winner's trophy following the inaugural Milk Bowl as the bovine beauty queen awaits her kiss)

Harold “Hard Luck” Hanaford picked up the overall win in that first race, as he won the first two segments, and held on in the third frame for the victory.

“I think it was something like six races in a row I didn’t finish before the Milk Bowl,” the legendary racer says. “Before that I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

That first Milk Bowl was a new experience for drivers who had been used to competing in much shorter races. “We’d never had a race I believe over 35 laps (before that), explains Hanaford. “In my own mind I didn’t know whether a driver or a car would hold up.”

In victory lane he kissed the first Milk Bowl Queen, who he remembers wearing a rope halter and pulling her head back at the first couple of attempts. A few years later the tradition changed so the winner drank milk from a bowl and didn’t kiss the “beauty queen”. Today the Milk Bowl winner gladly does both. Hanaford went on to win the race again two years later and can now be found in the pits and grandstands on Milk Bowl weekend reacquainting himself with fans past and present.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s the Milk Bowl’s list of champions grew to include a veritable who’s who of auto racing personalities across the region. Drivers such as Larry Demar, Stub Fadden, Jean-Paul Cabana, Dave Dion, and Bobby and Beaver Dragon all collected wins, often beating one another to do so.

(PHOTO AT RIGHT: In 1982's victory lane, winner, the "Irish Angel" Dick McCabe (at right) and legendary Canadian racer, Jean-Paul Cabana (and Milk Bowl winner in 1973 and 1987) with that year's trophy queen)

“I guess I can say I was really lucky to have competed against the era of drivers that was as good as they were anywhere in the country,” says 1972 winner Bobby Dragon from Milton, VT.

Dragon says that he was blessed to have raced against the likes of Harry Gant, Butch Lindley, Bill Dennis, and drivers from all around the nation, but also that his contemporaries were some of the best in the business for Thunder Road and the types of cars they were driving.

“We had the hometown advantage,” he says.

Dragon also both kissed the cow and drank milk in victory lane. “It wasn’t a big smooch but I did go ahead and do it,” he says. “After the race you’re so ecstatic you’d kiss just about anything.”

As Thunder Road’s next era, the 1980s, was ushered in, a new crop of racers helped to re-establish the high banked, quarter-mile and the Milk Bowl as one of the pre-eminent venues and races in New England. Randy LaJoie, Robbie Crouch, and Kevin Lepage all won the event, kissed the bovine beauty, and went on to became a star on the national stock car racing stage.

“The only thing that really stands out in my mind is that it was always an intense day,” four-time race winner Crouch said about his wins. “You couldn’t relax until the final lap of the final segment. People still talk about the races, the Milk Bowls,” he added, “You can win a lot of races in your career and people usually forget, but the Milk Bowls, people remember forever, it seems.”

(PHOTO AT LEFT: Robbie Crouch and Miss Milk Bowl and her chaperone, Marcel Booth, in 1986)

The following generation saw yet another class of champion drivers rise to the occasion. Competitors such as Jean-Paul Cyr, Phil Scott, and Brian Hoar driving a Late Model car, rounded out the race’s time in the twentieth century. And, as the new millennium began, the rising stars of Thunder Road seized their chance at glory. The era of Dave Pembroke, Eric Williams, and Cris Michaud is the current one at the Road, but wily veterans and hungry youngsters all want a piece of the spotlight, and they know winning the Milk Bowl is the way to do it.

“It’s the biggest race of the year as far as I’m concerned,” says 1997 and 2000 Milk Bowl champion Phil Scott. “To win that race means a lot. In actuality, it means almost as much as winning a track title - it’s special. But it’s a tough race to win. I’d love to win a third one, but I’m very happy and very fortunate to have won two.”

2004 winner Cris Michaud echoes those sentiments, “Around here, it’s the biggest race there is, it’s right up there with winning the championship.” He added his thoughts about the yearly pre-race ceremonies honoring former winners, “As a past winner you’ll always be able to go out there and stand with those champions even when you retire from racing.”

(PHOTO AT RIGHT: Previous Milk Bowl winners class picture taken during the 1991 prerace ceremonies. Competing that year were Kevin Lepage, Jean-Paul Cabana, Dave Dion, Robbie Crouch and Beaver Dragon - Dan Beede went on to win)

Last year, the 42nd running of the New England Dodge Dealers Milk Bowl took on even more significance. Not only did it finish out the Thunder Road season and conclude the American-Canadian Tour’s schedule, but it was also is the last event of the ACTion Super Series celebrating the Tour’s 20th anniversary. As the Milk Bowl winner, Quebec’s Patrick Laperle took home over $10,000, a far cry from the purse in the race’s early days.

“I think it was $315, that was something!” exclaimed 1967 winner Larry Demar. “It didn’t pay for the weekend.

So at the end of the day when the sun sets from atop turn four and darkness descends on a racing season come and gone, a few more drivers will be track champions, while one will stand alone as a Milk Bowl winner. It won’t be long now until the snow flies and the long Vermont winter sets in. Yet for a few, there is the joy and pleasure of knowing they have, at least for a single glorious day, fended off all challengers. Others will look ahead with hope at the possibilities that another year of racing will bring, no matter how far away it may seem.

Maybe one day, they too, will be able to say that just once, they were a Milk Bowl champion, and that they got to kiss a cow.