BARRE, Vt. (AP) — Gov. Phil Scott ducks into a trailer, trades his business suit for a racing jumpsuit, climbs into his modified Chevrolet and heads for Thunder Road.
When his security detail drives him into the pits at the banked, quarter-mile track, he is no longer Phil Scott, the chief executive of Vermont. He is Phil Scott, long one of the state’s most popular stock car racers.
“It’s something that’s in my blood, something I’ve done for three or four decades,” Scott said one recent Thursday before the regular summertime races at Thunder Road.
Scott, 58, took office in January after six years as lieutenant governor and a decade as a state senator.
“We knew Phil and worked with Phil before he was even a state senator, never mind governor. To us, he’s still just Phil,” said Michael Stridsberg, the Thunder Road media director and handicapper. “Once he walks through those gates, to us he’s not the governor, he’s just Phil Scott, the race car driver. We treat him the same as every other race car driver in the pits.”
Before Scott began stock car racing, he raced motorcycles and snowmobiles, turning to stock cars in his early 30s. He’s now in his 27th year of racing at Thunder Road, his 26th in the top late-model division. Over that time he has won three track championships, most recently in 2002.
Going into this season, Scott had won 29 feature races at Thunder Road, the most ever. On July 6, he won his 30th.
Scott now spends most of his time on state business, but he doesn’t completely separate his time at the track from his state job.
In May, during a gubernatorial news conference at his Montpelier office, he made headlines by talking of spinning out in the 96th lap of a 100-lap Memorial Day feature at Thunder Road. During the news conference, he was asked if he was going too fast. He quipped, “I was in second, so I wasn’t going fast enough.”
Fellow racer Mark Lanphear, of Duxbury, Vermont, says he’s known Scott for 40 years.
“I don’t know that there’s any racer that has raced against Phil that can actually say they don’t like him,” Lanphear said. “You have the everyday mentality of a racer. Nobody likes to get beat when you’re strapped behind the wheel, and there’s always a little bit of animosity, but most of that animosity is jealousy, not anger.”
When Scott took office, he brought with him many lessons he learned at the track, both about teamwork and the lives of ordinary Vermonters.
“This is a huge melting pot up here; it’s part of the social fabric of Vermont, particularly central Vermont,” Scott said. “You hear from all kinds of people, from all kinds of economic backgrounds and learn their struggles, and they develop this trust in you. And you listen. I think that is part of my success, as well.”
He compares the rough-and-tumble life of racing to politics.
“Some people are pretty aggressive in politics, and I’ve always maintained that if you treat others with respect, you make mistakes at times, when you get into somebody, you get into their back bumper at times, you spin them out. You own up to it,” Scott said. “You go find them and you talk to them about it, you work it out.”
Scott is a Republican in a liberal state where both chambers of the Legislature are dominated by Democrats. During his first legislative session as governor, he miffed a few political opponents with a late proposal to change the way teacher health care is provided.
He vetoed the state budget and another bill because lawmakers did not accede to his health care demands. His veto shortly before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year could have set up Vermont to start the year without a budget.
But he said he wouldn’t allow that to happen. In a one-day session held to deal with the vetoes, lawmakers found a compromise.
When Scott was lieutenant governor, he always displayed a “real sense of fair play,” said state Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat and Progressive Party member.
During the first portion of this year’s legislative session there was a collegial atmosphere, he said. That changed near the end of the session.
“It felt a little different at the end with the teachers’ health care issue, but one episode in my opinion doesn’t define someone,” Ashe said. “I think we all hope that doesn’t replicate itself next year.”