For many hardcore motorsports fans, Christmas has arrived – finally.
Tonight’s truck series Mudsummer Classic at sold-out 18,000-seat Eldora Speedway will be the first NASCAR national touring series event on dirt since 1970.
The potential for this venture into the slippery unknown is huge. Heck, it’s already overshadowed Sunday’s high-stakes Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
If the Eldora experiment is successful in terms of drama and viewership, will it lead to more NASCAR races on dirt? Will the disconnect between fans of the stock car and dirt racing worlds finally ease?
Of course, tonight’s showcase is basically an attempt by NASCAR officials to breathe some much needed nourishment into their roots. Take a glance at all the empty seats for recent races and you can tell that something needs to be done to recapture wayward followers.
But let’s be realistic. A NASCAR truck is radically different from the demonic Late Models that thrill folks at area dirt tracks such as Wythe Raceway and Volunteer Speedway.
Given all the early hype, it’s disheartening that only 36 drivers are entered. Ryan Newman, who will be guided by Bristol-born crew chief Chris Carrier, and Dave Blaney represent the Sprint Cup contingent while dirt devotees are rooting for the fearless and flamboyant Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn. And Ken Schrader has crossover appeal.
Don’t look for the breathtaking power slides and chaotic ballet moves so common at dirt tracks. The trucks will rely on treaded tires, the front splitter has been removed and the suspensions have been altered, but the trucks remain heavy and bulky machines.
Fred Brown will certainly be an interested observer. From establishing thriving entry-level divisions to hosting national touring events, the longtime Wythe Raceway owner has done much to promote the spectacle of dirt racing on the local and national level.
In recent weeks, around 10 truck series drivers, including Ron Hornaday and Ryan Blaney, tested on the half-mile monster in Rural Retreat. On July 15, Nationwide Series regular Austin Dillon won the pole for the Southern Nationals Super Late Model touring race at Wythe.
Brown, who has been at the Eldora facility in rural Ohio since Monday, said NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs experienced a few headaches in their discovery missions at Wythe.
“It took a lot of changes to get the trucks where they would turn, but they made improvements during their second time at the track,” Brown said.
Thanks to the fast-pace heat races and last-chance qualifiers, Brown feels the Eldora show will offer something urgent for fans of both racing genres. NASCAR diehards might even learn a few things about water trucks, packer cars and bubble goggles.
“This race has a lot of people interested,” Brown said. “I’ve heard quite a few folks say how exciting it will be, and some folks have said it won’t be much of a race.”
That wildcard appeal should only add to the suspense for what is definitely the most anticipated event in the 19-year history of the truck series.
Longtime Bristol Motor Speedway fans can remember the surreal scene in the spring of 2000 when the World’s Fastest Half-Mile Oval was transformed into a modern-day dirt Thunder Dome for back-to-back weekends of late model and sprint car races.
In a story that still sounds almost too crazy to be true, nearly 1,000 truckloads of red clay were used to cover the high-banked concrete surface.
Over 150 drivers and 45,000 fans from across the country came for that first Hav-A-Tampa Series Late Model race won by Dale McDowell. Sammy Swindell then outlasted a field of 53 World of Outlaws sprint cars the following week.
Officials from BMS and other tracks will take notes on tonight’s event at Eldora. Can you even dare to imagine a NASCAR All-Star race on a dirt surface at Bristol?
While issues such as safety walls, race purses and medical centers are thorny, Brown feels there are several dirt facilities capable of hosting a NASCAR touring race.
“The track owners would have to make some changes, but it would probably be manageable,” he said. “With the use of helicopters, a care center would not have to be too extensive. Speeds on most tracks will be slower since most of the tracks are smaller.”
No one is really sure what will happen tonight for what is definitely the most anticipated race in the 19-year history of the truck series. The key in dirt racing is reading the ever-changing surface and finding a comfort zone.
Judging from the problematic nature of Tuesday’s practice session at Eldora, the main objective might be survival.
And for a sport needing a B12 shot of energy, some unscripted action at a roots-racing cathedral might be as much fun as unwrapping a mysterious present.
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