Drivers find dirt backgrounds pay dividends in NASCAR
The last time NASCAR’s national division held a race on a dirt track, Richard Petty was an in-his-prime 33-year-old, and the Gordon up near the front was Cecil, not Jeff. That 200-lap event at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh went green in the fall of 1970, and before approximately 6,000 onlookers, the King dusted the field to win by more than two laps.
Much has changed since then, to say the least. The fairgrounds dirt track shut down after that race, and -- although part of the old frontstretch remains intact -- it’s now used for things like tractor pulls and demolition derbies. Petty would go on to rewrite the record book through seven championships and 200 victories. Crowds at NASCAR events have swelled from thousands to tens of thousands, and margins of victory have shrunk from laps to car lengths. And at its highest levels, the sport moved exclusively to pavement after that September afternoon in the capital of the Old North State.
That nearly 43-years-long void of racing on dirt comes to an end next week, when the Camping World Truck Series competes Wednesday night at Eldora Speedway, a half-mile layout that in dirt-track circles is spoken of with the same reverent tones in which golfers mention Augusta. And yet, over that long interim, the sport’s dirt-track roots have been kept alive not by facilities but by competitors, many of whom put into practice each weekend the lessons they learned on the rutted, dusty ovals of their youth.
Dirt races may have been absent from NASCAR’s national level for over four decades, but that hasn’t stopped dirt racers from making their mark. There's something about the kind of car control it takes to hustle a vehicle that’s sliding out from underneath you -- a “controlled drift,” Tony Stewart calls it -- that translates into NASCAR, even though the surfaces involved are asphalt or concrete. From veterans like Stewart, Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer to newcomers like Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson, they all honed their craft on dirt. Even Jimmie Johnson came from off-road racing, slinging through the desert in trucks outfitted with knobby tires.
"The track is changing. You're having to change with it, and that's what makes the guys able to adapt to different tracks very good."
-- Tony Stewart
Clearly, there’s a connection here that transcends the change in surface. Former dirt-track racers say they have a finely-tuned sense of feel cultivated from driving off a right-rear tire that’s always trying to slide out from underneath them, forcing them to develop a great deal of control. “You learn a set of skills driving a (dirt) car that you don’t necessarily get on pavement,” Stewart said. “… It just gives you a different feel, and gives you a different sensation that can help you when you run on pavement as well.”
That’s one reason Stewart believes he’s always thrived in warm weather, when tracks get slippery and stock cars on asphalt perform a little more like vehicles on dirt. Of his 48 career Sprint Cup victories, only six have come earlier than June. “You can tell guys who aren’t comfortable doing that in the middle of summer when the tracks get hot (and) slippery,” Stewart added. “And when the tracks lose grip, they’re not as comfortable as guys who have run a lot like that. I think that’s always what’s helped us through the summer months.”
It’s more than a coincidence. The top three drivers in the current Sprint Cup Series standings -- Johnson, Bowyer and Carl Edwards -- all come from dirt racing, as do Stewart, Gordon, Kahne, Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Nationwide Series standouts Larson and Justin Allgaier hail from that same background. Brothers Austin and Ty Dillon, competing for championships in the Nationwide and Truck circuits respectively, started in dirt late models.
“I think (it’s) being able to transition and change driving styles throughout a race, being able to follow the track's changes and keep up to date with them,” said Austin, who will drive in four national series races in eight days: Sunday’s Nationwide contest at Chicagoland, then Eldora, and both NASCAR races at Indianapolis. “You have to change your driving style throughout a race on a dirt track probably 10, 11 times, depending on what transition it goes through. So it's always changing. The track is changing. You're having to change with it, and that's what makes the guys able to adapt to different tracks very good.”
Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip came up racing go-karts, and liked the predictability afforded by asphalt. “Precise,” he said of the surface. “In the corner, in the gas. In the corner, in the gas, off the brake.” Dirt doesn’t offer that kind of dependable repetition, which perhaps forces dirt racers to get the most out of less-than-ideal vehicles. “It helps you overcome a bad-handling car,” added Waltrip, now a Hall of Famer and television analyst. “Some of these guys, they have to have it perfect. There are several guys who can’t drive if it's not perfect. You’re not going to have it perfect all the time.”
Dillon agrees. “Once you get out there, you can't make adjustments,” he said of dirt racing. “You're in a 35‑, 45‑lap race, and that's a good amount of laps that it doesn't matter what your car is doing. You've got to figure out a way to make it go fast while you're out there racing. You've got to be determined, and figure out if your car is tight -- well, maybe I need to change my line around to figure out how to make it turn. You use different parts of the track to manipulate the car throughout the race, depending on how it's handling.”
That trait, Stewart said, translates to stock cars on asphalt. “It teaches you how to make up time for what you’re lacking,” said the three-time champion, who owns Eldora but will not compere in the Truck Series race there next week. “I think there are a lot of things that transfer from running on the dirt to what we do on the pavement.”
Now, that’s not to say drivers raised on asphalt are in any way lacking, a notion the exploits of Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch this season would certainly contradict. But stock cars, particularly those at the Sprint Cup level, can be notoriously skittish to drive. Grip is often at a premium. The Generation-6 vehicle introduced this season is 150 pounds lighter than its predecessor, and pavement always heats up in the sun.
“The hotter the tracks get, eventually the cars are going to lose grip,” Stewart said. “I think it plays into the hands of guys that are used to cars sliding around a lot more.”
There will certainly be some sliding around next week at Eldora, a welcome sight to dirt-track veterans like Larson, Blaney and the Dillon brothers. Then, there are the majority of drivers better accustomed to another kind of surface, and who know an adjustment will be at hand.
“Everything you thought you knew about setting these things up for the asphalt -- you just throw it out the window,” said Truck Series points leader Matt Crafton. “It’s going to be very different.”
To some, though, it will all feel very familiar -- just like it did to the King and all his contemporaries, back at the Raleigh fairgrounds track all those years ago.