Mudsummer Classic sets pace for future dirt races
July 24, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Now the question becomes -- will it be a one-time stop for the series or can dirt-track competition, once a staple for stock cars, find favor and footing among today’s NASCAR faithful?
“We wouldn’t have done this for one race if we didn’t think that this was something that could potentially go further down the road,” track owner Tony Stewart said hours before the race got underway. “If it only goes one year and we only get one opportunity to do it, is all the time, effort and worrying worth it? Absolutely.
“It’s been well worth it. … I would love for this to be a great event tonight and something that we’re asked to be able to participate in for many years.”
Fans snatched up tickets for the two-day event, with track officials announcing a sellout crowd of approximately 18,000 at this legendary half-mile dirt track built in 1954.
By the time qualifying began, the main grandstands had already filled in; when the first of five heat races to determine the starting lineup got under way, the adjoining hillsides were likewise packed.
No top touring series sanctioned by NASCAR had competed on dirt since 1970. But was it merely the novelty of the event that brought the fans out at Eldora? Or could dirt-track racing really fill a need and find a home on the NASCAR schedule?
Only once in the history of the truck series has a facility hosted one event and then not returned on the schedule the following year. Saugus (Calif.) Speedway closed in 1995, not long after the series made its only appearance on the 0.333-mile track. Ken Schrader, the pole winner for the MudSummer Classic, won the Saugus event.
“Our goal, anywhere we go, is not to just to go in and out in one year,” Steve O’Donnell, senior vice president of operations for NASCAR, said. “We realize, especially for Eldora, a lot of things had to take place for the track. They really stepped up and did a lot of things for us.
“When we looked at the facility and the opportunity back in 2012, it was with the anticipation that yeah, we have to see how it goes, but ultimately we anticipated that it would be a success and that if Tony would like to have us back we would want to continue coming back.”
Drivers seemed thrilled at the chance to compete not just on dirt, but on dirt at Eldora, praising NASCAR for putting the stop on the schedule and praising Stewart and his track group for the work to make it happen.
Would additional dirt track stops be welcomed by those more comfortable competing on the asphalt?
“I don’t know … this is such a big event,” Richard Childress Racing driver Ty Dillon said. “If you get more dirt races it might take away from the specialness of this event. I think the prestige that it already has right now is so big, if you were to add more dirt races you might take away from that.
“It might be a good idea to run here twice in a year.”
O’Donnell said consideration for more events on dirt, as well as a possible return to Eldora, would be something all parties would consider after the fact.
“It’s really going to be discussions like we had prior to this where we sit down, talk to team owners, talk to our television partner … see what they want to do going forward,” he said. “As we get done with this, when you look at how did the fans perceive the race, television-wise, what was the viewing audience, we look at all of those and then you can make a more educated decision.”
“I think we all have to sit down; I think NASCAR will evaluate what tonight means to them after the race is over and see if it makes sense to pursue this down the road and we will as well,” said Stewart.
No one is sure if holding a race on dirt will be a winning move or a one-hit wonder. But Stewart knows one thing for certain – the event was a huge deal for dirt tracks across the country.
“I was in the motor home lot (Tuesday) night before I left the track and Kenny Schrader put his arm on my shoulder and said, ‘This is big for all of us,’” Stewart said.
“This is more than just a truck race here. Big picture -- this is big for every dirt track across the country and this is exposure that a lot of these tracks never get.
“We’re fortunate to have this opportunity through NASCAR to run this event, but this is something that really can help short track racing as a whole.”