News & Media

Inside NASCAR: Dirt racing remains a popular outlet

March 02, 2011, Dave Rodman,

Dirt racing a popular outlet for both development and relaxation

There was a time when every driver with a national NASCAR license had a dirt racing background. That's just the way it was, when dirt tracks dominated the racing landscape from coast to coast.

Ken Schrader is one of 23 drivers who have won at least one race in each of NASCAR's three national tours in his career, but the former USAC champion is unique in that he's returned to his roots -- literally -- by centering his current activities on dirt racing.

Schrader in 2011 no doubt will make starts in the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series, as well as the ARCA series, which true to his soul, still has dirt races on its schedule.

But the better part of Schrader's racing calendar -- dozens and dozens of dates, in fact -- will be on dirt in his fleet of late model and modified cars.

Cup drivers Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, like Schrader, are definitely true to their dirty roots as both operate extensive open-wheel short-track programs heavily favoring dirt tracks, and both compete as regularly as they can.

"I'm going to try to race [some dirt cars]," Kahne said. "Hopefully I can run 10 sprint car races, total; it just depends on how it feels. But I hope to run close to 10."

Stewart takes it to another level. He spent a month in Australia in the offseason racing sprint cars. Even a dispute with a track operator, of all people, on the last night didn't sour his experience.

Stewart has run six editions of the Prelude to the Dream, a charity event featuring top stars from all branches of motorsports racing dirt late models at Eldora Speedway, which he owns. The event is scheduled this year for June 8, and five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is the defending champion.

Clint Bowyer is true to his dirt racing roots as well, a venue that opened the door to getting a shot with Richard Childress Racing that Bowyer booted open and waltzed through sideways with dust flying.

Bowyer and Bobby Labonte own full-time, two-car late model efforts. Labonte also expanded last year into chassis construction with his Longhorn Chassis business.

Clint Bowyer not only is having fun on dirt, but he's making a habit of winning.

David Reutimann stays involved in dirt racing as the "car owner" for his dad's modifieds as legendary dirt racer Buzzie Reutimann remains active in his 70s.

The business of relaxation

For virtually all of the NASCAR competitors who're involved with dirt racing, racing, in some form, is part and parcel of nearly everything they do.

For Schrader and Stewart that's particularly true. Kenny Wallace, who's busy with a 34-race Nationwide Series schedule for RAB Racing and an every weekend TV gig with SPEED, races on dirt when he can -- which amounts to about 40 races a year, including his winter schedule.

Wallace, whose zany sense of humor is legendary, is almost totally serious when it comes to dirt racing.

"I was kidding Clint Bowyer, and I told him, 'The only reason you came dirt racing is because you saw how much fun Schrader and I were having, right?' " Wallace said. "And he said, 'Yep.' "

RCR's vice president of competition, Mike Dillon, obviously is integrally involved in the development of his race-driving sons -- 20-year-old Austin, who's a college student at High Point (N.C.) University, and Ty, who turned 19 on Feb. 27 and is finishing his senior year at Forsyth Country Day School.

How serious Team Dillon Racing is about dirt racing is pointed out by the group's aggressive schedule, which includes about 30 races for each of the Dillon boys, in both late models and modifieds.

"In addition to their Truck and ARCA schedules, they'll run about 25 more races on dirt, in late models," Mike Dillon said.

And the bottom line is a competitive edge.

"I drove late-model [stock cars] myself, like Denny Hamlin and some of those others did, and they're a good tool and something you can use," Mike Dillon said. "But only for some of [what you have to learn]. For racing these mile-and-a-half tracks in the Truck Series and Nationwide and Cup, there's nothing an asphalt late-model car can teach you.

"I think the dirt cars have more of a similar characteristic to that. You're using a lot more similar style on the throttle and the brakes, and it's a lot more about momentum, versus the stop-and-go type racing [in late models].

"And then, the dirt cars are so powerful that you're constantly having to find grip, and you have to change your lane to be able to pass people because if someone's in a lane they can totally slow you down. So I think the dirt cars are a better tool to learn with."

And it's competitive, as Wallace pointed out "there were 85 cars trying to make a 27-car A-main -- so that means 60 cars didn't even get to race. That's ridiculous." Or it's very, very competitive and a great training ground.

Dillon's sons, who have raced a real variety of cars on both asphalt and dirt, including Nationwide and the Truck series, ARCA and the K&N Pro Series East and West, recognize the value of dirt racing.

"I know how tough the competition is [on dirt]," Austin Dillon said. "And when you can run against those guys, I feel like I can do just about anything, because it just gives you confidence.

"Those [dirt late models] are wicked machines -- they're 2,300 pounds and they have almost 900 horsepower, now. And it's unbelievable how much torque they have. So it's a light race car with a lot of power and the competition level is so high in that deal that when you can run against those people that run those cars weekly and run well, it just gives you confidence to go out and run against Kyle Busch and these guys on the Cup level.

Austin Dillon thinks it's important for young drivers to prove themselves on dirt.

"So I think if you can run something with that much horsepower and that kind of car, I feel like it just makes everything else easier, and you can drive it harder. When you're racing something on that level and at that type of speed, it makes everything else seem slower, so you drive harder, I think."

Getting a developmental edge

The future of RCR appears to be in good hands thanks in good part to the owner's grandsons -- as well as the management team Childress has in place. And a good part of the Dillons' progression as top-flight race car drivers is smeared with dirt.

Austin Dillon won the 2010 Truck Series rookie of the year award and ended the season with two consecutive pole positions. He started 2011 with a third consecutive, at Daytona.

Ty Dillon won the last two races of the 2010 ARCA series and sat on the pole at the Daytona opener, before finishing 11th.

"There's no doubt about it, I feel like dirt racing is the number one tool for driver development," Austin Dillon said. "If I had a kid that was coming up, he'd be racing a dirt late model or something along those lines, because you really need that experience.

"It gets you in something with a big motor, early on in your career and you can do it at a young age. You can start practicing and throwing something sideways and it just makes it that much easier when your asphalt car is sliding.

"If I had someone who wanted to come and drive for me, I'd have them go dirt racing. If they could prove themselves on dirt, I feel like that would say a lot about what they could do [on asphalt]."

That led Team Dillon Racing to extend its development arm to Ryan Gifford, a Tennessee teenager who the family met racing at dirt tracks. As many others have noticed, Mike Dillon quickly saw Gifford's ability and for a time, he raced for TDR.

"Dirt racing's been my life -- it's what started my career," Gifford, now 21, said. "I started on dirt when I was 8 and the skills I learned have put me where I am today. I still feel weird having a windshield."

Mike Dillon's committed to developing his sons through dirt racing, but at the bottom line he wishes he had a program for Gifford, who graduated last season to the NASCAR diversity program with Revolution Racing in the K&N Pro Series East, where he'll again race full time in 2011 -- but continues to work as a mechanic at TDR.

"If I could figure out a way to run him, I would, because he's good," Mike Dillon said. "He's talented and I think he could be the first diversity driver to really have some success because I think he's really, really talented -- and he's a talented mechanic, too."

"I think working at TDR will help me throughout my career," Gifford said. "I think the benefit will be that I'm learning how race cars are supposed to leave the shop -- nice, clean and well-prepared. I can take that with me, wherever I go."

In addition to Gifford's K&N races, Junior Nolan, who owns Gifford's 2 Brothers Motorsports car, has a schedule of as many modified races as Gifford can fit on his calendar.

"Dirt racing teaches so much more car control [than racing on asphalt]," Gifford said. "You learn to watch your hands -- they can tell you what your car's doing and how to fix it."

And Gifford even has a unique way of preparing his schedule, which he hopes will pay off in 2011. Gifford and Nolan were connected by Austin Dillon, who recommended his teammate when Nolan said he was looking for a driver after last season.

"I've tended to run a little better on pavement," Gifford said, "when I get to run a couple dirt races in between. So far I have six nights on dirt and none on pavement, but I'm sure it will even up some."

If Nolan has his way, that willl occur more often for Gifford. The Ohio car owner, who's a dealer for Larry Shaw Race Cars, said Gifford's work ethic during Speedweeks -- the first time they'd raced together -- impressed him.

"The guys who drove for me last year, when it was time to clean up the cars, or to work on them, they were always somewhere else, doing who-knows-what -- but not Ryan," Nolan said.

Keep an eye out for Ryan Gifford, who started on dirt and is working his way through the ranks.

"Whenever there was something to do, Ryan was working on his race car -- doing anything he could to make it faster. He's a great kid. Ryan is a racer. He's just ate-up with it, and everybody loves him to death."

That from which dreams are made

For the kids especially, dreams are still in full bloom -- especially when it comes to dirt.

"From my perspective, I do enjoy watching the sprint cars run by themselves," Austin Dillon said. "I don't think they race as good as some of the levels race now, because of all the stuff they've done to them -- but I think it would be really fun to go that fast and try one.

"The sprint cars run wide-open most of the time so your throttle traces aren't as close to, like, an asphalt car, but I feel like I'd be good in a sprint car just because I like the tackier, grippy feeling where I could go fast for a long run of time.

"With all the downforce from the wing and the grip levels that you have, I think they'd be fun to try -- but I don't really like the idea of the driveshaft running between my legs. That's the only part I don't like."

But Wallace, 47, might have put the exclamation point on the "NASCAR on dirt" experience. He doesn't need a Big-Block or a sprint car to make his dreams come true.

"Seriously -- at my age I am living the dream with my dirt car right now," Wallace said. "I have so much fun racing my dirt car and driving my hauler across the United States. That's what I call fun!"

Wallace cited Kurt Busch building a NHRA Pro Stock drag car and Jimmie Johnson dabbling in the Grand-Am Rolex Series as examples of how he and some others use dirt racing.

"You've got to have a getaway, because we're so intense inside that garage area, with NASCAR," Wallace said. "It obsesses your life so completely; you've got to find something. I think the extra distractions really help us focus. You can't sit in your motorhome or your house and think about what's happening in NASCAR.

"So this dirt racing is just something that Tony Stewart and myself, Schrader and now Clint Bowyer -- we've opened up a whole can of worms. Just because you run [NASCAR] doesn't mean that's all you do. So it's been a lot of fun."