Dirt Late Models have a number...
Dirt Late Models have a number of sanctioning bodies and high-paying events. photo by Tony Hammett
Turn on your TV on a weekend during racing season and a vast majority of what you see is being run on pavement tracks. You name any particular series--Nextel Cup, Craftsman Trucks, ARCA, Hooters Pro Cup, and Trans Am--and most times the action is on asphalt. If you check your television listings, you might be able to find a taped Dirt Late Model race, but that's about it.
Many television viewers probably think that it's always been a pavement surface for the fendered sport, but that is certainly not the case. Stock car racing began in the '30s in a primitive manner and continued to mature up until the start of World War II. Most of the racing was done on dirt, and that trend continued following the war.
Consider this about NASCAR: when it was formed by Bill France Sr. in 1949 and no superspeedways were around. Cars were practically stock street, and drivers competed in rough-and-tumble action. During that first year, all eight of the Grand National races were run on dirt. In 1950, there was only one pavement race, at the then-new Darlington Raceway, and only four paved races the following two seasons. If dirt tracks had not been around for NASCAR's formative years, it could have been much later before the sanctioning body came along. During those early days, teams would run the same car on both racing surfaces, and few changes were made.
NASCAR continued to run dirt races until the beginning of the '70s when the sport's modern era evolved. That was also the case with the two other major stock car series, USAC and ARCA, during the period. Even though ARCA runs a number of its races on the same tracks as Nextel Cup, the Midwest-based sanctioning body continues to include a small number of dirt races in its championship series. Currently, those include the mile dirt tracks at DuQuoin, Illinois, and the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield. As was the case in earlier days, the teams use the same cars used on the pavement tracks.
Many drivers who reach Dirt...
Many drivers who reach Dirt Late Model ranks got their starts in Modifieds, as thousands of the cars compete at tracks across the country. photo byJeff Huneycutt
Up until the mid-'60s, the pavement and dirt stock cars remained somewhat similar, using modified street cars and hopped-up powerplants. But it was during this period that the birth of the so-called Dirt Late Model concept was born. It involved a complete car that was optimized to run on rear-end-loose dirt tracks. Today, a dozen or so manufacturers build these super-quick machines.
Since the mid-'60s, a tremendous evolution has continued, and the Dirt Late Model stock car of today is a pure racing machine that is highly endowed with advanced technology. The modern Dirt Late Model is probably the most popular style of short-track racing in the country, with thousands of them being raced across the country. In addition, there are dozens of traveling series traversing the nation to thousands of enthusiastic fans, along with numerous other series supporting other types of dirt stock car types.
A measure of the popularity of dirt racing in this country comes through the examination of the number of dirt tracks nationwide. This number, in fact, may surprise the average stock car fan.
"Right now, there are about 1,040 tracks in the country and about 75 percent of them are dirt tracks," says Allan Brown, publisher of the National Speedway Directory. "The number of those dirt ovals continues to increase, but there have been about 15 pavement tracks closed in the past two years. A majority of the dirt tracks are shorter than the pavement ovals, being mostly in the 13- to 38-mile distance."
There are even locations where dirt tracks have been built in close proximity to NASCAR tracks, such as Talladega, Texas, Las Vegas, and Charlotte. It allows dirt fans to get their Dirt Late Model fix in between the NASCAR Cup races. That NASCAR/dirt connection was carried to the ultimate in 2000 when Bristol Motor Speedway was coated with a heavy layer of good old clay, and a Dirt Late Model race was held.
With the huge number of dirt tracks, and with most concentrating on stock car racing, it's not surprising that there are a multitude of different types of dirt racing vehicles. Those types include (besides the Dirt Late Models) Limited Late Models, Modifieds, Street Stocks, Mini Stocks, various truck classes, Legends Cars, Dwarf Cars, and many other dirt machines.
Another comparison can be made between dirt and pavement tracks. A majority of the time, there are many more race cars at dirt track events than at their pavement counterparts. When you consider the huge number of dirt tracks, you get an idea of the overpowering popularity of the dirt warriors.
A distinct characteristic of the dirt stock car scene is the enthusiasm and dedication of the fans, possibly the best in motorsports. Dedication to a particular driver is amazing, and you will see that affection with the huge number of T-shirts and other memorabilia. Presently, there is also a growing interest in die-cast models of the top Dirt Late Models and Modifieds.
Following are discussions of each of the major dirt stock car types and what makes them tick.
Whether they're called Hobby...
Whether they're called Hobby Stocks, Street Stocks, Pure Stocks, or some other name, a number of entry-level classes dot the dirt landscape. photo byJeff Huneycutt
Dirt racing today is personified by these low-slung, super-wide, high-powered machines. In fact, they have a national following of large proportions. Competition with the cars in both the traveling circuits and at the local tracks has increased through the years. One of the main reasons is that speed can now be purchased from a number of manufacturers providing turnkey cars. For that reason, the winner no longer has to start on the front row, as he is capable of advancing from deep in the field.
Performance is available in gobs from a number of aftermarket engine manufacturers. These builders produce high-compression V-8s capable of generating as much as 800 hp to push the 2,350-pound haulers. The prime engine builders include Draime, Malcuit, Baker, Cornette, Custom, Fisher, ProPower, Dickens, K-Motion, Gaerte, and others. Besides the expected monopoly of Chevy-based mills, there are also some Fords and Mopars on the scene. Many teams will tell you that the engines are generally capable of 1,000-1,500 laps before a major teardown is required.
Transmissions are mostly two-speeds, with just about everybody using either the Brimm or Bert brands. Rearends are Sprint Car-style quick-change units, with Franklin and Winters being the main suppliers.
There is stiff competition for customers between the major chassis manufacturers. The high-tech pieces are fabricated of chrome-moly and provide considerable driver protection in a crash. Major chassis builders include Warrier, MasterSbilt, Shaw, GRT, Rocket, Swartz, and Rayburn.
The aluminum bodies are quite generic with their slab vertical sides and flat topsides. Discussions have been held through the years about making the bodies stock in appearance, and there has been a small movement in that direction with stock-appearing fiberglass nose pieces that match the engine brand being used.
Dirt and mud are as much a...
Dirt and mud are as much a part of the sport as drivers who work on their own cars. photo byJeff Huneycutt
Aerodynamics plays sweetly with these sleek machines. The rear end is completely open and allows airflow. Downforce is provided by a spoiler on the rear deck.
The handling of a Dirt Late Model is many times the difference between winning and losing with these cars. Shock and spring companies are constantly researching to improve the suspension system. Coilover shocks are the standard for today's cars, with the drivers noting that they are much easier to turn with that type of suspension.
The Dirt Late Models have a large number of high-paying races, far exceeding the lower levels of pavement racing. There are many dozens of $10,000-to-win races, many with the traveling series' groups.
With the national Dirt Late Model organizations, there are a number of national sponsors, including Lucas Oil, Budweiser, PolyDome, O'Reilly, Sunoco, and Amsoil.
The biggest money in this class comes from a number of big races that bring huge money for these cars. A list of the biggest includes the Dirt Track World Championship at K-C Raceway in Chillicothe, Ohio (with $50,000-to-win), the Show-Me 100 at West Plains Motor Speedway in West Plains, Missouri ($40,000-to-win), The Dream at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio ($100,000-to-win), the North/South 100 at Florence Speedway in Union, Kentucky ($50,000-to-win), the Topless 100 at Batesville Speedway in Arkansas ($44,000-to-win), and the Grandaddy of them all, the World 100, also at Eldora ($38,000-to-win). In addition, there are the UMP Summernationals providing a complete month of high-paying races in the Midwest.
One of the oldest races is the Hillbilly 100, which was held this past season at Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne, West Virginia. This year it paid the country's largest one-day purse for Dirt Late Models, which included $25,000 to the winner.
There is big money to be won in the Dirt Late Model arena, certainly far exceeding that which is available with the pavement machines, outside of NASCAR's three major series.
Through the years, there have been huge stars in this class, and the 21st century is no different. There are, of course, the familiar names of Donnie Moran, Billy Moyer, Scott Bloomquist, and others who bring immediate name recognition. In earlier years, the likes of Jeff Purvis, Rodney Combs, and Ernie Irwin parlayed their successful Dirt Late Model efforts into NASCAR careers.
Handling is often the difference...
Handling is often the difference in winning and losing in Dirt Late Models. photo byTony Hammett
They go by a number of different names--Limited Late Models, Sportsman Cars, Late Model Stocks, Super Sportsman Cars, Outlaw Cadets, and others--identifying this style of car at dirt tracks around the nation. The cars are located all over the country and compete in relative obscurity, with accomplishments on the track usually being unknown beyond the fans of a particular track.
No matter what they are called in different parts of the country, they all serve the same purpose--filling the dirt stock car class directly under the top Dirt Late Model-type cars.
Those late-model machines are certainly at the top of their game, but usually a driver's economic situation factors into the equation when driving one of these dirt haulers. Therefore, the step down to these limited stockers provides an excellent alternative. In fact, many drivers use these cars as a learning tool for a planned step up.
With the exception of what's under the hood, many of these cars are almost identical to the Dirt Late Models. It's not uncommon at a number of tracks to see teams switch limited steel engines and Dirt Late Model engines and race the car in both classes.
Appearance-wise, many of these cars look identical to their more famous big brothers. A majority of Limited Late Models use Dirt Late Model bodies and chassis. Unlike the Dirt Late Models, where the rules are pretty consistent in any part of the country, the Limited Late Models seem to have different rules depending on where you're racing.
One aspect of the cars, though, that remains fairly common is the post-race weight. Several tracks with this class indicated that the weight range is between 2,150 and 2,700 pounds, with a majority in the 2,300- to 2,400-pound range.
Frames vary from pure Dirt Late Model versions down to a pure automotive type. Others have a stock front clip or stub attached to a rear race-style unit. This amounts to a ton of difference in the cost of building a car. Also, the cost can be greatly reduced by using a used Dirt Late Model frame, maybe one that's 5 years old or older.
The biggest cost-cutter is the engine. Most tracks have engine rules that dictate what can be used. Practically all tracks and sanctioning bodies require an all-steel engine, including both the block and heads.
At Tazewell Motor Speedway in Tennessee, small-blocks are encouraged with a weight advantage. If the engine displacement is above 364 ci, it will cost you an extra hundred pounds. But then, there is West Liberty Raceway in Iowa, which has no displacement limit for its Limited Late Models.
Normally, you will find that most tracks dictate the use of a small-block V-8 powerplant. Usually, the 350-cid engines are used. Carb type is also usually dictated, but no consistency was noted with both two- and four-barrel styles being required. For the most part, the engines are required to use gas.
So if you are planning on taking your Limited Late Model to a strange track, call first because there is a good chance that your machine might not be legal.
Several top NASCAR tracks,...
Several top NASCAR tracks, including Lowe's Motor Speedway, have dirt companion tracks. photo byJeff Huneycutt
The use of an inexpensive crate engine in a Dirt Late Model chassis is a concept whose time has apparently come. It has been considered for a number of years and is currently showing promise in several venues, in both touring series and at particular tracks.
Here's the deal. A Dirt Late Model engine could cost as high as 35 big ones, a figure that only a small percentage can manage. But take a standard crate engine from one of the Big Three manufacturers, seal it so that it can't be modified, and you have the makings of close competition. Oh, by the way, did we mention that such a powerplant is normally under five grand?
A serious effort in the crate arena is the Fastrak Champions Series, which carried out its second season during 2005. Headed by Stan Lester, the series was divided into three regions: the South, the Mid East, and the Mid West. In all, some 50 total races were run, including such tracks as Eldora Speedway, Volunteer Speedway, and others.
"We see a real future for the crate engines in dirt stock car racing," says Lester. "We try to keep the rpms in the 6,300-6,700 range for greater length of service. There are some two dozen dirt tracks, mostly in the South, that have crate engine cars, with a number of them using Fastrak rules."
Modifieds provide thrills...
Modifieds provide thrills on dirt nearly equal to their DLM brethren. photo byJeff Huneycutt
These familiar full-body dirt machines fill dirt tracks across the country by the many thousands. They go by a number of names, depending on the particular sanctioning body or track where they compete. Major sanctioning bodies for Modifieds include IMCA, UMP, AMRA, WISSOTA, NARA, and others. Most dirt fans, though, know them as E-Mods and just plain Modifieds. Like the Dirt Late Models, the rules for these strictly dirt machines are very similar across the nation.
These cars often serve as the second rung in the careers of many dirt drivers. These cars come with appreciable performance, but it comes at a very reasonable price.
The cars have an interesting external configuration, combining a full body with an open-wheel look. The body is missing its front quarters, which completely exposes the sides of the powerplant. But the greatest difference in these cars is the frame. The front clip is of factory construction, including the stock A-arms and other hardware. The remainder of the frame is normally fabricated of tubular material.
Dirt racing, much like convertible...
Dirt racing, much like convertible racing, has fallen by the wayside in NASCAR. Both were once common in the series, although convertible racing had a short life span. photo by SCR Archives
A majority of these approximately 2,300-pound cars use small-block (350- to 400-cid) Chevy carbureted engines, with alcohol being the most common fuel.
The remainder of the powertrain usually includes aftermarket two-speed transmissions and 9-inch Ford rearends. Depending on the part of the country, some quick-change rearends are starting to appear.
At many dirt tracks, the Modifieds are a support class and often don't even qualify, and for a majority of Modified teams, the crews are mostly volunteers.
These cars handle well on the soil when the setup is correct. A standard feeling about these machines is that they are over-powered and lack the wide tires required for the horsepower produced. Many times, on the shorter tracks, the Modifieds turn laps very close to the times recorded by the Dirt Late Models, and they're considered a great learning tool for those cars.
Although Modifieds have the implication of economy and a learning vehicle, there is one race for these cars that certainly is far from that. It happens at Batesville Speedway and pays the winner the princely sum of $100,000. It's not surprising that a number of Dirt Late Model drivers find a Modified to run the event. That was the case last season as Dirt Late Model regular Terry Phillips brought home the big money.
The Dirt Modifieds also participate in the IMCA Speedway Motors Super Nationals at Boone Speedway in Iowa. The event this past season drew an amazing 400 Modifieds, the most of a particular car to appear at a single event. Even though the winner is paid just $2,000 for his efforts, it's the prestige of winning this huge challenge that brings them in.
In the northeastern United States, though, the Modified name means something entirely different. On the Right Coast, there are a pair of quite-different Modified types.
First, there are the DIRT Big-Block Modifieds, which have high-tech big-block powerplants and a body that carries significant aerodynamics. They are best known as a traveling series with the DIRT organization, although there are a number of local tracks that also race the cars. Performance-wise, they are similar to that of the Dirt Late Models.
When that same basic chassis is equipped with a small-block powerplant, the resulting vehicle carries names such as Small-Block Modified, 358 Modified, or Limited Modified, depending on the track.
Scott Bloomquist is one of...
Scott Bloomquist is one of the superstars in DLM racing. photo by SCR Archives
Under this broad category, there's a variety of entry-level dirt stock cars that have a variation of names and rules. They go by such names as Street Stocks, Pure Stocks, Bombers, Hobby Stocks, Factory Stocks, Road Hogs, and so on. Exactly what a particular name might mean depends entirely on the track being run.
The sophistication of this multitude of dirt stock car models again varies all over the lot. It should be noted, however, that in certain parts of the country the Super Stocks are very sophisticated machines, looking much like Dirt Late Models.
But the multitude of different car types and rules isn't the most important aspect of their existence. The fact is, these thousands of cars enable a huge number of dirt people to compete in and/or watch races weekly at hundreds of dirt tracks. These cars are one big reason dirt stock car racing is number one in the racing business.
UMP Modifieds compete regularly...
UMP Modifieds compete regularly at tracks around the country. photo by Jan Dunlap
Since the introduction of race trucks in NASCAR, there has been a growing interest across the country in these particular race vehicles. The premier dirt truck traveling series that races trucks on dirt during part of its schedule is the ARCA Truck Series which, like ARCA's Super Car Series, runs basically the same trucks on both pavement and dirt.
There are also many dirt tracks across the country running many types of dirt trucks, both mini- and full-sized, with many different sets of rules. Go to just about any dirt track that runs pickups, and you might see trucks that are the barest minimum of a racing machine, probably a truck that might have been retrieved from a junkyard to one that might sport a tubular frame and a high-tech powerplant. These low-budget trucks go by many different names, such as Hobby Trucks, Stock Trucks, Pickups, Trophy Trucks, Dirt Trucks, and so on.
Needless to say, there is no national sanctioning body to control the rules for this montage of quite-different pickups, and that's probably the way it will remain for the foreseeable future.
For the short dirt ovals, the general category of Mini-Stocks works quite nicely. Again, economy is the key in this class, with the junkyard a low-cost source for many of the cars. Of course, the rules at many of the hundreds of dirt tracks that field Mini-Stocks (or whatever they call them) allow only minimal modifications. The Mini-Stock class is the only way many drivers can afford to race.
Most of the Mini-Stocks might contain a slightly modified powerplant, with small engine overbores, headers, and a larger carburetor (again depending on the particular track) being typical modifications allowed.
In the Midwest, there's a new type of dirt mini-machine that could be qualified as a Mini-Stock. This race car uses the diminutive Chevy Chevette, a compact built by General Motors between 1976 and 1986. Many of the drivers of these cars will tell you that they can go racing for as little as $3,000.
The hotbed for competition in these cars, which run almost exclusively on dirt, is the Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee area. Like other types of small dirt cars, little change is allowed. With the body, you are usually allowed an aftermarket fiberglass nose, a rear spoiler, and body skirts.
These types of 58-scale, motorcycle-powered `30s to '40s-style machines look pretty much the same. Outside, the Legends Cars sport full bodies, including the fenders, while the Dwarf Cars have more of an early modified look, sans fenders.
Both types of cars run in many states, and both run on dirt as a part of their racing schedules. When they are running on dirt, you can visualize how racing must have looked back in stock car racing's formative years (i.e., with early Ford and Chevy coupes).
One of the nicest aspects of both types of these cars is that they can be converted to run on pavement or dirt. With the Dwarf Cars, conversion to dirt can usually be made by changing the tires and making some suspension tweaks. Some Legends Car teams explain that they change the spring settings, install dirt tires, and usually raise the ride height.
Where to Find Dirt Late Model Racing
World of Outlaws Late Models
Mid-American Championship Series
Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series
Regional Racing Series
Colorado Late Model Association
Budweiser I-5 Challenge Series
Western Dirt Racing Association
NAPA-MDA Late Model Series
Southwest Dirt Racing Association
Western Dirt Late Model Tour
WDRL PolyDome Super Series
Northern Allstars Late Model Series
O'Reilly Auto Parts NCRA
O'Reilly Auto Parts TORA
Sunoco American Late Model Series
O'Reilly Auto Parts MARS
O'Reilly Auto Parts MLRA
IMCA Deery Brothers Summer Series
Northern Late Model Racing Association
WISSOTA Amsoil Series
WISSOTA Tri Star Challenge Series
Show-Me Racin' Series
Mississippi State Championship Challenge
O'Reilly Auto Parts Battle of the Bluegrass
Carolina Clash Super Late Model Series
Southern Thunder Tour
O'Reilly Southern All Star Series
O'Reilly Auto Parts SUPR
Tennessee Thunder DirtCar Series
NASCAR-style cars on dirt?...
NASCAR-style cars on dirt? It happens. photo by ARCA
Have you ever thought about how cool it would be to see NASCAR Cup racing on dirt? Well, you can--sort of. In one of racing's best-kept secrets, the ARCA RE/MAX Super Car Series does run on dirt. The NASCAR connections are many, starting with the cars themselves. RE/MAX cars are basically NASCAR Cup clones, so when ARCA goes dirt racing, NASCAR-style cars are racing on dirt.
There's more. When ARCA hits the dirt at DuQuoin, Illinois, on Labor Day weekend, you can usually see a few NASCAR drivers. Tony Stewart and Ken Schrader routinely show up to race, and it's not because of a paid appearance, either. They are there because they want to race and have some fun, and race they do.
ARCA never really stopped running on dirt. The organization has sanctioned over 300 races on quarter-mile bullrings and on fast half-miles. ARCA still runs what former series champion Bob Keselowski called "The Superspeedways of Dirt"--the Illinois tracks of DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in DuQuoin, and the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield. Both are one-mile ovals and both also host horse races, meaning the tracks aren't always entirely dirt, if you know what we mean. Whether dirt or some other, ahem, material, teams try to avoid what clogs up the front of the cars. The "shake" screens used to keep the radiators clean vary in design.
Springfield's track hosts a packed house when ARCA comes to town, as the smell of freshly buttered corn on the cob wafts over the midway and the Ferris wheel stands as tall as the old covered grandstands. Two weeks later, it's the same at DuQuoin. Both are flat tracks with ARCA cars hugging the turns as they average over 100 mph. DuQuoin is the fastest of the two tracks by about 4 mph.
So why would ARCA keep a pair of dirt tracks on its schedule while NASCAR walked away from dirt racing over 30 years ago?
"Primarily because the events are successful," says Ron Drager, president of ARCA. "The crowds are good, the car counts are strong, and the racing is competitive. Plus, [promoter] Bob Sargent takes it seriously and provides us with outstanding, well-prepped tracks."
Despite a RE/MAX schedule heavy with modern intermediate speedway races, Drager stresses a connection to the sport's strong traditions. "It's always been important to us that we not distance ourselves from what we did in the '50s," he says.
Stewart, who last year bought famed Eldora Speedway, a half-mile dirt track, was asked a few years ago if NASCAR should host a dirt race. "I wish they would," he said.
At least one major track on the NASCAR schedule has hosted a dirt event, as Bristol Motor Speedway became a dirt track in 2000, hosting Dirt Late Models and World of Outlaws Sprint Cars.
"If the drivers get a vote, I can promise you I'd vote for [a dirt race on the schedule]," Stewart added. "I told the guys that when they put the dirt [on the track,] Bristol had been a perfect place. Since they put the dirt on there, they should just leave it on there and let us run the 500-lap Cup race on dirt."--John Carollo