The asphalt snobs sometimes like to say something like, "Dirt's for farmers," but those are the same people who have no idea just how much fun they are missing out on. Dirt racing isn't simply a hobby for those not "complex" enough to understand how to race on asphalt. In fact, racing on dirt adds several dynamics that you simply do not find on asphalt tracks. Not to take anything away from asphalt racers, but that may be why dirt tracks greatly outnumber asphalt ovals at the Saturday night level.
So if you've ever thought about going dirt racing, we'd encourage you to jump in with both feet. We understand that it can be a little intimidating if you've never raced before, or have only raced on asphalt. With that in mind, we offer these 10 no-fail tips for starting a successful-and don't forget fun-dirt racing career. Whether you are just looking to have fun on Saturday nights without breaking the bank or want to be able to earn a living driving one of the big-time touring series, there is something in here for you.
Find The Class That Fits Your NeedsSpend a little time before rushing in to decide just what it is you want out of your dirt racing experience. Do you hope to make it to the big leagues of dirt racing? Are you just looking for an inexpensive class to have some fun with your buddies on Saturday nights? There are lots of different classes out there, and each has its own positives and negatives. Many tracks have their own names for their classes, but they usually break down into four major categories.
The Mini-Stock class is unique because it uses four-cylinder engines in predominately compact cars such as the Ford Mustang and Toyota Celica. This used to be the class that everyone started out in, but it has gotten so specialized that it's hardly the case anymore. Mini-Stocks are one of the slower classes, so try this if the speed at your local track intimidates you. These cars also draw a lot of veteran racers because they actually require you to perfect your setups and stay on top of the wheel if you hope to race and win. So you may also want to look here if you are more of a technique driver than one obsessed with all-out power.
Street Stocks, Pure Stocks and IMCA-style Mods are usually the cheapest classes to race. They are usually based around a GM metric chassis ("mid-80s to early 90s" Monte Carlos, Buick Regals and Olds Cutlasses) which means donor cars are still plentiful. There are also a ton of replacement parts on the market for these cars at relatively good prices. These classes also either require mostly stock engine parts or have a cheap engine claim rule that keeps costs and power levels down. Finally, if your blood runs Ford blue you may want to swallow your pride before entering this class. Chevys dominate here not because they are significantly better, but they are significantly cheaper to build and race than the blue oval.
The Super Stock class is basically the same as Street Stocks but with looser engine rules. And although the cars may look just about the same, the racing is usually quite different. At a lot of dirt tracks this is the best racing to be found because the engines can produce anywhere between 500 and 550 horsepower while the rules limit the cars to tiny eight-inch-wide tires. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of skill to drive these cars well, but when you develop the ability there is nothing like it. These cars are also more basic when it comes to setups than Dirt Late Models, so if you want to get by with more time racing than wrenching, this may also be the class for you.
The Late Model class is the king of the hill at most dirt tracks. In the past few years, however, a major division has split the Late Model racers into two ranks: those running crate engines and those who still campaign built motors.
The crate Late Model class is a great place for newcomers or those with limited experience who want to advance as quickly as possible. These cars offer the same setup options and virtually the same driving styles at the Dirt Late Model class, but the crate engines cut costs and limit horsepower. Also, many big-time Dirt Late Model racers cycle through their equipment quite quickly, so a smart racer can usually find a good-quality used rolling chassis on the cheap, install a new crate motor and be on the track with minimal expense.
Learn To DriveMike Duvall teaches a school for dirt racing. One of the most important things young racers need to learn, he maintains, is to drive with their head and not just their muscles. "Good driving is about being consistent every lap," he says. "A lot of the new guys I see say, 'I'm macho, I've got lots of muscles so I should be able to drive my car fast.' But then they cannot get the car where it needs to be, they aren't hitting their marks, and they wind up being slow. The first thing you have to do is learn how to hit your marks on the track consistently, then you can start picking up the pace as you get comfortable running a consistent lap."
Duvall also points out new racers have to learn to drive with their right foot as much as their hands. "The steering wheel will only turn the car right and left," he says, "You don't control the car with the steering wheel in the middle of the corner. You control it with your foot. You have to learn what you can do with the car with just your foot. It's the gas pedal that makes the car go forward, and that is what you have to use intelligently to drive a fast lap."
Tire TricksIn dirt racing, tire management is just as much of a science combined with a black art as it is in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The big difference, however, is that where asphalt racers always use slicks whenever possible, the design of the tread on a dirt race tire is critical.
The tread design is so important in fact that top-level Dirt Late Model race teams often spend between four and five hours modifying a set of tires for a particular track or set of conditions. You can purchase race tires for most classes in a variety of compounds. Obviously, softer compounds provide more traction but are also prone to wearing more quickly. Modifying your tires by cutting tread patterns (known as grooving and siping) is really only common in the upper-level classes, but if your rule book does not specifically prohibit it, grooving and siping does not cost money and can potentially help your on-track performance.
The trick to creating traction with tires is to create as many edges as possible to catch the track surface. Siping is simply the process of cutting slits in the tread of the tire with a razor blade. Siping tools created for this purpose can hold multiple razor blades at a specific depth so that you do not cut deeper than the tread block. The number of sipes you can cut into a tire is limited by the car's horsepower and the traction available. Cut the sipes too close together and you will be throwing little chunks of rubber all over the track.
Grooving is essentially the same thing, except instead of cutting a slit into the tire you cut a U-shaped groove or channel with a specialized grooving tool. Grooving is useful on muddy tracks because grooves will "shed" or sling off mud more easily than a sipe will.
Finally, you may want to occasionally take a power sander to your race tires. Repeated cycles of heating the tires in race conditions can harden the outer layer of rubber. This is called "glazing over." You can remove this glazing and return your tire to like-new status by lightly sanding its surface.
Maintenance MattersAnother aspect of dirt racing that separates it from its asphalt cousin is that the track is always changing, and sometimes quite dramatically. Holes and ruts can form in the track's surface that can not only upset the suspension but also cause quite a bit of damage. Because of this, as well as the fact that the abrasive nature of dust can make it quite damaging to bearings and other critical areas of the car, a regular maintenance program on your racecar is a necessity.
Danny Breuer drives for a touring Dirt Late Model team and says that the nature of dirt-track racing is very hard on a few specific components. Some are particular to a Dirt Late Model chassis, but most affect every dirt racecar.
"One of the biggest things I see overlooked," he says, "is the torque arm. They get a lot of abuse, and cracks will develop. If you don't catch it when the torque arm starts getting cracks, it can break. When that happens, the rear end rolls over and usually the driveshaft will come loose. Then you have the driveshaft flopping around and that can damage the driver's compartment. A broken torque arm on the track will also wind up damaging your suspension bars. You definitely should at least visually check it every week."
Breuer also recommends keeping a close eye on all ball joints, heim joints and spherical rod ends-especially in the steering system. You don't have to crash to damage something here. Ruts and holes can play havoc on your steering system, and dirt can quickly wear your ball joints. Check them every week or two. Once you start noticing slop in any of the joints you should consider replacing them.
Finally, because of extreme chassis articulation, racers in many classes use a transmission equipped with a ball-spline shaft. This shaft is part of the transmission tailhousing and expands to keep the driveshaft from pulling loose when the racecar is squatted over on its right-rear. The problem is every time the ball-spline shaft extends it can pick up dust or dirt, and when it retracts back into the tailhousing some of that dirt can get pushed past the seal. If you run a ball-spline joint you should pull it apart every week or two to be cleaned and re-greased.
Wash with CareHere's the most painfully obvious statement you will find in the entire magazine: Dirt cars get dirty.
Shocking, yes, but that also means you will spend a lot of time washing your racecar. The easiest way to knock some serious dirt off of your car is with a pressure washer. But some areas of your car are susceptible to high-pressure streams of water and require a little attention before you begin your cleaning regimen.
The best place to begin is with your carburetor. Many racers will simply cap off the top of the carb and have at it, but the linkages need to operate smoothly and should never be hit with high-pressure water. Instead, remove the carburetor and bolt on an engine lift plate-complete with an old gasket-in its place.
Next, turn your attention to the car's electronics. If you run an ignition box, it often will use weatherpack connectors that provide a measure of protection from the elements. You do not want to expose your ignition box to water either, but unplugging and removing the box every week isn't exactly a good idea. Doing that will eventually wear out the seal on the connectors. Instead, put a plastic bag over and/or around your ignition box, as well as the distributor and coil, and tape them up as best you can to seal out the water.
Finally, Breuer recommends spending a few moments going over your fuel system before you turn on the water. Since you have removed the carburetor, make sure all of your fuel lines are capped. Next, make sure your plumbing fittings are tight, and cover any vents on the fuel cell. Any water that manages to make its way into the fuel system can ruin your next night of racing, so it is worthwhile to spend a little extra time to ensure that doesn't happen.
Watch Your WeightWhen racing on asphalt, the rule when it comes to placing your lead is simple-keep as much of it as low and on the left side of the car as your rules will allow. This, however, isn't the case when racing on dirt. Weight is often used to help the car roll over on its left-rear tire by placing it up higher on the car and along the car's centerline, or even sometimes on the right.
Usually, raising weight will increase body roll and increase traction on the right-rear tire all the way through the turn. Usually, but not always, more weight up high will help tighten up a car that is consistently loose.
Learn To ReadWhenever you travel to a new track, you have to play a bit of a guessing game. In a way, any dirt racetrack is a living, breathing thing. The only thing you can guarantee is that it will not finish the night in the same shape that it started. This means you have to tailor your setup toward the conditions you believe you will see at the end of the race, not necessarily the conditions you are racing under when the green flag flies for the first time. After all, winning the first 49 laps doesn't mean a thing if your handling goes away and you get passed on the 50th.
Old timers call this "reading the track," but it is as much about good detective work as it is actually reading the mud. The best thing you can do at a new racetrack is to search out the local racers and ask about the track's characteristics. The problem with this is sometimes you will get good, honest answers and sometimes you won't. So you also have to use other resources.
"I spend a lot of time watching the local hotshots during hot laps," Breuer says of travelling to a new track for the first time. "If the guy that has won the last four races here looks awful tight during the hot laps, that probably doesn't mean he doesn't know how to set up the car. It usually means he knows the track is going to dry out and get loose before the end of the night and he is prepared for it. So if I see that, I know I need to keep my car on the tight side, too."
Breuer also recommends searching out the track promoter and asking a few questions. The promoter is interested in providing the crowd in the stand with great racing, so it is in his best interest to give you good information. If you can get out on the track take a pocket knife or a screwdriver and dig down a little to see how deep the water is absorbed into the track.
One good question to ask is if the track has a sheepsfoot to pack the dirt and how it is used. If the track is watered and the sheepsfoot is used to pack in the track afterward, it can push the water in and help the track stay damp longer. If the sheepsfoot is used to pack the track before it is watered, then the track will dry out much more quickly.
Brake BiasBecause a racetrack can change so quickly, it is a good idea to use a brake bias adjuster from the cockpit, if the rules allow it. A brake bias adjuster allows you to quickly change the front-to-rear ratio of braking pressure applied to the tires. For example, Derek "Shamu" Spencer of Performance Friction brakes, says if the track gets dusty and loose, dialing in a bit more brake bias to the front will help the car feel more stable on turn entry. "That just helps it to plant the nose and get the car more settled before you turn," he explains.
Another trick Spencer mentions is to run a slightly smaller rotor or caliper on the right-front corner. This allows the left-front wheel to brake harder than the right front, helping pull the car into the turn when you press the brake pedal.
Shock StrategiesShock tuning is a complex art. For most of us, it comes down to testing and trial-and-error. That is why modern double-adjustable shocks are such an advantage for teams that invest in them. Yes, double adjustables are more expensive, but the ability to change both the shock's compression and rebound settings without removing it from the car will allow you to make many more laps during a test session. If you race at the same track week after week, once you have determined the best shock settings, you can have a set of non-adjustables built to your requirements and put the double adjustables back on the trailer where they won't get damaged. But if you are traveling to a different racetrack every week, owning a set of double adjustables can save you the trouble and expense of having to carry several sets of shocks with you everywhere you go.
Go To SchoolOne of the problems with racing is learning the hard way too often means tearing up your racecar. If you are a new racer, or simply a racer looking to get better, consider a racing school. There are schools available all across the country that cater to just about any class of racecars you can imagine.
Duvall, the veteran Dirt Late Model racer who operates a dirt racing school in South Carolina, says he wishes a school had been available for him when he started racing. "It would have cut years off of my learning curve and saved me a lot of money in wrecked equipment," he says. "We had a lot of fun when I started racing, but we didn't learn anything. It wasn't until I started taking a stopwatch and watching other drivers that I really learned how to drive a racecar.
"I believe a good racing school, and I am talking about any racing school and not just mine, is a good investment. I can show you the right way to do things right from the start so the student won't be developing bad habits or tearing up his equipment unnecessarily. And if you aren't tearing up your equipment, then you can spend more time racing."