Racing on dirt tracks can...
Racing on dirt tracks can help you develop skills that will benefit any racer on any surface, but if the goal is a career as a Nextel Cup driver, will it help you get there?
In the good old days, it was simply assumed by everyone that if you wanted to make a living racing in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series (then called Winston Cup), you needed to make a name for yourself racing and winning on asphalt tracks. After all, Cup races in the sport's modern era (since 1972) have been held on paved tracks, so that's where you needed to race. It only made sense.
Of course, that all went out the window in the mid-'90s when Jeff Gordon and then Tony Stewart came on the scene. Both drivers had cut their racing teeth on dirt and made names for themselves racing Sprint Cars. And when they made it to the NASCAR Cup level, both found almost immediate success-Stewart even tied the rookie record with three wins. Following these breakthrough successes, it seemed that every team owner was looking for the next Jeff Gordon, and he likely would be racing on a dirt track somewhere. An instant fad developed, based on the idea that driving on dirt, instead of asphalt, helped a driver gain a better seat-of-the-pants feel for the car.
Today, there is no trend when it comes to where team owners look for promising new drivers. But the question still remains: Will racing on dirt or racing on asphalt help someone develop into a top-level race car driver? That's the question we set out to answer from two very different vantage points.
If you want to make it to the top rung of the racing ladder, it automatically means you will be racing on asphalt. When it comes to a driver's exposure and ability to make money-and if you are going to race for a living you might as well make a little-the target is easily NASCAR's top series: Nextel Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Trucks. After that it's a mishmash of leagues and cars of all different types.
Although Nextel Cup veteran...
Although Nextel Cup veteran Ken Schrader is an ardent fan of dirt racing who competes in the Late Model class quite often, his advice for young racers who want to make it to NASCAR's top series is to learn their skills in a pavement series and stick with it.
So, even though some racers have been able to make the transition from dirt to asphalt, it really does make sense to hone your racing skills on the surface that's also (hopefully) your final destination. Running may help a basketball player gain stamina, but you don't see too many college players take a year off to go marathoning as a way to get to the NBA, do you? Yes, racing on clay may require you to develop certain skills more quickly than racing on asphalt, but they aren't skills that any intelligent driver won't develop over time, no matter what surface he races.
To get a professional's viewpoint on how driving on dirt versus asphalt differs, we talked to someone you would have to consider one of the top resources on the topic. Nextel Cup veteran Ken Schrader is undeniably a racing addict. He's one of the hard-core racers on the tour who unwinds from the stresses of Nextel Cup racing by . . . going racing. Although he's racing for the Wood Brothers' No. 21 team this season, Schrader owns his own operation, Ken Schrader Racing, in large part because it gives him the opportunity to race nearly any type of race car any time he has a spare Saturday night. Through KSR, Schrader races everything from Dirt Late Models, to Asphalt Late Models, to Craftsman Trucks. He even owns his own dirt track, I-55 Raceway in Pevely, Missouri, and races there often.
"You know, I love dirt racing," Schrader says, "but for somebody looking to make their way to Nextel Cup, I think a pavement series is the best way to go. I enjoy racing on dirt and think dirt makes for great racing, but I don't think having experience on dirt is necessary in order to be successful in the Cup series. I was talking with Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. the other day, and he's intrigued by racing on dirt sometime with me. He doesn't know anything about it, and he doesn't need to. He's never raced on dirt before and, as a Nextel Cup driver, it sure isn't hurting him.
"If my kid wanted to be a Nextel Cup driver, I think I probably would start him out on pavement and keep him there. But I don't think racing on dirt hurts you, either. If you are racing on dirt and you just want to be a racer, then have at it. Find the kind of racing you enjoy and make the most of it."
Schrader's philosophy makes sense: There is no better training than the real thing. There is more to racing than simply getting behind the wheel and turning left. A great driver has a feel for what is going on with the car; he or she also understands the desired feel and can communicate it to the crewchief. In many cases, the driver even knows the exact chassis adjustments needed to get the feel he or she is looking for. Developing that finely tuned connection to both the race car and the track is difficult if you are racing a different type of car on a different type of track.