Craftsman Truck Series team owner Mike Mittler admits he never thought much of dirt track
"When you are sitting in that race car, you've only got a couple of pedals and a steering wheel that mean anything," Schrader adds, boiling everything down to the simplest terms. "It's not rocket science. Get down the straightaway as fast as you can, turn the car around, and then do the same thing coming back the other side." In other words, if your goal is to race and race well in NASCAR's Nextel Cup ranks, get in a car that's as close to the real thing as you can get and go racing.
It is true that racing on a dirt surface is quite different from racing on asphalt. Not only that, but also the technology of the race cars is in many ways quite different. Dirt cars are designed to roll over on the right-rear wheel to maximize forward bite, while the key to a fast setup in an asphalt car is to balance the downforce and make all four tires work equally through the turns. Dirt cars can also use more sophisticated rear suspensions (such as four-links and Z-links with rotating birdcages and multiple spring attachment points that are rarely allowed by the rules in asphalt racing), but the basic physics of it all really doesn't change much. The key to speed is to maximize traction and power and then push the car to that narrow margin between too slow and out-of-control, where the fast laps lie.
The difficulties in racing on dirt are also where the advantages are hidden when it comes to developing young racers. Dirt as a racing surface is unstable, constantly changing. This is especially true when cars are racing on it, squeezing out the water and putting down layers of rubber. The fast line at the start of the heat race can be completely different by the end and different yet again by the start of the feature. Also, while the clay mixture used in dirt tracks can provide incredible traction when the conditions are perfect, there are also many times when there is far more power than available grip. The best dirt drivers not only understand these concepts, they also expect a track to change and they learn how to predict what's going to happen in order to take advantage of the circumstance-and the competition.
Although the cars may be quite different from what the Nextel Cup guys use, you can be sur
According to Andy Hillenburg, the owner of Fast Track High Performance Driving School, the ability to read a dirt track may not help you much in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series, but the adaptability that dirt requires will. Hillenburg has raced everything from Nextel Cup, to Sprint Cars, to Indy Cars. As the lead instructor of one of the top stock car racing schools, Hillenburg has helped numerous young racers start successful careers, and they've come from all forms of racing backgrounds.
"Having dirt experience is great for two main reasons," he says. "What you learn on dirt that will assist you if you become a racer in the so-called big time comes from the constantly changing track conditions. Yeah, the track changes on pavement, too, but it doesn't change as extensively or as quickly as it does on dirt. And that teaches a driver to always keep looking for a better way around the track, to find that better line quickly. Then, when he moves to asphalt he won't spend 50 laps to figure out, 'Oh, that's where I should have been.'
"Number two, it teaches you really good car control. How to drive a loose car. How to handle a four-wheel drift. How to apply the gas to get as much acceleration as possible without spinning the tires. And you know a dirt car can push, too. Driving in imperfect conditions will give you a great feel for the car and how to control it. Those are the two big things you need to experience and are benefits from having a season of dirt racing under your belt. You can learn the same things you do on pavement as far as getting good restarts, setting up other cars, and learning to pass guys, but those two things you can learn on dirt are invaluable toward getting all the way to the top."
Interestingly, Nextel Cup team owner Bill Davis-the man who gave Jeff Gordon his start in the Busch Series-has also noticed the same thing about drivers who have experience racing on dirt. "I don't know if dirt is definitely more helpful, but I do think that dirt teaches a racer a ton of car control," he says. "Some of these cars have a lot of horsepower, a lot more than they can always put to the ground. You have to work hard behind the wheel. You have to really be in tune with your car to drive a dirt car fast. And I think that plays over when that driver makes the switch to racing on asphalt."