One of the benefits that can...
One of the benefits that can be gained from racing on dirt is exceptional car control. That comes from learning to drive a race car under conditions that are less than perfect.
Even though the surfaces and traction levels are completely different, many experts like Hillenburg and Davis feel the main benefit that can be gained from racing on dirt is the ability to make the most of conditions that aren't perfectly in your favor. If your car gets loose, nobody is going to call a timeout so you can fix it. Even with the experience and expertise of a Nextel Cup crew in their pits, Nextel Cup drivers still have to spend a lot more time than they would like driving a car that's pushing, loose, wanting to spin the wheels on turn exit, or otherwise less than perfect. In dirt racing, these conditions can easily be much more extreme than you will normally see on asphalt, so a loose car won't seem like such a big deal when you make the switch to asphalt.
"I used to think dirt racing had nothing to offer what we did," says Mike Mittler, owner of the MB Motorsports NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team. "Of course, my thinking really changed when Carl Edwards started driving for us. [Edwards, who now drives in the Nextel Cup Series for Roush Racing, drove Trucks for MB Motorsports in 2002 as an NCTS rookie and gained one Top-10 finish. Before that he had developed much of his skills as a racer on dirt, driving Late Models and IMCA Modifieds.] This year we have Justin Allgaier back with us again, and he has a history on dirt and is making the transition to pavement.
"What I've learned from both of them is that the driver from dirt has a phenomenal feel for finding grip on the track. On dirt, a lot of it is all about the driver. I'm not making light of the setups or sophistication they have in dirt cars today, but the difference a lot of times in a dirt race is the driver and how that driver can apply the setup he's been given with the ever-changing conditions on the racetrack. It really forces the driver to sharpen his skills to figure out a way to make the car work. He's always looking for the best line on the racetrack.
Nextel Cup team owner Bill...
Nextel Cup team owner Bill Davis (his #22 car is pictured here) gave Jeff Gordon his first shot at racing in the Busch Series. Based on his success, many team owners' eyes were opened to the possibility that dirt racing veterans can make the transition to asphalt with good results.
"When a driver that's proficient on dirt begins making that transition to pavement, one of the things he will have to concentrate on is helping his team find a good, balanced setup. With pavement setups you can really fine-tune the suspension to get the car really balanced. In pavement racing, having that right setup is so important. The dirt driver has to fight the urge to tell his crew that's good enough and compromise his driving style to make it work. You want him to learn to communicate what's going on with the chassis so you can give him the very best setup."
When the planning was done for this story, the idea was to do some solid research and make a judgment when it comes to dirt versus asphalt. But the answer, it turns out, is "It depends." Yes, that may sound like a political non-answer, but it's the truth.
The best answer, when it comes to racing dirt versus asphalt, is to do what works best for you. There are approximately twice as many dirt tracks in the United States as there are paved tracks. Find the track close to you that is well managed and looks after its racers. Whether it is dirt or paved is less important than whether you will get the opportunity to race against quality competition.
Once you begin racing you will be forced to make a pretty serious investment in hardware. Much of that, especially the car, is built specifically for either dirt or asphalt, not both. If you are racing asphalt, switching up for a season on dirt can be prohibitively expensive. If it means you are going to spend that season frustrated with bare-bones equipment, you most likely will only be spinning your wheels and wasting your time. Instead, concentrate on racing what you have and winning as much as you can. As we talked to team owners for this story, one theme that kept popping up is the philosophy that the cream always rises to the top. These days, NASCAR Nextel Cup teams are going to great lengths and expenses to identify the best young drivers available. The best way to stand out from the crowd isn't necessarily to have raced every type of car available, but rather to prove yourself a winner and a knowledgeable racer when it comes to suspension setups.