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.

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.

"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.

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."

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.

"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.

Fast Track High Performance Driving School
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