Dirt Late Model racing is...
Dirt Late Model racing is a colorful sport-from the cars, to the action, to the personalities. Photo by Tony Hammett
When Stock Car Racing magazine first hit newsstands in 1966, the dirt stock car scene was pretty much a home-built proposition. No car builders, no engine builders, no factory support-nothing. But those cars really served as the starting point for the Dirt Late Model cars as we know them today. The evolution has been from a home-built modified street car to a professionally manufactured, pure-bred race car.
The Dirt Late Model car has evolved as the most popular top-line stock car in 2006. These super-slick cars and their numerous variations dominate modern stock car racing coast-to-coast in terms of sheer numbers.
Four decades ago, dirt stock car drivers (as well as their pavement counterparts) were still using street cars as the basis for their racing machines. In fact, some of those cars were driven from the dealership floor to the shop, where the oval track conversion was made.
Vern LeFevers, a former Dirt Late Model driver who is a member of the sport's hall of fame, explained that during this period, the junkyards provided parts and pieces, such as heavy-duty 31/44-ton truck springs. "And, of course, we welded in rollcages and added extra bars in the driver's door," he says.
There were others that built home-made cars from scratch using square tubing and retaining the stock front clip from a street car. The engines of the period were souped-up stock engines, mostly big-blocks. The displacement restriction was 427 ci.
The era of the so-called "bought cars" didn't come along until the '70s, and Howe, Rayburn, and Jig-A-Low were the first chassis-building companies.
Those early cars still carried factory front clips with the remainder of the frames being fabricated of 2x3-inch bars. In addition, there were aftermarket and custom racing springs. Driver Dick Potts recalls that the cars weighed about 2,450 pounds, but the weight was never checked in those days. Having to make weight was something that started in the late '70s. Through the decade, the factory look of the cars was retained.
At the end of the decade, the first traveling series, the National Dirt Racing Association (NDRA), was formed by Robert Smawley. The organization set the pattern for the traveling groups of today.
There are many traveling series...
There are many traveling series for the Dirt Late Models, and a number of classic events with huge-paying purses dot the landscape. Photo by Margarete Parks
This decade saw improvements in suspension systems, with the use of coil springs and shocks coming first, followed by coilovers in the latter part of the decade. There was also some use of fiberglass bodies during this time, but sheetmetal was easier to repair than fiberglass. There was another factor that doomed the use of fiberglass. "Those fiberglass bodies also had a tendency to whip in the wind," says former driver Pat Patrick.
Engines also improved during the period with the availability of aftermarket performance parts, such as cams and aluminum heads. The first engine companies came along late in the decade with such builders as Malcuit, Draime, Cornett, and Baker. Those purpose-built engines were producing over 600 hp.
But the biggest change came early in the decade with a huge car design revolution. They were called "Wedge Cars," and that's exactly what they looked like. Gone was the resemblance to street cars, and these flat-sided machines looked like they were running 100 mph sitting still.
They were wide (a foot wider than the former cars), long, aerodynamically clean, and sported tall rear-deck spoilers. Lexan sideboards sprouted off the outside edges of the rear deck, funneling the air and producing significant downforce and a ton of grip.
Then, there were those long, pointed noses that really cut through the air. The fans loved them, but they were gone after about five years. The greater expense in building them, as well as concerns about safety, proved to be their demise.
Their influence, though, would still be felt after the cars were downsized during the late '80s. The basic shape, although not as radical, would remain until the Dirt Late Models of today.
The adjustability of the modern...
The adjustability of the modern Dirt Late Model is amazing, with five or more springs, track bars, sway bars, and swing arms. Some of the components can be seen here. Photo by Bill Holder
During the '90s and 2000s, the sport matured, with high technology continually adding to the performance. Suspension systems were becoming more refined with Z-link and four-link systems. Also, there has been a trend toward the use of small-block engines capable of 700 hp. Today, there is an almost total use of gasoline, because of weight considerations, instead of the earlier use of alcohol.
During this time period, a huge industrial base evolved to support the sport. This includes a half-dozen car manufacturers, such as MasterSbilt, Warrior, Rocket, Barry Wright, C.J. Rayburn, and others, and a bunch of engine builders, including Cornett, Custom Race Engines, Hatfield, Jay Dickens, Malcuit, Clements, and many others. Shock companies have also become heavy players with these cars, with the likes of Pro, QA1, AFCO, Integra, and Bilstein. It's really easy to buy speed these days.
Today, there are many traveling series for the Dirt Late Models, and a number of classic events with huge-paying purses dot the landscape. And finally, there is the NASCAR involvement with Cup regulars Dave Blaney, Ken Schrader, and Tony Stewart owning tracks that host Dirt Late Model events. All three of them also drive Dirt Late Models on occasion.
The adjustability of the modern Dirt Late Model is amazing, with five or more springs, track bars, sway bars, and swing arms. The bars can also be placed in a number of positions to optimize the setup.
But like NASCAR, the Dirt Late Model sport-even with all its technology-has maintained tradition with the continued use of carburetors and rear-wheel drive. No doubt, that will be the case for many years to come.