Watching today’s dirt Late Model in action is a sensory delight. The car screams down the straightaway, then veers violently into the corner. The engine goes eerily silent as the driver lifts his right foot and cranks the steering wheel to the left, pitching the car into the turn. Then the roar resumes. A fantail of dirt particles sprays from the digging rear tires.

The car’s body rolls dramatically in surrender to centrifugal force. The left-front wheel lifts off the ground, but the left-rear rubber remains in contact with the track, far below the chassis, still spraying dirt. The vehicles at the top of the hierarchy in all forms of racing are special and sophisticated in their own way, and this wicked machine is no exception.

The dirt Late Model’s skeleton is made of high-strength round steel tubing. Sheetmetal components are aluminum. The nose, side skirts, and top are molded composite plastic. It has an aluminum V-8 engine and aluminum rims. With 20 gallons of gasoline (methanol, in some instances) in its fuel cell, it weighs less than 2,000 pounds; according to the rules of most sanctioning bodies, it must tip the scales at a minimum 2,300 pounds with the driver on board at the conclusion of a race, so ballasts must be strategically positioned to meet that requirement.

It’s a special-purpose creature. As recently as 30 years ago, similar Late Model stocks were raced on dirt and paved ovals. Through 1970, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series included races on dirt tracks.

The race cars—Winston Cup and local short-track warriors’ machines alike—were all built from production automobiles. They were taken from the street, or from the junkyard, and stripped down, hulled out, lightened, braced, outfitted with a rollcage, modified to accept heavy-duty suspension components, fitted with a souped-up engine, and hauled to the racetrack.

Radical Designs

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the evolutionary process of the stock car began in earnest. Racers began to build cars based on specific factory-made frames—Chevrolet sedans of the mid-’50s, early ’60s full-sized Fords, ’60s-’70s Chevelle/Monte Carlo—with bodies of various makes and models fitted to them. Some unibody models were successfully adapted, including “kit” cars sold by Chrysler Corp.

The next stage incorporated a factory-built front subframe from a unibody car, such as the Camaro/Nova, with a specially crafted full frame usually made of rectangular steel tubing.

Before the end of that decade, numerous chassis builders had begun mass-producing race car chassis made entirely of steel tubing. Pieces of steel were precisely cut and welded together on “jig” base templates to ensure consistency. A cottage industry was born.

From this point, significant changes began to separate the cars built for dirt and those intended for paved tracks. As production steel bodies were replaced by skins fabricated of sheetmetal or assembled from molded composite parts, dirt cars became less similar in appearance to street cars. Innovators went crazy with radical wedge-shaped bodies, some of them with huge sheets of clear Lexan bolted vertically along the driver’s side of the body. Pavement cars retained more of a stock appearance.

Although the outrageous aerodynamic bodies have been discarded, chassis refinements have been more subtle. The dirt Late Model of the late ’80s and early ’90s had reached an evolutionary plateau.

Crafting A Creature

One of the pioneers is still a top name among dirt Late Model drivers. Freddy Smith, then an aspiring youngster from Kings Mountain, North Carolina, had a connection with the famous Holman-Moody team that dominated Grand National racing in the ’60s; his father, Clarence “Grassy” Smith, worked for H-M. The famous NASCAR team built Freddy a revolutionary dirt race car based on a 1968 Mustang.

“It had a unitized body, just like the production car, from the driver back,” Smith says. “In front, they put a jig frame on it, just like their NASCAR cars. I feel that was the first one that ever used a jig frame. Nobody had ever thought of it.”

One man, though, was quick to see its virtues—and an opportunity. Barry Wright went to Smith’s shop and took measurements of the Holman-Moody front clip so that he could duplicate it. It was the beginning of a business for Wright, who now operates Barry Wright Race Cars in Cowpens, South Carolina. The car-building business (Wright’s in particular, and the industry as a whole) would have a profound effect on dirt stock car racing in the years to come. If lightweight machines such as Smith’s Mustang had a disadvantage, it was vulnerability. Conventional short-track cars were built like tanks, and drivers raced them accordingly.

“My gosh, when you’d get in a wreck, the tank would hit harder than you, but he’d put it in reverse and back up and go on, and you’d be sittin’ there dead in the water,” Smith says.

Eventually, lighter-weight cars and their drivers began to prevail over the heavyweights on a consistent basis and the competition followed suit to keep pace. But there was another force behind the transition to purpose-built race cars purchased from suppliers. It was simply easier to build and maintain the new cars.

“Man, it was so much simpler than before, when you had to take an old car and hull it out and build it,” Wright says. “And there was nobody to go and buy parts from the way there are now. You had to have a machinist to help you get going. You had to make everything.”

Modifying production automobiles was much less scientific—and, therefore, much more of a trial-and-error process, Wright says. A new car, or one that had been wrecked and repaired, didn’t always perform like it was expected to, and sometimes it wasn’t easy to figure out why.

Smith, who not only drove but also worked side-by-side with his dad to build his cars, agrees wholeheartedly. “There was a lot of hard work in those things,” Smith says—and there was a lot of body putty applied to keep them looking presentable, too.

Many of the battered hulks that compete in “bomber” or “poor-boy” support division races at local tracks today show how rag-tag a production car can look after a few weeks (or a few laps) of short-track action. The flat-sided Late Models of today not only better withstand minor side-to-side contact, but are much simpler to repair. All that’s necessary is to straighten mounting brackets and bracing as required, and then rivet a new aluminum panel in place.

Building A Reputation

While the cars were evolving, so was the sport itself. In the ’60s, dirt-track stock car racing was at low ebb. Big prize money and a visionary promoter, the late Robert Smawley, helped revive it. In 1978, Smawley created the National Dirt Racing Association, attempting to form a touring series to showcase professional dirt Late Model racing with an unheard-of First-Place prize of $10,000 for the winner of a 100-lap feature.

That pales in comparison to last year’s event at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, in which Donnie Moran won $1 million for winning a 100-lapper staged by promoter Earl Baltes. But the NDRA helped lift dirt Late Model racing above the weekly Saturday-night level.

Jeff Purvis, one driver who has distinguished himself by winning in just about all forms of full-bodied stock car racing, moved from dirt to asphalt to superspeedways, from older, heavyweight Chevelles and Camaros to modern dirt cars and NASCAR-style machines. Purvis, currently on the mend after suffering head and neck injuries in a crash during a Busch Series event at Nazareth, Pennsylvania, remembers the not-so-good old days when he started racing at the quarter-mile red clay oval in his hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee.

“You’d turn right, and it was trying to go left,” Purvis says. “You were fighting the car as much as you were the racetrack. It’s a completely different situation now. You’ve got all the store-bought parts now where you had the junkyard parts then.”

Smith, 55, who has won more than 750 features since he began racing in 1966, and Purvis, 42, both have fond memories of the radical wedge-bodied cars.

“Actually, suspension didn’t really come into play that much,” Smith says. “It was the body and spoilers. If you wanted to tighten the car up, you put more spoiler into it.”

The sheets of Lexan attached to the left side of the car had the same effect as the vertical stabilizer on an airplane, slicing through the air and keeping the vehicle pointed straight ahead. Meanwhile, the wedge shape created tremendous downforce, planting the tires on the track surface. That created the perfect setup—a car that would turn, but was virtually impossible to spin out.

Taming The Beast

Switching to today’s less-radical bodies caused drivers to adjust their driving and made crews work harder on setups.

“About ’83, we went to these little cars and you could spin out before you got to the corner,” Smith says. “We built one and came to Atomic Speedway (near Knoxville, Tennesee, where Smith now lives) for an NDRA race. I spun out two or three times before I got going. I thought, ‘What’s the matter with this thing?’”

The focus turned to mechanical setup. Angle adjustment on the four-link rear suspension, Smith says, “is 90 percent” of handling.

Tires for dirt cars have changed over the years, from low-profile Grand National-type rubber to the oversized, soft-sidewall “humpers” of the ’70s to today’s variety of special tires. Depending on rules and local preferences, drivers experimented with dramatically different tires on the front and rear, in addition to left-right stagger. Most cars today run the same basic type of tire on all four corners, with stagger (larger circumference on the right side) as the driver prefers. “We don’t run anything under four inches—four to seven (stagger),” Smith says. “We’re getting the cars so tight, you’ve got to have that in it to make it run around the corners.”

Tread compound selection remains a key ingredient for a driver’s success. “You can go buy a $50,000 motor and put in your race car and you might pick up a couple of tenths (of a second in lap times),” Wright says. “You buy the right compound tires, and you can pick up a half second.”

Veteran drivers agree that today’s cars drive much better than the older ones, but Smith admits that the drastic body roll that is common nowadays would spook someone who has not been competing on dirt regularly.

“If you get a driver that drove 10 years ago and put him in a car now, he wouldn’t drive it,” he says. “He’s never experienced anything like that in his life. But you take a young guy that’s never drove a race car, he’s at home. He don’t know any different. It takes anybody some time to get used to this thing.”

A long-legged shock that opens quickly and compresses more slowly is the key to the radical body roll. As the left side rises, changes in the suspension geometry actually cause the left-side wheelbase to contract, making the car turn. Driver preferences vary, but few successful drivers set up their cars to corner as flat as they used to—and as pavement cars still do.

“They drive better than you think they will,” Smith notes. “They transfer the weight so much quicker like that. It sticks the wheels so much harder.”

What’s Next?

The sport has a strong core group of competitors and fans. Smith believes dirt Late Model racing is only a couple of big-money sponsors and a television-exposure deal away from breaking out as a major form of racing. No matter what may happen with the future popularity and growth of dirt Late Model racing, it’s likely the cars will continue to change.

“There’s a lot more computer technology coming into our sport. I know for a fact that it works,” Wright says. “But there’s some things that go back to nothing but hard work and experience. You get a lot of design changes that really look good on paper, but on the racetrack, their not worth a flip. On the other hand, there are things you can do (on a computer) that save you months of testing.”

We can only guess what form the dirt Late Model may take in years to come, but through the stages of evolution, it has provided a unique and entertaining form of racing.