Lanigan won the Eldora Dream and the World Dirt Track Championship last year.
Dirt Late Model driver Darrell Lanigan understands that in the modern racing world, there's such a thing as a good image. Granted, the Union, Kentucky, driver runs in the brutally-dirty dirt environment, but you would never know that from the looks of his black No. 29 machines.
"When a big-time sponsor thinks about handing out some money, he'll be impressed if the equipment looks good," says Lanigan. "That's what we strive to do. After every race, we spend a couple days cleaning the car. I never come to the track with a dirty race car. These days, you just can't do that."
One look at that snazzy Lanigan hauler tells you that the same line of thought applies there, as well. "We also have identical crew shirts," says Lanigan.
Then there's Darrell himself, who at age 34 puts forth a good clean-cut image. This guy looks like a racer, one on his way up. During the '03 season, he proved just that. All he did was win two of the sport's three biggest events-the Eldora Dream and the World Dirt Track Championship. It was the first time that one driver had ever done that. And he did it against fields selected from 150 of the best competitors around.
There is another aspect of the Darrell Lanigan operation that makes that accomplishment even more amazing: He's doing this high-level dirt Late Model racing out of his own pocket, and he's done it for his entire career. "I have made out OK, but the big expense comes with the initial investment in cars and the hauler," he says. "I keep trading up the equipment and have been able to break even much of the time. I have two full-time guys that work for me, but I also do all the bodywork myself."
Lanigan, who is running the new World of Outlaws Late Model Tour this season, doesn't just hang around and run his dirt Late Model at local tracks. He gets out a lot, running against the various traveling series when they are in his area. To date, there have been approximately 100 feature wins.
The World 100 is the jewel that has eluded Darrell's crown. "But we have come close on a number of occasions," he says. "In 2000, for example, when I finished Second." He's also achieved a number of Top 10s in the classic event.
In the World Dirt Track event, he's shown considerable improvement from a 28th in 1999, to Ninth in 2000, to a Seventh in 2002, and the big $60,000 First Prize in 2003. Then, in the Eldora Dream, there was a Second in 1998, a Third in 1994, and a Sixth in 2002, before the $100,000 First Place money came his way last season.
Not only did Lanigan garner $160,000 by winning both the Eldora Dream and the World Dirt Track Championship, but he also had his best overall season. He ran 32 races and had 10 wins and 22 Top 5 finishes. Because he likes to pick and choose his schedule, hitting all the big races, he's never competed for a track championship. He has, however, won a number of the big-money races at Florence Speedway, near his Union home. "I've never been one that likes to travel to follow the points," he says. "Many times when a team is doing that, it will have to miss a big dollar race that is close to home."
In 1996, Lanigan made a major change from the normal dirt schedule. He decided that he wanted to give NASCAR and ARCA a shot, and so he did-again on his own money.
"You know, that pavement stuff was a great experience for me," he recalls, "but having to pay the bills-which were a heck of a lot more than for dirt racing-was not fun."
The Lanigan career started with a rush, actually from point zero, right into a dirt Late M
He ran a trio of ARCA races and the same number of Busch Grand National events. His best showing in the ARCA races was a qualifying effort of Third at Charlotte. At Daytona, he was running well before dropping a valve. In Busch competition, he qualified for all three races-Darlington, Charlotte, and Rockingham-with an 18th at Charlotte being the best effort. "It's really tough making the transition to pavement," Lanigan says.
He gave pavement one more shot in 1999, running five ARCA races. His best effort was a Second at Charlotte, but he was also leading twice when mechanical gremlins put him down. He also ran a single Busch race, qualifying 17th out of 35 cars. But the dirt was still calling, and it resulted in five wins.
He thinks the fact that he's involved with the cars so closely makes him a better driver. "When something goes wrong with the car on the track, I immediately start analyzing what the problem is," he says. "If the car is pushing, for example, I know exactly what I'm going to do to fix it." On more than one occasion, Lanigan has been seen climbing out of his car and immediately starting work on his machine.
As he looks back over his mostly-dirt career, Lanigan sometimes thinks that it might have been better had he tried racing on pavement earlier. And looking at the family background, it would have been easy to do. "My dad [Porter] owned ARCA cars that mostly ran on pavement, but he got out of that about 10 years before I got started," Lanigan says. And Florence Speedway was nearby, so racing on dirt was a natural choice.
At this point, he is realistic about his chances for doing anything on pavement. "It is so competitive with ARCA and NASCAR, and it's also expensive," he says. "Really, if it came down to running nothing but dirt, I wouldn't be that unhappy."
Lanigan is one of the sport's best "readers" of a dirt track. He'll tell you that it's a super-important skill. "With dirt, the track surfaces are constantly changing over the course of an evening," he explains, "and you have to be able to adjust your car to respond to it. Then too, each track is also different with different types of dirt to deal with. Being able to figure out a particular track can give you that extra little edge to win."
The Lanigan career started with a rush, actually from point zero, right into a dirt Late Model. "There was really nothing racing-wise before I jumped into a dirt car when I was only l5 years old," he says. "In retrospect, it would probably have been better had I started in a Modified before getting into the big power of a dirt Late Model. It definitely took a couple years to get the hang of these cars."
In a sport characterized by rear ends of low-slung machines hanging all over the place in the turns, Lanigan takes a different approach: "I try to keep my car as straight as possible, [and] think I actually get around the track faster. When your rear end is hung out, you have to wait for it to come back around. I think that it really costs you time."
Lanigan says that his style is to have his car tight for the short tracks and loose for the longer ovals. "Having the car right allows me to get the car straight coming out of the corners," which he emphasizes as being important on dirt.
Of course, when it comes to competition on dirt tracks, large or small, Darrell Lanigan is tough to beat.