Dirt Late Model Dreams

Tony Stewart (14) and Don O'Neal (71) at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, last year. (Todd Ridgeway Photo)

Tony Stewart (14) and Don O’Neal (71) at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, last year. (Todd Ridgeway Photo)

The pit area was quickly filling with some of the fastest guns in dirt-late-model racing. Names like O’Neal, Moyer, Babb and Birkhofer are proven winners and have become synonymous with the sport.

A glance up at the old covered grandstand that borders the frontstretch of the fairgrounds half-mile track told the same story and said it would be a good night for the speedway.

Simply put, that night’s race, paying $10,000 to the winner, was a pretty big deal.

In a gracious move, after Muscatine, Iowa’s Brian Birkhofer won the 50-lapper, he praised promoters for giving he and his competitors a place to race for good money.

It was another in a long line of early-2010 late-model success stories.

There’s no disputing the fact that auto racing as an industry has taken some hard knocks in recent seasons, and the dirt-late-model world hasn’t been immune to that. Teams have shut down, series have ceased operation, many tracks have dropped the open-engine cars from their weekly cards and other facilities have just simply closed and locked the gates.

But it seems that for every void that opens, there’s something waiting to fill it.

Even with all the economic disruptions, the sport still appears to be on solid ground.

“It’s just something you love to do,” said 2000 Dirt Track World Champion Wendell Wallace. “When a night goes your way and you win the race, you look back and say, ‘that’s why we do this stuff.’”

This season, events sanctioned by the World of Outlaws and Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, the sport’s two premiere traveling groups, have boasted solid fields of cars and standing-room-only crowds.

Many regional series’ races and weekly shows have fared just as well.

There is an array of reasons for the interest in the sport, says 2005 Dream winner Matt Miller.

“There’s something for everybody,” Miller said. “You show up and there’s 30 guys who can win a race. There’s different characters, from the flamboyant to more subtle guys, like myself.

“There’s some guys coming up and they’ve got some money, good equipment, they’re young and they’re aggressive. They’re fearless.”

Late-model racing experienced an immense amount of growth for some two decades until recent years. While most insiders agree maybe the growth has tapered off, the sport still is very stable and retains a high level of prominence in the racing industry.

Reasons for the success level are as varied as you could ask for, but one is certainly the available amount of money to be made.
One recent weekend featured four $10,000-to win events and 10 other decent-paying races in just a two-day span in various parts of the country.

That doesn’t happen in other forms of short-track racing.

“Our late-model industry has more options for money,” said Michigan driver Jeep VanWormer.

Marquee events like the World 100, Dirt Track World Championship, Knoxville Late Model Nationals, Hillbilly 100 and the USA Nationals annually pay in excess of $40,000 to win.

The Dream, held each June at Eldora Speedway in Ohio, offers a whopping $100,000 first prize and is the sport’s richest event.

UMP DIRTcar director Sam Driggers echoed VanWormer’s sentiment about the possible financial rewards, and also cited uniform rules, a staple of the United Midwestern Promoters division, as major benefits of the sport.

“You can go anywhere in western Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan and be legal,” Driggers explained.

Today’s basic late-model car design has changed little since UMP’s earliest days in the mid-1980s. Before that came the short-lived, wedge-car era, which was preceded by a time when most full-bodied dirt-track machines closely resembled what consumers could purchase at their local dealership.

People could easily relate to that, says “Tader” Masters of the MasterSbilt chassis company headquartered in tiny Crothersville, Ind.

“Dad took us to the races weekly,” Masters said. “It was passed on to us growing up. It was comparable to (watching) muscle cars.
“There were a lot of young people getting involved.”

Even today, as Miller explained, there still is a fair amount of youth involvement in the sport. Drivers like 17-year-old Austin Hubbard from Delaware and 14-year-old Tyler Reddick from California are just starting to build their careers.

The availability of good cars and parts has made it relatively easy for some younger drivers.

The MasterSbilt company has designed and produced racing chassis for more than a quarter-century. What was once a fledgling industry is now big business with numerous cars being built annually by an array of different companies.

“There’s a lot of good equipment around,” said two-time Dirt Track World Champion Shannon Babb, “and (a car) has good resale value if you don’t junk it.”

The hard-charging Babb, along with six-time Eldora Speedway feature winner VanWormer, are fan favorites everywhere they unload. They give people their money’s worth both on and off the racetrack.

Seemingly, most dirt-late-model fans are mostly uninterested in other forms of racing. But they are more than loyal to the dirt tracks and their heroes who race on them.

Perhaps no driver is more in tune with that element of the sport than VanWormer.

“It’s the action,” VanWormer said. “We put on a hell of a show for the money. The fans can come down, shake our hands, talk to us. They can almost be like personal, if you will, with their driver. It’s unlike anything else.

“Really, if they’re not here watching us, we ain’t got nothing to race for. It all starts with them”

Babb also loves his legion of supporters.

“This short-track racing’s tough," Babb said. “I think (fans) get their money’s worth. It’s cheap entertainment.

“I know it’s costly. But if you go out and eat, go to a movie, you spend a bunch of money.”

Although costs have increased, teams have elected to race closer to home and some racing facilities are faced with financial issues, the overall state of dirt late-model racing is strong.

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