CONCORD, N.C. — Anyone wondering about the importance of the annual DIRTcar Nationals at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park need only ask retired NASCAR-driver-turned-dirt-modified racer Kenny Wallace.
Wallace is preparing to embark on his 11th year of dirt racing and will be one of the hundreds of drivers who will compete in the 46th annual DIRTcar Nationals Feb. 14-25 at the half-mile dirt track in Barberville, Fla.
Wallace acknowledges that it wasn’t until 2012 that he realized just how important the DIRTcar Nationals are and that realization came with a little help from three-time NASCAR champion and fellow dirt racer Tony Stewart.
“I was an idiot in 2012,” Wallace said. “In 2012, I really wanted to win and we were dominant. We won three of seven down there, but I didn’t really realize how big at that time the championship was.
“I gave up one night of racing because I was doing the Budweiser pill draw (at Daytona Int’l Speedway) on SPEED TV and Tony Stewart looked at me and said, ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you here? You’re leading the points.’ I don’t know what was wrong with me. At that time I didn’t think the championship was a big deal. What you don’t know you don’t know.
“It wasn’t until the middle of the year when I said: ‘I’ll never let that happen again.’”
Wallace compared the atmosphere of racing at Volusia during the DIRTcar Nationals to that of the Daytona 500, noting that in both cases it’s all about winning. No one is points racing, everyone is just trying to get to the finish line first.
“I think the biggest difference between the DIRTcar Nationals compared to, say, some of the local racing is that everyone that is at Volusia, they want to be there,” Wallace said. “It takes a massive effort for all of us to go there. People are traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles. The attitude that everybody has when they get there is that they’re happy to be there. They want to be there.
“It’s kind of funny how the DIRTcar Nationals are just like the Daytona 500. The Daytona 500, when you win that race you are the Daytona 500 champion,” Wallace continued. “They don’t really call you the winner. The big joke in the garage area in NASCAR is when Daytona is over, OK, now let’s go real racing. It is identical over at Volusia.
“That race track, that event stands on its own merit,” Wallace noted. “Then when you leave there, there are still like three weeks where it is still snowing and bad weather and then everybody gets ready for the regular season. It is a load of fun.”
This year Wallace is once again returning to Volusia for the DIRTcar Nationals and is determined to leave the track with a Gator, the traditional trophy that goes to race winners. The DIRTcar modified driver who wins the Gator Championship feature on Feb. 20 and the overall DIRTcar Nationals champion receives a larger version of the Gator trophy.
“I’m hoping that I’ll redeem myself,” Wallace said in reference to his decision to skip at race in 2012 that took him out of the DIRTcar Nationals championship hunt. “I really want to win a Gator. I don’t care if it is the championship or the big Monday night $5,000-to-win one.
“I would really like to have the big Gator. We’ve got a little pond of little Gators, but we don’t have the big one.”