EAST LEROY, Mich.
I was thinking recently about something that ageless dirt-late-model veteran Delmas Conley told me last season.
It was 45 years ago when Conley pulled a 1955 Ford out of a patch of weeds and went racing, so if it’s happened in the sport, he’s seen it.
There was a time, Conley explained, when late-model racing was 70 percent driver and 30 percent car. Now, he said, it’s exactly the opposite.
I believe he’s right.
Seemingly long gone, except for a few particular race tracks and circumstances, are the days when a driver can get on the wheel a little more aggressively and whip an ill-handling race car into shape.
Late-model equipment and the available technology is far and away more advanced than any other time in the history of the sport. And there is an excellent crop of top-tier people utilizing that equipment.
Simply put, this isn’t your father’s dirt-late-model world any more.
It’s accurate to say the performance of the car outweighs that of the driver.
Myself and one of the participants in a recent Midwestern race were afterward discussing the event, and the participant commented on a top-five finisher who said he couldn’t win because of the car or tire choice or something.
The driver I was with looked straight at me and said three simple words: “That ain’t racing.”
Maybe he’s right, but it’s what we’ve got these days.
When a driver wins, he cites the machine as the reason. Same as when he loses. It’s usually tires or a missed setup.
I’ve never had a winner say to me after a race, “This car wasn’t worth a damn, but I drove it harder and got the job done.”
Nobody’s saying today’s drivers aren’t a talented lot because they certainly are. But what it takes to be a talented driver isn’t quite the same as before.
There are still drivers who are reminiscent of racing’s early days and will sling a car around the track when they have to. Michigan’s Jeep VanWormer, New York standout Tim McCreadie, and Midwestern top runners Don O’Neal and Shannon Babb come immediately to mind.
And they all win their share of races over the course of a given season.
But recent history, along with some of the best wheelmen in the industry, says it’s better to keep the car as straight as possible until you roll it into victory lane somewhere.
With major technological advances, especially in shock packages and front-end geometry, teams are looking for more reliable setup options, and they’re seeking time in the amount of hundredths of seconds.
Time trials are a crucial area. Drivers have so much faith in their machinery and ability to prepare it, they mostly despise any kind of inversion or pill-draw format.
Those competing on the national level desire time trials and straight-up starts, rather than leave their fate to the spin of a wheel or luck of the draw, they say.
I can think of two specific instances in 2009 where championship-winning national drivers got relatively easy routes into big-dollar, crown-jewel events because of heat-race inversions.
Afterward, oddly enough, they still condemned the format. Or maybe it’s not odd.
If drivers and crews bust their butts all week preparing a car, arrive at the track and don’t start in the front, even if their car is fastest, they see all their work gone over the fence in a cloud of dust.
It’s very easy to see the logic in their rationale. What good is the technology? It’s here and isn’t leaving, at least under current rule packages. Maybe it’s making drivers and cars better, and if they’re better, maybe racing as a whole will improve.
Late-model racing has changed. Better cars, better drivers, I don’t know, but I’ll take a positive outlook.
People are still out there driving their guts out on the race track. What else could we really expect from them?