Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where we take an additional look at motorsports-related programming. Outside of the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series teams racing in Martinsville this past weekend, there really wasn’t all that much racing available for public consumption on television. However, on Saturday night, SPEED aired tape-delayed coverage of the 41st running of the VP Small Engine Fuels 200 at the New York State Fairgrounds.
This is the premiere race of the Super DirtCar Series, a class for Northeast Big Block Modifieds. The series is mostly within the state of New York, but there were multiple Canadian races on the schedule, along with a new race in Central Michigan for this year. In addition, there are the long hauls that bookend the season (the non-points UNOH DirtCar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park in Barbersville, FL and this weekend’s World Finals at the Dirt Track at Charlotte).
However, there are three big dates on the schedule. One is the Mr. Dirt Track U.S.A. in August at Lebanon Valley Speedway. This is the fastest track on the schedule with a weekly slate of racing (the length is claimed to be a half-mile by the track, but everyone claims it’s 5/8ths of a mile, while the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars uses a 3/5ths of a mile length for time trial purposes). Imagine Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway if it were dirt and that’s essentially Lebanon Valley. There’s the Eastern States 200 at Orange County Fair Speedway in Middletown on a flat half-mile. Then, there’s Syracuse, the richest of them all ($50,000 to win).
Now, since this race aired nearly three weeks after it ran, I already knew that the event was rain-shortened. I figured that the rains would have some kind of effect on the telecast. However, I wasn’t expecting 22 minutes of pre-race (including commercials). In this time, SPEED did four driver interviews and recapped October 5th’s qualifying heat races, followed by October 6th’s Gander Mountain 150 for the 358 Modifieds.
Of note, the only difference between a big block and a 358 is the engine. The cars can be switched between class specifications in a matter of hours if you were strapped for time, had all the necessary equipment, and had a large pool of available crewmembers. In fact, no less than four different classes can run the same chassis.
Once the race got underway, SPEED was able to bring viewers radio chatter between Brett Hearn and his crew chief/nephew Matt Hearn. This is incredibly rare because DirtCar rules actually ban two-way radios at most races. They can only be used three times a year. Those are in the two main races at Syracuse, and in the Eastern States 200. Otherwise, only one-way radio communication via Raceceiver devices is allowed. This is the same rule that DirtCar-sanctioned regular features and heat races are governed under. In those cases, the only voice that drivers will hear in their ears is from race control.
During the first caution, SPEED took some time to talk about the spoiler change made on Rick Laubach’s No. 7 in an attempt to get more downforce. Unfortunately, unlike the Sprint Cup cars of old, spoilers are not adjustable on Big Block Modifieds. Hence, in order to make such an adjustment, the whole spoiler had to be unscrewed and replaced on pit road. Interesting little bit there.
Also, on a more somber note, Ralph Sheheen and Shane Andrews referenced the unfortunate passing of Glenmont, NY’s J.C. Flach (in an off-track incident at his home) when his brother Keith pitted his car. J.C. was a regular in the Modified class at Lebanon Valley along with Keith, and their cousin Mark, Jr. (the defending rookie of the race at Syracuse who failed to qualify this year). This was not completely laid out on-air, but Keith’s switch to the No. 77j (he formerly raced the No. 43) is not a one-off. It is permanent and this has been confirmed to me by multiple people very close to the Flach team.
I know this has nothing to do with television, but it must be stated here that J.C.’s death at the young age of 29 really hit the local racing community in the Albany area hard. The Flachs are a long-time racing family that campaigns three full-time Modifieds at Lebanon Valley (on the surface, it looked like a three-car team, but it was closer to a two-car team for J.C. and Keith, while Mark, Jr. had his own deal). They are also very well respected in the pits. The memorial to J.C. at Lebanon Valley saw most of the drivers that race at Lebanon Valley raise their helmets in salute to J.C. while Keith drove J.C.’s car slowly around the high banked oval back in September. J.C. only won one career feature at Lebanon Valley and he made the most of it. His crew did as well, including daring me to go into their trailer and interview J.C. while he was butt naked (dead serious, this happened). I passed on that and waited until he was decent. J.C. was one of the friendliest racers at Lebanon Valley and he will be missed greatly.
Much of the race coverage was ultimately centered at the very front of the field. If you don’t like Brett Hearn, too bad. You got a healthy dose of him and his nephew throughout the two-hour broadcast. Would have liked to see more racing for position on the telecast.
If you remember last year’s write-up, I mentioned there that substantial chunks of the race were cut out. It was the sad side effect of a three-hour plus race being cut into a two-hour timeslot. This year, with the race being rain-shortened to 113 laps, there was nothing of that sort. Also, that race should have been red flagged before halfway. It was unraceable by Lap 94. Of course, having said that, I’ve seen races start in conditions much worse than that. Last year’s already delayed Mr. Dirt Track U.S.A. at Lebanon Valley started in a driving rainstorm that lasted for the first 25 laps. This was foreign territory for everyone (the race got delayed due to Irene, then Lee’s remnants affected it on the rain date), but they got that race in.
I’m not necessarily surprised at Shane Andrews talking about the Big Block Modifieds being “sleek” automobiles. Andrews’ full-time job is to cover the promote the series. He’s usually on the PA system during the races (for lack of better words, he’s the voice of the Super DirtCar Series). However, I respectfully disagree. They may weigh somewhere between 2300-2450 pounds. However, they are some of the tallest race cars I’ve been around. The center of gravity is quite high on those cars. The fact that they have engines of up to 467 cubic inches makes them as fast as they are. I don’t doubt that the cars make 800 horsepower or more.
Once the yellow finally flew for rain on Lap 106, SPEED conducted a couple of interviews before the race was called, and three afterwards (including with Hearn, who ultimately won). There was also a piece where they tried to show what the drivers’ vision was really like out there. Not too good. However, they should have smudged some dirt on there as well.
Overall, by the standards set by last year’s telecast, this one was more enjoyable. However, focusing solely on the front of the field bites. I’m sure the crowd at the track back on October 7th would agree with me (remember, what we saw on SPEED is what was on the jumbotrons at the track, with SPEED’s graphics added in). Ralph Sheheen was solid, but I found Andrews repetitive and quite the shill in the booth. But, we’re talking about someone employed by the series, so he’s expected to be a shill.
Also, before I go, I should give a little more background to some of the medical issues that Hearn talked about on Wind Tunnel Sunday night. What happened was that Hearn was at Albany-Saratoga Speedway back in August prepping for a regular night of racing when he suddenly collapsed. He was taken to a hospital in Saratoga Springs, NY, where he spent nearly a week. While there, he was given an ultrasound and they discovered a DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis). This is what he described as “blood clots.” Serious stuff. Basically, this could have led to a Pulmonary Embolism (PE). As you may remember, this is what happened to Brian Vickers back in 2010, although I don’t recall him collapsing. Hearn has told me that he doesn’t know how the clots formed. Neither do his doctors.
Yes, Hearn missed two races in the Super DirtCar Series (Merrittville, Ontario and Ionia, Michigan) as a result of the health scare, but even if he ran those races, he wouldn’t be leading the points. Truth is, Hearn scored some points for the races he missed. DirtCar rules allow for appearance points to be given to drivers that miss events due to medical circumstances if they have a Platinum license. Hearn has one. This also allowed him to also earn appearance points for the race that he missed at Lebanon Valley as well (this rule was conspicuously posted at the Valley the one week that Hearn missed).
Thank you for checking out my look at SPEED’s telecast of the VP Small Engine Fuels 200. Tune in next week for my look at SPEED’s telecast of the Peak Motor Oil World of Outlaws World Finals. Until then, enjoy this weekend’s action in Charlotte, Justin, Texas, and Abu Dhabi.
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