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Thursday Morning Thunder, Vol. 1: Was Dirt Racing Lucky or Good in 2020?

Our own Matt McLaughlin said it best back in June when he was called into sub on my (and his) former Thinkin’ Out Loud column. No one was yelling at me, and no one threw a punch, but NASCAR’s actions that month had me evaluating what my future held. What started at Martinsville Speedway was confirmed at Talladega Superspeedway … my future was not in spending countless hours of my free time covering NASCAR.

I’m not here to re-litigate the summer of 2020. I hope Steve Phelps will remember, a Southern fan don’t need him around anyhow.

My time in NASCAR ended. My love for stock car racing went nowhere. Instead, I bought a DirtonDirt subscription and did online what I would normally do for escape on summer weekends. I went dirt tracking. And low and behold, our editor-in-chief wanted Frontstretch to go there as well. Assuming he still wants that after reading this, watch for slingin’ clay twice a week in 2021. For those that missed me, it’s good to be back. For those that didn’t, you’re not alone.

Let’s talk dirt racing. Just like any form of motorsport, or sport for that matter, 2020 was hard to make sense of, and dirt racing ran the gambit of the 2020 experience. Let’s not forget that for all the headlines NASCAR made as the first “major” professional sport to return to competition at Darlington Raceway in May, dirt racing beat them to the punch with an invitational race on a distant prairie in Jefferson, S.D.

In many senses, 2020 was in fact a banner year for dirt racing that went beyond beating NASCAR back to competition. The on-track product (as always) was better, with nary a mention of a “package” anywhere to be found. There’s a reason NASCAR has its Cup Series cars going back to dirt racing for the first time in 50 years come 2021, transforming one of its most popular tracks to do so. You won’t see the World of Outlaws tackling New Smyrna Speedway come Speedweeks.

Also missing from the webcasts that dotted my summer nights were any references to politics, diversity needs or Coca-Cola endorsed lectures on social justice. A tip of the hat to the crews at outlets from DirtVision to Flo Racing, these guys know their stuff and keep the focus on where the action is without making it about themselves or causes that have nothing to do with motorsports. FOX can keep Michael Waltrip and Clint Bowyer.

Speaking of those streaming services, my subscription to Flo Racing alone allowed me to see racing at more tracks I hadn’t seen before than I’ve viewed in the decade-plus I’ve been associated with Frontstretch and NASCAR racing. Race fans considered the 2021 Cup Series schedule a bombshell. That bombshell is the norm, not the exception, for the touring series tackling dirt tracks in the United States. Two things in life will never go stale. One’s a Twinkie. The other is a dirt racing schedule.

And then there’s Kyle Larson. Jettisoned (justifiably) from Chip Ganassi Racing for a slur that I’m sure Larson is relieved he uttered in April instead of May, Yung Money proceeded to dominate the highest ranks of sprint car racing from coast to coast, winning roughly 50% of the features that he entered while finding time to score a feature win in a late model as well. Flo Racing went as far as to make a documentary commemorating “The Greatest Dirt Track Season Ever.” That’s no exaggeration. Larson’s win total and the way he won features made even late model standout Jimmy Owens’s stellar 2020 campaign pale in comparison.

And Larson wasn’t alone. Though the total count of operational dirt tracks in the United States continues to decline, those that were able to open in 2020 were almost uniformly reporting increases in car count and attendance all summer long. In most cases, local bullrings were in the same boat as the big boys in the World of Outlaws. As 2020 WoO sprint car champ Brad Sweet put it, “luckily, we got a season in.”

Lost in all those feel-good narratives though is just how lucky the dirt racing industry as a whole got in 2020. There’s nothing I’d enjoy more than piling onto big-league NASCAR about how the continually neglected grassroots were charting a path to lasting success, but an honest look at 2021 doesn’t paint so certain a picture.

Let’s get the personal notes out of the way here. Turning my weekend attention from big-league NASCAR to dirt racing was an improved escape, but not a total escape from 2020. While dirt racing’s sanctioning bodies and broadcast partners were not engaged in overt political activism as was seen with NASCAR, dirt racers themselves proved more than willing to take up that mantle. Local tracks from New York to Arizona saw weekly classes run with Donald-Trump-themed racecars on track and flying campaign flags. Touring series weren’t immune to such displays … Jim Shuster contested the USCS sprint car tour with a rather political paint scheme.

When I say I want sports to be an escape from politics, I mean I want an escape from politics, not to sit in an echo chamber. Just as I couldn’t stand listening to Bubba Wallace rant about the intrinsic racism of a sport he’s somehow made a decade-plus career in, I also couldn’t stand watching Kenny Wallace’s Twitter feed resemble that of a FOX News pundit. Speaking as a longtime Ryan Newman fan, here’s a 2020 moment for you … I miss Rusty Wallace. It’s a shame that seeing a Wallace of any kind near a circuit these days has become code for staying relevant on-track by running your mouth off of it.

Revisiting a driver who’s entirely relevant on the track, let’s talk Larson. Despite coming off “the greatest dirt season ever,” Larson is already committed to return to Cup Series racing for 2021. While I can certainly understand Larson’s desire to go back and prove himself given the bloodletting the NASCAR media corps subjected him to back in the spring, the reality is dirt racing’s biggest story isn’t coming back for 2021. What’s more, Larson is also shutting down the WoO sprint car team that he owns. While his driver, Carson Macedo, landed on his feet in a Jason Johnson Racing ride that won seven WoO features in 2020, Larson’s shutdown of his team reeks of the same situation that saw Brad Keselowski shutter his Camping World Truck Series operation despite finding on-track success. 

That shutdown story made me think of an interview my colleague Mike Neff did with Bill Elliott during my first season with Frontstretch. Elliott remarked at that time, “you go to a racetrack, and 30 years ago, they were paying $800 to win, maybe $1,000. They’re still paying that today.”

That was in 2008. That quote’s 12 years old, and many tracks are still paying that (though the WoO does pay at least $10k to win a feature).

While we’re going back in time, anyone miss the Latford points system that used to be used in NASCAR? Well guess what, if one looks hard enough, you’ll find a dirt track or 10 that that still run said points, or at least a modified version of it. Most dirt tracks that don’t outright run the Latford system run something similar in the sense that wins don’t pay a ton of extra points and where the gap between finishing positions is minimal.

Yes, such points systems do well to reward consistency, or in the case of local tracks, consistent starts to keep competitors showing up for $5 Fan Appreciation Night as well as $10,000-to-win feature time. But, just like NASCAR, they also take the premium off winning. Going alphabetically, the first dirt track I started researching in preparing for my new Frontstretch gig was the 141 Speedway in Francis Creek, Wis. Low and behold, two of their track champions won titles without winning a feature race. Two more of them won titles with only a single A-main to their credit. Matt Kenseth would feel right at home there. Oh, wait….

With the exception of Larson, all of these items are more philosophical challenges that have long been present in dirt racing. The more timely matter facing the dirt community is the same one facing everyone in 2021 … the COVID-19 pandemic. Like just about every business in America, much of March and April (and in many cases May) was simply lost business for racetracks dirt and asphalt alike. Sticking to dirt, even after racing returned come the summer months, the pandemic proved costly. The season was almost a total loss for tracks in California, New Mexico and New York. There were multiple tracks in Wisconsin that never got the green light to open. With the Knoxville Nationals already canceled, an outbreak of COVID at the track ended the entire season prematurely. Continued concerns over the virus saw the World of Outlaws forced to scale back their finale at Charlotte, a finale that in true 2020 form was mired by adverse track conditions not worthy of the regarded Dirt Track:

Restrictions in St. Louis forced the Gateway Nationals to be canceled earlier this month. The Chili Bowl will have 75% of its grandstands closed come January. And perhaps scariest of all, the ageless Red Farmer lost part of the 2020 racing season while on a near-deathbed fighting the virus off. 

Yet despite all of that, the concern and responsibility that the dirt racing community went out of its way to herald at Park Jefferson has all but disappeared. Both Farmer and track modified champion Scottie Hiett were hospitalized with COVID-19 infections over the summer, yet it’s easier to find Waldo in the jam-packed Talladega Short Track grandstands than it is a facemask. (Willful?) ignorance of social distancing and mask protocols has become the norm, not the exception, for this industry.

It’s a far cry from the sacrifices made decades ago when the U.S. won the largest conflict in the history of man by rationing supplies, adhering to public blackouts and outright suspending the sport of auto racing until the enemy was routed. It’s a good thing we as Americans faced an imperialistic Asian army in the 1940s and an Asian virus in 2020. The way we’ve fought COVID in 2020, if the two had been reversed, the Rising Sun would be flying over Washington D.C. for Inauguration Day as we debated whether Pearl Harbor actually got bombed.

Dirt racing has been lucky. Sans said incident at Knoxville, a major outbreak has yet to be traced to a large crowd gathered at a racetrack. Of course, given that the nation’s contract tracing programs are completely overwhelmed where they even exist (and there being no shortage of race fans gleefully boasting on social media about providing fake names and contact info when asked to provide it at the track), ignorance may well be bliss. Often it’s better to be lucky than good, and in 2020, it can be argued that was the case for dirt racing.

The question is whether that success is capable of being replicated long-term. Early-season closures aside, dirt racing benefited perhaps more than any sport in America from the challenges of 2020. It was the first sport to come back. In a summer that saw every major sport in America either cancel events or close grandstands, dirt tracks were in many cases the only show in town for crowds that were locked up for months and ready to go anywhere. Dirt tracks were also just like this year’s Daytona 500 in the sense that the “Trump bump” was real. In a non-election year, when baseball and soccer come back and bars, theaters and concert halls reopen, are the grandstands going to stay so full?

But back to that mask thing. Outside of a MAGA rally or an Ozarks pool party, the dirt track was probably the most visible place in America to return back to 2019 normal. No masks. Open concessions. Jammed grandstands. Life was normal in most grandstands for those that chose to attend. Brave or irresponsible, motivated by genuine interest or political fervor in 2020, dirt tracks offered a $10 ticket to normalcy that everyone, blue and red alike, wants back.

That status is not infinite. Our healthcare workers and medical researchers are making progress to control this thing. Normal will return in the majority of our lifetimes. 

Greatest season ever or not, Larson returned to dirt racing because he had nowhere else to go. Come 2021, that’s not the case, and his presence on dirt will be greatly diminished. That may well be the story for dirt racing at large.

Author’s Note: What does that mean for those Frontstretch readers that’d like to know more? We’ll be running weekly features on Mondays and Thursdays capturing the highlights of dirt racing across the country, starting Monday, Jan. 4, with a spotlight on the nation’s Hangover races over New Year’s weekend. From midgets to late models, we’ll be playing dirty all year long.

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