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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Dirty, Vol. 7: 2021 DirtCar Nationals & Tragedy at New Smyrna

The Main Event – Hanover, Pa.’s Logan Schuchart scored his second winged sprint car victory of Speedweeks at Volusia Speedway Park Sunday, driving away with two laps to go to win the second World of Outlaws feature of 2021 after disaster struck for polesitter Donny Schatz. Schatz, who had led the opening 28 laps and weathered two mid-race restarts after both Wooster, Ohio’s Sheldon Haudenschild and Fresno, Calif’s Giovanni Scelzi flipped, suffered a mechanical failure with two to go and brought out a late-race yellow. Schuchart’s win netted him a “big gator” trophy and a $10,000 check.

Unfortunately, the weekend at large was marred by events on the asphalt side of the sport. Rusty Crews, a longtime track official at the New Smyrna Speedway, passed away after being involved in trying to break up a post-race altercation at the track. Per Short Track Scene’s Matt Weaver, Crews was knocked down during the melee, and multiple fan posts on local Florida racing pages have stated that Crews took a blow to the head during the altercation. We’ll discuss this later, but let it be said that all of us at Frontstretch send our prayers and sincerest condolences to the Crews family and the NSS staff.

The B-Mains

The end of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series Speedweeks residency came to a close Monday and Tuesday night with two features at Bubba Raceway Park. The carnage of a wreck-filled week at East Bay Raceway Park and unseasonably cold weather saw the car count dip by nearly half and the crowd size significantly smaller than in Tampa. But there were still stories to be had, with rookie Ricky Thornton Jr. winning the LOLMDS feature Monday and Zebulon, Ga.’s Shane Clanton scoring the Tuesday night victory, his first since recovering from a COVID hospitalization during the offseason.

The All-Star Circuit of Champions finished its season-opening exhibition in Florida this week. Schatz cruised to victory in the series’ sole stop at EBRP, while Schuchart and Lemoore, Calif.’s Carson Macedo split the series’ stops at Volusia. The win Thursday for Macedo was his first since Kyle Larson Racing shut down this winter.

Defending WoO champion Brad Sweet kicked off the 2021 season with a Volusia win, though Sweet was fortunate not to face a challenge from a hard-charging Schatz as a result of lapped traffic.

Penngrove, Calif.’s Buddy Kofoid led Keith Kunz Motorsports to victory in the first national USAC event of 2021, winning the midget feature at BRP after a rain delay forced the A-main’s final 17 laps to be completed on Saturday. Both Tanner Thorson and Chris Windom had cars to compete with Kofoid but proved too erratic battling with each other to mount a serious charge.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Yes, Sunday night’s failure was as costly as they come, but the story of Speedweeks as a whole is that the new engine program that Tony Stewart Racing worked on during the offseason has Schatz the hottest driver in sprint car racing. He has already won multiple features on the ASCoC circuit this year, and had it not been for a rookie mistake at Screven and catching the lap car of Cale Conley at just the wrong time at Volusia on Friday night, the win column could be twice that. In case we’ve all forgotten, there’s a reason this man has won 10 WoO championships.

It’s been a tale of two seasons for Kyle Strickler; in a LOLMDS car, and out of one. Out of the Lucas cars, Strickler won the season-opening WoO Late Model Series race at Volusia last month and scored one of the grittiest wins racing of any form has seen in recent memory in the Wednesday night UMP modified feature at Volusia, winning the feature from a B-main after nearly cutting off a finger in a hydraulic lift. Racing News’ Shane Walters wrote an excellent story on Strickler’s victory.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

But, as mentioned, Strickler’s is a tale of two seasons, and in a Lucas late model it’s been a disaster. And that’s a problem, given that he’s running that series full-time in 2021. A disastrous start to his rookie campaign on the LOLMDS tour has seen the touted rookie finish no better than 21st in the season’s first nine races, with his No. 8 car missing the main half the nights at East Bay. Strickler and team’s struggles have gotten so pronounced that Dirt on Dirt has reported that Strickler is switching chassis in an attempt to “stop the bleeding.” That’s certainly a drastic move that’s no guarantee of improvement… anyone remember the disaster former dirt ace Ryan Newman went through in 2005 trying to race an older model Dodge in the Cup Series?

If nothing else, Grain Valley, Mo.’s Brian Brown is currently leading the competition for worst wreck of Speedweeks; having narrowly averted disaster at Volusia Wednesday when he spun in front of oncoming traffic with a flat tire during the ASCoC feature, Brown nearly brought the fence down Thursday. Fortunately, Brown walked away from this one, a wreck which I consider karmic retribution for sponsor Casey’s General Store changing their logo to look like a Wendy’s with a weathervane.

It can be argued that four of the five yellow flags that Novelty, Ohio’s Johnathan Stockdale was involved in over the course of a 12-lap B-main Thursday night at EBRP, four of them were for evasive action. That doesn’t change the fact that a) Stockdale spun out five times in a 12-lap event and b) that the fifth spin was entirely Stockdale’s fault and collected race leader Cory Hedgecock.

Frontstretch Regulars

Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier qualified for UMP modified features at each of the week’s DirtCar Nationals events at Volusia, scoring four top-five finishes and winning a heat race Sunday afternoon.

Former ARCA Series regular Steve Arpin qualified for UMP modified features at each of the week’s DirtCar Nationals events at Volusia, scoring a feature win Sunday, three top-five finishes and finishing no worse than sixth.

Former Xfinity Series regular Cale Conley advanced to one of three ASCoC A-mains during the week and failed to make the A-main of the WoO season opener at Volusia.

Two-time Truck Series champion Matt Crafton qualified for UMP modified features at each of the week’s DirtCar Nationals events at Volusia, scoring four top-10 finishes including a runner-up effort Friday night. Crafton won a Last Chance Qualifier race on Tuesday.

Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott made his USAC National Midget Series debut on Friday at BRP. Elliott qualified for the feature through the B-main and finished 18th in the A.

The fourth time was the charm for Truck Series regular Stewart Friesen, who qualified for his first LOLMDS feature Tuesday night at BRP after winning his heat race. Friesen finished seventh.

Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley qualified for UMP modified features at each of the week’s DirtCar Nationals events at Volusia, scoring two top-10 finishes. Haley won a heat race on Thursday.

Former Cup Series regular Kasey Kahne qualified for all four 410 sprint car events this week at Volusia, scoring a ninth-place finish in both the ASCoC finale and the WoO season opener. Kahne won an ASCoC heat race Wednesday. Kahne fans should enjoy the early stages of the WoO season, as he will be driving the No. 9 sprint car full-time until his 2021 driver James McFadden is cleared to travel to the United States from Australia.

2018 Cup champion Joey Logano finished third and won the hard charger award in the first UMP modified feature at Volusia on Friday in an effort to gain experience in advance of the Bristol dirt race. Logano showed just how green at dirt racing he was when he quipped during pre-race that three hot laps of practice wasn’t enough. And there was this gem:

2005 ARCA Rookie of the Year Joey Miller qualified for UMP modified features at Volusia on Wednesday and Friday, finishing 14th on Friday. 

Former Cup Series regular David Reutimann parked his UMP modified after only nine laps Thursday night because it was “so awful.” He rebounded from that debacle to win the first A-main on Friday night.

1985 Cup Series Rookie of the Year Ken Schrader qualified for UMP modified features at each of the week’s DirtCar Nationals events at Volusia, scoring two top-15 finishes and an LCQ win Wednesday night.

Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart finished eighth in Tuesday’s ASCoC A-Main at EBRP.

2003 Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year David Stremme qualified for UMP modified features at each of the week’s DirtCar Nationals events at Volusia, scoring three top-five finishes and winning heats on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights.

1989 Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year Kenny Wallace qualified for UMP modified features at each of the week’s DirtCar Nationals events at Volusia, scoring two top-10 finishes and winning heat races on Tuesday and Thursday.

Fanning the Flames

I’m just as guilty as most dirt fans out there that I’ve skipped plenty of 4-banger features at the end of the night once the main event has gone off. And last Saturday night watching the Winternationals at North Florida Speedway I dozed off, only to wake up and see that Flo Racing’s “this broadcast is on hold” video was playing. I assumed the 4-bangers were done and went to bed. Doing that, I missed the fact that NFS’s box stock race was suspended after driver Timmy Roach Jr. slammed into the turn 1 wall headfirst and had to be extricated from his car by the fire department. Per the Facebook posts I was able to dig up on the matter, Roach was awake in the ambulance after he was pulled from his car (several fans at the track said his car had a stuck throttle). Whatever his condition, say a prayer for the driver.

DirtVision, do us all a favor and never televise the damn fan contests again. Listening to new emcee Hannah whoever screeching while random fans “carbo-loaded from beer” during Friday’s show at Volusia gave me a headache that a 60-hour work week couldn’t. Besides, with a field of over 90 modifieds needing to run on Friday and Volusia supposedly trying to hurry Sunday’s program to allow fans to get home for the Super Bowl, the “best show on dirt” did not need the filler.

Facts are such a pesky thing. You’d think Penn State would know that by now.

Speaking of a fact-driven life, I’m feeling sacrilegious and I don’t care that this puts me in the camp of NASCAR lifers Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler. It’s time to put starters in sprint cars and midgets. Technology has come plenty far since the 1990s. And don’t give me the tradition argument as a reason not to put them in these racecars… by that same tradition drivers should be wearing open-face helmets and a factory seatbelt.

The LOLMDS unveiled its dates for Speedweeks 2022 on Tuesday, some four months earlier than the same announcement a year ago. The 2022 schedule adds no new venues but expands the series’ Florida race dates from 10 to 13. Given the crowds the series drew at All-Tech (a record) and East Bay (the stands were visibly full last Saturday), it’s not hard to see Florida as a goldmine, but I can’t help but wonder if dirt racing is getting a little punch-drunk on being the only show in town. 

Note to the booth at North Florida Speedway. Four cars running close to each other in a corner is not synonymous with “four-wide.”

Thursday marked the first time in 11 months that I had to wake up at the crack of dawn to make my 90-mile commute from home to my Washington, D.C. office, and that meant that I was caffeinating at a level I haven’t in 11 months. Completely wired all day long, I decided to watch the replay of EBRP’s crate late model program after Thursday’s DirtCar Nationals events concluded. It was damned near 4 a.m. before I finished watching said replay in a literal fog. To steal a page from Lester Bangs, while in said fog I found that I had written 25 pages of dribble, err, notes, while watching a field of nearly 100 crates and sprint cars contest a nearly seven-hour program. A few of them were legible, and a few of those actually made sense.

  • Cars that bring out the yellow unassisted during a heat race should be penalized a lap. Yellow fever from cars stopped on track only to start as soon as the field slows would be reduced instantly.
  • In the sixth crate heat race on Thursday, polesitter Mack McCarter spun in turn 1, triggering a three-car incident. Since the track considered that a multi-car incident, McCarter got to restart on the front row and proceeded to transfer to the A-main once the heat restarted. Fast forward to the first B-main, and Lake City, Fla.’s Hunter Sweet brought out the yellow on the first lap when he tagged one of the tire barriers in turn 2. Sweet was sent to the rear for the single-car incident and missed the A-main. Fog or not, that’s a rulebook deficiency to be corrected.
  • The best way to describe watching my first Top Gun Sprint Series feature was to call it the sprint car version of ARCA racing. There was a distinct lack of parity that saw the speed differences between cars something that would never be seen at a WoO or ASCoC level. And that’s OK. Seeing a sprint car race that actually had to slow down given how thick and off-pace the lapped traffic was actually made for a change of pace that Speedweeks benefitted from. Slower speeds and lower “quality” competition often translates into races worth watching.

One note that I will make emphatically. The fourth crate heat race at EBRP on Thursday night was the best race of any kind I saw this past week. Watching Linden, Va.’s Kyle Hardy and Milton, Fla.’s Joseph Joiner turn East Bay into “slide job city” over the course of 10 laps was fist-pumping good. For those that have a Flo Racing account, this replay’s worth looking up.

We’re ending the weekend at my old asphalt stomping grounds. The world is a tense place right now, and the racing world is no different, as it’s readily evident from enormous car counts that racers and promoters alike are taking the approach of race now, race often, race until we have to stop again given that 2021 is looking a lot like 2020 so far. Since the sport came back after the pandemic shutdown last spring, it’s been the equivalent of red-line thinking by the short-track industry, which is to strike now while the iron is hot and worry about the long-term later. Calamitous race weekends full of carnage at dirt tracks across the country last week and now New Smyrna speak to this tension… at best, drivers are treating each race like it’s their last. At worst, racing has fallen victim to what every other professional sport has since the pandemic hit… a bloated sense of self-importance that’s all but inevitable given the priority and leeway that society at large has given the sporting industry, an industry that’s by definition entertainment and non-essential.

I’ve previously cautioned this year that this type of behavior from the short-track industry at large has the potential for long-term consequences. On the dirt racing front, schedule proliferation has the sport running 50 weeks a year. That may work right now when the sport is capitalizing on a nationwide pandemic of cabin fever and limited competition from other sports and entertainment venues, but ask big-league NASCAR how a bloated schedule works when being trendy fades away. The sport’s abandonment of any form of pandemic mitigation protocol unless operating in a jurisdiction with strict local ordinances has packed the grandstands but leaves the industry at-large one super-spreader event away from nationwide lockdown. 

But for all those risks, this incident at New Smyrna may well prove the bellwether for an industry that’s just stopped thinking critically about anything it does. Make no mistake, having a race official die after involvement in on-site violence could have impacts on every short track in America, though the Volusia Sheriff’s office did later clarify that there was no evidence that the altercation itself was responsible for Crews’s death:

https://www.facebook.com/VolusiaSheriff/posts/3860167234022450

The distinction isn’t likely to matter. Insurance requirements to host racing events are likely to change. Having additional security on track capable of breaking up melees is going to have to happen, and that means the cost of racing just went up again. Not to mention that this will prove yet another black eye for a sport that, fair or not, has a less than stellar reputation outside of its fanbase. Oh yeah, and a man is f***ing dead.

Racecar drivers, race crews, race promoters, race fans. For the love of God, lift off the throttle for a second. Stop. And think.

Numbers Game

3 – number of rain delays across two days it took to run the 30-lap USAC national midgets feature at BRP.

12 – number of dirt tracks confirmed to run oval track events this week

129 – largest car count of the weekend (Friday night at Volusia).

$10,000 – for each of the season-opening World of Outlaws sprint car features at Volusia and the two early-week LOLMDS events at BRP.

Where It Rated (on a scale of one to six cans, with one a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): For the second year in a row, a Florida Speedweeks edition of Thinkin’ is being kept dry. Sadly, while last year the Rocketman survived his brush with death, Rusty Crews is no longer with us. There’s no getting around it, this was a dark weekend for motorsports.

Up Next: Florida Speedweeks continues hot and heavy. Late models take center stage at Volusia, while sprint cars head to East Bay. Outside of Florida, the World of Outlaws will make their first return to several venues across the Deep South.

About the author

Senior Commentator at Frontstretch

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate. Here till I get canceled.

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