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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thursday Morning Thunder, Vol. 7: 4-Wide Salute a Florida Excess

Our site staff group chat Tuesday night as the Busch Clash kicked off the NASCAR Cup Series season was amusing on several fronts. For one, it marked the first time I had participated in said group chat on a Cup race day since swearing off big-league NASCAR (247 days … it works if you work it), so it was a new perspective to have my only feedback on said Cup race coming from fellow staffers, with no video or audio to supplement. Imagination is a powerful thing.

But even more amusing was hearing so many staffers celebrating the return of Cup cars to the track like it was New Year’s Eve. Because for those of us in dirt land, we’re over 240 features into 2021 already, currently in the middle of a stretch of 17 consecutive calendar days with at least one feature race going green. What’s more, more than half of the season’s features so far have been streamed or broadcast live. 

Damn, it feels good to be a dirt fan. 

Florida Speedweeks and the proliferation of dirt race streaming has turned the month of February into a never-ending buffet of racing, one that most nights blesses those of us watching clay sling from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf Coast with choice. Too many cautions at East Bay? Throw on the sprint cars at Volusia. Fenders turning you off at North Florida? The midgets are all over Bubba Raceway Park. 

Given that I have the luxury of simply turning a race off if I’m not enjoying it, I opted not to tackle what’s been my biggest pet peeve of Speedweeks … namely, I can’t understand Florida’s fixation with the most Yankee of race cars, the center-drive modifieds. (Anything to keep the snowbirds happy I guess?) I’ve already previously commented on how I find said abominations the fugliest racecars in existence, so I’ll let Twitter speak for me on the matter.

No, the annoyance that’s been grinding my gears all month long in Florida is one that most dirt fans and media alike celebrate … the endless proliferation of the four-wide salute. 

It can be an awe-inspiring sight to see 24-plus 900-horsepower cars form up inches apart from each other during the pace laps. In the right environment, after an evening of heat races with consequence and last chance qualifiers that literally give drivers a handful of laps to score purse money or go home, it’s the dirt racing equivalent of the balloon release at Indianapolis or “Enter Sandman” bellowing through Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium before kickoff. 

But here’s the issue: Not every race is the King’s Royal. Not every feature is a rousing climax … as big a dirt fan as I am, there are nights where after yellow fever runs wild through heat races and turns a night at the track into a residency that the last thing I want to see is extra formation laps for cars to get close to each other. And as NASCAR Cup Series fans know all too well, too much of a good thing is not a good thing.

That basic fact has plagued Florida Speedweeks. Between the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series residency at EBRP, their follow-on crate week and what will eventually be two weeks of DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia, the 2021 season is at a point where the four-wide salute is being seen as often as a regular double-file start. VSP took said proliferation to the extreme, going as far as to have all five of its feature events during the UMP modified competition at the track do four-wide salutes last Friday night.

And that’s not even accounting for just how bad some of these salutes have gotten. With the promoters seemingly ignoring that the center-drive modifieds are very wide-postured race cars, Stewart Friesen ended up putting a competitor into the wall on the first lap of a feature at BRP last week because he had to run through the cushion of the track surface during the salute, caking mud on his tires and preventing his car from turning. As for the Top Gun Sprints at EBRP, while I’ve previously commented that their ARCA-type form of racing is actually a welcome change of pace for sprint car shows, watching them fumble around last Thursday night in an un-choreographed amorphous attempt to run a four-wide formation lap made a legitimate Winternationals feature look like a quarter midget race.

There’s plenty of arguments to be made in favor of said salutes during Speedweeks. It doesn’t matter what track a driver is running at, Florida Speedweeks races are a big deal. The promoters at VSP have stated that it’s important to them on their five-feature night — where every modified competitor gets to start a feature race and have an actual shot at a Gator trophy — that each feature get treated like, well, a feature, with a salute and fireworks. Given that said modifieds have to be in Florida for seven straight nights to contest the full DIRTcar Nationals, and that on six of those nights winning pays $1,000 or less, sweetening the pot is perhaps as much necessity as charity. 

But perhaps most compelling of the arguments to be made is to remember that the four-wide salute … is to the fans. 

Speaking as a fan that it took a global pandemic to keep from attending Florida Speedweeks, I can attest that most fans that head to Florida and actually venture away from the big track treat the state’s buffet of racing as a buffet, sampling as opposed to taking up residency at a racetrack. My last trip to Florida, I spent a night at North Florida Speedway to avoid large crowds. Feeling lonely after that, I went to the ARCA East Series opener at New Smyrna, having to park my car on top of a literal debris field to actually make it to the grandstands before the green flew. I spent a night at Volusia. A night at Bubba. And even took an afternoon off working either the 9 to 5 or for Frontstretch because it was sunny and the legends cars were tackling the Citrus County fairgrounds.

With that kind of audience and so much competition. I can understand why any track, from VSP to EBRP, would fixate on four-wide salutes for their races. To be honest, I’d expect nothing else from racetracks located in an amusement park that happens to have statehood.

The problem is collectively, treating every feature like it’s special and worthy of what used to be a display exclusive to major events really reduces its impact. If drivers are racing in a series that doesn’t have a procedure in place to line up for a four-wide, said series’ features don’t need to be doing it, and bluntly may not be worthy of it. As feel-good as it may be to let drivers who spend all week at VSP failing to qualify for features get to experience a four-wide salute on “everyone gets a feature” night, it turns a dramatic display into a participation trophy (besides, given the carnage that transpired in some of said modified features at VSP, letting some of that field go four-wide even at caution speed is probably a bad idea). 

Just because for me as for many others, dirt racing has become a refuge from the circus that big-league asphalt racing has become (and, if we’re being honest, small-time asphalt racing isn’t too far behind them after the recent tragedy at New Smyrna), doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned from said big leagues. Namely, proliferating unique events does no event any good. When NASCAR’s shadow corporation ISC tried to put their own “600” race at Phoenix a month before the Coca-Cola 600, the resulting race became a painfully long marathon that ended during third shift and was never repeated. As for Indianapolis shifting from a one-race-a-year track to one that hosts road-course races and minor league NASCAR, well, let’s just say that track’s fans were socially distancing before it became beneficial to one’s health. 

Perhaps the most striking example of this dilution came while watching the ongoing DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia on Monday night, which marked the $5,000 finale of the UMP modified competition at the track. Hearing Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” queued up on the track PA for at least the 10th time of the week as pace laps were ongoing didn’t prompt me to take in the four-wide formation … it told me I had time to hit the kitchen for refreshment before the race went green. 

The thrill is gone.

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