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Thursday Morning Thunder, Vol. 9: Recapping Dirt Racing’s 2021 ‘Preseason’

This article is a week late, but that’s what happens when the World of Outlaws chooses to go all Cup Series on dirt racing fans like they did with turning the Bristol Bash into the Bristol Invitational last week. 

With the majority of dirt racing series having left the state of Florida and scattering, concluding the month-long racing buffet formerly known as Speedweeks, it can be argued that the “preseason” for dirt racing has come to a close. Weekly racing programs have commenced in Arizona and California, with numerous others across Texas and the south soon to start (weather permitting). 

To call it a preseason is possibly a disservice, as this stretch of the season covers nearly two full months of racing, with the checkered flag falling on nearly 400 feature events already in 2021. 

I do this gig full-time and felt out of breath taking stock of the season once Speedweeks reached its end. I can only imagine what a casual observer feels like. So, for my own sanity as well as our readers’ benefit, let’s recap what 2021 in dirt racing has provided to date.

Best Races

3. Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series – General Tire Winter Nationals – All-Tech Raceway – Jan. 24, 2021

Even though it occurred only 24 days into the season, it’s doubtful that any form of dirt racing will see so clinical and dominant a display as what Kyle Larson put on in the season-opening race for the LOLMDS. Running on a rain-slick track despite having made less than 10 career starts in a super late model, Larson sliced and diced through the field in a caution-free 50-lap race with nary a scratch on his car, lapping into the top 10 by feature’s end. 

Yes, this race was completely devoid of suspense or passing for the lead, but there’s some displays of raw talent where one can only marvel. This was one. Dirt racing’s going to miss having Larson full-time in 2021.

2. “Alphabet Soup” – Chili Bowl Nationals – Tulsa Expo Raceway – Jan. 16, 2021

In a display not seen at the Chili Bowl since 2004, Jason McDougal wheeled his midget on feature day at Tulsa from the I-main all the way into the D-main. What’s more, McDougal was in position in the closing laps to transfer to the C-main event before Ryan Bernal overdrove turn 4 and spun McDougal, ending one of the longest ladder climbs in the 30-plus year history of the Chili Bowl and sending the Oklahoma crowd into their angriest frenzy of the week.

McDougal capitalized on his run, securing a part-time USAC Silver Crown Series ride for the 2021 campaign.

1. “Friday Night Thunder” – Wild West Shootout – Arizona Speedway – Jan. 15, 2021

LOLMDS regulars Tyler Erb and Ricky Thornton Jr. put on a contender for race of the year that ended up overshadowing anything the Larson/Christopher Bell Chili Bowl A-main could muster the following night. Trading slide jobs for nearly the entirety of the 30-lap feature event, “Terbo” ended up besting Thornton to score his first win of 2021 on the high banks outside Phoenix. 

The race marked the beginning of a hot streak that saw Erb nearly knock off late model veteran Jonathan Davenport for the Wild West Shootout points crown.

Drivers Making News

On the one hand, Davenport has plenty to be happy about with his 2021 campaign, having scored three feature wins and the 2021 Wild West Shootout points title while becoming the only dirt racer in the country to eclipse $70,000 in winnings so far this year.

On the other hand, ever since leaving Arizona, Davenport has fallen off the face of the earth. A regular feature in B-mains during the LOLMDS residency in Florida, Davenport sits a distant 14th in points with a mercurial car. All eyes will be trained on the No. 49 come the series return in Ohio next month, as the season could go in either direction.

As previously discussed, Erb has created all the right kind of buzz in 2021 on the back of scoring multiple race wins both in Arizona at the WWS and during the LOLMDS residency at East Bay Raceway Park. However, Erb’s temper also got him into trouble at East Bay, where he got parked after slamming into Mason Ziegler’s car during the cool-down lap of a heat race. 

Erb responded to being parked by winning the next evening’s race and giving those in the crowd booing his win a sarcastic response in victory lane. Brash personality and talent are aplenty here. 

Buddy Kofoid made waves by scoring the opening two 410 sprint car wins of the season in the Wild Wing Shootout at Arizona Speedway, but the hottest driver with wings in 2021 has been the wily veteran Donny Schatz. Schatz scored multiple wins on the All-Star Circuit of Champions slate during Speedweeks, and likely would have doubled his win totals had engine bugs and a rookie mistake (missing post-heat race weigh-in at Screven) not taken their toll. Schatz’s Tony Stewart Racing team spent time and effort in the offseason revamping their engine program, and their cars have been fast; once the bugs get worked out, Schatz is gonna be hard to stop.

Kyle Strickler’s attempt to contest the LOLMDS proved an unmitigated disaster, with a failure to crack the top 20 in nine feature races. However, in taking the wheel of an UMP modified, WoO late model and DIRTcar late model, Strickler has looked every bit the hot prospect he was expected to be this year, scoring three wins and currently leading the WoO late model points. It’s no surprise that Strickler has switched tours and will now be contesting the WoO tour full-time. What remains to be seen is whether Strickler’s success, which was largely confined to the large half-mile at Volusia, will translate to the shorter bullrings to come on the WoO schedule.

A couple of honorable mentions here. One, to Larson, who between heat races and features has not lost a dirt race in 2021 (he’s pocketed $25,000 for winning the LOLMDS opener and the Chili Bowl). Second, one of the hottest drivers no one has heard of (outside of Arizona anyway) is Casa Grande, Arizona’s Bo Partain. A veteran that often contests both the IMCA SportMod and IMCA Stock Car classes on the same night and that has spent the month of February running at multiple tracks every weekend across Arizona, Partain leads the nation in feature wins and checkered flags so far in 2021. 

Fireworks on Track

3. “Acting a Fool in Turn 1” – Ice Bowl – Talladega Short Track – Jan. 10, 2021

Said the commentator, “we’ve got one driver acting a fool in turn 1.” That’s about as accurate as what transpired following a Big One in the Crate Racin’ USA 604 late model feature at Talladega on lap 11 can be described. The incident started in turn 1 after a restart, with Blant Duke‘s car, which had stopped on track under the previous yellow, getting out of shape entering the corner and triggering a pileup. Duke, however, was not involved in the mess to come.

Ragland, Ala.’s Buddy George got out of his wrecked car, proceeding to accost Cleveland, Tenn.’s Jimmy Elliott as he was still strapped into his machine, kicking the door panels of said Elliott’s car, and then throwing a wrecker driver in the infield to the ground when team members showed up to the scene. That incident ended with George being handcuffed and carted off by police on-site.

2. “Post-Race Melee” – Cabin Fever – Boyd’s Speedway – Jan. 30, 2021

Winchester, Tennnesse’s Christian Hanger made headlines for all the wrong reasons for his actions in the Cabin Fever race at Boyd’s Speedway. The camera shots from Flo Racing were inconclusive, but the end result was Hanger spun out from the pole spot on the opening lap. Post-race, runner-up Donald McIntosh told the crowd that spin came from contact from eventual race winner Randy Weaver. 

None of that justified Hanger’s post-race actions. Hanger rammed Weaver’s race car post-race at the pit road entry gate despite there being a half-dozen other race cars, pit crew guys and ATVs in the same spot trying to get through the gate. Hanger then appeared to hit a pedestrian at the same gate when he revved his car up to finally leave the racing surface (fortunately, said pedestrian got right up). Race winner Weaver said in his post-race comments that, “I just can’t race with him” when it comes to the young gun Hanger. Given that it takes no talent or character to use a race car as a weapon, it’s hard to argue with him.

1. “Black-Eyed Gator” – DIRTcar Nationals – Volusia Speedway Park – Feb. 11, 2021

Waterloo, N.Y.’s Matt Sheppard got spun and was unhappy with Mooresville, N.C.’s Max McLaughlin on lap 1 of the evening’s Super DIRTcar feature. Sheppard was upset and then went matador on the field, turning his car around the wrong way, parking in front of McLaughlin’s car in turn 1 and refusing to move.

That wasn’t enough for an angry Sheppard, however, who reportedly proceeded to punch McLaughlin in a post-race confrontation. That led to one of the more unique trophy presentations that race fans will see:

And for this section, we’ll give an honorable mention to the wreck Stewart Friesen endured at Bubba Raceway Park in his modified, as this video was not available at the time that edition of Thinkin’ Dirty went to publication.

Numbers Game

(statistics are estimated based on available data through 2/24/21)

5 – feature wins scored by Bo Partain in 2021, tops among drivers nationwide

19 – checkered flags scored by Partain in 2021, tops among drivers nationwide (includes features, heat races, B-mains and LCQs)

381 – dirt oval feature races contested in 2021 (does not include karts or age-restricted classes)

1,220 – largest car count of 2021, seen at the Tulsa Shootout in January

$70,200 – top money earned total in 2021, posted by LOLMDS regular Jonathan Davenport

What to Watch This Weekend

Late model fans can tune into Pit Row TV on Friday and Saturday for coverage of the annual Toilet Bowl super late model race from Crossville Speedway in Crossville, Tennessee. Dirtvision will carry coverage of the 2021 Xtreme DIRTcar Series finale race at Modoc Speedway in South Carolina on Saturday afternoon.

Modified fans have plenty to choose from this weekend, with four nights of Southeast Dirt Modified Series action from Fayetteville Motor Speedway in North Carolina being streamed free on MAVTV Plus starting Wednesday night.

Lastly, sprint car fans have the Icebreaker at Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania to look forward to, being streamed live Saturday afternoon (Feb. 27) on Flo Racing. 

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