NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thursday Morning Thunder, Vol. 18: For Late Models, When Size Does Matter

Had I waited another couple of hours to write this week’s Thinkin’ Dirty, the tenor may have been a little bit different. And thanks to a race at the dirt track equivalent of a superspeedway no less.

This past Sunday night (April 25) was highlighted by a race dubbed simply “The Return.” In the first race run at the West Virginia Motor Speedway since the track was left to rot in 2013, Jonathan Davenport weathered two tire failures to score an $8,000 super late model win in front of one of the largest crowds to see a dirt race in 2021. 

In terms of buzz, attendance and unpredictability on the track, the race was a rousing success, though there were plenty of faults as well. A field of only 18 super lates showed up for the race despite being run on a weekend where the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series didn’t race and that was well within driving distance of many other late model shows on the weekend. Parking was reportedly a serious shortcoming, with cars visibly parked on an entrance road a half-mile away from the grandstand.

 

And the race, for all its excitement, wasn’t without issue. Tire failures were rampant through the field despite the race being only 30 laps in length. The field of cars was top heavy, with Davenport, eventual runner-up Devin Moran and Tyler Erb lightyears ahead of the rest of the field. 

But, nonetheless, the “Return” was a breath of fresh air. West Virginia Motor Speedway is a truly picturesque venue, one that even while abandoned was an imposing sight to those that passed it driving on I-77. Seeing any racetrack these days come back from the dead is a blessing. 

What’s more, to see a race on a track longer than a half-mile prove competitive and unpredictable was a relief. The Flo Racing booth referred to WVMS, the “Speedplant,” as a “big track that races like a bullring.” The venue lived up to that, and not just because between tire failures and Erb’s spectacular last-lap incident that the field of super lates ended up beaten to a pulp by race’s end. 

I call it a relief because, just like NASCAR has intermediates that compliment the few short tracks the sport hasn’t shot between the eyes (or buried alive, for that matter), dirt tracks also have longer ovals to compliment the quarter-mile bullrings. And the quality of dirt racing seen on longer ovals the past few weeks has taken a visible dip, thanks in large part to the Bristol dirt track proving unraceable due to high speeds, a high-banked parade route rather than a racetrack.

As was mentioned in Thinkin’ Dirty earlier this week, between the World of Outlaws sprint car doubleheader and late model doubleheader, more than 90% of the race events run were won from the front row. No one in either a sprint car or late model in the WoO ranks took a checkered flag from any worse starting spot than third. It wasn’t a disaster the scope of levigating Charlotte, but it certainly was cause to cry foul about the quality of the on-track product. 

Dirt racing needed a good long-track race. 

Bullrings will never be topped in terms of putting on great stock-car racing. But there is a time and place for a longer venue. Be it the Hoosier Hundred for sprint cars or half-miles for late models, putting engines and high speeds to the test is a racing skill to be commended and competed. After sitting through snoozers at Bristol, the strong racing product enjoyed on the half-mile Volusia Speedway Park during Speedweeks seemed ages ago.

Time will tell whether the new WVMS can keep the allure and buzz up. The huge crowd speaks volumes as to how the venue was successful in promoting itself. The low car count may well be attributable to concerns over engine durability, given that at over a half-mile in length, any sort of racing at WVMS is likely to prove taxing on any late model. Now that there’s a race in the books, with notes to be provided on both tires and gears, the bigger purses on the track’s docket for the remainder of the season (three five-figure events later this year) are likely going to attract more big-name race teams.

Size isn’t everything. But catching the “Return” from the comfort of my bed Sunday night before kicking off the workweek definitely had me thinking “bigger is better” applies to more than just crowd size.

That’s not to say that the late weekend highlight had me stumble upon an absolute truth in dirt racing. Bigger isn’t always better. 

Case in point, the dream child of promoters at Chatham Speedway is coming to life September according to DirtonDirt… a $50,000-to-win race for crate late model drivers. $50,000 is a big-time purse, and this will easily be the biggest possible win for a crate driver in 2021. Plus, as noted by DirtonDirt’s Joshua Joiner, the weekend that Chatham’s race has been scheduled is the same weekend as a number of other large super late model events across the country, which should cut down on the number of super late drivers dropping down a class to go after big money.

Big-money races are good, but I do have to question whether putting a super late model-size purse on a crate late model race is really good for dirt racing. Crate late models are hugely important to dirt tracks across the country, as they provide a full-size class of racecar that will draw fans in fendered country and provide an economical landing point for those that can’t afford to get into the arms race that is super late model racing.

Problem is, when a driver can race for five figures in a crate car, is there even an incentive to move up to the big leagues? 

Bigger isn’t always better.

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