Dirt racing a popular outlet for both development and relaxation

Ken Schrader may not race in the spotlight much these days, but he's still racing.

Courtesy DIRTCar

Ken Schrader may not race in the spotlight much these days, but he’s still racing.

True to their roots

By Dave Rodman, NASCAR.COM

March 02, 2011 6:38 PM, EST

   

There was a time when every driver with a
national NASCAR license had a dirt racing background. That’s just the
way it was, when dirt tracks dominated the racing landscape from coast
to coast.

Ken Schrader is one of 23 drivers who have won
at least one race in each of NASCAR’s three national tours in his
career, but the former USAC champion is unique in that he’s returned to
his roots — literally — by centering his current activities on dirt
racing.

Schrader in 2011 no doubt will make starts in
the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series, as well as the ARCA
series, which true to his soul, still has dirt races on its schedule.

But the better part of Schrader’s racing
calendar — dozens and dozens of dates, in fact — will be on dirt in
his fleet of late model and modified cars.

Cup drivers Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, like
Schrader, are definitely true to their dirty roots as both operate
extensive open-wheel short-track programs heavily favoring dirt tracks,
and both compete as regularly as they can.

“I’m going to try to race [some dirt cars],”
Kahne said. “Hopefully I can run 10 sprint car races, total; it just
depends on how it feels. But I hope to run close to 10.”

Stewart takes it to another level. He spent a
month in Australia in the offseason racing sprint cars. Even a dispute
with a track operator, of all people, on the last night didn’t sour his
experience.

Stewart has run six editions of the Prelude to
the Dream, a charity event featuring top stars from all branches of
motorsports racing dirt late models at Eldora Speedway, which he owns.
The event is scheduled this year for June 8, and five-time defending Cup
champion Jimmie Johnson is the defending champion.

Clint Bowyer is true to his dirt racing roots as
well, a venue that opened the door to getting a shot with Richard
Childress Racing that Bowyer booted open and waltzed through sideways
with dust flying.

Bowyer and Bobby Labonte own full-time, two-car
late model efforts. Labonte also expanded last year into chassis
construction with his Longhorn Chassis business.

David Reutimann stays involved in dirt racing as the “car
owner” for his dad’s modifieds as legendary dirt racer Buzzie Reutimann
remains active in his 70s.

Clint Bowyer not only is having fun on dirt, but he's making a habit of winning. Turner Sports New Media

Turner Sports New Media

Clint Bowyer not only is having fun on dirt, but he’s making a habit of winning.

The business of relaxation

For virtually all of the NASCAR competitors
who’re involved with dirt racing, racing, in some form, is part and
parcel of nearly everything they do.

For Schrader and Stewart that’s particularly
true. Kenny Wallace, who’s busy with a 34-race Nationwide Series
schedule for RAB Racing and an every weekend TV gig with SPEED, races on
dirt when he can — which amounts to about 40 races a year, including
his winter schedule.

Wallace, whose zany sense of humor is legendary, is almost totally serious when it comes to dirt racing.

“I was kidding Clint Bowyer, and I told him,
‘The only reason you came dirt racing is because you saw how much fun
Schrader and I were having, right?’ ” Wallace said. “And he said, ‘Yep.’

RCR’s vice president of competition, Mike
Dillon, obviously is integrally involved in the development of his
race-driving sons — 20-year-old Austin, who’s a college student at High
Point (N.C.) University, and Ty, who turned 19 on Feb. 27 and is
finishing his senior year at Forsyth Country Day School.

How serious Team Dillon Racing is about dirt
racing is pointed out by the group’s aggressive schedule, which includes
about 30 races for each of the Dillon boys, in both late models and
modifieds.

“In addition to their Truck and ARCA schedules, they’ll run about 25 more races on dirt, in late models,” Mike Dillon said.

And the bottom line is a competitive edge.

“I drove late-model [stock cars] myself, like
Denny Hamlin and some of those others did, and they’re a good tool and
something you can use,” Mike Dillon said. “But only for some of [what
you have to learn]. For racing these mile-and-a-half tracks in the Truck
Series and Nationwide and Cup, there’s nothing an asphalt late-model
car can teach you.

“I think the dirt cars have more of a similar
characteristic to that. You’re using a lot more similar style on the
throttle and the brakes, and it’s a lot more about momentum, versus the
stop-and-go type racing [in late models].

“And then, the dirt cars are so powerful that
you’re constantly having to find grip, and you have to change your lane
to be able to pass people because if someone’s in a lane they can
totally slow you down. So I think the dirt cars are a better tool to
learn with.”

And it’s competitive, as Wallace pointed out
“there were 85 cars trying to make a 27-car A-main — so that means 60
cars didn’t even get to race. That’s ridiculous.” Or it’s very, very
competitive and a great training ground.

Dillon’s sons, who have raced a real variety of
cars on both asphalt and dirt, including Nationwide and the Truck
series, ARCA and the K&N Pro Series East and West, recognize the
value of dirt racing.

“I know how tough the competition is [on dirt],”
Austin Dillon said. “And when you can run against those guys, I feel
like I can do just about anything, because it just gives you confidence.

“Those [dirt late models] are wicked machines —
they’re 2,300 pounds and they have almost 900 horsepower, now. And it’s
unbelievable how much torque they have. So it’s a light race car with a
lot of power and the competition level is so high in that deal that
when you can run against those people that run those cars weekly and run
well, it just gives you confidence to go out and run against Kyle Busch
and these guys on the Cup level.

“So I think if you can run something with that much
horsepower and that kind of car, I feel like it just makes everything
else easier, and you can drive it harder. When you’re racing something
on that level and at that type of speed, it makes everything else seem
slower, so you drive harder, I think.”

Austin Dillon thinks it's important for young drivers to prove themselves on dirt. Courtesy DIRTCar

Courtesy DIRTCar

Austin Dillon thinks it’s important for young drivers to prove themselves on dirt.

Getting a developmental edge

The future of RCR appears to be in good hands
thanks in good part to the owner’s grandsons — as well as the
management team Childress has in place. And a good part of the Dillons’
progression as top-flight race car drivers is smeared with dirt.

Austin Dillon won the 2010 Truck Series rookie
of the year award and ended the season with two consecutive pole
positions. He started 2011 with a third consecutive, at Daytona.

Ty Dillon won the last two races of the 2010 ARCA series and sat on the pole at the Daytona opener, before finishing 11th.

“There’s no doubt about it, I feel like dirt
racing is the number one tool for driver development,” Austin Dillon
said. “If I had a kid that was coming up, he’d be racing a dirt late
model or something along those lines, because you really need that
experience.

“It gets you in something with a big motor,
early on in your career and you can do it at a young age. You can start
practicing and throwing something sideways and it just makes it that
much easier when your asphalt car is sliding.

“If I had someone who wanted to come and drive
for me, I’d have them go dirt racing. If they could prove themselves on
dirt, I feel like that would say a lot about what they could do [on
asphalt].”

That led Team Dillon Racing to extend its
development arm to Ryan Gifford, a Tennessee teenager who the family met
racing at dirt tracks. As many others have noticed, Mike Dillon quickly
saw Gifford’s ability and for a time, he raced for TDR.

“Dirt racing’s been my life — it’s what started
my career,” Gifford, now 21, said. “I started on dirt when I was 8 and
the skills I learned have put me where I am today. I still feel weird
having a windshield.”

Mike Dillon’s committed to developing his sons
through dirt racing, but at the bottom line he wishes he had a program
for Gifford, who graduated last season to the NASCAR diversity program
with Revolution Racing in the K&N Pro Series East, where he’ll again
race full time in 2011 — but continues to work as a mechanic at TDR.

“If I could figure out a way to run him, I
would, because he’s good,” Mike Dillon said. “He’s talented and I think
he could be the first diversity driver to really have some success
because I think he’s really, really talented — and he’s a talented
mechanic, too.”

“I think working at TDR will help me throughout
my career,” Gifford said. “I think the benefit will be that I’m learning
how race cars are supposed to leave the shop — nice, clean and
well-prepared. I can take that with me, wherever I go.”

In addition to Gifford’s K&N races, Junior
Nolan, who owns Gifford’s 2 Brothers Motorsports car, has a schedule of
as many modified races as Gifford can fit on his calendar.

“Dirt racing teaches so much more car control
[than racing on asphalt],” Gifford said. “You learn to watch your hands
— they can tell you what your car’s doing and how to fix it.”

And Gifford even has a unique way of preparing
his schedule, which he hopes will pay off in 2011. Gifford and Nolan
were connected by Austin Dillon, who recommended his teammate when Nolan
said he was looking for a driver after last season.

“I’ve tended to run a little better on
pavement,” Gifford said, “when I get to run a couple dirt races in
between. So far I have six nights on dirt and none on pavement, but I’m
sure it will even up some.”

If Nolan has his way, that willl occur more
often for Gifford. The Ohio car owner, who’s a dealer for Larry Shaw
Race Cars, said Gifford’s work ethic during Speedweeks — the first time
they’d raced together — impressed him.

“The guys who drove for me last year, when it
was time to clean up the cars, or to work on them, they were always
somewhere else, doing who-knows-what — but not Ryan,” Nolan said.

“Whenever there was something to do, Ryan was working on
his race car — doing anything he could to make it faster. He’s a great
kid. Ryan is a racer. He’s just ate-up with it, and everybody loves him
to death.”

Keep an eye out for Ryan Gifford, who started on dirt and is working his way through the ranks. Paul Arch Photos

Paul Arch Photos

Keep an eye out for Ryan Gifford, who started on dirt and is working his way through the ranks.

That from which dreams are made

For the kids especially, dreams are still in full bloom — especially when it comes to dirt.

“From my perspective, I do enjoy watching the
sprint cars run by themselves,” Austin Dillon said. “I don’t think they
race as good as some of the levels race now, because of all the stuff
they’ve done to them — but I think it would be really fun to go that
fast and try one.

“The sprint cars run wide-open most of the time
so your throttle traces aren’t as close to, like, an asphalt car, but I
feel like I’d be good in a sprint car just because I like the tackier,
grippy feeling where I could go fast for a long run of time.

“With all the downforce from the wing and the
grip levels that you have, I think they’d be fun to try — but I don’t
really like the idea of the driveshaft running between my legs. That’s
the only part I don’t like.”

But Wallace, 47, might have put the exclamation
point on the “NASCAR on dirt” experience. He doesn’t need a Big-Block or
a sprint car to make his dreams come true.

“Seriously — at my age I am living the dream
with my dirt car right now,” Wallace said. “I have so much fun racing my
dirt car and driving my hauler across the United States. That’s what I
call fun!”

Wallace cited Kurt Busch building a NHRA Pro
Stock drag car and Jimmie Johnson dabbling in the Grand-Am Rolex Series
as examples of how he and some others use dirt racing.

“You’ve got to have a getaway, because we’re so
intense inside that garage area, with NASCAR,” Wallace said. “It
obsesses your life so completely; you’ve got to find something. I think
the extra distractions really help us focus. You can’t sit in your
motorhome or your house and think about what’s happening in NASCAR.

“So this dirt racing is just something that Tony
Stewart and myself, Schrader and now Clint Bowyer — we’ve opened up a
whole can of worms. Just because you run [NASCAR] doesn’t mean that’s
all you do. So it’s been a lot of fun.”

The End

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