It is incredibly easy, albeit unfair, to “armchair quarterback” in some situations and I suppose the attempt by NASCAR to put its Cup Series back on dirt for the first time since 1970 can be considered one of those situations. Still, I am going to use my 20/20 hindsight and do exactly that here.
Going into the weekend of the Food City Dirt Race, I had a number of concerns about how all of this would play out. As someone who covers approximately 50-60 dirt track races each year, I feel as if I am qualified to some degree at least make a few judgements. And in doing so, I have seen some of my concerns actually play out as we have gone through this weekend.
One of the biggest worries I had was that a dirt race was going to be staged by an organization that does not normally sanction dirt races, and thus, would make some mistakes as a result. This was evidenced on Saturday when NASCAR attempted to conduct the heat races for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Cup Series well before the track was ready to be raced on. And on this point, I am going to make a guess(and that’s all it is) and state that Fox Sports played at least some role in that they wanted those races to be run within a certain window of time for broadcast purposes.
Because of heavy rain earlier in the day, the track was obviously too wet as was being stated either into microphones or on social media by people who do understand how dirt racing works.
A dirt track that has taken on an excessive amount of water requires numerous laps being run on top of it to squeeze out the water that has soaked down deep. Putting five or six packer cars and five Late Models on he track simply will not suffice. Whether the teams wanted to or not, every Truck Series and Cup Series car that planned to race should have been out on the track rolling around at slow speed. prior to the heat races All of that weight over multiple laps would serve to push the water out from underneath the racing surface.
Still, the trucks were sent out to conduct their first heat race. And the result was very predictable as grills and windshields were immediately caked with mud that was bound to be thrown up by the tires from a wet and heavy track. Anyone who has watched very much dirt racing would have been able to predict that. So, if NASCAR wants to hold a dirt race, it will have to force competitors and itself to change mindsets and be prepared to do things such as packing the track with race ready Cup and Truck Series machines.
And that brings up another point- windshields. Typically, cars that race on dirt do not employ windshields for the very reason that was demonstrated. Of course, the immediate argument would be, “But we never do it that way” when the question of removing the glass from the cars is posed. Well, this whole thing is something that is never done so it will require that everything be conducted differently.
Instead of a windscreen, dirt crews put metal bars in front of the driver to protect him/her from flying debris. At the same time, drivers wear helmets equipped with tear-offs attached to the visor so the driver can rip one off and essentially clean his own visor. A windshield can’t be so easily cleared.
If the argument is that there are too many electronics inside of a NASCAR machine to be exposed to mud and dust, then use less electronics when racing on dirt. If that is asking too much, then don’t race on dirt.
And finally, one concern I have had since this event was announced was that it was being done as some sort of gimmick with no plan beyond this one event for the Cup Series with the sanctioning body, the track, and the other partners waiting to see how popular it proved to be. If there are to be more of these, NASCAR has to commit to more of them. It would be unfair to teams and fans to only schedule with one dirt race per year.
This year NASCAR demonstrated that it can indeed think outside the box in terms of scheduling as six road course races are part of the 2021 schedule. In the same way it committed to road courses, it must commit to at least one other dirt track race each season if there are to be any at all. And that race does not have to come on a dirt covered asphalt facility. There are several actual dirt tracks out there where a one-day(perhaps midweek) show could make a great addition to the schedule.
Ultimately, NASCAR needs to decide whether it intends to be serious about dirt racing or not. And if it is, it needs to change some of its ways to be better suited to that form of motorsports.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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