Dirt; why I love it
Updated: Nov 9
When machine meets dirt at high speeds, what you get, is pretty entertaining.
I have been going to dirt track races since 2010. Unlike black top racing on asphalt, dirt requires a different skill set. Asphalt racing is about driving as hard as possible, while keeping the car pointed straight (in control). On dirt however, as a driver, you WANT your car to slide sideways in the corners. That is the trick to it.
Most people associate the entire plethora of motorsports with one form of it; NASCAR. But the reality is that there are races going on at your local track that are just as cool to watch as a professional cup race, in more ways than you think. What make dirt ovals interesting in a unique way are how drastically the conditions change during a race, and how difficult the cars are to drive.
For example, a sprint car is an open-wheel race car designed to race on dirt ovals. There are non-winged sprints (often called “midgets”), and winged sprints. A 410 winged sprint (what the World of Outlaws tour runs) has a better horsepower-to-weight ratio, than a Formula 1 car.
Winged sprints have two box-shaped, flat panels mounted on the roof, and front-hood area at an angle that supplies grip, aerodynamically. As air hits the, “wings,” it pushes the car down. This provides grip/stability, enabling the driver to drive harder, and go faster. There are also two side-panels on the top wing. The side-panel on the right is skewed downwards, and the side-panel on the left, sticks up above the car. The reason for this is to provide more down-force to the left side of the car, while it’s drifting sideways.
The key to going fast on dirt is searching for grip; changing the, “line,” you’re running around the racetrack constantly, looking for the most grip all the way around. When a race starts, the track has lots of moisture, and the grip level is high. “Tacky,” is a word that dirt racers use to describe a very wet racetrack. As cars run on the track, drifting and spinning their tires, the surface starts to dry, and tire rubber starts being put down from racer’s tires. This creates a black “groove” where most cars were running, changing the race conditions. This makes finding speed, a constant-moving target.
The inside line is not always the fastest way around. When driving a sprint car, the driver lets off the gas and starts braking just before the turn so that the rear of the car begins rotating before the corner comes. The brake is used more to rotate a sprint car than to slow it down, when racing; this makes judgment of what’s going on ahead crucial. The driver uses little steering movements to balance how the car is drifting, and gets back to full throttle as the car re-gains grip. The wheel is pointed to the right most of the way around, because the driver is, “bicycling”. The more throttle the driver can apply and keep the tires hooked up and gripping the racetrack at the right points, the faster the lap times will be. At many tracks, the outside line is best, because the wider radius of the corner out there, allows the driver to run more throttle, and makes the driver gain a huge, “run,” coming out of the turn, down the next straightaway. This is due to the momentum carried through the turn in the outside line.
Generally, as a race goes on, the top, wet layer of dirt gets kicked up to the outside of the track, and forms a pile along the wall in the corners. Race fans know this as, “the cushion.” If a driver runs the outside lane and lets the rear slightly glide against the cushion, it will help the car rotate and go faster. This is very risky and can easily be over-done. If someone over-drives the corner when trying this and ends up tagging the wall, it greatly hurts their lap time. This is referred to as, “jumping the cushion.”
The right-rear tire is bigger than the left-rear on purpose, to make the car naturally go left, if the steering wheel is pointed straight. The difference in size between the right-rear tire and the left-rear is called stagger.
The driver must decide the type of car handling he is comfortable with and prefers. The setup can be altered to make the car drive a certain way. A driver doesn’t want a car to be too, “tight,” or too, “loose. Tight, means the car is not turning very well, making the driver put excessive steering into it to make corners. The looser a car is, the better it will rotate. When a car is overly loose, however, the steering is much too sensitive, causing the car to easily fishtail at bad moments and lose control. A successful driver will find a happy medium between these two extremes, thus getting the fastest laps. Veteran sprint car drivers usually like to setup their cars very loose. They know that the key to success is being smooth with the wheel, anticipating what your car and others will do 2-3 moves ahead, and adjusting/preparing for their next move. Good sprint car drivers, can handle, and flourish in a loose racecar. “Loose is fast but on the edge of out of control,” is said in the movie, Days of Thunder. As the track dries, it generally gets harder and harder to turn the car. This is why it is smart to start the race a little on the loose side; it makes the car better and better, as the race goes on, making it perform best at the end, when it counts. Many NASCAR drivers got their start in sprint cars; they still use those car-control skills in their NASCAR careers. It takes driving talent to effectively drift a sprint car better than everyone else, and win.
There are several ways to change the handling of a sprint car. Teams can alter the axle/differential setup in the rear, to make the wheels and chassis react differently to the G-forces, or, “load” of the turns. They can adjust the shock/suspension settings in the tires. They can add or take away stagger, or even adjust the wings. If a car is tight, that may be caused by a lack of front downforce. The team may slightly move the top wing forward, or angle it less aggressively, to make the car more, “balanced.” If the car is too loose, they may scoot the top wing back and/or angle it more aggressively to increase downforce to the rear.
The shock setting is very important in sprint cars because the tires should be making the most contact with the track as possible. The shock settings can’t be too soft, because as the tires are bouncing excessively going over the bumps in the track (as a result of setting up the shocks too soft), those milliseconds that the whole tire surface isn’t touching the track, is a loss of grip that the driver could have. On the other hand, dirt tracks get quite dry, tough, and bumpy by the end of the night. The shocks can’t be setup too stiff, or else those bumps in the track could, “upset” the car and cause complete loss of control, with little notice.
Sprint cars do not have starters; they must be pushed out onto the track, while the driver fires it up to reduce weight. A driver has several, “tear-offs,” clear strips of plastic, stuck on the visor of his helmet. These can be peeled off during a race, to allow the driver to see where he is going, despite the dust coming into the cockpit.
Sprint car racing events are run in heats that lead to an, ‘A’ Feature, rather than having one big, long race like NASCAR. Most dirt track events begin with track crews spraying water around the track and driving safety trucks around to pack the dirt down. To expedite the process, racers often join in and pace their cars around the track, before hot laps start.
Once the dirt is prepped, randomly selected groups go out and practice, or, “hot lap”. Each hot lap session lasts for about 2-5 minutes. Drivers participate to ensure the car’s handling, air pressures / shock settings are right, and that everything is ready to race. After all cars have gotten a chance to do hot laps, pre-race ceremonies are usually done before the first heat rolls out on track.
A few major sprint car organizations (USAC-United States Auto Club, World of Outlaws, etc) even have a qualifying session to determine heat race starting spots. This is where each competitor goes out on the track one-at a-time, and has the entire racetrack to themselves for 2 laps. Each driver tries to get the fastest lap possible; they are electronically timed to thousandths of a second. The fastest one out of their two laps determines their starting spot for their heat. This is a beloved tradition with fans of more famous sprint car tours, as this gives them an opportunity to watch and get pictures of their favorite superstar drivers one at a time, without any other cars on the track. This is uncommon at ordinary races, however.
Heats are typically 8-15 lap races, with 5-12 cars (not very many). Racers do a random draw for starting position, or determine it some other way at most local tracks. Here’s an example of how heats would work: If there are 10 cars participating in a heat, the top 2 or 3 finishers of that heat would be locked in to the A-main later. Third through fifth may get placed in the B-main. Those in eighth place and back would start in the back of the B-main, or even get placed in a C-main, if there are enough cars that a C-main is necessary. The name of the game for the driver is to make it into the A-main. The purpose of heat races is to determine which main each driver enters and his position. The higher you finish in your heat race, the less work you will have to do in the mains.
Some racing series/events have what are called, “passing points,” which are extra points that a driver gets for passing cars in a heat. They likely do this to make it easier for underdogs, provide a big incentive for passing, and keep the competition close.
Once all heat races are done, race officials gather scoring data and get the line-ups ready for the mains. Most tracks have an electronic timing/scoring loop system at the start/finish line. Racers mount an electronic transponder in the cars, for scoring their position and lap time.
All mains leading up to the A are elimination races, basically. There is a cutoff position in each main that the driver must finish under in order to advance to the next main (also known as the final, “transfer spot.”) It is obviously much harder to transfer to the next main, if a driver is starting toward the back. The number of heats/mains run in a given race night, depends on how many cars and “classes” are racing. Most local dirt tracks have a few different types of cars (classes) that race at the track weekly. Sprint car tours travel from track to track every weekend, and join in the show. Most dirt tracks have some sort of pure stock, modified, and/or a late model class that the sprint car tour shares the show with.
At the end of the night, as they get ready to start the A-feature, many sprint car tours do a, “salute,” to the fans by having the cars get 3-4 wide, and idle slowly past the crowd. They also may shoot fireworks; have the pace car flash lights, etc to get the fans pumped for the A-main.
Sprint car/midget racing is a rapidly growing sport. The Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa Oklahoma, The Knoxville Nationals in Iowa, The King’s Royal in Eldora Ohio, The Knepper 55 in DuQuoin Illinois, The Gateway Dirt Nationals in St Louis, The Turkey Night Grand Prix in California, and the World Finals in Charlotte North Carolina are only the surface of the world of dirt car racing. The popularity of stars like Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Rico Abreu, the Swindells’, and the Blaneys’, is ever increasing.
There are races going on at your local track that are just as cool to watch as a professional cup race, in more ways than you think, indeed.