Fast Talk presented by Castrol Oil
Fast Talk: Remembering a silenced voice
With the racing community stunned by the passing of one of its own, our roundtable gathers to discuss all the latest in the weekly feature presented by Castrol Motor Oil and Fluids (edited for clarity and length):
React to the tragic death of longtime World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series announcer Rick Eshelman.
Kevin Kovac, DirtonDirt.com senior writer: I was shocked. Everyone was shocked. From the time the news broke that Eshelman was missing to that horrible moment when word came Saturday that he had taken his own life, Dirt Late Model social media was overtaken by posts about Eshelman. There aren’t many personalities in our sport whose well-being would elicit such widespread concern as someone like Eshelman. As a veteran announcer of a national tour, his face — and certainly his voice — are familiar to anyone, whether fan or competitor, who’s been to a WoO event or watched one on DIRTVision, and his friendly demeanor and genuine love for racing always showed through. It’s no surprise that we all feel like we’ve lost a friend.
Todd Turner, DirtonDirt.com managing editor: In a sport where the voices we hear describe the action — as we sit in the bleachers or our living rooms — are so connecting, that we'll no longer hear Rick's voice will be jarring. The recently inducted Hall of Famer's announcing ties this generation to WoO and other events as much as anything else. That he took his own life is also a grim reminder that we often don't know what's troubling someone who is seemingly happy. I pray for peace and comfort for all of those closest to him.
Robert Holman, DirtonDirt.com staff reporter: I’m not sure there’s a right way or a wrong way to react when hearing such sad, tragic news. For 24 hours, I was so afraid that something had happened to him while out searching for an old abandoned racetrack, one of his favorite things to do. Then to get the news that he had died, I just think I was in shock, like many of the people who have posted notes on social media. It’s just hard to wrap your head around it really. He was such a huge part of the entire World of Outlaws program, not just at the track, but for online viewers also. It will be so odd hearing another voice moving forward and I’m actually sorry for who has to step in and fill his shoes, because it will be very difficult.
Kyle McFadden, DirtonDirt.com staff reporter: There are no words that can rightly sum all this up. It’s so sad, and my heart goes out to those closest to him. I’m unsure what kind of pain Rick had been in, but this is a heartbreaking reminder to be kind to everyone you may meet, especially to those who work in racing. Charles Krall put out a thoughtful thread on Twitter that while working in racing is a dream come true for many, life on the road can be lonely, and you never know what’s going on behind the smile and sunglasses. We are all going to miss Rick dearly.
Aaron Clay, DirtonDirt.com weekend editor: It was a very challenging weekend for the entire dirt racing community. At first, we all wondered if he was OK when word came that he was missing from his travels. Then we all received the worst possible news. Regardless of his final page, Rick's life was a book full of fruitful relationships and as a legend in the Dirt Late Model industry. He will always be remembered as one of the best race announcers and for his Hall of Fame career.
Offer a favorite personal memory (or two) of Eshelman.
Turner: One thing I always admired about Rick was his willingness to jump in and help out anywhere, and I noticed that most during the DIRTcar Summer Nationals, where he'd moonlight during breaks in the WoO schedule. He'd round up drivers for time trials. Ferry officials to and fro. Assist with anything Sam Driggers and his crew needed. And I truly appreciated how he gave Summer Nationals announcer Ruben Mireles room to blossom into a fine announcer in his own right. To be sure, Rick would tweak Ruben with plenty of jokes, but he didn't roll into those events to dominate the mic. Rick mentored Ruben and helped him find his own way with a deft hand, staying in the background when it was Ruben's show. That always impressed me.
Holman: I really don’t ever remember seeing Rick when he didn’t have a smile on his face. The most obvious thing that sticks out are the nicknames he gave folks and the dad jokes he often told throughout the night, especially during the DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia in February. He almost always had something positive to say to or about the drivers who were competing on a given night as well. I saw him last on Sept. 24 at Boyd’s Speedway. He came up behind me in the pressbox during a WoO break and I was watching a video from the old Tullahoma (Tenn.) Speedway in the early 1970s. Obviously he was intrigued because he had never heard of the place. We talked about how the track was still there, but now on private property, and he expressed how much he’d like to go by and see it. I thought, wow, I told Rick Eshelman, the king of finding old tracks, about a track he’d never heard of. It was a neat moment and one I’m thankful we shared.
Clay: Regretfully, I don't have any memories with Rick. To my knowledge, our paths never crossed during any Late Model races on the West Coast. However, it has been very healing to read personal experiences and how closely Rick touched the lives of others. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, it is clear that Rick was a great man who valued relationships. By all accounts, he was someone that you could rely on professionally, but more importantly, as a friend. I also think it is very telling of his pure and innocent spirit that he never met a dog that he didn't like or interact with.
McFadden: I don’t have many memories of Rick simply because I’m new to covering Late Models, but one moment this summer at the Fairbury Summer Nationals race comes to mind. When I was working on the night’s RaceWire inside the DIRTcar trailer, Rick approached me from behind and offered me one of his two slices of pizza he had on his plate. I didn’t think much of that then but looking back on it that really encapsulates how much Rick cared about others. From what I observed, his smile was bright and his jokes were sure to make you laugh. As I said, we’re all going to miss Rick dearly.
Kovac: I knew Eshelman well from the years I worked as the WoO Late Model tour’s PR director; from mid-2006 through mid-2013, we shared so many laughs and did so much ball-busting on the road that I could relate stories for hours. The thing I’ll miss most with Eshelman gone, though, is showing up a track, seeing Eshelman in the pit area, and having him say, “What’s up, Scoop?” I don’t think he ever failed to greet me with those words — the last time I saw him, at Cedar Lake Speedway’s USA Nationals, those were the first words from his mouth when I walked up to him. And I’ll certainly miss all the times I looked over his shoulder — at his registration table in the pits or in announcer’s booth — as he let me sneak a peak at his sign-in sheet or the notes on his notecards covered with hand-written driver information.
Review Tyler County Speedway’s Hillbilly 100 or another weekend event that stood out.
Holman: Unfortunately, with the race being in a Thursday for the first time ever, I think the Hillbilly kind of fell between the cracks this year. Even as historic as that race is, it seems like it’s gonna have to move up to the $50,000-to-win range in order to remain relevant. Maybe I’m wrong there, but that’s just my feeling. I thought Kyle Larson did an excellent job picking his way through traffic, but even he said he got very lucky three or four times thanks to some timely cautions. And please don’t get me started on cautions that shouldn’t be cautions, I’d likely exceed my word limit. I also wonder how many people who used to cheer against Brandon Sheppard and the blue Rocket car were actually hoping he could somehow get by the NASCAR interloper. And finally, why in the heck can't Scott Bloomquist make it to the track on time? It’s baffling.
Kovac: The Hillbilly 100 was one of those races that makes everyone consider the question: Can a 100-lap race be a good one when a driver leads from flag-to-flag? In this case, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” Kyle Larson might have led the whole way, but it was certainly no wire-to-wire snoozer. Three drivers — Brandon Sheppard, Garrett Smith and Garrett Alberson — took shots at him, with Sheppard’s challenges especially stiff (three virtual dead-heats at the start-finish line). Several caution flags stalled some spectacular racing for the lead through lapped traffic, but the quarter-mile bullring still produced action that was entertaining from start-to-finish.
McFadden: Other than the fact I could hardly see through my safety glasses, the Hillbilly was worth the price of admission and has to be the most riveting race of the year with no lead changes. Yes, I was at Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne, W.Va., last Thursday — a place in a lovely, hidden part of the world — and it was about what I had expected in terms of experience. It was too bad the race was on a Thursday, but with the season coming to a close and Hurricane Ian’s impact canceling many races this weekend, we should be thankful the event happened after a two-year hiatus.
Turner: As races go where a driver leads 100 laps, the Hillbilly was a pretty thrilling one as there were plenty of moments it appeared that Kyle Larson was on the verge of falling victim to his pursuers. Did anybody else think Garrett Alberson was poised for his richest career victory? It was pretty exciting stuff on a track where the action is tight and things can quickly go wrong for a driver who doesn't make the right decisions in traffic.
Clay: I'm going a different direction and reviewing the two-day MLRA show at Sycamore Speedway. Chad Simpson reminded everyone why he is the series points leader on Friday, leading every lap en route to earning $5,000 and his second tour win of the season, then added his series-best 11th top-five finish on Saturday. There are no guarantees in racing, but Simpson seems like a lock to score his third career MLRA championship when the series completes their season at Tri-City Speedway on Oct. 14-15. Jason Feger concluded the weekend with a dominant flag-to-flag victory of his own on Saturday, earning $7,000 and his first career win with the MLRA tour.
With Kyle Larson’s successful-but-sporadic Dirt Late Model schedule, how do you recommend he be considered in DirtonDirt.com’s Top 25 poll?
McFadden: For starters, racing only three times all summer, plus twice last week, is enough of a reason for voters to leave him out of the poll altogether, even after his Hillbilly victory. It’s fairly obvious if Larson ran Late Models regularly, he’d be an upper echelon driver, right up there with Jonathan Davenport, Chris Madden, Brandon Overton, Brandon Sheppard and Tim McCreadie. This week I’ll have Larson ranked, but not very high. He hadn’t been in my Top 25 for many weeks now. Still, it’s remarkable what he’s done in very limited action in the Dirt Late Model. He and Davenport are the only drivers this year to win with all four national tours — Lucas Oil Series, WoO, FloRacing Night in America and XRSS — so that stat, in my eyes, has to at least add to his resume.
Clay: Kyle Larson must be considered for the DirtonDirt.com Top 25. Granted, we will never be able to consider his series points standing position, but I think Larson would be a top-five driver if he ran an entire series schedule. Also, we need to acknowledge that the few times Larson does race, he is usually competing against the best in the country, not just topping a local or regional field. If nothing else, it is damn impressive that Larson continues to win in a discipline where he has very little experience. He truly is a generational talent and one of the best drivers in the world, regardless of the type of car or track surface.
Holman: That’s a tough one for sure. For me, it’s almost out of sight, out of mind. The longer he goes without racing a Dirt Late Model, the more he slips down the chart when I vote. And just because he won, I’m not gonna vote that he should be in the top five or top 10 even. I think getting in the Top 25 poll is challenging, regardless of when you win or how you win. The same goes for dropping out of the poll. I’m not gonna vote a top-15 guy out just because he may go somewhere and may not even make the show because I know how tough our sport is. My opinion is that Larson may be a top-10 driver and that Kevin Rumley’s team may be a top-10 team, but if you don’t race enough to show me, then I likely won’t vote you very high.
Kovac: Larson creates a real quandary for us Top 25 pollsters. There’s no doubt his talent and Kevin Rumley-fielded equipment make him a top-10, and likely top-five, driver if he were to be a Dirt Late Model regular, but he’s obviously a part-timer. So when he goes long stretches without entering a Late Model show — like he just did for two months — do we drop him down the Top 25 list or take him out of it altogether? I’m in line with Robert’s thinking (in terms of the poll) where if he’s out of sight, he’s out of mind. The Top 25 is a power ranking of how strong drivers are in a sliver of time, so when Larson is out of Late Model action for an extended period I take him out. When he comes back and, almost inevitably, runs well, I slot him back in — like I’ll do this week after his Hillbilly 100 victory.
Turner: The recipe for how to vote for drivers is a combination of key factors, and one of those is definitely competing regularly. That Larson has many factors that draw votes — big victories, a solid team, favorite status at many races he enters — makes him worthy of consideration, but if he's not racing as much as his competitors, his ranking will take a hit. Beyond Larson I'm always aware of racing frequency when considering my ballot. It's hard to ding drivers who are putting their car on the track twice as much as a driver more selective about his starts (and perhaps avoiding tougher tracks, tougher competition and longer trips). It's among the nuances of voting in the power rankings that some folks might not consider when they're beefing about which driver is ranked here.
What upcoming event most intrigues you?
Clay: I'm most intrigued by the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series invading Talladega Short Track on Saturday. Talladega always proves to be fast and narrow, offering little racing room and very little room for error. Mix the talented Lucas Oil regulars with the best in the Southeast and I think you have a recipe for some surprise performances. At the very least, I think we'll see fenders and tempers flare, as guys battle for space on the tight third-mile, high-banked red clay oval.
Holman: Looking a couple weeks ahead, it’s probably the World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series race at Humboldt (Kan.) Speedway on Oct. 21. There are a lot of things going on when the national tour heads there for the first time ever. For starters, it’ll be the first event with the late Rick Eshelman, the tour’s beloved announcer who died last week. It’s gonna be difficult for all the WoO regulars I suspect. It’s also the first of the final six nights on the tour this season and I’m curious to see if points leader Dennis Erb Jr. can add to his lead and possibly wrap up the championship before the World Finals next month. And finally I’m interested to see what kind of car count the event gets out there in Kansas.
McFadden: I’ll name two upcoming events I’ll be at in the Dirt Track World Championship on Oct. 14-15 and the World of Outlaws visit to Humboldt (Kan.) Speedway on Oct. 21. While it’s unlikely we’ll have a Lucas Oil Series championship race to closely monitor at Portsmouth, Jonathan Davenport’s presence will have myself, and many others, observing to see if he can rattle off yet another crown jewel victory. Then the WoO’s visit to Humboldt, as Robert mentioned, is the tour’s first visit to the 3/8-mile, so what kind of challenges will that present? And what kind of car count should we expect? It also needs to be added Humboldt will be the tour’s first race since Eshelman’s passing, so it’s going to be difficult for everyone involved.
Kovac: Oct. 15’s Hoker Trucking-Malvern Bank Series event at I-80 Speedway in Greenwood, Neb., is on my radar, though not because it ends the points season for the sister tours. No, this will likely be a bittersweet racing program. It’s still being labeled as the finale for the track as owner Joe Kosiski and his family close their run by selling the facility, so, unless something changes, it will be everyone’s last chance to turn laps or watch a race at I-80. After seeing so many exciting races in recent years during I-80’s Silver Dollar Nationals, Oct. 15 will definitely be a sad day for racing.
Turner: It's a month away, but I'm anxious for the WoO's World Finals at the Dirt Track at Charlotte with its new bigger purses and refined schedule that should boost the event's profile. For many years it probably stood as among the toughest non-Speedweeks races to win that didn't provide a huge payoff. With a couple of $15,000-to-win races (on either side of a day off for Late Models), along with the $25,000-to-win finale, the events purses are much more in line with what a World Finals victory really means. Let's hope for good weather and, perhaps, a WoO points chase still in doubt going into the finale.