Late Model stars glad to share Lowe's with sprints
By Kevin KovacWorld of Outlaws Late Model Series
The stars of the World of Outlaws Late Model Series rarely cross paths with their counterparts on the World of Outlaws sprint car tour. But the unique Outlaws World Finals on Nov. 1-3 at the Dirt Track at Lowe’s Motor Speedway will give the Late Model boys a chance to rub shoulders with the open-wheel set and spend some time enjoying a little different style of dirt-track racing.
You can call the World Finals, which will pair the WoO Late Models and Sprints on the same program for the first time in history, a big family reunion for World of Outlaws brethren. The players from both sides of the Outlaws aisle will be able to visit, bench race, swap stories from the road — and try to top each other on the track.
"It’ll be cool to watch those sprint car guys race and hang out with them for a few days,” said WoO star Rick Eckert of York, Pa., who sits fifth in the tour points standings. “They’re racers just like we are.”
Eckert is easily the WoO regular with the most links to the sprint car side of the pit area. For starters, he spent about a year-and-a-half in the early 1990s actually driving a sprint on a regular basis, campaigning a family-owned winged machine at Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Pa., until he abandoned weekly double-duty to focus on dirt Late Model racing. He’s also known to attend WoO sprint car events whenever his schedule allows and maintains friendships with sprinters, including former WoO champion Danny Lasoski.
During their long highway hauls between races, Eckert and Lasoski will often dial each other’s cell phones and eat up some miles chatting about their racing and other topics.
“A few weeks ago Lasoski called me when I was on my way home from Knoxville (the Late Model Nationals in Iowa) and he was coming home from Williams Grove (the WoO Sprint National Open in Mechanicsburg, Pa.),” said Eckert. “Just the other night I talked to (Tony Stewart Racing crew chief) Jimmy Carr. That’s the way it usually goes. We don’t see each other at a track a lot, but we’ll talk on the phone.”
Eckert’s home, of course, makes him a little more sprint car-oriented than the rest of his WoO traveling partners.
As top ’07 WoO winner Chub Frank of Bear Lake, Pa., said, “Eckert knows a lot of those sprint car guys because he lives right there in sprint car country. He’s just down the road from Williams Grove, so it’s easy for him to go to an Outlaws show when they’re there. I’ve met (Terry) McCarl and some other sprint car guys, but we have to travel pretty far if we want to see an Outlaw (sprint) show,” added Frank, who lives in northwestern Pennysylvania. “We’re definitely not in sprint car country."
Neither are the other top-10-ranked WoO Late Model racers. Points leader Steve Francis and Darrell Lanigan live in Kentucky; Clint Smith and Shane Clanton hail from Georgia; Josh Richards is from West Virginia; 2007 Rookie of the Year Tim Fuller calls upstate New York home; and rookie standout Brian Shirley and five-time ’07 tour winner Shannon Babb are from central Illinois. None of those locales would be considered sprint car hotbeds like Eckert’s native central Pennsylvania, so it’s no surprise that seeing the WoO sprints at Lowe's will be a treat for them.
“I’ve only been to one World of Outlaws sprint car race in my life,” said the 19-year-old Richards, who has recorded a career-high four WoO victories this season. “I saw them race a couple years ago at Hagerstown (Md.), so I’m looking forward to running with them at Lowe’s. It should be exciting to have both crowds there.”
While some fans might hold an unyielding allegiance to either the Late Models or sprint cars, the WoO stars have no aversion to taking in a sprint car race. They are certainly stock-car racers through and through, but they relish an opportunity to catch some open-wheel action in between their fender-rubbing exploits.
“Hey, if it has a motor, I think it’s cool,” Eckert said.
Clint Smith, who sits third in the WoO points standings, would obviously second Eckert’s motion. Earlier this year, during a weekend off from Late Model competition, he was a spectator for the World of Outlaws sprint show at Dixie Speedway in Woodstock, Ga., not far from his home.
Francis is another Late Model traveler who never fails to check out the WoO sprints when he has a chance. He’s spent some nights as a sprint car fan, spectating when they visited K-C Raceway in Alma, Ohio, in the past and even joining Eckert in an excursion to a WoO show in Tulsa, Okla., a few years ago when they were following the Xtreme DirtCar Series and had an off night in the Midwest.
Francis also has some friends in the sprint car pits. He knows Randy Hannagan quite well, speaks often with Paul McMahan and Jimmy Carr — and several years ago he spent time with the former WoO Sprint championship team of Mark and Karl Kinser when they were all part of the same Mopar engine program.
Last week, the 40-year-old Francis even experienced some hot laps behind the wheel of a sprint car for the first time in his career. He hung around the day after the Dirt Track World Championship at K-C Raceway and made about 20 circuits around the oval in a local sprinter. The open-wheel debut was set up by K-C promoter Jimmy Nier, a former sprint car driver who took some laps in Francis’s Valvoline No. 15 Late Model at K-C a few weeks earlier. Nier ran into trouble during his Late Model stint, however, driving under a cable in the track’s infield and ripping the air cleaner and carburetor off the car – bringing Nier ribbing from Francis and his crew, and prompting Francis to be very careful during his sprint car laps so he wouldn’t suffer the same fate as Nier.
Francis believes the World Finals will help bridge the gap between Late Model and sprint car diehards.
“I think there’s gonna be some crossover fans,” Francis said. “There’s gonna be some Late Model fans who say, ‘That was a heckuva sprint car show and I’m gonna go see ‘em race the next time they run close to me,’ and vice versa with the sprint car fans after they watch us race.”
Eckert, meanwhile, thinks the WoO compatriots should do more than just talk and watch each other race during the World Finals.
“On Thursday night after time trials are over, we should swap cars and go out for some more hot laps,” Eckert said with a smile. “I know there’s Late Model guys who have never run a sprint car and sprint car guys who have never run a Late Model, so if we swapped cars it would give everybody an idea of what the other car feels like.”