Fast Talk: Putting the wraps on Dream XVII
Here's the latest edition of Fast Talk, a new DirtonDirt.com feature appearing each Monday. Staffers Michael Rigsby, Todd Turner and Joshua Joiner will gather weekly for a roundtable discussion about what's going on in Dirt Late Model racing:
Todd Turner: After a long week at Eldora, we have lots of interesting storylines to tackle following Dream XVII, where Don O'Neal finally broke through with a crown jewel victory.
It's certainly been a long time coming for the 46-year-old Indiana driver, especially considering some heartbreaking near-misses in recent years, particularly losing the lead at the North-South 100 at the white flag. I couldn't help but think as Billy Moyer cut into his lead in the closing laps how cruel it would've been for him to lose this one in similar fashion. | Complete Dream XVII coverage
Most fans would've guessed O'Neal would've had an Eldora victory before this point in his career, but it's always great to see a new winner at the Big E, isn't it?
Michael Rigsby: This was easily the most popular victory to the crowd since the Slider Heard Round the World by Brian Birkhofer at 2002's World 100. The crowd erupted in victory lane for O'Neal. I think it speaks volumes to the overall national knowledge of Eldora fans that they were aware of O'Neal's misfortunes, and what this one meant to him. It would have been stunning had Moyer won three big Eldora races in a row. And maybe most importantly, it took a race that wasn't that great, and made it really compelling with the lap-87 pass.
Joshua Joiner: It is good to see a new winner at Eldora. And it's even better to see someone who has been looking for that first crown jewel victory for so long. I was thinking the same thing as Todd in the closing laps. With as hard as O'Neal was driving, nearly hitting the wall in turn two every lap, and Moyer closing back in late, I couldn't help but think something was going to happen and O'Neal would miss out again. And yes, that would have been painful to watch.
TT: You're right Michael, the Moyer-Lanigan battle up front was compelling, but without O'Neal advancing from 12th, this could've really been a race where naysayers would've been howling about the racing at Eldora.
MR: I'm able to get a unique perspective of the racetrack from where I shoot video from, and it certainly looked like a slot rail there for a while with the cars hugged to the wall in a solid black streak. But O'Neal's charge sort of infused an energy into the crowd that was lacking, and that the racetrack sorely needed. Was it the best race ever? No, but it was definitely entertaining.
JJ: I thought the single line around the top added a different aspect to the race. Obviously I would rather see a track with racing from top to bottom, but the Moyer-Lanigan battle was actually interesting to watch with Lanigan having to size Moyer up and really work at trying to set him up rather than just driving by him. And it was the same way with O'Neal. He really had to work to get to the front, passing each car one at a time.
TT: Moyer was none too happy with the contact with O'Neal in their battle for the lead. But anyone who has watched O'Neal's hard-charging career — including Moyer, as the Hall of Famer himself suggested — really couldn't have been surprised that his first crown jewel victory might include a little contact along the way. It's really only fitting isn't it? O'Neal has gotta be near the top of the list of Dirt Late Model's most aggressive racers.
MR: O'Neal is the top of the list. The guy is equal parts fury and talent — and I mean that in a good way. There's a reason when he drops into the UMP Summernationals tour he's amazingly hard to beat. If it's a 30-lap sprint for money, O'Neal is very tough to beat. The aggressive drivers list: No. 1 O'Neal; No. 2 everybody else.
TT: The Dream's sixth straight lower car count is worthy of our discussion, as it's the most obvious indicator of a race's health. The event-low 91 cars, 13 fewer than last season, was actually probably boosted by some surprising and random entrants — the Englishes, the Breazeale-Henderson team, Johnny Pursley among others — which makes you realize the race was fortunate to get as many cars as it did.
There's no doubt the economy hits Eldora just like the rest of the sport, but there's plenty of skepticism that the drop at the Big E's major events could reversed by shaking up things a bit. As one car owner told me, Eldora's "magic" seems to be waning.
We did see this weekend the $100 bonuses for fast hot-lapping cars, drivers tossed shirts and Frisbees into the stands after the pre-race meeting and a few quirks from a track that's admittedly old school. Can we come up with some ideas that would freshen the Dream and World 100 to help stem the tide of cars counts that are admittedly great for other tracks, but below Eldora's standards?
MR: One thing I definitely noticed for the first time since I've been going to Eldora (first year was 1989), was that this racetrack, which is definitely old school and rarely strays from tradition, broke out of its shell a bit and tried some new things. And while it wasn't wild changes this weekend, the fact that they did the bonuses, went to 20-lap heats on short notice, and really tried to appease the drivers shows a shift for me in the attitude of the racetrack. They've identified the fact that, for whatever reason, not as many cars are coming to the premier races anymore, and that they need to try and do something to fix it, if fixing it is possible. Small steps, and I think this was the first of those this weekend.
Obviously everyone at Eldora works their butts off to put on a race, but it's one of the few racetracks that can depend on tradition and name alone to carry car count and event. But that's not going to work anymore, and I think they're aware of that, and trying to steer things the right direction. I'd look for even more changes in the future.
The biggest gripe I hear from drivers is the start money of $1,500. It's not embarrassing, but realized that most teams spend three days at Eldora. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, I just know that's what drivers complain most about to me.
JJ: I wouldn't mind seeing Eldora add practice laps to Thursday's schedule. Even if it's just one or two sessions per car, I think a lot more mid-level race teams would be willing to come to Eldora knowing they'll have some time to adapt to the the track. That especially goes for drivers from other regions who rarely compete at Eldora. I think those drivers will feel like they have a better shot at making the feature if they have some time to practice. Even though in reality the practice probably won't help much because the guys like Bloomquist and Owens are also going to get more track time and potentially get faster, it will at least give drivers the idea that they can be more competitive. And that goes a long way. With tighter budgets these days, many teams simply can't spend the money to go to a race knowing they don't have a very good chance at making the feature.
TT: Michael, you mentioned the 20-lap heats. That's a first for me there as the unexpected change from traditional 15-lappers was sold as bonus laps for fast qualifiers dropped to the third row via the inversion.
First off, it seemed kind of backward to me to typically have 20-car heats with just 15 laps, but when the heat fields are as few as 12 cars, extend them to 20 laps. It appeared to simply extend a program that already lasted until nearly midnight another 30 or 45 minutes, and some of the heats turned into survival of the fittest, with only six finishers in one of them.
I guess this is actually reverts to the never-ending question about inversions. I'd say stop-gap measures like adding laps aren't the solution. As Steve Francis pointed out, more than one-third of the entries were inverted in the heats, so the hated inversion is even harder to swallow with 91 cars instead of, say, 140.
If Eldora is going to tinker with inversions like this, I'd like to see something pre-planned and announced ahead of time. I know you're not an inversion fan, Michael. What do you guys think?
MR: I've always just felt about the invert that you're flipping good cars for good cars. It's not like a local show, where a guy who's a weekend warrior, and clearly not as good can start up front, and the better guys start sixth, and they'll pass them in four or five laps.
This weekend is a perfect example. You take Billy Moyer who "struggled" during qualifying, and flip it and put him on the pole. You don't think he's going to figure it out from Friday to Saturday? At the same time, I find myself mildly excited when "6" comes up on the inversion wheel, so maybe I'm talking out both sides of my mouth. I don't mind the 20-lap heats at all, but it was more than a little bizarre to see only five cars left running in an Eldora heat race. That was the first time I really "felt" the car count being down.
JJ: I'm not a big fan of inversions, but I really don't know how much of an impact tinkering with the inversion would have as far as car count goes. I know plenty of drivers complain when they're hurt by the inversion, but I really think some, if not most, drivers go into the weekend thinking the invert could help them if they don't qualify too great. Look at Moyer. Do you think he's complaining about the inversion after this weekend?
And to be honest, the mid-level guys that aren't turning out for the event like the did in the past aren't the guys that are against it. While they may not admit it, I have a feeling many of those mid-level teams go to Eldora with hopes that they could get lucky and end up on the front row of a heat race because of the invert.
TT: Since everyone is fresh after Dream weekend, it's the perfect time to launch the month-long, 25-race UMP DIRTcar Summernationals. There's always lots of talk about drivers considering the Hell Tour, but it does seem like an interesting mix with Ronny Lee Hollingsworth, Kent Robinson, Scott James and others among those planning significant series stints along with the usual suspects. Any predictions on surprise winners or title contenders?
MR: Honestly, this is the most exciting Summernationals field they will have had in a while. Let's not forget the Dream's fourth-place finisher Will Vaught is also starting out on the tour. You'll have an amazing combination of mashers, wheelmen, great drivers, and young stars-in-the-waiting. I'm telling you, among Babb, Feger, Moyer Jr., Hollingsworth, Korte, Erb, Unzicker, Sullivan, James — who's going to win some races by the way — it's gonna be wild. This is compelling racing night-after-night. If you're contemplating going to a Summernationals race, don't just think about it. Go. It'll be worth it this year.
JJ: While it may not be a surprise, I really think James will be a contender and end up with quite a few victories on the tour. He and the Riggs Motorsports team seem to have things going pretty good, and I know he's hungry to win some races after coming close a few times already this year.
TT: Joshua will be embarking on the tour for the first time, so Michael, maybe we should give him a heads up on our favorite tracks. Let's go with a favorite, maybe also an unheralded track ... and a little advice for a series rookie.
MR: I have a few favorites.
TT: Limit it to 17 or fewer, please. There are obviously a lot of great tracks on the tour — Brownstown, Cedar Lake, La Salle, Macon, Attica and Fairbury are among my favorites for different reasons. But I'll go with Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Ind., because the Summernationals is your only chance to enjoy Late Models at a track that never disappoints. It's tight, fast, well-operated and we've had great series races there in recent seasons. My under-the-radar track is Lincoln Park Speedway, which, like Haubstadt, is more of a sprint-car stronghold. The series returned to the Putnamville, Ind., oval last season for the first time in forever, and while the surface was too rough, I loved the perspective from the hillside grandstands and the track is a worthy tour addition. Hey, I picked two Indiana tracks!
MR: My heart will always be with Fairbury as the emotional core of the Summernationals, but as far as pure racing, Tri-State Speedway is tough to beat. Every time we go there the racing has been great, and there's usually contact and some hurt feelings. You know you're going to see a great race there.
As far as unheralded, how about a track that spent much of its existence being dogged by Illinois racing fans, only to really turn it around the past four or five years in Peoria Speedway. The track that was once a stepsister to the Farmer City-Fairbury combo has really busted out and provided some great racing the last couple of years.
As far as advice, don't let one bad night get you down. Two years ago I had a bad night shooting video, and I walked downcast past Jeep Van Wormer. He asked me what the problem was, and I told him I didn't think I shot a good race. He laughed and said: "Just like us, there's always tomorrow night, Rigsby." That made it all worth it.
TT: Make friends with UMP's Sam Driggers, learn how to pivot instead of spin in the Macon infield (or you'll become quite dizzy), count the number of times you spot Dennis Erb Jr.'s recognizable blue hauler on the highways, hire a translator to decipher Jack Sullivan's quotes, and be very afraid if any crew members mention Saran Wrap after a late-night celebration.