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Fast Talk: A look ahead to Labor Day weekend

August 29, 2011, 8:10 am

Here's the latest edition of Fast Talk, a new DirtonDirt.com feature appearing each Monday. Staffers Michael Rigsby, Todd Turner and Joshua Joiner gather weekly for a roundtable discussion about who's hot, who's not and other issues regarding Dirt Late Model racing:

Todd Turner: The Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series tripleheader took center stage this weekend and Don O'Neal was the big winner, getting back-to-back victories on the series for the first time in seven years by picking up trophies at Lawrenceburg, Ind., and Bardstown, Ky.

The Martinsville, Ind., driver has been a little hot and cold this season, and some of his biggest victories have come outside the Lucas Oil Series (the Dream, for instance) or in the Illinois-based Moring Motorsports car instead of his regular MasterSbilt house car.

If all his success had come on the Lucas Oil circuit this year we'd probably have a whale of a three-way battle in the points chase.

Joshua Joiner: That's the difference between O'Neal and guys like Jimmy Owens and Scott Bloomquist. O'Neal is no doubt a great driver, but he's not on the level of Owens or Bloomquist because he doesn't have near the consistency they have. He can come from nowhere to win the Dream, but then can't muster a top-10 finish even when he starts on the pole of the North-South and the Topless. There's no doubt if he could be more consistent it would make things a lot more interesting on the Lucas Oil tour, but right now he's just not at that level.

Michael Rigsby: I think that's totally reflected in our Top 25, where I'm not sure anyone's peaked higher or lower than Don. One week I say to myself, "he looks like the best driver in the country," and then "man, he's really struggling right now." Some people dog us for moving guys too much in our Top 25 too much up and down, but that's the nature of a real poll.

It's a feast or famine sport, and O'Neal is feasting right now. I'm not sure there's a person in the country that doesn't think Don's not one of the best drivers in the country — he's just been a tad inconsistent

TT: When O'Neal had his winningest seasons about 10 years ago, he was running a mix of regional races and not on a national tour ... I know it's hindsight, but it would've been interesting to see if he would've been on a major tour then, where his career would be today. In reality these last few seasons have been his only real shots at full-time on a national series.

MR: I think in his heart he's a mixed-bag kind of driver like you described, but with the MasterSbilt gig, it's a national tour for him for the foreseeable future.

TT: After a relatively light special event schedule this past weekend, let's look ahead to the busy Labor Day races and some of the intriguing storylines. West Virginia is key for the races the Mountain State will — and won't — host.

Let's start with the Carl Short's Hillbilly 100 that's moving, for the first time, outside West Virginia to Portsmouth (Ohio) Raceway Park as the finale of a Lucas Oil Series weekend doubleheader.

The race remains roughly in the same region, but it definitely loses its historical ties to West Virginia and the tons of West Virginia cars that often supported that race at Pennsboro and Tyler County. It also sees a drop in purse from $40,000-to-win to $25,000. Is moving the Hillbilly at Portsmouth the beginning of a new era in the race, or signs it's slipping in importance?

MR: The Hillbilly is always one of those races, where you can't really ever decide where to put it in the hierarchy of Late Model special events. I think it's probably always been close to being a crown jewel, but never really gotten there.

The fields for the Hillbilly 100 are probably some of the most fascinating in the history of the sport as well. I'm sure there are years where it looks thin, and then they'll be a random year where the best drivers in the country drove to West Virginia to the race

It's a neat event in that way. I honestly think the racing will be good at Portsmouth this year, but I'm fascinated to see what the car count will be. Portsmouth is a more attractive track for drivers, so will that pay off?

TT: One thing that's always worked against the Hillbilly is it's held during one of the busiest weekends of the year, while many other specials have kind of carved out a weekend that precludes competition from too many other races.

JJ: It's never good to see a race moved around and cut in pay like the Hillbilly 100 has been this year, but $25,000 is still good money for a one-day show. I'm sure Mr. Short didn't want to move the race away from West Virginia, but with the circumstances the way they are — West Virginia Motor Speedway's shortening of the track still incomplete — I guess he didn't have much of a choice. At least there's still going to be a Hillbilly 100 this year instead of seeing the race take a hiatus. Hopefully we'll see the race come back strong with a larger purse in 2012, wherever it's held.

TT: In West Virginia this weekend is Tyler County's Black Diamond 125 weekend, the event the Middlebourne, W.Va., track's first-year promotional team added last year to replace the loss of the Hillbilly. It's a small track with big plans, but after seeing last year's smaller crowd and camping turnout — compared to the seasons Tyler County hosted the Hillbilly 100 — it's hard to imagine promoters broke even on the huge Black Diamond purse.

Yet the track returns this Labor Day weekend with a similar purse ($157,000 total) and again an unusual four-feature format, but with a key addition — World of Outlaws Late Model Series sanctioning. That's no doubt a boost for the track and the series, which saw its previous Labor Day events canceled by the closure of Tri-City Speedway.

Will the WoO sanctioning help this event gain traction or is this a race that will still be trying to carve its niche on a busy weekend?

MR: I think no matter what happens it'll still have to carve it's niche out, but one thing's for sure, from the perspective strictly as a Late Model fan, I find this event totally intriguing. It's at a racetrack known for good racing, and let's be serious, three or four guys will leave with really good paydays.

As one of the best Dirt Late Model drivers in the country told me: "Hey man, someone has to win all that money, it might as well be me." Forty-eight drivers make at least $1,000. There's not many tracks better than that. The million-dollar question: Can the promoters make it work over the long haul? I hope so, but I guess we'll find out in the September 2012 edition of Fast Talk.

JJ: I don't see where the WoO sanctioning can hurt the race. I know there are some local drivers who might shy away with the extra high-caliber competition the series brings, but I think overall the sanctioning will help.

As far as the race carving its niche, that's something that just takes time. The race has to be attractive with all that money on the line and spread around like it is. And the format seems to be fan-friendly as well. Hopefully the race will catch on and stay around for a while.

TT: What do you all think of the format that allows for the unusual paydays Michael mentioned? Friday's UFO-sanctioned feature pays $8,000 to the winner, while Saturday's racing splits the field for a pair of $10,000-to-win events before a weekend-capping $20,000 finale.

It's slightly modified from last year, when I remember the three-feature night provided no real climax. The preliminary feature victories by Donnie Moran, who grabbed his richest victory in several years, and Brian Birkhofer were perhaps a bit overshadowed by the anticipation of the final race of the night. But instead of the night's action peaking with the third feature, in some ways it seemed like an afterthought (even though the Devin Friese-Jimmy Mars tangle provided some controversy).

MR: I think the format is cool, and I don't care what anyone says. I mean, isn't it good to shake it up every once and a while? People get so weirded out in this sport by change, but to have one event a year with something like this is cool I think.

TT: I like something different, too, but last year it seemed like fans were waiting for when the "big moment" would happen. I think that's solved somewhat by making the last race $20,000-to-win. Last year, the twin features were $20,000-to-win and the finale was "only" $10,000.

JJ: I would guess that most drivers would like the format. There's plenty of money up for grabs and it's spread around so there's more chances to cash in. How the format is for the fans is another question. More racing sounds like a good thing to me, but I guess it could be a bit of overkill. If the race continues in future years, I think we'll see more and more fans warm up to it and look forward to seeing something different.

TT: OK, to wrap up, let's all come up with a Labor Day weekend prediction. Any race, any track, any winner you want among the 50 special events during the weekend.

MR: One prediction I have is that the Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury is getting a great shot in the arm with Birkhofer, Mars, Moyer and others all coming back to the best tailgating track in America. I say Mars wins another PDC title there. I say whoever wins Saturday at Portsmouth, will also win Sunday, and we'll some of the fun, most random winners in Dirt Late Model history at the Black Diamond.

TT: I'll go with two predictions. Eddie Carrier Jr. will win at Portsmouth for his second Hillbilly victory, and Mark Burgtorf will end his winless streak on the Deery Brothers Summer Series with a $10,000 victory at 34 Raceway.

JJ: I'm predicting Owens and Bloomquist split victories at Portsmouth. Not sure which one wins which race.

MR: Way to go out on a limb Joshua! Come on, give us something exciting! (In other news, Joshua predicts that Owens or Bloomquist will win the Lucas Oil title.)

JJ: It's not a safe bet. O'Neal could beat 'em both this weekend!

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