Fast Talk: Eldora, TV and 2011 season in review
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. Today DirtonDirt.com blogger Dave Argabright, a famed dirt racing author and television reporter, joins us to substitute for Joshua:
Todd Turner: With Dave making his Fast Talk debut, we look forward to tapping his expertise on a few specific topics. But first let’s give kudos to Jonathan Davenport, who earned nearly $25,000 for Sunday’s National 100 victory at East Alabama Motor Speedway.
The Blairsville, Ga., driver’s season had been mostly forgettable until autumn, and in just the past month he’s won six of seven feature starts and more than $80,000. From Virginia to North Carolina to Mississippi and now to Alabama, he’s on a streak that’s arguably the best of the season. No one would’ve predicted this on Labor Day weekend.
Dave Argabright: Jonathan and Barry Wright and their guys have probably found some technical things that have helped, but don’t discount their “mojo” right now. When a racer gets on a streak like this, he starts thinking every race is his race. That little intangible can be the difference between “good” and “great.” It will be interesting to see if they can get through the winter without losing their momentum. I hope they make the trip to Florida in February, because it would add another element to the WinterNationals.
TT: No doubt the mojo is rocking. And as we’ve mentioned, he’s got Cherokee and Swainsboro coming up with another $30,000 total on the line ... he might be one of the few drivers to send the season with a little cash in his pocket.
Michael Rigsby: There were literally races that Davenport and car owner Barry Wright won last year that they totally skipped this year because they were running so poorly. So to answer your question, no one could have predicted this. I got in a spirited debate this weekend with someone about where I have Jonathan in my year-end rankings — spoiler alert: it’s high. I just think if you look at the fields he’s beaten in the past month, it’s as impressive as any Lucas Oil or World of Outlaws race the entire season. I don’t care if it was at the end of the year or not, this was impressive.
TT: Let’s move onto a few non-timely topics here. Roger Slack was recently hired as promoter and general manager at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, where he’ll continue the legacy of track founder Earl Baltes. Slack, who formerly promoted the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, is a Humpy Wheeler protege and clearly brings a Wheeler-like, outside-the-box approach to race promoting.
Dave, you’re well-versed in Eldora’s history and the tradition Baltes instilled at one of the most famous dirt tracks. How do you two see Slack’s innovations blending with the Eldora’s tried-and-true methods?
DA: It will be interesting, for sure. This is not meant as a knock on Roger or anybody else, but I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone match Earl’s legacy at Eldora or any other track. Earl did it in a way we would call old-fashioned: he went out into the community and hung signs on telephone poles, gave away tickets in the small-town barber shops, and engaged himself completely in the surrounding community. His brand of social networking involved face-to-face contact, and it worked beautifully.
Even though technology allows us some new methods of contact, don’t discount the value of traditional promoting. That’s been the secret of Eldora’s success from the very beginning and I hope Roger understands that. It’s not glamorous and it’s a ton of hard work but it’s critical to the success of that or any other track.
TT: Roger is no doubt capable, and in some ways having the balance of being at such an institution where he really can’t move too quickly may be an asset for both ... and a perfect match.
MR: I think one of the reasons Roger took the job, is because he understands exactly that balance. People like to label him as a new-age innovator. But one of the brilliant things about his promoting style is that he really does understand old-school promoting. I told the story a few weeks back about how he called a random fan and thanked them for coming. He gets it, and I don’t see any reason why it won’t continue at Eldora.
DA: The entertainment marketplace has never been more competitive, but there is great opportunity for those who can find creative ways to engage spectators. People want to be entertained and they will support those who entertain them.
TT: Any hints from either of you about where Roger would start nibbling around the edges with promotional ideas or changes?
MR: I think the main focus is the racing surface. The main bulk of the attention goes there Year One, which I fully expect Roger, Larry, and Chad to get dialed in.
DA: That’s exactly right, Michael. The basic element that has been a source of concern is the track surface. But they really can’t talk a lot about that until they have a few successful races. But I look for Roger to maintain a high profile through the winter to let people know he’s looking to do good things there.
TT: Let’s look to your “other” media connections in television, Dave. This concludes a season which saw continued TV coverage of the sport, most notably the first major broadcast network programming with Lucas Oil Speedway’s Show-Me 100 on CBS. Will we see more of that Dave? Or is it just another baby step for Dirt Late Model racing in broadening its reach on the tube?
DA: The news I have is that Lucas Oil Studios will cover about the same number of series races as in 2011, with the Show-Me again appearing on CBS. I have not seen anything official but that’s the word I’m getting from the studio. The weather made a lot of headaches and added quite a bit of expense, and that’s tough on anybody’s budget.
But it’s obvious to me that Lucas Oil — particularly Forrest Lucas — really cares about Dirt Late Model racing. Yes, it’s a business proposition, but there is more to it. The company is involved in a lot of different forms of motorsports, but when you visit with Forrest you notice a little gleam in his eye when he talks about Dirt Late Models. He is a passionate man by nature, and when he cares about something it’s very important to him. That emotion has filtered down to everybody at the studio, and they approach these races with a lot of pride. They pour their heart and soul into making the best broadcasts they can, they really do.
TT: With the season just about wrapped up, let’s broaden our review of 2011. If we can envision things five years down the line, what will be the most memorable trends and impact of 2011 on Dirt Late Model racing?
I’ll toss a few possibilities out there: The definitive end of the Bloomquist-Moyer domination era? The sport hits rock bottom in the economic downturn with multiple track closures and lower car counts? A season with memorable points chases on both national tours?
DA: Wow, five years is a long time, Todd! It’s easy to predict the end of the Moyer-Bloomquist era simply because of their age, but I’ll be they’re still having an impact on the sport in five years, playing some role. And our economy appears to be turning around a little, and maybe teams will have a little better go of finding sponsor dollars in 2012. But long term, I’d say we won’t see massive changes in our sport. I see some ups and downs but overall stability.
TT: Following up on my own observation about track closures, one thing I noticed when running down a list of the tracks that closed early in the season is the number that opened again before season’s end. Definitely tracks come and go in this sport, but maybe instead of 2011 being a year where tracks closed for good, it was simply a year of more closings and openings than usual.
MR: I don’t think there’s a home run answer here, but I have a hard time thinking it won’t be the points chases. Bloomquist-Owens (Lucas Oil Series) and Richards-Eckert (World of Outlaws) were about as dramatic as it gets, and while the economy, etc. will certainly be discussed, I think if you had to pick one thing, it’s the points titles.
TT: I’d also suggest it’s been a year with some impressive newcomers to the sport, even as some of the long-timer racers are calling it quits or nearing the end of their careers. Mike Spatola and Morgan Bagley lead a bunch of drivers who appear will have an impact on the sport five years down the line and more.
DA: It seemed that Owens and Bloomquist really elevated their program this year, and I get a vibe that other racers are growing concerned about their ability to keep up.
TT: Likewise, what do you all see as the sport’s biggest challenges heading into 2012?
DA: Frankly, the key element is having young people want to come race in our sport. That’s a great sign and I hope it continues. Challenges? Malcomb Forbes once observed that “the answer to 99 out of 100 questions is money.” That’s the big element of 2012: the economy, and whether or not racers can afford to race, and fans can afford to come watch.
TT: I think the conventional wisdom is fans can still afford a ticket (maybe not as many as before), but the cost of a race team gets pretty heavy in an economic downtown. The question is will fans continue to buy tickets if the product isn’t quite what they’ve enjoyed during the sport’s best years.
MR: I think the single biggest concern has to be focused on weekly racing in 2012. While it appears the national events are thriving, the reports of weekly racing struggling on ever level are very concerning. What do we do? What can be done? All questions that have to be answered. The loss of weekly racing is not something Dirt Late Model fans, sanctioning bodies, series, or anyone else want to see.
DA: Great point, Michael. But what is probably happening is that local fans are going to some of the bigger events and foregoing some of their local racing, because they’re rationing their dollars. That’s why it’s critical for the sport to reach out and attract new fans ... that’s what will keep everybody healthy. I don’t know exactly how you do that, but I know it has to come.
TT: Before we wrap up, let’s take a more specific look at 2012 regarding the early-season Georgia-Florida Speedweeks. There’s already been some shuffling of schedules and tracks with the extra week afforded by NASCAR pushing the Daytona 500 to the last Sunday in February, and now Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla., announced yesterday it’s going head-to-head with East Bay Raceway Park for three nights.
What’s the takeaway? More Speedweeks racing is better for everyone? East Bay will struggle to maintain its car count? Too much of a good thing?
DA: Any time tracks schedule head-to-head against each other, everybody loses. The fans, the racers, the tracks themselves. I don’t understand why anybody who is, what, 100 miles from East Bay would schedule on the same dates. This is not the kind of creative thinking that’s going to make our sport stronger and more healthy.
TT: There are some conflicting dates in Georgia, too, and the new Golden Isles owners haven’t announced their specific plans, although they initially indicated they wanted to keep going with the Super Bowl. Things may shake out a bit as we get closer.
It’s also interesting to note that Ocala ran on Sunday last year, and now that night sits as an open date between the traditional East Bay-Volusia weeks.
MR: I’ll refrain from making “who’s-going-where” predictions, but I will say the UMP tire rule at Ocala will make things interesting. Honesty, I don’t think it affects East Bay that much in that Ocala will get an influx of the UMP guys that were headed to Volusia the next week anyways. I’m with Todd, it’s too far out to get worked up about it. It’ll settle.
DA: If only all the promoters would sit around the campfire and sing “Kumbaya.”