Fast Talk: Checking in at the Wild West Shootout
Here's the latest edition of Fast Talk, a new DirtonDirt.com feature appearing each Monday (oops, we're a day late this week as we get into the rhythm of the 2012 season). 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: We'll definitely have an Arizona-centric view this week as we're in the middle of Tucson's Wild West Shootout at USA Raceway, where our live production pay-per-view begins with Wednesday evening's race and continues through the weekend tripleheader.
With more than 70 drivers so far, more campers than ever and an overflowing pit area, it seems like this miniseries has really carved itself a niche as an alternative to Georgia-Florida Speedweeks. What do you guys think?
Michael Rigsby: I don't really know if it's an "alternative" as some guys will do both, and others were never going to Florida anyways. But I have heard from more than a few drivers out here that they view this as more of a "fun trip" than they do Florida, as there are days off here, time to relax, etc. At the end of the day, Florida will always be the official kickoff of the season, but Arizona has grown by leaps and bounds. The fact that 70 cars are here is staggering, and shows that it just in fact may be a bounce-back year for dirt late model racing.
TT: One thing that often comes up among drivers in Tucson is comparing it to Florida, and everyone seems to like the laid back feel out here. Definitely a different vibe. One mentioned it's nice to avoid a higher tire bill, too.
MR: And you can't complain about the racing at all out here. I guess some people's standards are a lot higher than mine, but when you have that much side-by-side racing during the day, in my opinion you're doing something right.
Joshua Joiner: It's definitely staked out a place in our sport and seems to be only getting better as an event. I don't know if I would label it as an alternative to Speedweeks because it just seems so different. I guess I would have to compare entry sheets from year's past and see how many drivers who normally compete in Speedweeks races are now going out there instead. But either way, it's definitely made a name for itself as an event and I'm sure you could make an argument that its success will hurt Speedweeks events to some degree.
TT: Following Michael's point, something that continues to fascinate me is the ability cars have to continually race all over USA Raceway's track surface during the daytime. We had a little hiccup for Sunday's feature, but I'd chalk that up to the hurry-up mode amid rain sprinkles that prevented brief intermissions to manicure the top groove. This place is so fast — and we'll see that Wednesday night — that daytime races might even be preferable here. Even throttle-masher Don O'Neal, if you can believe it, told race director Chris Kearns that Friday night's practice surface was too fast.
MR: I have been to so many bad daytime races in my life. Literally I'd say 90 percent of all daytime races I've ever been to have been horrible. This, however, is the great exception. Take a look at the heat finishes, and there has been some incredible down-to-the-wire endings. It's not just a good track out West. It's a good track period. Daytime, nighttime, it doesn't matter, this place is built to race on. One person out here — who never wants to go on the record with anything — told me that he's been to Lucas races, Outlaws races, crown jewels, etc., and this facility and racetrack rank right up there.
JJ: I think the quality of the racing and the track is probably one of the biggest draws for the Wild West Shootout. Besides being an early-season tuneup, when the racing is as good as it usually is out there, it makes drivers and fans alike want to make the trip. There are some drivers that complain about the passing points, and some fans might complain as well, but that almost seems like a selling point for mid-level and regional race teams, in my opinion.
It's almost like what I've said before about Eldora's inversion wheel. The top teams who qualify good hate it, but the mid-level, lower-budget teams see it as an equalizer to some degree. And those guys are the ones who are really filling out the car counts.
TT: With Billy Moyer and Tim McCreadie capturing feature victories the first weekend, Moyer's is no surprise (he's an eight-time WWS winner) while McCreadie has proven to be the quickest study among several drivers here blending with new chassis and/or teams. Michael, you'd predicted a quick confidence builder would be important for T-Mac, and he followed his first-night run of 13th-to-fifth with a $5,000 victory the second night. That's a good start in his move to Warrior Race Cars.
MR: With McCreadie, he could have been racing on the moon in a Howe Car. The point being, it didn't matter what he was in, or who he was racing, he just needed to "feel the winning" again. He joked with us after the interview the other night that people act like he's been on some terrible two-year slump, and that he doesn't feel like he's been that far off.
And in some ways he's probably right, but I know that he didn't really look comfortable, and for him to get a win this early, no matter where or when, was big for him, setting a tone for the rest of the year.
JJ: Barring any major setbacks the rest of the week, McCreadie has to feel good heading into Speedweeks next month, which is good news because with 10 World of Outlaws points races it'll be extremely important to be run good down there.
TT: Joshua's having to evaluate this from afar, but let's go over a few things that have caught our attention, or any surprises in a field of drivers that offers geographic diversity.
First for me might be that Frank Heckenast Jr. has had one of the fastest cars — notice that he blew past Sunday's winner McCreadie in a heat race before finding the wall — but has run into trouble each afternoon. Seems like it's critical for him to get a good finish and get back on track, because he could be a threat to win.
I'm also impressed by Iowa youngster Justin Kay (stepping up from spec-engine racing); Nebraska's John Anderson let one get away against McCreadie on Sunday; and Ricky Thornton Jr. seems to be the best home-state hope this year as R.C. Whitwell's without a regular ride.
MR: Frank Heckenast Jr. clearly has one of the fastest cars, as on the stopwatch, and to the naked eye he's been great, just unable to finish. He, like McCreadie is another "confidence" guy that needs a shot in the arm early in the year, and it'd be nice to see him get it before he leaves Tucson. I think as far as home-state guys go, they're going to get shutout. There's just too good of a traveling contingent out here for them to crack the top group. O'Neal will win one, Moyer another, and the last two are up for grabs.
JJ: I've been impressed with the overall performance of Warrior Race Cars. Not only with McCreadie's victory, but Will Vaught is looking good so far as well. I know Hollingsworth has struggled a bit, but with his 10th-place finish Sunday, that was three Warriors in the top 10. I think that's a pretty impressive start to the year for a chassis brand that's hoping to compete for a championship on a national touring series this year.
TT: Never in its history (with at least three races) has the Arizona miniseries gone without a repeat winner. You certain that streak will continue Michael? With O'Neal, Mars, Clanton and Babb here, I'd say there's a shot of six different winners.
MR: I say Moyer gets another one. He was in another zip code the other night, and I don't see a chance he doesn't roll to at least one more win. There's always a surprise guy what either runs well, however, or wins a race. Could it be Heckenast? Let's pick one darkhorse that could do it, and I mean real darkhorse Joshua, not you saying "I think Jimmy Mars is a darkhorse" mine is Morgan Bagley in the new orange front-end rocket. Anyone have theirs?
TT: I'll throw two names out there: Brad Looney and Klint Byars ... not sure they can crack victory lane, but both have a good top-five in them.
MR: Byars looks like a guy who could win a race ... I agree with that.
JJ: I always pick a legitimate dark horse, Michael. That's why I'll go with Chris Simpson.
MR: I suppose I'll take that. Todd, is that a legal "darkhorse" pick?
JJ: If not, I'll switch to Shannon Babb.
TT: I'll give Simpson to him, only because earlier he actually brought up car counts on his own.