Fast Talk: Weekend recaps, Bloomquist, Fuller and more
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. World of Outlaws Late Model Series publicist Kevin Kovac substitutes for Michael today (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: We're one day late for an April Fool's question, so you guys won't have to worry about me pulling a fast one on you. Let's start with Farmer City Raceway's Illini 100, where Jimmy Mars held off Darrell Lanigan for a $20,000 victory on the World of Outlaws Late Model Series.
Great crowd, solid field and pleasant spring weather, but a race that's had plenty of drama in past years didn't have much juice this time around as the 100-lapper filtered down to mostly single-file by the second half of the race. What were some of your takeaways, Kevin?
Kevin Kovac: For starters, Jimmy Mars is one great big-race driver. He just continues to add 100-lap victories to his resume. He admittedly said he had never been great at Farmer City, but on a big stage he figured the place out and, not surprisingly, didn't make a mistake on a track that left passing, shall we say, difficult.
I'd have to say that Darrell Lanigan probably had a slightly better car than Mars — he was all over Jimmy late in the race — but with the track taking some rubber Lanigan wasn't going to grab the lead unless Mars made a mistake. And that wasn't very likely to happen.
TT: I was a little surprised Mars hadn't won at Famer City before. Mars is in that time of the year when he won't be racing much as he and Mars Race Cars co-workers finish up race cars for folks in the upper Midwest, but $20,000 must come in handy for racing once in a two-month stretch.
Joshua Joiner: I'll add that I was definitely surprised to see Mars win it in his first race since, for him, an average Speedweeks. Like you said, Kevin, it goes to show he really knows how to step it up in big races.
KK: Overall, the Illini weekend couldn't have gone better from an operational aspect. There was already some great anticipation about the race returning to Farmer City after a year's hiatus, and then we just struck gold with the weather. You know that the Illini can be a home run if there's good weather, and that's what we got. It was a record Illini crowd, maybe even the biggest in Farmer City's history from some accounts.
People were standing all around the track when the 100-lapper came out! And with the weather being so great, what an atmosphere it created — everybody seemed really happy to be there, hanging out in the pits, fans grilling food, drinking beer and playing cornhole in the parking lot.
TT: A veteran like Mars is basically unbeatable in that situation, but as Kevin mentioned, Lanigan might've had the best car if he'd had a little more racing room. Obviously Lanigan's been a capable driver for many, many years, but I'm not sure I've ever seen him on top of his game like he's been in 2012. He's been a threat to win every time I've seen him at any track in any condition.
JJ: He's definitely been the most dominant and consistent of the WoO contenders and really even of all drivers for that matter. He could be in for a big year.
TT: When Lanigan first joined the WoO crew eight years ago, I must say I was a little skeptical of him being a national touring driver who could win anywhere. I think I pigeon-holed him as an Eldora-Florence specialist. In 2012, he's clearly a top-tier driver.
KK: Lanigan is absolutely at the top of his game — and totally focused, too. When he falls short of a win, he is visibly irritated. He wants to win bad, and right now he has a program that gives him a shot at a checkered flag seemingly every time he hits the track.
TT: One thing we saw at Farmer City was that pre-race track prep that's observed by not only those in the grandstands, but by scores of trackside competitors and crew members, all with their two cents on what should be done to improve the track surface.
That's something that's unique to dirt racing compared to virtually any other sport. Basketball players don't sit around suggesting different heights to the hoop right before the game, and football players don't beg officials to move the goalposts after halftime. I don't envy the surface prep guys at any track who are taking a stab at working the oval with so many critics looking on. Certainly track prep workers take more heat when things go bad than receive pats on the back when things go good — and we media-types are guilty of that, too.
KK: Oh, yeah, being a track prep guy is tough. Everybody standing there has a suggestion. Maybe some other work would've made the Farmer City surface better for the whole 100 laps and produced the kind of wild, down-to-the-wire race we've seen there in the past, but what's done is done.
JJ: I think one thing to keep in mind is it's still early in the season after a fairly unusual winter in regards to weather. I would think that has to be a bit of a curveball for tracks as they're trying to provide the best surface possible without many weeks of practice or trial and error, if you will.
KK: As for drivers offering track prep tips, I think it would be awesome to let a driver or two come into a track early sometime and spend a day working up the surface like they suggest it should be worked. Then we'll see how it turns out. Just for fun. What do you think?
TT: Let's move to the Lucas Oil Series — can you oblige us, Kevin? — where Don O'Neal scored his fourth series victory of the season at Jackson (Miss.) Motor Speedway and Jared Landers won a back-and-forth duel with Jimmy Owens at Lone Star Speedway in Kilgore, Texas. O'Neal's personal three-race win streak ended when he broke at Lone Star, but he looked strong at Jackson, didn't he Joshua?
JJ: He definitely looked strong in the second half of Jackson's feature. For the first half, he looked like he was headed for a second-place finish. It's crazy how — for the second week in a row — he turned it on and ran down Jimmy Owens and again passed him for the win.
I know I keep saying this over and over, but the question for O'Neal is — can he be consistent? He had so many big wins last year, but then he also had some races where he looked well below average. He's going to have to find a way to avoid races like Saturday at Lone Star or else Owens could be headed for another Lucas Oil title, because if anyone knows how to be consistent, it's Owens.
KK: I've personally only seen O'Neal this year run practice at Screven (he blew up after a few laps) and during the DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia (he was a strong second in the WoO finale), but I've sure seen his name in plenty of headlines already. At a glance he seems to really be comfortable with his deal, just having fun right now. That's a big part of running up front.
TT: The Landers-Owens battle at Lone Star was probably the most compelling action of the weekend anywhere, and Landers really gutted it out in repelling Owens. It's been an up-and-down season for Landers, who admittedly struggled big time switching to the Barry Wright Race Cars. Even at Brownstown at few weeks ago he was erratic in his heat race, getting into Scott Bloomquist to nearly spin him, then spinning himself a lap later while collecting Bloomquist and John Blankenship.
But just when you think he's off-the-charts wild, he'll summon a performance like Lone Star that exposes that raw talent. And really, with just a few years in Late Models, he's relatively raw, right?
JJ: One thing people forget about Landers is not only is does he only have a couple years of experience in Late Models, but he's also been in three different chassis brands during that short time. You talk about guys like Lanigan, O'Neal, Owens and other veterans hitting their stride — how long have they had to fine tune their driving style to their chassis of choice? I don't know if we'll ever see Landers be consistent enough to win a championship on a national touring series with his all-out style, but he's definitely going to win a ton of races in the coming years, and probably some big ones at that.
TT: For all his flaws, Landers seemed to use sheer will to make sure his No. 5 beat Owens to the checkers ... that's the kind of skill you can't teach.
JJ: It was an impressive performance. And that's got to be a big confidence booster for him as he continues to adjust to the Barry Wright car.
KK: There's no doubt that Landers is a gas-masher. And there's no doubt that he very new to Late Model racing. With a solid team behind him and the opportunity to travel, he's going to grow. How far he ascends will depend on how much he's able to refine his driving style — you know, maintain that hard-charging edge, but accent it with the ability to avoid trouble.
TT: Joshua, you reported on Scott Bloomquist's consideration about 2012 plans that may take him off the Lucas Oil tour. We'll see how that turns out, but he's definitely missing the consistency of the past three seasons that led to two titles on that series. What's your hunch about his future?
JJ: This is something that's harder to gauge than you might think. When he first said it, my immediate thought was he's just frustrated right now and the thought will be long forgotten after he wins a couple races. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a real possibility.
The way guys like Owens, O'Neal and Steve Francis are performing, it's going to take a major comeback for Bloomquist to challenge for the title, and if he doesn't get things turned around in the next few races, Bloomquist isn't going to stick around and be an also-ran. Again, this could be a wasted conversation if he starts winning races soon, but I'm not sure he's anywhere close to the level he was at last season.
To be honest, if it wasn't for drawing a front-row starting spot on a daytime surface at Volusia, Bloomquist would be winless on the year right now. He's definitely missing something in his program and maybe returning to an outlaw schedule would be good for him at this point.
TT: The World of Outlaws also had a shakeup among its regulars with Tim Fuller announcing he was stepping back from following the tour full-time, at least for the time being. We're not sure who will keep his buddy Clint Smith in check on the road — just kidding, Clint — but Fuller's decision isn't surprising. Kevin, you've long known Fuller from his big-block modified racing career, and he's just never been fully back up to speed since the split with car owner John Wight, has he?
KK: Fuller's situation is really unfortunate. You just think back to the second half of the 2009 WoO season and how Fuller won four straight races and seven in an 11-race span, and you know he can excel on a national level. The problem is, he never got a chance to carry that rhythm over.
He came back in 2010 with a new in-house motor program with John Wight's Gypsum Express team, so it was basically back to the drawing board for him. He showed some flashes in '10, but nothing like that race-in, race-out strength of '09. Then his deal with Wight went away in '11, and he's been woefully under-equipped and -financed ever since.
TT: Best of luck to him in carving our a regional schedule to will help him get that team on track.
KK: Fuller will tell you he shouldn't have run the whole WoO tour last year. He didn't have the money, equipment or help to do it, but he did the whole schedule just to prove he could with one car. That doesn't put food on his family's table, however, and he's come to the realization that he simply can't keep spending money out of his bank account to keep going. Hopefully he can make some money closer to home this year, maybe catch a break to get him back on the road in 2013. I know he can make national noise.