Fast Talk: Lathroum's upset and favorite race formats
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 (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: Let’s recap the weekend starting with Jamie Lathroum’s career-richest $20,000 payday at Virginia Motor Speedway’s USA 100, his first victory on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. On a night when the rugged track conditions gave seemingly everyone fits, Lathroum handled it best. Does that type of track surface opens things up so a regional standout like Lathroum can sneak in and slay the national stars?
Michael Rigsby: I don't think you can point to the track and simply say that was it. Lathroum has been really good at that place in the past, and was sort of due for a win like that. Obviously that levels the playing field a bit, but let's give credit to Jamie, too. He’s a hell of a regional standout, and on that night, it was just his time. It was a different Virginia Motor than I've seen in the past though — a bit rough and tumble, one that I'm sure the fans enjoyed, and made it unique.
TT: It seemed like the surface contributed to a night where some of the Lucas Oil guys might have to mend some fences, so to speak, along with a few fenders.
Joshua Joiner: There's no doubt that track conditions can often help level the playing field by causing problems for everyone, and some times those problems can work out in the favor of regional or local teams. The Carolina Crown in Lancaster, S.C., earlier this year comes to mind as a similar situation. But that's not to say that Lathroum didn't earn the win. Those regional guys still have to put themselves in a position to win the race, and the fact that they can survive the track conditions shows they're also working hard on their program during the week at the shop.
TT: Let’s move to the World of Outlaws Late Model Series weekend near St. Louis where a couple of UMP racers turned back the WoO travelers. Let’s start with Brandon Sheppard notching his first WoO victory in the Rocket Chassis house car around fifth-mile Belle-Clair, where it seems like everyone tip-toes around that tiny track. Sheppard had to find his footing with this team during the Summernationals. Does this win signal they’ve turned the corner?
MR: It was amazing to me how much the entire team cited the Summernationals as the big reason they're better now. We often hear that as a cliche, but it really sounds like Mark, Brandon, Matt, they all said after Friday night, they learned so much during that month, that they're really ready to go for the rest of the year.
Overall it was a really cool night at Belle-Clair. Good crowd, huge car count (52 Late Models!), and as I was walking in, I thought the most telling line of the night came from Ken Schrader. He stopped me and said: "I wondered if this would work, but boy, something about it just feels right.” He was right, it was a neat deal.
JJ: Sheppard's tenure in the Rocket house car has without a doubt been a work in progress. That's to be expected for any young driver taking a big step like that. The victory Friday, along with his other improved performances, shows that he's definitely headed in the right direction with it. That's not only a big when for Sheppard, but also big for the house car team. Those guys have worked hard as well adapting to Sheppard's driving style, so I'm sure they felt like that work paid off when they enjoyed got a big win with Sheppard behind the wheel.
TT: The World of Outlaws moved to Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 on Saturday, where Dennis Erb Jr. won his second WoO event of the season after a great battle with Darrell Lanigan. I feel for Lanigan a little in that he was going for a wreckers-or-checkers finish on lap 49 thinking it was a 50-lap race when it was a 55-lapper, and he ended up getting into the wall to help Erb secure the victory. Erb had a great Florida Speedweeks but had endured a summer with just two victories, so this was a big one for him, wasn’t it?
MR: Huge win for Erb. Period. He told me afterwards that it had been a long few months. Bad luck, mechanical issues, etc., and to outrun those guys was big. Not surprising, another great race at I-55. That place always delivers.
JJ: That's a huge win for Erb. He was really, really good at the beginning of the year. Not only with his Speedweeks performance, but also his dominating run at Virginia Motor Speedway in the spring that took what appeared to be a sure $25,000 victory. He had some good showings during the Summernationals, but to get a big win against the Outlaws is no doubt huge for him.
TT: Besides Lathroum, some other regional standouts we’ve been keeping an eye on had big weekends. Gregg Satterlee earned a career-high $10,000 at the Pittsburgher, Billy Ogle Jr. clicked off his fourth straight victory with a Southern All Star triumph at Cleveland, Tenn., Brady Smith won Cedar Lake’s Legendary 100 and Missouri’s Jesse Stovall was a contender at I-55. Any of those or other weekend performances catch your eye?
MR: For me it has to be Satterlee. He continues to put together one of the better streaks among regional drivers in a long time. It seems like every weekend he's winning a race somewhere, and let's face it, that was a good field he beat again this weekend. He's a stay-put in our Top 25 for the year. Also Brady Smith. You always wonder how it's going to work out when a guy makes the decision to pull-back and really race at home a ton. For Brady, it's been a brilliant decision as not a week goes by he's not winning $5,000 or $7,000 or $10,000.
JJ: All of those were impressive performances. Satterlee's was especially impressive. I said a few weeks ago that he was having one of those breakout-type years, and this weekend only helps prove that. He's been arguably the best regional driver over the entire season. This season could be something that launches him to even bigger and better things, and perhaps onto the national level soon enough.
TT: Let’s step away from the current events and briefly discuss a subject that’s oft-debated: how to set feature race lineups. The Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series splits time trials then starts heats and main events straight up, the World of Outlaws start heats straight up and redraw for the feature’s front rows. Some tour’s have a dash, some use passing points. I know there are a lot of variables here, but when you all start your own Dirt Late Model series (it’s coming soon, right?), what lineup procedures would you use?
MR: Surprisingly I haven't thought about this much, considering I'm exposed to it every weekend. I do like the idea of splitting the groups into two like Lucas does — that seems to make sense to me. One thing I would do, however, is institute four-car heat-race inversion. A four-car inversion every time seems to make sense to me. On the Outlaws side, I wouldn't put eight guys into the feature redraw. Rather the heat winners would draw for positions 1-4, and the heat runners-up would draw for 5-8. I guess that's about as crazy as I'd get.
TT: First off, I'd scrap time trials for any race paying $5,000-to-win or below, draw for heat races and use passing points.
For national touring races and major specials, I'd like someone to tinker with using Knoxville's format of combining a driver's time trial performance with his performance in a heat race with a major inversion. It's a good mix of providing racing for the fans but rewarding drivers for both their time-trialing and heat-racing efforts a good starting spot in the feature.
JJ: The one thing I totally hate is qualifying and lining up the feature straightup without any kind of heat races or a redraw or anything. (And yes, that is directed at a lot of the series in the South). If it's a regional event, I'd say qualify, redraw the top six or eight cars and run a dash that sets the front few rows of the feature straight up from there. A pair of consolation races should be sufficient to set the rest of the field. For national events, I like the Outlaws format, but I agree with Michael on having heat winners and heat runners-up redraw separately. For major, crown jewel events, I'm with Todd on the Knoxville format. Hands down one of the best being used today.
MR: I'd agree with all of that. Why haven't you started a series, Todd?
TT: The autumn specials ramp up this weekend with many tracks hosting season-ending events or their richest races. We’ll be most interested in Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway’s Jackson 100 on the Lucas Oil Series and the WoO visit to Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich., the 7/16-mile asphalt oval that has covered its surface with dirt for a special weekend. Sounds like quite an adventure at Berlin with the pressure of pulling off a first-time event along with the chance to win over some asphalt-only fans in Michigan. Do you think this will lure any other asphalt tracks to try it?
MR: As with anything in Dirt Late Model racing: if it works sure, if not, no. I actually talked to Ryan Unzicker last night, and he mentioned that they used to race asphalt Late Models there, and that place is really fast, so it'll be interesting to see how that carries over to the dirt side. I'd imagine it's gonna be really fast there as well. It's not a bad idea at all, facility looks really nice, and I hope it works for them.
TT: Maybe that's my idea for a series: only race on asphalt-covered dirt tracks.
JJ: If it's a huge success, maybe. But as someone whose father owns a dirt hauling and site construction company, I know how much work and money it takes to do something like that. It would be great to see more tracks do it. Personally, I would love to see Five Flags Speedway, which is near my hometown in Pensacola, Fla., try it and bring in an Outlaws or Lucas Oil race. It would be great to see, but again, it's really hard to tell if something like that is financially viable.