Fast Talk: Recapping the Knoxville Nationals
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):
Joshua Joiner: We’ll lead this week’s discussion with a recap of a busy weekend at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, where Steve Francis scored a $40,000 victory in Saturday night’s Lucas Oil Late Model Knoxville Nationals finale while Billy Moyer and Mike Marlar each picked up $7,000 victories in preliminary features on Thursday and Friday.
Let’s first focus on Francis. The crown-jewel victory continues his revival this season since hooking with Barry Wright to drive the BWRC house car. The Francis-Wright combination has now produced six Lucas Oil Series victories, including Knoxville and another $40,000 payday at Batesville’s Topless 100. A pretty impressive season for a driver who went winless just one year ago, wouldn’t you say?
Todd Turner: I don't think anyone had given up on Francis last season, but I also don't know of a lot of observers who were convinced the connection with Barry Wright was a sure thing. After all, Wright hadn't followed a national tour in 15 seasons, and Francis had been spotty overall since leaving his Rocket Chassis.
But if Speedweeks didn't prove the team was worthy, the Topless and especially Knoxville victories have. It's been a solid season and one well-earned for a veteran driver and team.
Michael Rigsby: There were a lot of people who said back in February (Kelley Carlton comes to mind) that this team would be really formidable the longer the season wore on. They were right. Francis has been consistently good since February and is really starting to hit his stride now. Finishing with THREE top-three finishes against that field is incredibly good. He's had better seasons over the course of his career, but at this point, for him to be doing this it really cements his legacy in the sport to me.
TT: Michael, you and I have often talked how Francis is at the very top of that "second tier" .... not that the second tier is bad when the first one is Bloomquist and Moyer. But Francis, in a way, has "quietly" had such an accomplished career.
JJ: Knoxville rarely gets negative reviews as far as the racing action and the track surface, which leads to some high expectations when Late Models make their only visit of the season. What did you guys think? Did the racing at Knoxville live up to your expectations this weekend?
TT: I think it was the three most consistently good surfaces over three nights I can remember over the past five years. So many events there’s worries about the track and drivers stand at the corners wondering if it'll be rough or one-grooved or problematic. You don't have those worries at Knoxville, normally, and we didn't this weekend.
That said, that 100-lapper didn't quite have the excitement we've seen in years past either. Not sure it was the fault of the surface but just so many guys were "even" that there wasn't the rising and falling of contenders you often see there.
MR: I had a Knoxville first-timer with me, and he was overly impressed with how good the racing was on Thursday and Friday. As he pointed out, it's almost impossible to look up and not see "two cars side-by-side." Saturday's track wasn't perfect, as it didn't have that middle groove it typically does, but when you look at Thursday through Saturday overall, how can you not say it was good? Knoxville typically delivers, and did again.
TT: It's something to stand atop the grandstands afterwards and look at the Knoxville surface. Shiny all the way across.
JJ: There were a few storylines that developed throughout the weekend at Knoxville that are probably worth mentioning before we move on. First, what did you guys think of Francis’ postrace comments when he called the victory the biggest of his career? This coming from a driver whose list of wins includes a World 100 at Eldora and the Dirt Track World Championship.
TT: I'm not one to tell Francis what he should pick as his career highlights, but I think you'd get a lot of push back from drivers, fans and others in the sport that a World 100 victory isn't the creme d la creme.
I think he — and others, obviously, as drivers are so complimentary of Knoxville — was trying to stress how special Knoxville is, embracing its history, facility and competition at a place that's investing in the sport with that whopping $262,000 purse. I think his saying that is a way of giving back, if not goading other tracks to follow suit.
MR: Francis' comments certainly have gotten a ton of reaction. It's hard to judge those comments based in the moment. I vividly remember being near victory lane that night, and seeing how emotional he was to have finally gotten that win. Obviously I can't put words or thoughts in Steve's head, but I'd still give the nod to his Eldora victory as the biggest of his career for sure, but the fact that he thinks this one was so big speaks volumes to how Knoxville has grown in such a short period of time.
JJ: Obviously that comment caught my attention as well. My first thought was it was an "in the moment" type deal, but then again I can't speak for Francis. It would be interesting to wait toward the end of his career ask which one was bigger.
Another interesting topic leaving Knoxville is the apparent rivalry between Billy Moyer and World of Outlaws point leader Darrell Lanigan, who wasn’t in Knoxville this weekend but no doubt heard about Moyer’s post-race comments Thursday night. Moyer basically said their run-in the previous week at Michigan’s Berlin Raceway was behind him, but added that Lanigan “will have his day.”
Rivalries are nothing new in this sport, but the attention seems to ramp up a notch when it involves two of nation’s top drivers. What do you guys think of all this?
TT: You don't pick these two guys to necessarily be sniping, so it's kind of an interesting dynamic. The rumblings were that Lanigan texted Moyer something to the effect "if you're going to say something like that, say it to my face."
And I think many of us were thinking that, if Lanigan wouldn't have skipped Knoxville, Moyer would have.
MR: I think this one is so much fun because these two are unlikely rivals. They don't race against each other that often, and are both really mild-mannered guys. It was disappointing that Lanigan didn't come to Knoxville so we could have gotten another taste of it this weekend. But the word is Moyer will perhaps go to Charlotte, and we'll get to see it there, as Lanigan doesn't intend on running the DTWC. The sport could use more "friendly jabbing" every once and awhile.
JJ: Looking elsewhere, rain washed out a number of the past weekend’s races, but Brushcreek Motorsports Complex and Roaring Knob Motorsports Complex were able to get in their respective events. Jackie Boggs picked up a $10,000 victory and Shane Clanton left with a new Harley Davidson motorcycle after the two drivers split victories during Brushcreek’s One Epic Weekend and Jamie Lathroum topped Gregg Satterlee in a battle between arguable the Northeast’s two hottest drivers for a $7,000 victory in Roaring Knob’s Big Kahuna. Any reaction from either of you looking at the outcome of those two events?
MR: Jackie Boggs has had a nice fall, and should be a threat when he unloads for the DTWC at Portsmouth in a few weeks. I'm not sure there's been a more random win than Clanton's in the fact that you don't associate him with Brushcreek at all. He's obviously capable of winning, that place is just odd for him to show up at and get a victory. Lathroum continues a good season as well. This guy might be in the top 10 of most underrated drivers in the country.
TT: My biggest reaction at Brushcreek was that Summernationals winner Eddie Carrier Jr. wasn't a factor there.
As for Roaring Knob, Lathroum got the latest edge on Satterlee as they've dethroned Jason Covert as the top driver in the region, and they're neck-and-neck in deciding that. Satterlee has more victories overall but Lathroum has stepped it up in the past month with some big wins.
MR: It's amazing to me how many people don't know how good those two actually are. I'm not saying they're Bloomquist and Moyer, but they're good.
TT: Satterlee's success is partially attributed to crew chief Robby Allen, while Lathroum is at the top of the list with that MasterSbilt by Huey crowd that has been so good the last few years under Huey Wilcoxon.
JJ: The Lathroum-Satterlee debate is an interesting one to me. They've definitely surpassed Covert in the pecking order for that region this year, but if you had to pick the better between those two, that's a tough decision. I think Satterlee has been more impressive for the entire season, but Lathroum has definitely come on strong during the second half of the year.
Let’s wrap up by looking ahead to this week’s events. The World of Outlaws visit New York’s Rolling Wheels Raceway Park on Thursday while the Lucas Oil Series continues to wind down its season with its annual Georgia doubleheader at Dixie and Rome Saturday and Sunday. A number of regional specials dot the slate with Greenville (Miss.) Speedway’s sixth annual Gumbo Nationals paying $7,500 to the winner and Eldora’s UMP DIRTcar National Championships paying $5,000.
Are there any specific storylines either of you are following this weekend?
TT: I'll be intrigued to see how the best weekly guys at Dixie and Rome can do, especially Michael Page and Tony Knowles. It'd be nice to see them have a good opportunity to battle that traveling stars.
Eldora won't have any title drama as Brian Shirley has wrapped up UMP's weekly crown, but that race often provides an interesting winner or someone who is on the rise in considering for crown jewel success at Eldora in the coming years.
MR: The Gumbo Nationals is shaping up to be a great regional event, as that track will be hooked up for Wall, Sullivan, Moore, etc. I'll be interested to see the car count at Eldora, as more guys than I expected are headed to Ohio for Brian Shirley's crowning. Last year, the Lucas Georgia races were in the 50's on car count, and I expect those fields to be strong again, minus the points drama we had a season ago. I'm feeling a surprise winner at one of those races.