Fast Talk: Champs zap drama from national tours
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. Contributor Ben Shelton subs for Joshua this week (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: Let’s start out talking the national tours, where — and this is no state secret — the championships won’t be coming down to the last lap like last season. Darrell Lanigan (World of Outlaws Late Model Series) and Jimmy Owens (Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series) had runaway seasons as each are wrapping up their second tour titles.
Lanigan, at least, has won a record-setting 15 races, while Owens had a workmanlike season in pounding his rivals into submission. I realize we can’t always have drama, but they’ve been part of a season that been lacking in excitement in the sport overall, don’t you think?
Michael Rigsby: Steve Francis and I talked about this at Knoxville a bit, that this year hasn't had a lot of "signature moments.” None of those defining spots in the season that lock you into what happened in 2012. The good news is that we've got over a month left in the year, so maybe we're saving the best for last. When it comes to Lanigan and Owens, these have been no-doubters for months, and what can you say? They were just better than everyone else.
Ben Shelton: In my opinion, as good as last year was is as how lackluster this season has been. On the national scene there has been a limited number of thrilling finishes, late-race battles, etc. It's hard to pinpoint the exact reasons other than it just seems the sport's elite keep getting better than the rest. Let's be honest — not every race or season for that matter can be an incredible one, so maybe in 2013 we'll see a bounce back of excitement.
TT: Maybe media-types can be easily bored, but I think those who closely follow national tours — less so than the occasional fan — can sense when stagnation is developing. Same drivers, same tracks, same winners, etc. I feel for the tour officials, because it’s a double-edged sword. They find a successful formula (i.e., drivers, schedules, rules, etc.), and it’s best to stick with it. But part of the charm of our sport’s earliest days — random “outlaw” racers mixing it up at major events — is lost, and can turn even formerly major events into “just another series race.” What’s the answer?
MR: I think it's more of a set-schedule thing. In the past, prior to the drivers listing schedules on their websites, we had no idea where these guys were going to show up. Now we pretty much know in advance where everyone is going to be weeks in advance, so it does take a little of the “Wow I can't believe he's here!" factor out of it. It's a migration. We'll move to this way of doing it, and it'll be fine, but it just takes a little bit of getting used to.
BS: While I don't think there is an immediate need for panic, there has got to be a shakeup somewhere along the line. On one hand, it's hard to argue with the crowds that the races are drawing, because both of the national tours have been packing the houses on a nightly basis and have tracks lining up to schedule shows. On the other hand, you have to wonder if the excitement doesn't increase, will wee see Dirt Late Model racing facing the problems that NASCAR has encountered for five years now as far as filling the stands. Tweaked formats and out-of-the-box ideas might need to be on the horizon if 2013 produces similar results to 2012.
TT: Let’s get into recapping some of the weekend races, and let’s start with John Blankenship winning the Lucas Oil Series event at Rome, Ga. The 31-year-old Williamson, W.Va., driver is having his best season — he’s fifth in series points — but he’s still frustratingly unpredictable with his hot streaks and cold streaks. Can he make another jump next year into the next tier of drivers? Remember that he’s got one eye on asphalt while running a part-time ARCA schedule.
BS: John is just a guy that you catch yourself rooting for. He's got a great attitude, a lot of ability, and just a really likable guy. Right now it's hard to see anybody jumping into that next tier, but if he could get a little more consistent he could be a contender. Just look at the improvement in his program from 2011 to 2012. If he does that from 2012 to 2013 he could become a very real contender on any given night in any event at any track.
MR: John may be hot and cold at times (who's not other than a few guys these days it seems), but I think his arc is definitely on the upward swing. He's progressively gotten better the past few years, and every season is a bit better than the last. He can be hit-and-miss sometimes, but when you look at his past few years as a whole, he's more hit than miss each successive season.
TT: Illinois driver Jason Feger scored an impressive sweep at Eldora Speedway’s UMP Nationals during a season that appeared forgettable early on but has turned into something memorable (eight victories of $5,000 or richer, all since June 26). He handled the daunting track conditions with aplomb as that looked like one of Eldora’s trickier cushions on a high-speed track. That didn’t hurt his cause, did it?
MR: Cushion+Feger=Success. Not surprising at all that he'd be good in that instance. I'll give him credit this year. He didn't get deterred by what was a really rough start to the year. He hung with it, and came out as probably a top 15 driver in the country this year.
BS: We all know that the thicker the cushion, the more Jason is going to enjoy it. He didn't get the nickname "Highside Hustler" for nothing. It was an exciting race to watch. A very impressive late-season stretch for the Bloomington, Ill., driver.
TT: Let’s bounce around with some thoughts on other weekend results. Rick Eckert won the WoO feature at Rolling Wheels along with $5,000 at Selinsgrove. Bub McCool repeated at Greenville (Miss.) Speedway’s Gumbo Nationals — even more impressive that he was in the backup car of Klint Byars? Virginian Walker Arthur scored his first-ever $10,000 payday with a home-state victory at Natural Bridge. And Crate Late Model standout Max Blair earned more than $20,000 at Fastrak’s World Championships in Beckley, W.Va. (that’s 34 victories for him this season, if you’re scoring at home). Any thoughts?
MR: Quick thoughts are that those are big financial October wins for Eckert, a win McCool probably needed as well to sort of "right the ship" in his program, and very cool to see Walker Arthur, in a year he has traveled all over the country, to have one pay off at the end. And people can say what they want about Crate racing in the Super Late Model world, but for Max Blair to pocket 20 grand in one weekend? Not many super drivers will make that claim this year. Kudos to him.
TT: I’d suggest for Arthur that, even when he was struggling like he did a week earlier in his first visit to Knoxville, Iowa, his travels have helped improve his program overall. It's great he got this confidence-booster that keeps his head up and encourages him for next season if he can again make some big-race appearances.
BS: Agreed Todd. We need more guys like Walker Arthur in this sport, and I commend him for his efforts and determination. He jumped out on the road this year and took some beatings at some national level events, but just kept digging. To get that win was justice in my book.
Bub McCool has matured more as a driver this year than in the rest of his career combined in my opinion. He's a smarter racer, and it showed on a very tricky track over the weekend at Greenville. Rick Eckert just keeps digging on the national scene. Mid-summer made it look like Eckert was about to pack it in for the year. Several wins later he's back as a nightly contender. Major kudos to Max Blair. To win more than 30 events on any stage is impressive, but against the competition he's had to handle this year is really impressive.
TT: Looking ahead, it’s a pretty busy weekend coming up for mid-October. The richest race is Whynot (Miss.) Motorsports Park’s Fall Classic, which was a lead-swapping bonanza last year before Jonathan Davenport took command. That’s really a nicely shaped and banked track that probably surprises most first-time visitors with how good the racing can be. (Full disclosure: Ben helps promote and announce the event):
MR: It was one of our Top 5 races last year, and when you look at the fields they've had the past few years, it'd be hard to argue against it being a top 10-15 field in the entire country when you look at the year as a whole. Lots of Northern guys go down there because it's just that good racing wise, and the payout is strong as well.
BS: I’ll keep the lovefest to a minimum due to my involvement with the event, but Whynot Motorsports Park is one of my five favorite tracks in the country. Nine out of 10 times you are going to see a memorable feature at that place. It's a really nice facility and Rodney Wing and his staff do a great job with it. We tend to get really eclectic fields there, and this year will be no different with guys like Francis, Birkhofer, Moyer, McCool, Erb, Wall, and others taking on the regional hotshoes. One of my favorite events of the year, and finally a good weather forecast for it!