Fast Talk: Recapping Arizona's January action
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. Frequent contributor Ben Shelton sits in for Michael this week (edited for clarity and length):
Joshua Joiner: The few weeks that is the Dirt Late Model offseason is officially over with Arizona’s January action already in full swing. Let’s kick off a new year for Fast Talk with a discussion of what we’ve seen so far between the Wild West Shootout held Jan. 5-6 at Central Arizona Speedway in Casa Grande, Ariz., and Tucson (Ariz.) International Raceway’s Winter Extreme, which kicked off with two events over the past weekend and continues with four more events scheduled for Wednesday and Friday through Sunday. | Arizona coverage index | Order live video
There was some question to how Arizona’s January events would fair this year after some management shakeups at Tucson and the reopening of Casa Grande. Car counts are down from last year with the Wild West Shootout, which returned to Casa Grande for the first time since 2008, drawing 26 and 22 cars for its two races and Tucson getting 49 cars Saturday and 50 Sunday when last year’s opening two rounds drew nearly 70 entries. With all things considered, how would you guys rate what we’ve seen so far in Arizona as far as car counts and interest?
Ben Shelton: I'll be honest, I was a little surprised at how low the car count was at Casa Grande. I thought we would be in the 30-35 range. However, I think condensing the schedule from two to six events with five days off between the start of Tucson really hurt. Fifty Super Late Models so far at Tucson is inline with what I expected. Let's be honest, last year's turnout of over 70 Super Late Models was truly a freak happening. This deal is best designed to draw 50 or so cars. There is plenty of talent and good cars out here in Tucson, and I've been pleased with everything so far.
Todd Turner: Considering the upheaval and changes, I'd say everything has turned out about like I expected. It will take a while for Casa Grande to rebuild its car count after several years off, and Tucson is right on target for it's overall average car count over the past four years.
I think most observers see 2012 — when more than 70 Late Model teams entered at Tucson — as an anomaly. Really, this show works well with about 50 cars and considering the thousands of miles many teams travel to be here, that's a solid number.
Probably the worst thing so far about this year is the cool weather — that might not be attractive to first-timers, but it should be back in the 60s and maybe 70s next weekend.
JJ: No doubt the weather has been a bit of a disappointment. I never expected to be tuning in to the live broadcast and see everyone bundled up while I'm in enjoying nearly 80-degree weather in South Carolina.
BS: Yes, it's been less than fun weather so far, especially for the infield reporter. ... haha
TT: The weather is tough on drawing a crowd. For the locals, temperatures in the 40s might as well be in the 20s for those of us from the Midwest.
JJ: Tim Fuller has had the most success in Arizona so far, winning Casa Grande’s opener last week and Tucson opener on Saturday. It’s no secret that Fuller struggled during the past couple of seasons, but it seems as though he’s found a pretty good fit since joining Kennedy Motorsports and the fledging Capital Race Cars program midway through last season. How impressed are you guys by Fuller’s performance?
BS: I thought that Tim would do well at Tucson, but I'll be honest, I was quite surprised at his win at Central Arizona, and then he has been more than impressive at Tucson. It's good to see him doing so well. He's more than paid his dues over the past few years with more than his share of bad luck.
I really think that team will win several races this year. Kennedy Motorsports has two strong pilots in their corner for the 2013 season.
TT: You only have to look at Fuller's incredible streak of World of Outlaws victories in 2009 to see that he has the capability of being among Late Model racing's best drivers. The big-block modified convert's career was definitely on the rocks last year, but the connection with Kennedy Motorsports has been his salvation — as he's mentioned several times.
A strong-running Tim Fuller is good for the WoO series to give their top drivers more competition.
I will say, however, that he might not have had the fastest car in the Tucson opener, but things certainly played to his favor. He should be a contender the rest of the week.
JJ: Iowa’s Chris Simpson has had an impressive debut in his new MB Customs car with a fourth-place finish in Tucson’s opener and a victory in Sunday’s second round event. With Fuller’s victories, it seems as though we’re seeing a bit of a trend of drivers jumping in these smaller chassis brands and finding immediate success. Do you guys think there’s anything to that? Might we see some more drivers switching to the smaller, upstart chassis brands?
BS: This is definitely an impulse business, and if these drivers keep enjoying early-season success in their respective chassis, you could definitely see several drivers jumping on board with a different chassis. I just think it's a matter of finding a chassis that fit a driver's respective driving style, but you also have to remember that luck plays a big factor as well. Sometimes I think that drivers make knee-jerk reactions too quick in changing chassis in Dirt Late Model racing. However, there's no denying that the Capital and MB Customs cars are rolling in the desert right now.
TT: One thing's for sure, the earliest adopters of the "boutique" chassis brands usually get more individual attention than if they jump into a car of one of the larger, most established manufacturers.
For Fuller to be running closely with teammate Shane Clanton — who helped develop the Capital car along with former Dirt Track World Champion Marshall Green — is a big help, not to mention the addition of Pat Doar and Ron Davies in the Capital camp to develop more feedback.
And Simpson was effusive in his praise of MB Customs co-designer Brian Birkhofer, who he flew out to Arizona to give him a boost in the new car. You can do worse than have a two-time World 100 winner help set up your equipment.
JJ: One driver surprisingly quiet so far in Arizona has been Billy Moyer. The Hall-of-Famer has dominated Tucson in recent years, winning three of six events at the track in both 2010 and 2011. He’s been hampered by some bad luck so far this year — including brake issues that spoiled a possible victory in Casa Grande’s finale — and has only cracked the top five once in four races. Is there a chance Moyer goes winless in Arizona this season or do you guys think he’ll be able to get back on track in the second half of Tucson’s miniseries?
TT: No matter what we say here, Moyer is capable of winning the final four races in Tucson. Remember, he's won three races apiece each of the past two seasons at Tucson. That said, you wouldn't bet on that for his weekend performances.
You can toss out the Tucson opener when engine woes knocked him out — although early on he appeared to have a top-five car — while he was mediocre at best in Sunday's event.
The nighttime races in Tucson don't necessarily favor Moyer — it's a fast, hammer-down track at night — but he should be a factor in next weekend's daytime events when slicker track conditions are likely.
BS: It's definitely hard to vote Moyer off the island right now. Like Todd said there are still four races left. He brought a new car to Arizona, and he told me he's been working out the new car bugs. While he's no doubt struggling (by his own standards), I still see him winning two of the final four events and most likely the $10,000 finale. He just has Tucson dialed in.
JJ: Before we wrap up today’s discussion, are there any other performances or storylines that you guys have noticed during the Arizona action so far and what are some things you have an eye as things draw to a close over the next few days?
TT: It's time for another shoutout to hometown driver R.C. Whitwell. He has posted a pair of top-five finishes against solid fields at Tucson driving equipment that's decent, but probably not up to par compared to the higher-budget teams in Arizona.
He can flat wheel a race car and it's great to see him have an opportunity to race in front of his hometown crowd and stack up so well against top-flight competition.
JJ: I was thinking the same thing, Todd. I’ve been impressed by Whitwell's performance. He was expected to carry the torch for the local crowd in Arizona after dominating Tucson in the second half of last season, but I would say he’s on track to surpass those expectations after finishing in the top five of all four events so far. If I’m not mistaken, he’s the only driver to do that. I’ll have my eye on him for the remainder of the week at Tucson and wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him sneak through and find his way to victory lane at some point.
BS: It was awesome to see Don Shaw in victory lane at Central Arizona Raceway. It's always good to see different guys winning, and he was truly elated. Along those lines it was fun to see Justin Kay's reaction to his second place finish at Central Arizona. Sometimes the best stories are the lesser-known guys making career achievements. Like Todd said it's great to see RC Whitwell back in action at Tucson. It just didn't seem right last year without him in action.
One last kudos is to the Tucson track staff for the incredible surface on Saturday night. That was probably the best race I've ever seen at the place.