Fast Talk: Peering into the crystal ball of 2013
Here’s the latest edition of Fast Talk, a 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: The busy stretch of Arizona didn’t give us much chance to provide a little perspective on the 2013 season, so let’s peer into the crystal ball, along with specifically looking ahead to the 19 Super Late Model races scheduled Georgia-Florida Speedweeks next month.
Let’s start with a wide-open question — how will 2013 be different from recent years in Dirt Late Model racing?
Joshua Joiner: I think we're going to see a lot more parity in the sport from top to bottom. I know that's strange to say when Jimmy Owens and Darrell Lanigan dominated their respective tours last year, and Owens went on that streak to end the season. But I just don't see there being a huge difference in the top competitors compared to the rest of the field.
Like last year, we started the year talking about the Big Five and if anyone could break up Lanigan, Owens, O'Neal, Moyer and Bloomquist in our Top 25 poll. Lanigan and Owens maintained throughout the season, but really the disparity between those five drivers and everyone else wasn't so great by the end of the season.
On the regional level, it seems like we're going to have quite a busy schedule with a number of series expanding. I think that'll give more drivers chances to win races, making it seem like there's a lot more drivers running well, whereas in years past, it may have seemed like a handful of drivers were really dominating each region.
Michael Rigsby: I think this year more than any year of the past four or five seasons will really tell us something about where we are as a sport. I know the economy is rough out there, but I'm seeing some tracks reopening, sponsors upping their spending, drivers recommitting themselves. It appears to me, at least on the outside, that it could be a really good year. I'm not going to base the season on Speedweeks car count because I'm not sure that matters. I also think we'll have a crossroads rule-wise this year. It looks like the series are working together in pretty good fashion on a national level. In all of those ways, I think 2013 is a watershed season. I think we'll look back five years from now and say, "2013 was the year that things changed/turned, etc.”
TT: What are you most excited about for 2013?
MR: There are some new races in new places that are adding some intrigue to the schedule this year. The past few seasons, the schedule as a whole was pretty predictable — this year is the opposite. Obviously John Kennedy's new NDRL-series is grabbing a ton of attention, and rightfully so. Those are great tracks, great purses, and will have monster fields.
You've also got the World of Outlaws at Fairbury American Legion Speedway for the first time ever, as that track steps on to the national scale really for the first time. Lucas Oil heads to Attica, one of the best-run racetracks, and raciest joints in America. That event is really different for those guys, and is a must-see race on the tour’s schedule. I just think there are some newer opportunities for fans and drivers to be exposed to some new tracks this year that they may not have seen in the past decade.
TT: I think I'm most interested to see the reception of Eldora Speedway expanding the Dream and World 100 to three-day weekends. If the Big E is successful, I don't expect a flood of more three-day events from other tracks, but it will really put a new face on two of the sport's biggest races.
JJ: I'm excited to see how some of the changes and additions to the sport shake things up. We're seeing new series like Ray Cook's Spring Nationals and John Kennedy's NDRL tour. I'm really interested to see how both of those work out. And there's quite a few major changes to some programs that had been steadfast against change with things like Eldora changing up its major-event format and the Summernationals expanding its schedule. Whether you agree with those changes or not, they're definitely going to shake things up a bit and it's hard not to be excited to see how it all plays out.
TT: The sport has appeared to weather the toughest economic stretch in several generations, but challenges still lay ahead. What do you see as the sport’s biggest challenges coming up?
JJ: I still want to see more tours and tracks working together to do what's best for the sport, whether it's the national tours getting on the same page as far as a rules package and keeping things under control in that department, or local tracks working together on scheduling and fair, comparable payouts. I think the weekly Late Model racing is going to be the area of our sport that takes the longest to recover from the latest economic problems, and it likely will never get back to the point that it once was. That's why I think it's important that tracks work together and help build that level of the sport back up. Having a strong core of race teams on the weekly and lower-tiered regional level is good for the sport as a whole, and that's something, it would seem, has been lacking in recent years.
MR: First and foremost, the biggest challenge is money. The costs to operate these race teams is just staggering. Let's be honest, the economics of racing for $700 to start, and what it costs to do it, is mind-blowing. At the same time, like I said earlier, somehow, some way, these guys seem to be weathering the storm, and sticking it out. At some point, the cost has to at least level off. That's the No. 1 threat. But other than that, it's simply the fan base. It's no secret that our fan base is shrinking a bit. We need it to level off — and head the other direction. Can we attract new people? I'd like to think so, but I'm not sure.
TT: Predicting a season’s breakout drivers is always tricky. Throw some names out there of guys we’ll be hearing about in 2013 that have mostly toiled in the shadows before?
MR: Obviously I think Tim Fuller is about to have a renaissance based on his early season performance in Arizona, but of the guys that some people may not know about, it could be a time for a young Floridian Dillon Wood to breakout on the Outlaw tour, as he'll have every opportunity to run and win big races the entire season in chasing the tour’s rookie title.
I also think Alabama’s Ronny Lee Hollingsworth with his new sponsorship, Mississippi’s Klint Byars — providing he races extensively — and Ontario’s Andrew Reaume could all have years that we are talking about next November.
TT: Not sure he's to the point where he can win against top competition, but Pennsylvania youngster Mason Zeigler is jumping in with both feet after mostly dipping his toe into the special-event pool the last few seasons. He's got solid equipment and former Bart Hartman crew chief Austin Hargrove on board — we'll see what he does with it.
JJ: On the national level, I think Kentuckian Eric Wells is going to have a solid year chasing Rookie of the yEar with the World of Outlaws. He started to put things together toward the end of last season, and with a couple years of national touring already under his belt, I think he'll perform well on the WoO tour. On the regional level, Bobby Pierce, Riley Hickman and Jason Hiett are just a few guys I expect to have some impressive runs.
TT: Crate Late Model action gets rolling this week in Florida with NeSmith Dirt Late Model Series action at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala along with Fastrak Racing Series action at East Bay Raceway Park near Tampa, while the Super Late Model Speedweeks in Georgia and Florida stretch from Feb. 8-23.
With the exception of North Florida Speedway taking the date Golden Isles Speedway had last season, it’s a similar — and busy — schedule to 2012 with other events at Georgia’s Screven Motor Speedway and Waycross Motor Speedway, along with Florida action at East Bay, Ocala and finally Volusia. For Late Model fans who can squeeze out a week or so of vacation to enjoy some warmer weather, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?
MR: While I'll always be a bit of a Summernationals homer when it comes to "go and watch racing for a week,” you simply can't deny the fields and level of racing in Florida. If I had to do a week's worth, I'd lay my schedule out like this. Feb. 14-15 at East Bay, Feb. 16-17 at Ocala and then Feb. 18-20 at Volusia. That gives you a taste of everything — and you'll really see an interesting mix of drivers.
JJ: I don't think there's any better way to welcome the new season than a trip to Florida. If you plan your trip right, you can catch some of the best racing and best fields of cars you'll see all season. And if you have the time to spend down there, you can see just about much racing in less than a month than some people will see all year.
TT: The World of Outlaws Late Model Series has a record-setting eight February dates among Screven, Ocala and Volusia. For drivers who plan to topple reigning series champ Darrell Lanigan, they’ll have to get in gear quickly. What do you think about having 15 percent of the tour's races during Speedweeks?
MR: I never really grasped that until you put the 15 percent tag on it, but that is a lot. Honestly, it's not a big deal at all, though. You may be talking about a high percentage, but you're also talking about fields of race cars that will probably rank in their top 20 of the year. So nearly 50 percent of their best fields will be in Florida, so in that way, is there such a thing as too much? Not in my opinion. Especially Volusia, where they've averaged nearly 70 Late Models, and other than maybe Eldora, you're looking at the best fields of the year anywhere.
JJ: For the experienced racers, I don't think it matters either way. Those guys have been going to Florida and racing multiple weeks for years. It's the new guys trying to break on to the tour that could find it problematic. For some of the guys chasing Rookie of the Year, or even a veteran considering a run at the whole tour, it's going to be a challenge to come out of Florida still enthusiastic about the season. A few bad nights down there and someone like that could be in trouble.
TT: We’ll delve into Speedweeks more deeply next week, but grant me one Speedweeks surprise. Give me your best shot. Here’s mine: Ohio’s Doug Drown will be a driver everyone's talking about at East Bay. I'll predict a fast time and at least one top-five finish in his Weekley Racing No. 63.
JJ: I'm going to say offseason changes making an immediate impact on the Bobby Labonte Racing program, helping Earl Pearson Jr. run well and win a race at East Bay.
MR: Great call on Drown, especially at a racetrack where he's destined to be good. My surprise will be Dillon Wood. I'll stick with what I said above. He's going to finish top two in at least one WoO race during Speedweeks.