Fast Talk: Breaking down Speedweeks
Here’s the latest edition of Fast Talk, a DirtonDirt.com feature appearing each Monday and sponsored by Out-Pace Racing Products. 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 ratchet up the Georgia-Florida Speedweeks chatter with a look at the 19 races over 16 days at six dirt tracks starting Feb. 8. It’s a great time to be a Dirt Late Model fan.
We’ve covered lots of story angles with our VideoCasts, written previews, track-by-track capsules and expert panel, so we’ll try to fill in the spots we’ve missed. For starters, give fans a single Speedweeks storyline you’ll be watching closely.
Michael Rigsby: I think for me it's who will be this year's breakout star. It's been awhile since we've gone to Speedweeks and seen a guy really put himself on the national map. Austin Hubbard not only did it by beating Scott Bloomquist a few years ago at Golden Isles and taking his clothes off, but we knew who he was from that point forward. Will we have another one of those this year? Bobby Pierce? Dillon Wood? More Ronny Lee Hollingsworth? I think this sport could really use a moment like that, where a young kid grabs the reigns in February and reminds us all that it's not all about Owens, Bloomquist, Lanigan, etc.
TT: You’re right on my line of thinking, Michael. I can't put a face and a name with my biggest storyline, but I love when a driver pops into the sport's consciousness — like Dave Tyrchniewicz a few years back at East Bay. It’s really fun to watch. It's such a big stage that a driver can really become a star over just a few days.
JJ: It’s tough to come up with a single one because there's so many different interesting storylines with a new season getting started. I guess the biggest one for me is Jimmy Owens and Darrell Lanigan and can they continue their success from last season into the start of 2013. Or, will one or both of them have any kind of letdown. There's no doubting those two drivers enter the season as the top two drivers in the country. Can they stay there?
TT: We saw Alabama’s Ronny Lee Hollingsworth get his Speedweeks started off on the “Right Foot” last week with three Crate Late Model victories in NeSmith Chevrolet Dirt Late Model Series action at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla. How do you see that success translating into his Super Late Model action while debuting East Bay Raceway Park? Strictly psychological?
MR: Yeah more than anything, "he's seen the ball go through the basket" as they say in basketball. Truth be told, he should have probably won another one at Ocala as well. I said before the season that I thought he was primed to bust out (excuse the self-promotion). I think he's at least in the mix to win at least one night at East Bay.
TT: I agree. Even if he were driving a different car at a different track along with a different motor package, there's something to be said for confidence. A driver who's confident virtually always beats a driver doubting himself.
JJ: I think it's a great momentum boost for him going into the season. He had an impressive week at Ocala, against some of the best competition Crate Late Model racing has to offer. But things will be completely different at East Bay. His Ocala success doesn't change my expectations. He'll likely run well at East Bay with a few top-10s and he might even run near the front a couple nights.
TT: It struck me with our expert panel that most everyone predicted Darrell Lanigan, Jimmy Owens, Don O’Neal, Steve Francis and Josh Richards to be among the top runners at Speedweeks. There was nary a mention of Illinois veteran Dennis Erb Jr., who pulled off an impressive feat last year at Speedweeks by capturing the week-long points titles at both East Bay and Volusia. Along with your thoughts on the sometimes unheralded Erb, who are some other less-noted drivers who tend to always find success at Speedweeks.
MR: It probably goes along with Dennis notoriously being one of the most underrated drivers in the country year in and year out. Shame on me for not putting him in the mix for a guy that could win a race, as what else does he have to do down there? He's proven himself over and over.
Tim Dohm of course was another guy that was always due for a fantastic East Bay run or two. I miss seeing him down there.
TT: There isn't a bucketload of drivers good at both East Bay and Volusia, two quite different tracks, but Erb is on that list.
JJ: Erb was great last season during Speedweeks, but it's hard to forget the inconsistency he showed throughout the rest of the season. I expect he'll run well in Florida, but I don't see him having as much success as he did down there last year.
Dohm definitely comes to mind for East Bay, and Austin Hubbard has ran well down there the past two seasons. He's not a less-noted driver, but Tim McCreadie is someone who probably isn't getting much respect heading into Speedweeks. He hasn't been great down there in recent seasons, but he's someone who had significant success at East Bay and Volusia early in his Late Model career. He definitely has the capability of winning some races down there this year.
TT: Let’s wrap up with a series of questions focusing on the four tracks hosting multiple Speedweeks races. Screven Motor Speedway in Sylvania, Ga., hosts a World of Outlaws Late Model Series doubleheader. Some would suggest, however, they’re looking forward more to the cornucopia-type spread at owner and promoter Redd Griffin’s popular concession stand than the racing. How about you guys? (I think I saw Michael lingering near the concession stand more than once last year).
MR: How dare you Todd — I was simply surveying the action. One thing about Screven this year, the forecasted high is literally 45 degrees warmer than it was last year, so it's already vaulted itself into a more comfortable category based on that alone. It was miserably cold last year. You take that out of the equation this year, and I really think Redd will see the biggest crowd he's ever had there this season. I look for more than 50 cars and an elbows-up start to Speedweeks. That place is fun to watch a race at ... and I look for Mike Marlar to be a sleeper there.
JJ: Last year's Winter Extreme was actually my first race at Screven. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I never made it over to the concession stand. I was looking forward to trying as much of the food as I could there, but it was simply too cold to leave the press box for anything other than my reporting duties.
Thankfully, it looks like the weather should be much better this week, so I'm definitely planning to make up for missing out on last year. As far as this year's race. I think it's shaping up to be a great show. With the weather cooperating, this should have one of the better fields and fan attendance of any event during Speedweeks.
TT: What’s the key to a compelling week at East Bay? The high tides that reputedly affect the track surface? Car counts creeping back higher after dropping as low as 41 last year? A multiple-race winner? Or something else at the Tampa track?
JJ: When I think of East Bay, I think of surprise performances and breakout drivers. Two years ago it was Tyler Reddick's breakthrough win and Austin Hubbard's solid performance throughout the week that got my attention — not to mention his infamous run-in with Scott Bloomquist in a heat race. Last year, it was cool to see guys like Randy Korte and Donnie Moran having solid runs down there. I look forward to East Bay for those type things, the unexpected performances that shake things up.
MR: I am keeping a keen eye on the car count at East Bay this year. Obviously we know that the days of 100 cars each night are over, but there are some guys that don't normally go planning to be there — Hollingsworth, Moyer Jr., Drown and others — so I'm not sure where it ends up. It was staggering to me to watch the '97 East Bay video and see how the track has changed in the last 16 years.
TT: Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla., hosts a $20,000-to-win event Feb. 17, wrapping up its three-race stretch. With Lucas Oil Series action wrapped up at East Bay, and preceding Volusia’s six-night run of UMP and WoO action, does the purse assure Ocala’s finale will be the biggest Speedweeks event?
MR: I think it probably is. I mean, you pick up the guys that were only going to Volusia — hard for them to pass up $20,000 and a friendly tire rule — and you'd have to think many of the East Bay guys go as well. If you wanted to take a night off, I'd think Monday at Volusia for $7,000 would be the choice over Sunday for $20,000 at Ocala. I don't know if it will be the highest car count, but I think you'll see the most drama that night at Ocala. Should be a fun one.
JJ: It'll definitely be one of the more interesting races. I'm not sure how many of the East Bay guys make the trip up there. It'll depend on how rough the week goes for a lot of those guys. I can't help but think about the carnage in last year's East Bay finale. Another race like that on the last night at East Bay, and a lot of those guys might not make it up there.
More than anything, I think it makes the whole stretch of races at Ocala more compelling to race teams, which should help their car count for all three races. Teams that might have otherwise just waited to go to Volusia will probably want to fit that $20,000 race in their plans, and if they're planning to be there Sunday, why wouldn't they be there the other two nights? Either way, I think that race will produce one of the more interesting fields of Speedweeks.
TT: Fans might notice that UMP DIRTcar sanctioning governs the first three nights of action at Volusia, while the final three nights are World of Outlaws events (an increase from two WoO races the past eight years). UMP and WoO are both under the World Racing Group umbrella, but will there be any noticeable differences between those three-night stretches?
MR: Honestly, no. When you're at Volusia you really don't notice any difference between the early nights and the last nights. All six nights are loaded fields, and really in the discussion among best fields of the year when it boils down to the end. It's been stiff to make those fields the past few seasons.
JJ: The first two nights at Volusia might be down a bit as far as car count, especially with Ocala racing on Sunday, but the UMP race on Wednesday won't be any different than the final three nights. As Michael said, Volusia attracts one of the best fields of the year as the final stretch of Speedweeks races. It doesn't matter if it's UMP or WoO, all the races are usually pretty good.