Fast Talk: Reviewing the big race on the Prairie
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: Well, the Prairie Dirt Classic didn’t disappoint one bit. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise to Michael and others who been long-time fans at Fairbury (Ill.) American Legion Speedway, but there is a degree of pressure to live up to the billing when a track is hosting its richest ($20,000-to-win) and biggest (first World of Outlaws Late Model Series event) race. Once the rain was over Friday afternoon, all the way through a three-wide battle for the lead in the closing laps of a 100-lapper won by Shannon Babb, it was quite a success, wasn’t it?
Joshua Joiner: I hate to go to overboard with my reaction to Fairbury, because I can already sense what Michael's going to say. ... But seriously, this was one of the best races I have seen in the past five years. I was about to jump out of my seat just watching the highlights Sunday morning (and I already knew the outcome!). I can only imagine what it was like being there and seeing those final 10 laps. Just a great weekend all around in my opinion.
Michael Rigsby: There's no way I won't sound like a homer here, so I'll just roll with it. It was a fantastic weekend. I even had a gentleman from New York, who was there for the first time ever, email me: “Wow, you were right about this place, it's like stepping back into 1995 when dirt late model racing felt so healthy." From the racing, to the overflowing crowd, to the finish that had the backstretch crowd on its feet for 15 laps, #FALS delivered. Somehow I feel like Fairbury managed to remain a secret to many fans nationally until this point, but much like my love for the place, they'll be no keeping it quiet now.
TT: I like how Michael worked "stepping back to 1995" and a hashtag in back-to-back sentences.
JJ: And with the Fairbury locals and home-state drivers mixing it up with and even outperforming a lot of the national touring guys, that really added another dynamic to the whole weekend. Nothing against the WoO regulars, but it's always good to see the locals defend their home turf.
TT: Let’s kick around the finish a bit (although the whole feature was quite entertaining). It was really the perfect ending with the drivers best in the low groove (Bobby Pierce), middle groove (Dale McDowell) and high groove (Shannon Babb) battling it out. When Babb cut down the track entering turn three on the final lap to ward off any slide jobs, that triggered some hurt feelings as everyone ended up battling for the same piece of real estate. Just a racing deal? I had to review the video several times to come to that conclusion, and not sure I’d blame anyone. After all, as Babb said, $20,000 was on the line with less than a half-lap remaining. That said, McDowell probably could’ve put a fender on Babb on the second-to-last lap as payback for being roughed up earlier, but he didn’t. Discuss.
MR: Todd, I think you perfectly nailed describing the last lap. It was a chain reaction begun by Babb — who was rightfully protecting on the final lap. McDowell then had to move down as well, and Pierce fell victim as he was trying to hold his low line. I immediately thought “last-lap racing deal for $20,000.” Babb was the first to admit when the race was over: "Dale McDowell flat out owes me one,” and he's right. Babb hammered Dale pretty good early in the event, and McDowell could have dumped him on the final few laps. I know it was a bit controversial, but overall, a perfect ending to a showcase event for Fairbury.
JJ: A racing deal — and a really smart move by Babb. I think McDowell showed his hand a little too early by pulling alongside Babb coming to the white flag. Babb knew what was coming going into that last corner, and he knew McDowell likely wouldn't cut him any slack for his earlier move (which I didn't see so much as a racing deal by the way). To move down and block a potential slide job in the final corner, that's just smart racing.
TT: Just throwing this out there: Your thoughts on the infield tires being moved out during cautions? That narrowed Pierce's racetrack for sure with him hugging the low line.
MR: That's certainly the hot topic. (And in a way provides even more drama to an already wild weekend). My take from talking to the folks at the track is this: They felt the drivers were moving them down throughout the course of the race (and there's strong evidence to suggest that). So they were putting them back out to where they thought they went. As anyone will tell you, that's not an exact science at all. If they went too far, I don't think it was part of some grand conspiracy theory. I understand the thoughts and feelings on both sides, but at the end of the day, it made for an incredible finish and race.
JJ: I can understand Pierce's frustration. But those tires are there for a reason. If they were bumped down throughout the race (and they were Saturday night), I can understand moving them back to their original position, so long as they're not moved any farther out. The thing I like about it is Bobby's reaction after the race. Some people are calling it whining and what not, but I love the fact that Bobby feels like that race was stolen from him. Most 16-year-olds would be satisfied just to be in that situation and finishing third in a race like that. But Bobby has been so competitive lately and so good in that race that he felt robbed. It just shows how competitive he is right now, even at such a young age.
TT: Let’s delve into some analysis of Babb’s career. There was a period when he was perhaps one rung down from the sport’s best, but over the past four or five seasons he’s not been the Shannon Babb we knew then. This marks the 39-year-old Illinois driver's first national tour victory in three seasons, and while he’s still found streaks of Summernationals success the last few years, something’s missing. Chassis changes? Tougher competition overall? A career that’s already peaked? Can you guys put your finger on it?
MR: If you could have seen him manipulating that cushion on Saturday night, you would have said to yourself: "this is flat out one of the best drivers in the country.” And honestly he really is still. The fact is that our sport is harder than ever to win consistently on. Guys struggle, roar back to life, struggle, roar back to life. It happens. Shannon obviously has tried a few different race cars as well between leaving Rayburn, Rocket, and now Victory Circle. So there has been some adjustment period for him. All I know is this, when it comes to pure wheelmen, guys that you'd want in your car if you had to win a race, Shannon Babb is easily in that discussion. Still to this day, both Scott Bloomquist and Billy Moyer have said, if they had to replace themselves with one driver, the No. 18 would be the choice. That says a lot.
JJ: I think it's a bit of everything. You sometimes get the feeling that Babb's past his prime, but then you remember he's only 39. I don't know that'll he'll ever get to a point where he's considered just below the top level of drivers ever again, but he's certainly capable of winning big races here and there. As long as he's racing, he's gonna be one of those guys that can win just about any race, no matter the competition.
TT: Let’s briefly look at the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series where Jimmy Owens won at Roaring Knob to regain the points lead. He’s got a 20-point edge on Steve Francis while John Blankenship — whose time out front was just two weeks — dropped further back after finishing 20th. Francis is Francis — steady and capable of winning the title. But I have the feeling this will let us know where Blankenship stands after climbing the mountain, getting knocked back by an off-night, and now having to catch Owens again. I still see a good three-way battle the rest of the way.
MR: Someone floated the idea to me that Jimmy simply was bored and wanted to spice things up. While I don't believe that theory, I do think we're about to see Owens rattle off a hot streak here, and more than likely secure the title. Maybe I can provide some bulletin board material for Francis and Blankenship — I just see Owens pulling away down the stretch.
JJ: I'm not ready to jump off the John Blankenship bandwagon just yet. Owens definitely has things going in the right direction right now, but he's been so streaky this season, that I think it's far from over. Francis is amazingly consistent, and Blankenship will bounce back. I think we're in for a close (hopefully exciting) points battle right to the end of the season.
TT: Let’s hit some potpourri, so comment one any other these that interest you (or toss something else out there). Jonathan Davenport’s Southern Nationals title? ... Billy Ogle Jr.’s errant slide job that eliminated Chris Madden’s series title hopes at Duck River? .... William Thomas clicking off Southern All Star and Southern Nationals victories with his 8-year-old GRT Race Car powered by a CT 525 Crate engine? ... Rob Blair reeling off eight straight victories for an unbeaten July?
MR: Blair has to stand out to me there the most. Very quietly, Rob is mowing them down this month, to little fanfare. So let me get out the Rob Blair trumpet and blow the horn now — this dude should be in voter’s Top 25's if he's not already!! The Ogle-Madden clash really spiced things up midweek, and yeah, I hate to say it, but Ogle just missed it there. Didn't hit it right, and really cost himself and Madden both. ... Surprised William Thomas isn't getting more attention honestly. That’s impressive. ... Other than that, let's not forget, three straight days of live racing coming up on DirtonDirt.com from the USA Nationals!
JJ: Congrats to Davenport for his second Southern Nationals title. I just hate the Duck River incident stole what was shaping up to be a great points battle between him and Madden. I don't think Ogle's slide job was anything intentional, but it definitely put Madden in the wall and ended his title hopes. You hate to see for anyone. ... William Thomas' strong performance in a CT 525-powered car was not only good for him, but also good for the new Chevrolet Performance Super Late Model Series launching this week in Alabama. It'll be interesting to see how the interest is for that deal. ... Rob Blair is simply awesome right now, and his son Max isn't doing too bad himself in the Crate ranks with 18 wins already this year (that’s 33 victories between them). ... Also, a good win for Dennis “Rambo” Franklin in Modoc's Ultimate event. He's been under the radar a bit with his the success of AES Racing teammate Jonathan Davenport, but Rambo can obviously still get the job done.
TT: Yes Michael, our eyes — and our pay-per-view cameras — turn to Cedar Lake Speedway in New Richmond, Wis., for the Aug. 1-3 USA Nationals, a huge World of Outlaws weekend capped by a $50,000-to-win finale. It’s the premier Dirt Late Model event in the upper Midwest spiced by three nights of action, the extra drivers added by the Fans Fund, the best driver intros in the sport and a track that always seems to provide intrigue. It’s our fourth pay-per-view at Cedar Lake and promise to be another big weekend. What are you guys looking for? Another Josh Richards victory? A surprise winner?
MR: Honestly we're looking at one of the best fields in a long time to come up there. You look at the entry list, and among Bloomquist, Moyer, Owens, Richards, Lanigan, all of the Outlaws guys, then the Midwestern guys like Shirley, Feger, Babb, Pierce, guys like Davenport, Stone, etc., it’s really just a Who’s Who for the entire weekend. It will once again be great racing, and if I had to pick a winner right now, how about this: I’ll go upset-special, and say Bobby Pierce rolls the bottom to a win Saturday night.
JJ: This another one of those races that is usually a great event all around. It's definitely one of those races any Dirt Late Model fan needs to go to at some point, and if they can't make it, of course tune in for the pay-per-view! As for the race, I have a feeling Brandon Sheppard is going to be a factor in this one. He ran well at the Summernationals race there and always seems to pick up his game for the USA Nationals weekend.
TT: You’re both still in your Summernationals glow with your UMP picks ... we'll see how Pierce and Sheppard stack up this weekend. Thanks guys.
MR: I have one last thing actually ... #FALS. Now can we all just bask in the greatness of Fairbury over and over and over again.
TT: Here we go.