Fast Talk: Marching onward to Speedweeks
Here’s the latest edition of Fast Talk, a DirtonDirt.com feature each Monday sponsored by Out-Pace Racing Products. Staffers Michael Rigsby, Todd Turner and Andy Savary 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: Georgia-Florida Speedweeks is upon us, but before we dive into the stretch of 21 Super Late Model races that begin this week in southeast Georgia, let’s consider Friday's shocking news from the Rocket Chassis house car team about the undisclosed medical issues that will prevent three-time World of Outlaws champion Josh Richards from opening the season in his father Mark’s car. | Complete Speedweeks coverage
We’ll not speculate on his condition — the team has said it will provide details later, and we all obviously hope treatment is successful — but let’s reflect on what this means. He’s among the sport’s top drivers with one of the top teams, so it’s quite significant and potentially unprecedented in the history of Dirt Late Model racing.
We had a preview of this when Richards spent most of the 2012 season pursuing NASCAR racing, leaving the seat of the familiar blue No. 1 car to Illinois youngster Brandon Sheppard. It’s a similar situation this time with Sheppard again substituting for Richards. How will this affect the team, Sheppard, the WoO title chase and the sport in general?
Michael Rigsby: First and foremost, everyone here at DirtonDirt.com has Josh, Mark, Tina and everyone at Rocket in our thoughts. I know that this has all been hard on them, so Josh's recovery, and him getting better, is the most important thing in all of this.
That said, it will absolutely be a different landscape in Dirt Late Model racing without him. He was arguably the best in the sport right now — at the very least, top three. So without him, the wins, the WoO title, etc., there's a lot more available. I do know they feel confident that Brandon can step in and perform well, but there is no replacing a Josh Richards.
Andy Savary: First off, best wishes to Josh. The sport will miss him, no doubt, and I hope to see him back on the track soon. I’m going to focus on the positive of Brandon Sheppard’s opportunity, rather than dwelling on the negative of Josh’s absence.
After making perhaps the biggest leap of any driver in 2013, this gives B-Shepp another Grade A opportunity to grow as a driver. He’s had successful stints in the Rocket house car in both 2012 and 2013 (while subbing for Josh), and even won one of the biggest races in the sport in last year’s Dirt Track World Championship. We don't know how long his stay in the No. 1 will be, but getting back on board with Rocket’s top-notch team is great for him.
TT: Moving on to Speedweeks, let’s have some back-and-forth on some random topics. First off, which of the six Speedweeks tracks faces the biggest challenge?
AS: It's hard not to think Screven Motor Speedway, which will now go unsanctioned after the tire disagreement between promoter Redd Griffin and World of Outlaws officials. Going to head-to-head with the Lucas Oil races at Golden Isles won't be easy, and I'm curious to see what car counts will be like.
TT: I’ll say both Georgia tracks. Screven will have to prove it can pull off a big weekend without World of Outlaws sanctioning, while Golden Isles Speedway — its February action sanctioned by the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series for the first time — is back in the thick of things after being out of the picture for the most part. It'll be an interesting first weekend.
MR: That's an interesting question. One that I'm not sure I have an exact answer to. I guess I'll say East Bay Raceway Park in the fact that they've been hammered with really wet weather for over a week now, so getting the track in workable shape will be a battle for sure. The same can be said for Ocala. Going through my list of drivers heading for Speedweeks, I guess you could say all the tracks face a challenge. I think we'll see a slight dip in cars this year, as everyone seems to be scrambling to get ready. And obviously Screven, going the unsanctioned route.
TT: Which driver has the most to prove at Speedweeks?
MR: We can beat the dead horse over and over, but it's got to be Darrell Lanigan. It seems like such a cliche to say that again and again, but he left a chassis manufacturer where he's had just a boatload of success, to start his own brand of cars. It absolutely has to be him, bar-none, hands down.
TT: Lanigan is my first thought, too, Michael, but following your interview with Brian Shirley, Michael, I'll go with the Illinois driver. Shirley hasn’t been known as a big Speedweeks guy, so in launching his program with Riggs Motorsports, he'll have a certain amount of pressure to get off to a good start, especially if he wants to keep pace against he rugged competition on the Lucas Oil tour.
AS: Don O'Neal and Darrell Lanigan stick out most. They are both leaving a lot of success behind in past chassis brands to focus on new rides. I think getting off to a good start is a big deal for both drivers.
TT: Which driver is most likely to get on a Speedweeks hot streak?
MR: Josh is the obvious answer if he was racing, as he's the ultimate streaky driver. But with Richards sidelined, I'll go with Tim McCreadie. I really think T-Mac is going to have a monster year, and will predict three Speedweeks victories at least. How about that?
TT: I’ll take a different tact. Don O'Neal and Billy Moyer (and Richards, of course) have been among the streakiest Speedweeks drivers. I'd be surprised if they are this time around.
AS: I am (and probably always will be) a numbers guy, so it's hard not to say Billy Moyer, who got off to a pretty fast start in his Longhorn Chassis in Arizona an has won more races than anybody else at both East Bay and Volusia. I'm not sure what exactly his schedule will look like, but he just keeps winning at Speedweeks, year after year.
TT: Conjure up the possibilities of a race night during Speedweeks and describe an outcome you’d like to see?
MR: I just want to see exciting finishes. After a few of our finishes were great in Arizona, you get reminded of why we love this sport so much. It seems thrilling finishes are few and far between these days, so if we can get some of those, it would be fantastic. How about this scenario: A night at Volusia with McCreadie, Lanigan and Sheppard three-wide for a finish at the line. I’d take that.
TT: If he makes it to Speedweeks, I’d love to see a Mike Marlar victory at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala. He's had back-to-back years of near-misses there, in 2012 in a last-lap clash with Rick Eckert, and in 2013 when he slipped too high in the final laps to allow Lanigan to steal a victory. The racing gods owe Marlar a better outcome.
AS: I'll keep it short and sweet and say that I'd really like to see Dan Stone get a Speedweeks victory after all these years. I'd love to see any scenario where that happens.
TT: Let’s wrap up by considering the long season ahead (and this after a busy January with nine NDRL races along with the Ice Bowl). For instance, I was checking out the schedule for prolific racer Dennis Erb Jr., which includes all the Lucas Oil and NDRL events, and he’s got 95 nights of racing planned for the season. Whew!
Amid the ebb and flow of a racing season, trends are difficult to predict, but do you guys have any feelings brewing about key storylines of 2014? The three national tours? Successes for drivers making off-season changes? Continued growth of Crate Late Model racing at the expense of open-competition engine events? Do tell.
MR: I'm literally exhausted at just the thought of someone running 95 races (although I believe Erb has hit 100 a couple of times previously). So many people have pointed to the past few years as "defining" for the sport, but I think we'll learn more this year than we have in a long time. Can we support three national tours? Do we race too much? Are crates and CT 525 motors a viable option as the costs of Super Late Model racing continue to skyrocket? We'll have to consider all of this.
If I had to pick a trend, a single thing that I have my eye on, it's the national tour thing. How will all of this racing shake out? Other than that, I'm just ready to get rolling.
TT: Definitely everyone will be keeping a keen eye on the three national tours to see how it all pans out. It'd be fun if one of them took a page from the NASCAR rulebook and installed a chase-style playoff system ... that would definitely set them apart from the others, if nothing else.
AS: I think the biggest thing is that 2014 is definitely going to be chaotic. There are a lot of big events and a lot of money on the line this year, probably more than ever before, and it'll be fascinating to see who capitalizes on that. This season sets up to be a real roller coaster ride and I predict that we're going to see a lot of firsts, whether that be crown jewel winners, career-rich victories and/or maybe even a national touring champion.