2017 preview: Resetting the national tours
By Andy Savary and Todd TurnerDirtonDirt.com
Resetting Dirt Late Model racing’s national tours — the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series and World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series — heading into February’s season openers during Georgia-Florida Speedweeks (drivers listed alphabetically within categories):
Lucas Oil Series
With 2016 World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series champ Josh Richards moving to the Lucas Oil tour, the reigning national tour champions will face off as Scott Bloomquist guns for his fourth career Lucas Oil title. Tour regulars face a rugged 55-race schedule — eight more events than were completed last year — while kicking off at Georgia-Florida Speedweeks with nine series events at three tracks. | Complete Speedweeks coverage
Scott Bloomquist, Mooresburg, Tenn. (’09-’10, ’16): The defending series champ tied his own single-season record with 15 Lucas Oil victories and broke the record for the largest championship margin in series history at 880 points.
Earl Pearson Jr., Jacksonville, Fla. (’05-’08): Finishing eighth in 2016 points, Pearson went winless on the Lucas Oil campaign to continue a drought dating back to May 15, 2015, when he won at Oshkosh (Wis.) Speedzone Raceway.
Jimmy Owens, Newport, Tenn. (’11-’13): The three-time Lucas Oil champion jumped from Barry Wright Race Cars to Rocket Chassis amid a disappointing ninth-place season, though he did score $30,000 for his fourth Show-Me 100 victory along the way.
Don O'Neal, Martinsville, Ind. (’14): For the first time since the Lucas Oil tour's inaugural season, the Clint Bowyer Racing wheelman failed to find victory lane in series competition while finishing fifth in points.
Other returning drivers
Dennis Erb Jr., Carpentersville, Ill. (sixth in 2016 points): Last year’s Dream and National 100 winner had six podium finishes but went winless in Lucas Oil action.
Colton Flinner, Allison Park, Pa. (12th in 2016 points): The youngster ventured out on the national scene for the first time, making 33 Lucas Oil starts and claiming Rookie of the Year honors.
Steve Francis, Bowling Green, Ky. (11th in 2016 points): Spurring a reboot of his own race team and an offseason move to Capital Race Cars, Francis experienced a frustrating season during which he missed time due to facial injuries and failed to win a series event for the second year in a row.
Jared Landers, Batesville, Ark. (10th in 2016 points): While it appeared he’d make his return from the torn carotid artery suffered in a wreck last season, the team has been mum recently on public statements about 2017 plans.
Darrell Lanigan, Union, Ky. (seventh in 2016 points): While Lanigan's first trek on the Lucas Oil tour had its peaks and valleys, the the three-time WoO champ's headlining moment came with a Clash at the Mag victory on June 18.
Tim McCreadie, Watertown, N.Y. (third in 2016 points): Another driver who failed to win a Lucas Oil event last year, T-Mac built late-season momentum after joining forces with the Longhorn Chassis house car team.
Bob Gardner, East Peoria, Ill.: He’s committed to stick with the tour through the spring despite losing a security blanket when fellow Illinois driver Brandon Sheppard vacated plans to follow the series.
Josh Richards, Shinnston, W.Va.: The reigning World of Outlaws champion won six Lucas Oil events during a season where he topped more than $500,000 in total earnings, but his biggest news came with an end-of-season move from the Rocket Chassis house car to Best Performance Motorsports.
Feb. 10-11: Golden Isles Speedway, Brunswick, Ga.
Feb. 13-18: East Bay Raceway Park, Gibsonton, Fla.
Feb. 19: Bubba Raceway Park, Ocala, Fla.
Other schedule highlights
The series has 11 events paying $20,000-to-win or more, including the $100,000-to-win Dirt Track World Championship, Show-Me 100, Topless 100, Silver Dollar Nationals and Hillbilly 100.
Five first-time series tracks are on the slate: Mansfield (Ohio) Motor Speedway, Port Royal (Pa.) Speedway, Luxemburg (Wis.) Speedway, Deer Creek Speedway in Spring Valley, Minn. (May 20) and Brown County Speedway in Aberdeen, S.D.
Odds and ends
Among series regulars departing are Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga. (10 victories and second in points; his Barry Wright house car team plans a mostly independent schedule) and Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill. (two victories and fourth in points; he replaced Richards in the Rocket Chassis house car and will follow the World of Outlaws circuit.) … The series has expanded its Winner’s Circle money to the top 12 in series points (up from 10). … The tour has embraced the new safety rules implemented by the Unified Dirt Late Model Council. … Former crew chief Jason Durham replaces Kenny Kenneda as competition director. He’ll be in the pits as the lead technical inspector while series director Rick Schwallie will play the race-directing role in the tower. … No drivers have officially announced Rookie of the Year runs; that commitment isn’t required until April 1 and typically depends on how drivers fare at Speedweeks.
World of Outlaws
The tour has a wide-open feel with the departure of reigning series champion Josh Richards and an influx of new drivers, including Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C. Madden is expected to challenge former champion Shane Clanton and Brandon Sheppard, Richards’s replacement in the Rocket Chassis house car, in the title chase with others potentially in the mix. The 51-race schedule includes eight first-time tracks.
Shane Clanton, Zebulon, Ga. (’15): Though his distant runner-up performance in 2016 was a step back after a career title-winning season in '15, Clanton remained a contender with seven WoO victories and 23 top-five finishes.
Rick Eckert, York, Pa. (’11): Finishing third in WoO points last season, Eckert notched a victory on the opening weekend of the WoO season at Screven but he would only return to the winner's circle after capturing a Lernerville preliminary feature over Labor Day weekend.
Other returning drivers
Morgan Bagley, Longview, Texas (11th in 2016 points): After two straight seasons among the top handful in WoO points, Bagley fell off substantially and posted only a pair of top-five finishes.
Boom Briggs, Bear Lake, Pa. (14th in 2016 points): The Pennsylvanian was limited to just 28 series starts after a wrist-shattering crash during April's Illini 100 sidelined him through the spring.
Joey Coulter, Concord, N.C. (13th in 2016 points): Making his first run with the World of Outlaws tour, the former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular made 30 feature starts and scored a single top-five finish.
Tyler Erb, New Waverly, Texas (12th in 2016 points): Another to tackle the WoO circuit for the first time, the teenager progressed with each event and ended strongly with two significant non-series victories in October.
Chub Frank, Bear Lake, Pa. (eighth in 2016 points): After a bounce-back campaign in 2015, Frank slipped five positions in the point standings during his seventh straight winless season on the tour.
Frank Heckenast Jr., Frankfort, Ill. (10th in 2016 points): Aligning with Shane Clanton and Marshall Green, Heckenast made the switch to Capital Race Cars following former chassis builder Darrell Lanigan's departure from the WoO tour. He was winless with four top-five runs.
Chase Junghans, Manhattan, Kan. (15th in 2016 points): After entering all but eight races, he again takes aim at the WoO tour running his Capital along with Shane Clanton. He had seven top-10 finishes in ’16.
Billy Moyer Jr., Batesville, Ark. (fifth in 2016 points): Posting his best career points finish in national touring competition, the season was full of firsts for Moyer, who notched his first Speedweeks victory in UMP action at Volusia and his first of two WoO triumphs in Winchester, Va.
Brandon Overton, Evans, Ga. (fourth in 2016 points): Overton broke through for his first WoO win during the Firecracker 100 weekend and finished fourth in points, which helped open the door for a winter move to the Dream Team No. 116 following Randy Weaver's retirement. The team hasn’t officially committed to a series run.
Brian Shirley, Chatham, Ill. (ninth in 2016 points): Shirley was a three-time WoO winner, and if not for a concussion sustained over Labor Day weekend that sidelined him temporarily, he was well on track for a top-five finish in series points.
Eric Wells, Hazard, Ky. (seventh in 2016 points): While the WoO season largely did not go as he'd hoped, Wells began to find his groove in the closing months and won two regional events in his home state near the year's end.
Donald Bradsher, Burlington, N.C.: After racing regionally for several seasons, Bradsher made news with an end-of-season decision to tackle a national tour for the first time in 2017. He has three career touring victories
Chris Madden, Gray Court, S.C.: After flirting with national tour runs a few times in his career, the seven-time regional touring series champion is taking aim at the WoO circuit, where he’s a nine-time winner.
Devin Moran, Dresden, Ohio: On the heels of a season that included several regional victories and multiple notable performances in crown jewel events, Moran united with Tye Twarog in December with plans to chase WoO Rookie of the Year honors in 2017.
Brandon Sheppard, New Berlin, Ill.: The reigning Dirt Track World Champion tackled the Lucas Oil tour with Best Performance Motorsports before retaking the seat of the Rocket Chassis house car in November after the departure of Josh Richards. He was fourth in Lucas Oil points in 2016.
Feb. 17-18: Screven Motor Speedway, Sylvania, Ga.
Feb. 23-25: Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Fla.
Other schedule highlights
While WoO's richest races return — Fairbury’s Prairie Dirt Classic, Lernerville’s Firecracker 100 and Cedar Lake’s USA Nationals — the schedule includes nine tracks that haven’t been on the schedule for at least three years along with the eight first-time tracks.
Among the returning tracks are Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. (last race in 2007); Port Royal (Pa.) Speedway (’08); Lone Star Speedway in Kilgore, Texas (’10); Columbus (Miss.) Speedway (’11); and Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 in Pevely, Mo. (’13), which hosts a race co-sanctioned with the tour’s little brother UMP DIRTcar Summernationals tour.
First-time tracks are Fayette County Speedway in Brownstown, Ill.; Salina (Okla.) Highbanks Speedway; Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, S.C.; Senoia (Ga.) Raceway; The Dirt Oval at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill.; Oshkosh (Wis.) Speedzone Raceway; Georgetown (Del.) Speedway; and the Terre Haute (Ind.) Action Track for another co-sanctioned Summernationals event.
Odds and ends
Departing series regulars are Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va. (18 victories and a WoO champion for the fourth time; he’ll run the Lucas Oil Series with the Best Performance Motorsports team) and Steve Casebolt of Richmond, Ind. (sixth in points; he plans an independent schedule after ending a partnership with Tye Twarog). … WoO drivers are subject to random testing for mind-altering drugs for the first time in 2017 after an off-season revision to the organization’s substance abuse policy. Tests were previously done based on suspicion only. … Series drivers are also subject to new safety rules governing seats, fuel cells, gloves and other areas. … Brent Larson of Lake Elmo, Minn., and Tyler Bruening of Decorah, Iowa, are among other drivers considering a full-time WoO run.