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Prelude preview: Dirt Racing 101

By admin | June 7, 2010

By Richard Allen

For many NASCAR fans the annual ‘Prelude to the Dream’ is their one and only glimpse into dirt track racing each year. So, there may be some watching Wednesday night’s pay-per-view broadcast of the charity race with little understanding of what is going on.

To begin, I do not profess to be an expert on dirt late model racing but I do follow that facet of the sport somewhat closely. I attend a dirt race almost every week throughout the summer. With that said, I at least have an understanding of the basics and hope to offer help to those who are new to racing on clay.

One of the first things you may notice about the cars racing on the Eldora Speedway is that they bear little resemblance to cars used on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The bodies on these cars are often referred to as wedge bodies. Their purpose is to use the wind to the greatest possible advantage.

Going down a straightaway the cars take the shape of a door stop, very low in the front and high in the back. This allows the car to slice through the wind with little resistance. But the real benefit of the body comes when the car hits the turns.

Being that dirt cars pitch sideways through a turn to get around at the greatest possible speed and to set up for going down the next straight, they must use the air to hold the car on the track and to get the car pointed in the right direction when the straight comes. The air pushing on the sheet metal and wings allows the car to apply the tremendous horsepower these cars have as soon and for as long as possible.

Speaking of horsepower, a super late model dirt car has plenty of it. The term super late model refers to the fact that the cars have an open motor rule. In other words, it is almost a ‘run what you brung’ affair under the hood. Now, that is an oversimplification. SLMs cannot have turbo chargers, blowers or fuel injection. They can only have one spark plug and two valves per cylinder. However, where a NASCAR Sprint Cup car has an engine displaced at 358 cubic inches, a super late model dirt car often will be powered by an engine of 430+ cubic inches.

Engines must be based on a factory design and there are differences between the manufacturers. There will be both Fords and Chevrolets competing on Wednesday night.

Super late models typically weigh 2,300lbs. Weight can vary based on certain engine modifications but that is the common amount. A Sprint Cup car weighs 3,400lbs.

Transmissions are usually a two speed with low gear only used to get the car going and then high gear taking over once the machine is in motion.

The chassis of a dirt late model is where the real tricks of the trade are found. Where NASCAR racers are closely regulated and certified by the sanctioning body, there is a great deal more ingenuity and free lancing allowed in dirt racing.

A number of chassis manufacturers will be represented in Wednesday’s race. The competition between these manufacturers is intense, secretive and competitive. Want to get on the bad side of a dirt race team really fast? Then go over and attempt to take a peak at what they are concealing behind the skirts they use to cover the wheel wells and rear of the car.

Bloomquist, Rocket, GRT, Warrior, MasterSbilt and others will be among those chassis builders represented in the Prelude. While like NASCAR, there is no real resemblance to a street car in dirt racing, the battle among chassis builders offers significant differences.

Those differences among car builders also create fierce loyalties among competitors and even fans. Ask the fans at any given dirt race and they will almost certainly be able to identify their favorite driver’s chassis supplier.

The running of dirt races is different from NASCAR. Many dirt races, with the exception of the really big shows, are contained within one day. Typically, there will be a standard qualifying session, as will be the case in the Prelude. Then, the field will be broken into pieces based on qualifying for a series of heat races. Those heat races determine the starting lineup for the feature race, which will be 30 laps in this case.

Caution laps do not count in most dirt races. When a caution comes out scoring reverts back to the last completed lap. A driver might have just passed another prior to a caution but will have to give that spot up after the yellow if a lap was not completed since the pass. If a car goes to the pit area during a caution it must restart from the rear. However, a car may stop on the track to allow an official to check for damage and then rejoin in its previous spot.

Needless to say, in dirt racing the track is a key aspect of the event. In NASCAR this year there have been two instances of potholes on tracks. In both cases those holes were repaired. In dirt racing, holes and ruts are somewhat inevitable. The driver’s skill in finding the best line around the track is crucial to success.

To me, dirt racing is as much or more fun to watch than NASCAR. One does not necessarily require more or less skill by drivers and crews than the other. Oddly enough, even though both are essentially oval track racing there is much less crossover among fans and competitors than one might think. However, the ‘Prelude to the Dream’ has gone a long way toward bridging that gap.

I have probably given more details than the casual fan cared to know and far too few details for the avid dirt follower. But hopefully, this piece has served to help its readers better grasp what is going on when they watch on Wednesday.

Click the link for more information on the drivers participating in the ‘Prelude to the Dream’

Follow @RacingwithRich on twitter.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly columns appear in The Mountain Press and The Knoxville Journal.

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3 Responses to “Prelude preview: Dirt Racing 101”

  1. JerseyGirl Says:
    June 9th, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Love dirt races! We go to our local track as well. It is so much fun. I’ve only seen the prelude via TV, but one day I hope to go since it is a great idea for both the charity aspect and because Eldora is a track I would love to see a race on live.

  2. Ed Says:
    June 9th, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    I understand that qualifying sets the heat order and the heats set the field for the 30 lap race, but can u specify exactly how it works? It seems like after qualifying, the first heat consists of 1, 4, 7, 10, etc. the 2nd heat is 2, 5, 8, 11, etc. and 3rd heat is 3, 6, 9, 12, etc. I’m not sure but I’d imagine 1st place in the 1st heat is on the pole, 1st place in the 2nd heat is outside pole, 1st place in 3rd heat starts 3rd. Then 2nd place in first heat is 4th, 2nd place in second heat is 5th, and so on… Is that correct or am I way off base?

  3. Richard Allen Says:
    June 9th, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Ed, typically what you have written is the way it works. However, in some cases there will be an invert after the heat races. That is usually done by a spin of the wheel or some other type of random selection. It would do you no good to try and “place” yourself because the wheel spin is random.

    The WoO late model series does a draw for position after the heat races. Lucas Oil Series late model races set the field in the way you described.