Not long ago, dirt Late Model racing in the West was fading away-quickly. A multitude of top-notch tracks were dropping events, and dirt Late Model racing was in danger of becoming extinct on the West Coast.
Enter Doug Baiton and group of dedicated racers and promoters. The group steeled themselves against criticism and mounting odds in an effort to save their beloved form of racing and, as a result, created the Carquest Dirt Late Model Tour. Now their brand of racing isn't just surviving-it's flourishing.
A Lap Down From The StartAsk any dirt Late Model racer in the West and they will readily admit there was a time when the West Coast was miles behind the East when it came to Late Model racing.
"Out here in the West," says Baiton, president of the Carquest Dirt Late Model Tour and owner of Bakersfield Speedway in Bakersfield, California, "we were way behind the East Coast. We didn't realize a lot of this until we really started looking into creating our own series."
Bakersfield Speedway was one of the few remaining tracks in California continuing to run dirt Late Models, and the car counts were dwindling to only seven or eight cars per race. Hoping to essentially save dirt Late Model racing in the West, Baiton, along with several drivers and promoters, examined other Late Model series, such as I.M.C.A and STARS, took what they felt was the best of each one and incorporated it into their tour. Rules were specifically created with the racer in mind, and their tour began in Bakersfield with a five-year plan to expand the sport across the Western states while creating a series in which both drivers and promoters could succeed. It was a daunting task, and roadblocks were aplenty.
"Here in Bakersfield," explains Baiton, "Late Models were our favorite racing circuit. So we tried to save the situation instead of just throwing it out, which is what a lot people suggested we do. But once we started getting all our information, it was pretty easy to put our right rules together. We track owners and promoters in the area all got along very well, and right from the get-go we knew we could put a traveling tour together."
Baiton admits that many people were sitting back, waiting to see how the tour would develop before they invested their money. But in 1998 the tour gained a huge boost when Carquest Auto Parts joined on as the primary sponsor. The name was changed to the Carquest Dirt Late Model Tour, and many drivers and promoters could not help but notice the tour's successes.
Gathering SpeedThe tour has three divisions, classified as A, B, and C, and the main difference between each division is weight. All three divisions compete against each other, and a driver may choose to run a car that adheres to whichever classification he chooses. Despite three different divisions, however, the racing is exceptionally tight, and to the fans in the stands, that is most important.
"It's the driver's choice what he wants to run," says Scott Pounds, '98 Carquest Dirt Late Model Tour champion and founder, "and anyone can change anytime they want. You can't tell the difference when the cars are on the track because the weight variances to the horsepower ratio keeps us extremely close. When all the cars are on the track together, and if you were in the grandstands watching and listening to them, you would never be able to tell what motor was in the cars."
The divisions break down as follows:A Division: Up to 365 ci. All heads are "no touch," meaning no grinding, deburring, porting, or polishing of any kind is allowed. Permitted heads are Spec Brodix Aluminum cylinder head, GM Bow Tie, or World Products only. Brodix heads must have a minimum of 60cc combustion chamber. Rear spoiler maximum height is 10 inches. Minimum weight with driver: 2,250 pounds.
B Division: Up to 365 ci. Any cast-steel or aluminum cylinder head, including all Dart and Dart Iron Eagle castings. Any configuration and any type of port work is allowed with two valves per cylinder. Rear spoiler maximum height is eight inches. Minimum weight with driver: 2,450 pounds. Or, with 111/48-inch restrictor plate between carb base and intake manifold: 2,250 pounds with driver.
C Division: Any size engine over 365 ci. Rear spoiler height maximum of eight inches. Minimum weight with driver: 2,550 pounds. Or, with 111/48-inch restrictor plate between carb base and intake manifold: 2,400 pounds with driver.
Costs for a complete car vary. "By far the best way to get into our brand of racing is to buy a used car from the East Coast," Pounds says. "For about $14,000 you can get a good used car minus the motor and transmission. A new car runs about $18,000. The motors run from $8,000 for a spec head engine to about $20,000 for the high-tech engines. So, the total cost for a spec-head car would be from about $12,000 for a used one to $20,000 for a quality car."
Other rules include a noise limit of 95 decibels or less; driveshafts and universal joints must be steel or aluminum; drivers may use only approved 32-gallon fuel cells (racers can run either gas or alcohol); and the wheelbase for all divisions is 103 inches with 11/42-inch tolerance. All cars are required to use Hoosier D45 spec dirt tires. This rule helps keep costs down, which is fundamental of the tour.
"We have stuck with the 22-race program because it is affordable," says Baiton. "We could run 30 races, but our guys probably could not afford it because they all work for a living. We don't want to lose the fun in our racing, and we don't want to wear our guys out either."
Fun and affordability drive the Carquest Dirt Late Model Tour, and organizers aim to keep it that way by meeting regularly throughout each season.
"We have a panel of five racers, and we meet with them twice a year to go over our program," Baiton says. "We look at areas such as our starting lineup procedures, how we do our purses, what rule changes we may want to make, and generally what is best for the tour. So, this tour is not a dictatorship. It is a deal that all of us are involved with, because it takes every one of us to make this tour work."
The tour travels to about eight different tracks in California and Arizona beginning in March and ending in September, and this year marks the fourth season of racing. Purses are $200 to start and $1,100 to win with a $20,000 points fund. Weekly show purses range from $6,000 to $7,000.
Building On SuccessWith the goals of the tour's five-year plan already coming to fruition, one cannot blame Baiton and everyone involved to be excited about it future.
"Our program, with our race fans and everything, it has really taken off," Baiton says. "Out here on the West Coast, this is the hottest thing going in racing today." Proof of this can be seen in the stands and on the track as the tour is averaging about 3,000 at each event and the car count has swelled to as high as 30. Still, Baiton hopes to build on the early successes of the Carquest Dirt Late Model Tour by landing new sponsors, increasing the starting and winner's prize money, and is even entertaining ideas of joining NASCAR.
"Our key to success is to make the tour affordable for our competitors," says Baiton, "so I would like to see the starting money grow as well as the winner's money. We are pretty close to levels we want to see now, but it mainly depends on if we can pick up some more major sponsors. If we do, I believe we can reach the goal of $300 to start and $1,500 to win. Plus, we are looking at maybe joining up with NASCAR. In fact, one of the tracks we run on (Watsonville Speedway, Watsonville, California) is a NASCAR dirt track, so we have been looking at joining them for the added benefits such as insurance, points funds, and so on."
The bottom line for the tour has always been for the fans, drivers, and promoters alike to enjoy dirt racing to the fullest, and Baiton's group seems be living up to it.
"We have a unique situation where all the promoters and tracks work together instead of against each other," Baiton reveals. "Here in California, we have really been lucky because we all have fun, we all know each other's families personally, and we have a blast together. And that's what racing is all about."