From a setup point of view, the 2002 World 100 at the famed Eldora Speedway was a valuable lesson for all dirt racers racing at AnyTrack, U.S.A. The combination of limited practice time and changing track conditions caused problems for many top teams. You can never be too prepared coming off the trailer, but being able to quickly adapt to changing track conditions is invaluable.
Tricky Eldora proved a challenge at 2002's World 100 for even the most experienced dirt racers. Everyone, both inside and outside of the pits, agrees that the World 100 is the Daytona 500 of dirt Late Model racing. It goes without saying, just as it is in NASCAR racing, that the top teams are expected to do well. That was not to be the case, and is part of Eldora's unique character. It doesn't care what past accomplishments you bring to its dirt banks.
A short study of the history of the World 100 indicates that three drivers have dominated the race over the last 14 years: Billy Moyer, a five-time winner ('91, '93, '94, '98, and 2000); Donny Moran, four-time winner ('89, '92, '96, and '97); and Scott Bloomquist, winner in '88, '90, and 2001. Of those three, Moyer was especially of interest and a favorite in 2002 having come off a two-race, big-money winning streak. He won $15,000 in Portsmouth, Ohio, at the Pepsi 100 on the previous Sunday, and another $25,000 at the Hillbilly 100 in Tyler County, West Virginia, on Monday. He won those races with one of his MastersBilt chassis cars, but interestingly chose a C.J. Rayburn chassis for the World 100.
Another logical threat for the overall victory came from a relative newcomer to the World 100. Brian Birkhofer was the Heat #3 and A-Main event winner of the Sunoco American Late Model Series at Eldora only six days previous. Many dirt track aficionados saw him as a threat to challenge the old guard for the overall victory in the World 100 because of this triumph and his recent impressive runs in the UDTRA. Yet, he'd never won a race of this stature, so he was unproven, if fast.
During qualifying, 202 cars (down from 2001's 240-plus) turned one lap in two different sessions, and as could be expected, the surface became somewhat dry, but not especially dry-slick. A black groove opened up halfway up the track later in the session, and several drivers took advantage of that by putting their right-side tires on the 3- to 4-foot-wide tacky line to put down some impressive lap times. The difference between the fastest and the slowest in the field was just a little over a second. For that many cars, that was a fairly tight spread.
Much of the opportunity for success at this race comes from having previous experience and knowing how to read the racetrack. Plus, you'd better qualify in the top 60 or so cars, or you'll have a tough road ahead as you race your way to the A-main from deep in the Heats. The unique problem here is that there is almost no practice time for the teams to get a feel for the conditions. All 200-plus cars get maybe two hot laps before qualifying, and if the setup does not match the track conditions, you either adjust correctly or go home.
Veterans who have had success in past World 100s usually do very well. Many teams that would probably have been set up correctly for the conditions of the A-Main were not right for qualifying and the Heat races. Most of the teams who were in the final race anticipated slick track conditions and set up their cars to be tighter.
Heat Race Eliminations
What ultimately developed in the A-main was totally unexpected. The track surface held moisture, blackened over, and provided plenty of traction--about as opposite of the qualifying conditions as you could expect. These summaries of how the qualifying Heats played out set the tone for the A-main. The top three in each Heat race were automatically transferred to the A-Main event and each lap was like a backyard dog fight.
* Heat #1--Shannon Babb easily took the checkered flag followed by Greg Johnson and Wendell Wallace. Early favorite Donny Moran failed to finish well enough to even make the last-chance race, the B-Main. He was trailered.
* Heat #2--Winner Dan Schlieper was trailed by power drivers Scott Bloomquist and Steve Francis.
* Heat #3--Randle Chupp transferred to the main by winning this heat followed by Scott James and upset hopeful Brian Birkhofer.
* Heat #4--This race featured a runaway win by the "Modern Day Cowboy," John Gill, who was followed to the line by Brian Ruhlman and Tim Hitt. Gill and his team were pumped, and it looked like the track momentum had swung their way after this impressive run.
* Heat #5--A very tight race the whole way among the top four ended with Kevin Weaver taking the final transfer spot by a foot at the finish line. This was a preview of how hard-fought the A-main would be. Incredibly, early heavy favorite Billy Moyer started eighth in this Heat race and only managed to climb to fifth place at the finish. He'd have to race out of the B-main to get into the show. The Heat winner was Dennis Erb and second was Skip Arp.
* Heat #6--Winner Bob Pierce led a very good race between Don O'Neal and Dale McDowell for second. They finished in that order.
The B-Main was the final race for transfer into the main event. The race was won by R.J. Conley and he, Darrell Lanigan, Brandon Kinzer, and Joey Izzo were to be the last to qualify. The rowdy capacity crowd was stunned into silence to see five-time World 100 winner Billy Moyer finish fifth and lose any chance to become a six-time winner. The final two entries for the 24-car A-main starting line-up came from qualifying. Kris Patterson and Shane Yoder, the fastest two of the remaining non-qualifiers, joined the field. Unlike in NASCAR racing, there was no past-champion provisional or promoter's option to rescue Moyer and put him in the field. As one fan succinctly noted, "He wasn't fast enough!" That's how basic Eldora is.
Master Track Preparation
Spry track owner and promoter, Earl Baltes (80-plus years old and with more energy than most 20-year-olds), had personally groomed the track surface for the final event. This man handles heavy construction equipment prepping his track like you do a garden tool. The banking was graded to a consistent slope, in the 15- to 20-degree range, and had plenty of moisture. That helped make for a fast and competitive A-main race and helped keep the dust level down. The drivers were able to use every lane on the track from the apron at the very bottom to the top lip near the wall.
After the Heat races and the B-main event, the track was watered at the top, mainly to cut down on the amount of dust that would be kicked up in the A-Main. That moisture was just enough to seal the track. The surface became hard and black and stayed that way throughout the final race. Those conditions would prove to be the downfall for many teams. Most of the crew chiefs admitted after the race that they had anticipated slick conditions for the final, and therefore were set up much too tight.
A-Main For The Ages
The race began with several cautions as drivers tried to gain an early advantage and instead ended up crashing their cars. With a crowd fueled by anticipation and free-flowing adult beverages, the delays only increased their excitement. At the start, Dennis Erb led Lap 1 but was quickly overtaken by Bob Pierce. The early order was Pierce, Babb, Erb, Bloomquist, and Schlieper. Pierce held on until Lap 10 when Babb made his move into the lead. Over the next 36 laps, young Babb would stretch his lead to more than 10 car lengths. The kid was fast and the crowd was restless--they hadn't come for a runaway.
Meanwhile, Scott Bloomquist had started his steady march to the front by passing Dennis Erb and Bob Pierce to confidently set himself into second place. A caution on Lap 46 closed up the field. At the restart, Bloomquist overtook Babb and the crowd perked up a notch, even though there were plenty of laps left. "Bloomer" can be likened to the late Dale Earnhardt--the fans are polarized about him. They lustily cheer or boo him with no tepid in-between. By now the track had become completely blackened over, and Bloomquist continued to run the very top groove up near the wall. Babb began to get very tight and could not turn the car very well through the middle of the turns, causing him to drop back many car lengths.
At the three-quarter mark, the No. 15B car of Brian Birkhofer caught Babb and moved easily past into second place with his sights set on Bloomquist. Now this was what people had paid to see. Here was the no-holds-barred veteran being challenged by journeyman Birkhofer who had never won a race of this import.
As the last 10 laps wound down, Birkhofer moved closer and closer to Bloomquist. The latter had a clear advantage in Eldora's pinching Turn 2, but Birkhofer would fearlessly sail into Turn 3 and draw up to Bloomquist's spoiler on the bottom and grind it out of Turn 4 just a tick behind. The two ran entirely different lines with Birkhofer taking the turns on the very bottom of the apron, his car blowing a huge stream of dust as he continually dove to the low line only to come up on the straightaway behind Bloomquist.
He finally caught Bloomer and made a skillful pass only to see the yellow flag wave and send him back into second place. The crowd was getting worked up. The kid had the stuff, but could he pull off another pass of Bloomquist for a win? The odds were not in his favor. Bloomquist, like any driver, can make a car very wide when necessary.
When the white flag waved, Bloomquist made yet another impressive run off Turn 2 and managed to pull a seemingly insurmountable three-length lead down the back straightaway. The race looked to be over with only a half-lap to go. But Birkhofer dove down into Turn 3 deeper than ever at full throttle, blew past Bloomquist, and slid up cleanly in front of him in the middle of Turn 4. The whole place was on its feet. Bloomquist quickly moved to the inside of Birkhofer and it was a to-the-mat drag race to the finish line. It was hard to tell who was leading, but at the line Birkhofer crossed less than 3 feet ahead of Bloomquist to win the World 100. As they say, the crowd (and press box) went wild--to put it mildly. Sage and succinct, Earl Baltes summed up the spent crowd's emotion in Victory Lane: "All I can say ... is that was one hell of a race!"
It was a great ending to a busy weekend of dirt Late Model racing at Eldora Speedway. Brian Birkhofer was not a surprise winner by any means. He didn't just drop out of the sky on one of the top Late Model fields in the country. Of the previous five races he had run in the prestigious UDTRA Series, he had won twice, finished third twice, and fourth once. That would be an extremely good finishing average for any of the top drivers. But nothing he had done could match this remarkable triumph. He'd beaten a mentor and past champion on a merciless track.
Analyzing the progression of the teams throughout the weekend, we could see that the cars of Scott Bloomquist and Brian Birkhofer were the most neutral cars in the race. Drivers who had dominated their Heat races, such as Shannon Babb and John Gill, were set up too tight for the main and that slowed them considerably in the turns.
Past World 100s have shown that good handling produces fast turn speeds that are essential for fast lap times. When Billy Moyer won the 1998 race he was so fast through the turns that he was observed letting off the throttle halfway down the straights en route to lapping three-quarters of the field that day.
We are once again reminded by races such as this that handling is the key to speed and success. Birkhofer alone chose to run the bottom of the turns to try to gain an advantage and it paid off. The combination of the additional grip needed to turn the car and the shorter distance around the turns eventually put him in front. It didn't hurt that he stepped up and drove a gritty race against one of the all-time great Late Model drivers in the country.
Talent and experience are very important in all types of stock car racing. By watching what happened to some of the top teams in the World 100, we also realized (again) the importance of setup and being able to read the track conditions to anticipate what the track is going to do for the main feature. Thousands of racers struggle with those very same decisions week in and week out. The problems encountered by these top teams at Eldora are exactly the same ones we all face and how they react to this challenge can be an example for all dirt racers.
In the coming months, Circle Track will feature tech articles that deal with setting up all classes of stock cars. We will present techniques to help you better understand your car, how to prepare it, and how to adjust it. We'll give you the tools. You'll have to supply the grit. CT
Typical Heat race action at...
Typical Heat race action at Eldora's 2002 World 100, the 32nd running of the famed event. Joe Izzo (No. 166, outside), Earl Pearson, Jr. (No. 1, middle), Chad Lyle (No. 12, inside) fill the windshield of Mike Duvall (No. F1, behind).
This crash in Turn 2 of the...
This crash in Turn 2 of the A-main relegated Steve Frances (No. 1), Dennis Erb (No. 28), and Brian Ruhlman (No. 11) to final positions of 13th, 14th, and 15th, respectively.
Want to confound your local...
Want to confound your local DMV? This street legal Late Model was on display and for sale at the World 100 tradeshow area.
MOPAR Performance pulled out...
MOPAR Performance pulled out all the stops with one of its parts display trailers on the Manufacturer's Midway around the track.
Eventual winner Brian Birkhofer...
Eventual winner Brian Birkhofer (No. 15B) passes fast qualifier Shannon Babb (No. 18) during the A-main. Babb's car tightened up and he finished third.
You'd hug Earl Baltes too...
You'd hug Earl Baltes too if he just gave you $35,000 to win the World 100, as Brian Birkhofer does. Earl's wife, Berneice (left), gave the OK, this once.