IMCA Modified racing offers plenty of exciting side-by-side action. Here, we see Mike Smit
NASCAR star Carl Edwards is leaning against a cabinet in his team's transporter at Pocono. Qualifying is right around the corner, but Edwards has dirt on his mind. "I learned the most about how to run a team, how to build a car, how to maintain a car, and how to compete when I ran Modifieds," he says proudly.
Edwards is one of a growing number of racing superstars to make it to the big time by taking the dirt road. But on this dirt road, you turn left four times in one third of a mile at better than 80 mph while zig-zagging through rush-hour-like traffic with dirt, stones, and the occasional car part flying right at you.
This dirt road is the turf of the International Motor Contest Association, commonly known as the IMCA.
Close to 7,000 dirt trackers call the Iowa-based sanctioning body home. They race anywhere and everywhere, from Brewerton Speedway in New York, to Atomic Motor Raceway in Idaho, and at more than 120 other racetracks in between. That makes the IMCA one of the most prolific sanctioning bodies in the world.
Affordability equals big car counts in the IMCA. There's no lack of quality competition am
The IMCA is also the oldest active sanctioning body in the United States, predating NASCAR by some 33 years. Founded in 1915, the IMCA grew rapidly and was sanctioning more races in the United States than any other organization by the late '30s.
For decades, the IMCA was known for its Sprint Cars. But in the '70s, the sanctioning body fell on hard times. The IMCA was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy when Hawkeye Racing News publisher Keith Knaack bought it and began a retooling process that would shape local dirt track racing for years to come.
Knaack was a pioneer and an innovator who had a unique vision of motorsports. It was a simple concept: Keep racing affordable for the grassroots racer. In the late '70s, Knaack felt that Late Model racing in the U.S. was on the decline. His solution was the introduction of a Modified division that would bridge the gap between the low-buck Hobby Stocks of the day and the more expensive Late Models. Ironically, the cost-effective Modifieds became the sanction's marquee division and would grow to become the largest class of race car in the United States.
Health issues forced Knaack out of the day-to-day operations, and his longtime employee Kathy Root took over the presidency of the sanctioning body in 1990. Four years after Knaack's death in 1992, Root purchased the IMCA from the Knaack family.
Staying true to Knaack's philosophy, Root and her son Brett have built IMCA into one of the premiere sanctioning bodies in the country. Under their direction, IMCA has grown to encompass eight divisions racing across five different regions. From California to New York, the list of IMCA-sanctioned tracks tops out at 130 in 27 states, more than double the number of tracks in NASCAR's Weekly Racing Series.
Many of the IMCA Stock Cars use the GM metric chassis. Here, Kevin Sather (No. 3) and Dale
Each Labor Day, Boone, Iowa, transforms into something surreal. Like Sturgis, South Dakota, in early August, Boone experiences a population explosion rivaled by few other events. Race fans, thousands of them, descend upon the small Midwest town. They travel from as far away as the East Coast and as close as the next county. They have come to Boone Speedway for six days of the best dirt racing action in the country-the IMCA Speedway Motors Super Nationals. Dubbed "America's Racin' Vacation," it is IMCA's version of Daytona Speedweeks. But instead of 60 racers in two divisions and five races, this event draws well over 700 of the top dirt drivers who race in dozens upon dozens of races for six different championships.
Guys such as Nebraska's Johnny "The Jet" Saathoff, the four-time IMCA National Modified Champion; David Murray Jr., the Oberlin, Kansas, driver who tops the all-time feature wins list with over 350 victories; and the Hall brothers from Minnesota make the annual trek south to race in cars older than some IMCA competitors.
The mix of drivers and talent at the Super Nationals is one thing that makes the week so special. Another is the qualifying format. On the final day of competition, each division crowns a champion at the end of a single feature race. To get into that feature, drivers compete in a series of qualifying races held over multiple days. There is also an All Star Invitational: 10 drivers, 10 laps, $1,000 to win. And fans get to vote for the drivers who get those coveted 10 spots via the IMCA Web site.
The qualifying format, the invitational, and the sheer scope of the event add up to a solid week of non-stop, dirt-spewing, alcohol-burning action for thousands of race fans.
The IMCA Modifieds run on a spec Hoosier tire that is both economical and functional. Usin
The IMCA's success is due in large part to its dedication to its mission statement: "IMCA is based on enforcing fair and consistent rules that promote affordability as the foundation of racing in America."
Any IMCA racer will tell you that the rules package is one of the most attractive in motorsports. "Not many classes of cars can say that they can race anywhere in the country and be legal," says New York native and '03 Can-Am Speedway Track Champion Rob Keller Jr.
It is that freedom of travel and the cost-effectiveness of the series that have earned IMCA a steadfast following among dirt racers. Keller estimates that you can run a full season of IMCA Modifieds on about $12,000 to $14,000, and that's for a Top 10 car. Go west to Nevada and that figure can drop to $10,000.
"You can buy a 1- to 2-year-old rolling chassis for about $6,500. Figure $1,200 for a transmission and then realistically $2,000 to $3,000 for an engine," says Keller. "The remainder is tires, gears, and other normal racing expenses."
Two grand for an engine seems cheap, especially when you consider a DIRT Northeast Modified motor can cost as much as $35,000. Racers like Keller are reluctant to spend a lot of money on their engines because of IMCA's claim rule, a cost-control mechanism that prevents spending gobs of money on motors. However, the claim has morphed into what many call a grudge tool. "Unfortunately that [grudges] is mostly what it is used for," says Keller who has been claimed at least three times in previous years.
In response, IMCA instituted an exchange addendum to its claim rule last year. Now, any claimed driver has the option of accepting $525 cash for his or her motor or exchanging engines with the claiming driver.
"If you have to give up your engine to claim the other guy's, then you darn well better be sure that the reason he's kicking your butt is because he has a better engine in there and not just a better handling car or better setup," says Keller.
The Late Model division always delivers mud-slinging action. At Boone Speedway, Lonnie Bai
In addition to thwarting the grudge factor, the exchange rule has led racers to take a different approach to building motors.
"With this new exchange rule versus a pure claim, we have seen guys spend more money on their motor, not so much for horsepower but more for dependability," says Dave Johnson, co-owner of Iowa-based engine builder JR Motorsports, one of the leading suppliers of motors and parts to IMCA racers.
A typical alcohol-fueled 355 Modified engine can make over 500 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque. With all that torque running through stock lower end components, part failure is a real possibility. By upgrading those components, motors last longer. Though you spend more money, you save money in the long run.
The new exchange rule is an example of how the Roots keep costs in check while bettering the sport through minor tweaks to their system. Since there have been only small changes to the IMCA rule book over the past decade, racers know what to expect year in and year out, regardless of the division. That means they can run the same car and engine for multiple seasons, freshening it each winter and keeping costs down.
"I wouldn't be standing here talking to you if I weren't able to go race with a $6,000 race car and win a championship," says Edwards as he munches pretzels in the back of his Nextel Cup transporter. "If there aren't series like IMCA that are competitive, respected, and inexpensive, there won't be guys coming up."
IMCA has crafted a rules package that plays well at tracks around the country-too well in some cases. In addition to its 130 sanctioned tracks, there are many more around the nation that have pirated the IMCA rules package. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery does not pay our bills," says Brett.
It's a problem that the management of IMCA deals with on a daily basis. When a non-sanctioned promoter runs a race using IMCA rules, IMCA and its membership base do not yield any income. Compounding the problem, sanctioned tracks question why they must pay to run the rules package when the promoter up the street does not. It's a difficult situation to police, so IMCA concentrates on adding value to its membership base.
"Our primary goals are to focus on increasing service to our racetracks and benefits to our racers," says Kathy. That commitment has strengthened relationships and enabled IMCA to continue to grow in the face of competition.
Running a sanctioning body over such a wide geographic area presents its own set of challenges. However, there are several that are on the forefront of the Roots' minds. Staying on top of new technology coming through the parts suppliers and keeping up with what the racers are trying to do with their cars are two of the biggest. Both can escalate the cost of racing in the blink of an eye.
"It's a double-edged sword," says Brett. "We want the divisions to be big and popular, but we want to keep them cost-effective. We are, after all, a weekly sanctioning body."
IMCA Sprint Car division action showing eventual winner Scott Winters (No. R19) racing wit
Aside from the technological challenges, another enemy is looming on the horizon.
IMCA rules stipulate the use of many OE components such as frames, blocks, cylinder heads, and suspensions. As time marches on, those components are getting more and more scarce. While IMCA can spec aftermarket cylinder heads and suspension parts to replace the OE ones, the frame and motor situations are more complex.
One of the most popular frames for an IMCA Modified is the late '60s Chevelle. "We're getting close to the breaking point for that frame," says Brett. "But my opinion is that we aren't forcing anybody to build on any one frame."
Brett is right. The legal year range for frames in four of IMCA's eight divisions runs from 1964 all the way up to the current model year. That's a big range, big enough for now.
Johnny "The Jet" Saathoff shuns the popular Chevelle frame for one from a '77 Impala. "They're strong, durable, and plentiful. If guys want to continue spending $400-$500 for a frame, that's just fine with me. I'll spend my 100 bucks," says The Jet.
Another great alternative to the Chevelle is the '77 to '87 Ford LTD. Like the Impala, it is strong and durable, and there are a lot of them around. Ironically, IMCA based its first SportMod on this frame, but competitor acceptance has been slow.
"Until somebody comes out and starts winning with it, nobody is going to use it," says Saathoff.For the record, Saathoff has been winning with that Impala frame and is currently Second in the national points standings.
Perhaps the most complex supply issue facing IMCA is block availability. According to JR Motorsports, one of the most popular blocks for IMCA competition is the 350 four-bolt. "The early '70s to the late '70s is where the majority of the blocks have to come from. You get into the '80s and the blocks get lighter. They don't work as well for this high-performance application," explains Dave Johnson.
IMCA inspections are serious business. Here, Garry Stube is getting the twice-over after q
The skyrocketing price of steel isn't helping matters. Salvage yards, a major source for frames and blocks, are no longer piecing out cars. They're crushing them as a matter of pure economics. "Why would a yard tear a motor apart or tear a body off a frame to get a few hundred dollars when they can just crush it and make more money?" questions Johnson.
When block availability gets to the critical stage, IMCA will have essentially three options: legalize the more expensive aftermarket blocks on the market; persuade a domestic manufacturer to invest in the castings for a stock block; or have cheaper blocks made overseas. It is an issue that will eventually have to be addressed.
The solution to the frame issue is more straightforward. IMCA could specify a handful of manufacturers to reproduce the more popular frames once all the OE alternatives are exhausted. It's something Brett says he wouldn't rule out.
That approach also would provide a source for the GM metric chassis used in IMCA's Southern SportMod division. While not as endangered as the Chevelle, most of those chassis are more than 20 years old and are used for racing beyond IMCA.
Regardless of the potential supply issues of motors and frames, IMCA racing is on the upswing. Its membership has risen 5 percent in just the last year alone, and its suppliers are seeing an increase in new customers.
"We're getting an average of 200 requests for catalogs per week," says Johnson. "I'm amazed at the number of new customers this far into the season. There appears to be a lot of new activity."
With their dedication to cost control and focus on the tracks and racers, the Roots have carefully crafted a winning formula for dirt track racing. That formula gives drivers the chance to hone their talent and move up the racing ladder without breaking the bank. And when they conquer the Modified, there's no telling how far they could go.
"There's a lot of really great race car drivers driving those Modifieds," says Edwards, "guys that could run Nextel Cup."
Four in perfect formation! This isn't the parade lap. These guys are racing for position.
Wanna go racing in the IMCA? Well, they have a whole host of options, all with rules packages that put the focus on affordability and safety. There are eight different divisions and four series. Here's a look at them.
The crown jewel of the IMCA empire is the Modified. Over 500 hp, 8-inch tires, and a post-race weight minimum of 2,450 pounds with the driver make these beasts fly around the track. But be warned: "It's not where you have this big, old gumbo tire on there and you're just driving like a wild man," says Johnny "The Jet" Saathoff. "You've got to drive these cars hard, but yet you have to finesse them around the track."
It may surprise some that IMCA offers a Sprint Car series that features both winged and non-winged machines. But these hot rods are the original Sprint Cars. They were gone from the IMCA scene for a while, but Keith Knaack brought them back in the early '90s.
Probably one of the most recognizable dirt race cars around is the Late Model. They're everywhere. But there's a twist on the IMCA Late Model. These cars sport spec engines and spec tires. GM, Ford, or Chrysler V-8s are the choices, and displacement ranges from 361 to 364 ci, depending on the manufacturer.
Thanks to Rob Keller for this great underside view of an IMCA mod. Note the simplicity of
As the name implies, IMCA's Stock Car class features full-bodied American stock cars. Like the IMCA Modifieds, these cars can use any American engine, but it must feature an OE passenger vehicle production block. No fancy stuff here, but there is no limit on cubic inches.
IMCA Hobby Stock is an entry-level division designed to give new competitors the chance to go racing. Hobby Stocks are pretty much bone-stock production cars. The body and frame must match, and the engines must reflect the correct pairing to the model. No '88 big-block Monte Carlos here. If you want that setup, you better try the IMCA Stock Car class.
IMCA developed another entry-level division called the SportMod. Split into a Northern and Southern division, the SportMod is pure low-buck Modified racing. The Northern Division is based on the traditional Modified rules, but has restrictions on the motors and suspensions. The Southern Division has a purpose-built race car that uses the GM metric chassis-it's essentially an IMCA Hobby Stock with a Modified body. Both divisions offer dirt Modified racing at half the cost of a traditional IMCA Modified.
If ever there was a true entry-level racing class, the IMCA Sport Compact is it. Buy any front-wheel-drive, four-passenger, four-cylinder car; gut it, drop in a racing seat and rollcage, and head to the track. The kicker with IMCA Sport Compacts is the minimum age to race these things is 14!
In addition to the eight divisions, there are also four traveling series. Two are dedicated to the IMCA Modifieds; the Dakota Classic Modified Tour runs through North Dakota and Saskatchewan, Canada, while the Empire State Modified Series tours tracks in New York State. The Deery Brothers Summer Series is a special tour for the Late Model division. Finally, there is the Jackpot Junction Sprint Tour which, as you might guess, features the IMCA Sprint Cars.
IMCA divisions promote driver development. Start with the Sport Compacts, and as you get better you can move up the ladder to the top-Modifieds and Sprint Cars. Two divisions, Sport Compacts and Hobby Stocks, have a restricted entry. If you run in any other IMCA division, you are not allowed to race in them. The point is to give up-and-coming racers much needed experience. The beauty of IMCA racing is that regardless of the division, you can compete on a tight budget.