Dirt Big-Blocks are one of the hallmarks of dirt racing in the Northeast.
It was by many accounts a great idea: assemble the premiere sanctions of American dirt track racing under one banner. Bolster that formula with an aggressive marketing program, television coverage, and multimedia access for the fans. With a surge of former dirt racing champions such as Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne making it big in the upper echelons of motorsports, even the timing was right. But planning and execution are two very different things.
The plan was hatched in 2003 by Paul Kruger and his Texas-based company, Boundless Motor Sports Racing. It started with the purchase of DIRT, the 30-plus-year-old northeastern sanction. In the year that followed, Boundless also purchased the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series, the Mid America Racing Series, the United Midwestern Promoters series, and Lernerville Speedway. They also launched a brand-new Late Model Series under the World of Outlaws brand and went public, raising over $12 million from the sale of stock. The year 2004 was indeed a busy year for Boundless.
But almost immediately there were problems. A dispute with former World of Outlaws founder and owner Ted Johnson turned ugly, and tracks and drivers alike shunned the changes that Kruger and Boundless wanted to make.
"At first, with Boundless, it was negative. A lot of people didn't like it. They came in and were changing things," says Jessica Zemken, a six-year veteran of Dirt Northeast Modified racing. "There were some tracks locally that didn't re-sign with them. And when you're running locally, you went with the track."
The World of Outlaws Late Model Series attracted stars such as Scott Bloomquist (left) and
Those types of issues don't play well in any type of business, let alone a publicly traded one with $12 million of outstanding stock. Even so, 2005 saw an aggressive push toward new sponsorship and marketing programs. They also raised another $4 million and officially changed the name from Boundless to DIRT MotorSports.
But Paul Kruger's days at the helm of DIRT MotorSports were numbered. Institutional investors, who funded the bulk of Dirt's expansion, saw a need for change in the direction of the company. In February 2006, Tom Deery was brought in as interim President. Most people identify Deery from his years at NASCAR as the vice president of the Weekly Racing Series and Regional Touring Series. But he also spent a number of years as senior vice president of motorsports for Rand Sports and Entertainment Insurance.
Just three months after he joined Dirt, Deery stepped into the lead role as CEO when Paul Kruger resigned amidst a financial restructuring of the organization.
Today Dirt MotorSports is headed by Deery, Ben Geisler, and Rob Bucher. Their presence and management style is having an almost immediate effect, even at the local level. "Now it's getting more professional," says Zemken. "They seem to want to work more with the tracks and with the lower budget teams. The attitude [in the pits] is changing a lot; it's definitely a positive thing."
Structurally, Dirt is not much different from when it was under Boundless. The difference is in the approach. "The goal of the current management team is to treat these assets that have become the standards in dirt track racing with the same respect and care of the original founders and developers," says Deery, a self-described fan of short track racing.
Twenty-year-old Jessica Zemken has run in Dirt for six years with a rsum that includes hea
Dirt MotorSports is currently made up of five primary divisions: World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series, World of Outlaws Late Model Series, Dirt Northeast, UMP, and MARS. According to Deery, "Every one of them has one or two parts that are rock solid that gives us the great foundation to lock into."
World Of OutlawsOne of the cornerstones of that foundation is The World of Outlaws. Originally founded by Ted Johnson in 1978 as a Sprint Car series, today's WoO encompasses the Sprinters and a Late Model Series started by Boundless in 2004.
While the highly publicized launch of the rival National Sprint Tour may have some thinking that American Sprint Car racing was split down the middle, Deery sees it very differently: "Whether it's NST or any of those other groups, we see them as an important part of the development of 410 Sprint Car racing in this country."
So much so that Dirt was the driving force behind a summit of Sprint Car sanctions held in Pittsburgh this year. The purpose was to address issues facing the Sprint Car world, including its very foundation.
"If you look at the Sprint Car world, whether it is a 305, or 360, or 385, or even the 410, some of the opportunity for guys starting out has slipped away somewhat," explains Deery. The goal of the summit was to begin to work out a formula that would bolster that foundation.
Dealing with that lack of opportunity goes beyond just Sprint Cars. "We've been initiating conversations at the Late Model side and the UMP Modified side, too, because we know how important it is to have a base that is strong," continued Deery.
Woo Late Model Competitor Bart Hartman (75) dukes it out with Nextel Cup regular Tony Stew
But the man charged with steering Dirt MotorSports in the right direction bristles at the word leader. "I shy away from the word 'leadership.' We're not trying to become the dictator. I think we look at ourselves as the facilitator, and we will continue to be because we have a tremendous vested interest [in the health of grassroots racing]."
The Grassroots Is Where It's AtWhile the World of Outlaws may be the marquee brand of Dirt MotorSports and a true touring series, three other divisions (Dirt Northeast, UMP, and MARS) focus more squarely on grassroots racing.
The Mid America Racing Series (MARS), was started in 2000 by Arkansas native Mooney Starr. He designed it as a touring series for local drivers at his home track to travel to compete against different drivers in the region while also exposing them to different racetracks. To keep costs down, Starr's series was only going to run on tracks within a five-hour radius of Batesville, Arkansas. This would allow these regional stars to run an organized tour for consistent purses under consistent rules, while simultaneously being able to be home at least four days during the week to maintain a steady job and a somewhat normal family life.
The series was very successful, as it caught the eye of Boundless in late 2004 and joined the Dirt family shortly thereafter.
The other side of the grassroots equation is the United Midwestern Promoters (UMP). A favorite sanction of Nascar stars such as Ken Schrader, UMP actually has several divisions. The Super Late Models are full-bodied stock cars with fire-breathing 750-plus horsepower engines. They race at premier dirt track facilities across the country. There is also an Open Wheel Modified division boasting over 3,100 registered drivers competing weekly at dirt tracks all across the country. In addition, UMP offers two weekly classes-Sportsman and Street Stock-at tracks in six different states.
One of the more unique events that UMP sanctions is the Summer Nationals Series. The month-long event brings together many of the nation's top Super Late Model drivers to compete head-to-head in a grueling four-week schedule. Taking place at facilities throughout the Midwest, the Summer Nationals Series visits a whopping 26 tracks in just 27 days.
In addition to that marathon of racing, UMP also sanctions some of dirt racing's biggest events, including The Dream and The World 100 at Eldora Speedway, and the UMP Winter Nationals during Daytona Speedweeks at Volusia Speedway Park.
Dirt Northeast This division is the former Dirt founded by Glenn Donnelly over 30 years ago. Often referred to as The Advanced Auto Parts Super Dirt Series, it is one of the country's largest dirt racing sanctioning bodies. The series features three primary divisions: Big-Block Modified, 358 Modified, and Sportsman. They hold more than 100 sanctioned races and 700 club races at nearly 40 dirt tracks situated throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada.
The Super Dirt Series is widely known for its Big-Block Modified division. These formidable race cars are unlike others around the country. While they look somewhat different from your typical dirt Modified, the real difference lies underneath the hood. Stuffed between the framerails is a monster big-block producing gobs of horsepower that makes driving one of these things a real challenge.
"A big-block can ruin a good handling race car," explains veteran Dirt racer Danny Johnson. There is so much horsepower in these cars that it takes a significant amount of finesse to get one around the track without wrecking.
UMP Modifieds look similar to IMCA's Modified.
Aside from the healthy Big-Block Modifieds, DIRT Northeast offers young drivers the chance to advance. Twenty-year-old Jessica Zemken is just such a driver. The New York native started racing go-karts at age 8. From there, she graduated to the DIRT Modified Sportsman Division, where she captured the '04 track championship at Utica Rome Speedway. She ran a mix of divisions in 2005 while gaining important seat time and then moved to 360 Sprint Cars in the Empire Super Sprints (a non-DIRT sanction). In 2006, she ran her first World of Outlaws Sprint Series race at Fulton Speedway. She impressed many by winning her heat race and then finishing 10th in the feature. Her goal for 2007 is to land a full-time ride in a Woo Sprint Car. "Once I got into a 410, I didn't want to get back in a 360," says the New York native. "It's always what I've wanted to do since I was born."
Visionary While still at the helm of Dirt, Glenn Donnelly began a little operation that caught Deery's eye when he took over. "One of the more exciting areas is the steps we're taking on the new technology side. Dirtvision was created by Glenn Donnelly five years ago, and he was years ahead of everybody. All that development he put into that and all the potential of video streaming sporting events is something we are going to continue to capitalize on."
Deery's reasoning for dedicating so much to Dirtvision rests with his customers, the race fans. "What video streaming and those technologies bring is great access to the avid fan. It allows them to follow the sport even when they're not in the area. By creating the drama, by creating the stars, by creating the whole package, we can start taking a type of racing that is about as exciting as it gets to a whole new level of fans."
Television and multimedia was always part of the Dirt equation, but Deery and company are taking it to new levels. DIRT MotorSports just recently announced a new television package for 2007. Speed will broadcast 12 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series races while ESPN2 will broadcast The World of Outlaws Summer of Money.
Dirt Big-Blocks are known for their great side-by-side racing action.
The ESPN package includes eight one-hour broadcasts, seven of which will feature events run only hours earlier. The eight broadcasts will air from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. (ET) Sundays beginning June 17 and continuing through August 5.
The two deals will bring World of Outlaws racing to a national and international audience of more than 90 million households. Deery says that the new television package is a vital component of DIrt's business model.
"This isn't a Tuesday afternoon broadcast," says Deery. "This is Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 1:30, when America's been trained to tune in their TV on Sunday to watch sports. Plus, those networks recognize the show, the events, and what we're going to present to be compelling enough that it deserves that kind of time slot. So that's pretty exciting for all of us."
Both Speed and ESPN2 jumped on the chance to broadcast the Woo races. "When we learned World of Outlaws broadcasts would be available, it was something we immediately had an interest in. Building on the Knoxville Nationals and carrying through the World of Outlaws championship run on Speed is something we know Sprint Car racing fans will embrace," said Hunter Nickell, Speed executive vice president and general manager.
Frantz Cayo, director of motorsports programming for ESPN, echoed those sentiments by saying, "We immediately saw how the World of Outlaws Summer of Money concept would complement our Nascar and NHRA motorsports programming. We look forward to working with the World of Outlaws to grow Sprint Car racing and increase the sport's fan base."
In just the last two years, Tim McCreadie (left) has captured the Chili Bowl and the 2006
Increasing that fan base is the key to Dirt's future and growth. After all, Dirt MotorSports is still a publicly traded company.
Cayo's comment that Woo will complement ESPN's Nascar coverage is key to the DIRT formula. "The world of motorsports fans is huge now, thanks to Nascar," says Deery. "They've made talking racing around the watercooler very acceptable. Now it's our job to take advantage of that."
Prior to Deery and Company, DIRT MotorSports had a television deal with the Outdoor Channel, originally negotiated by Boundless, but the new package is at a much higher level.
"The Outdoor Channel was a nice TV package that kept the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series on TV," said Craig Dollansky, a six-time winner in 2006. "But to go from 25 million households to more than 70 million on Speed and 90 million on ESPN2 is a pretty amazing jump, and it will be a benefit to the teams and the series in retaining sponsorship."
The FutureDirt MotorSports and the Deery management team is all about short track Saturday night racing. "Our team and the people we have working with us believe that what happens on a dirt track on a Saturday night, whether it's a Sprint Car, a Late Model, or a Big-Block, fits more with what today's consumer is looking for."
While that may be a bold statement in the face of Nascar's popularity, Deery sees it as not only a compliment to what Nascar has achieved, but also a call to action for DIRT to elevate its game and deliver the goods.
"Our challenge is we need to be ahead of that curve. We need to be sure that we understand the technology issues when it comes to rules. We need to understand the concern of the track operators and be ready to deal with those."
Like the monster big-blocks that Johnson spoke of, it's time for Deery and his management team to take all that power and put it to the dirt.