The idea of being conventional never has found a place in the sport of auto racing. Following the leader was never the objective. The idea was to break from the pack and establish a clear direction. This idea gave birth to the Topless Outlaw Racing Association.
Series president Lonnie Smith took us back to the beginning of the Late Model series, which enters its third year in 2003. "There were several of us talking at an NCRA show in Belleville (Kansas). Back then, the NCRA only had about eight or nine shows. We wanted to race more often, but there wasn't much going on. We decided it was probably time to come up with a purse that was cheaper to the promoter and we could get more dates. Well, they elected me as president."
One idea that would sell the fledgling group to the promoters, always on the lookout for special treats to fill the stands, was to race topless. That's right. They were blowing the roof off the conventional ways.
"We knew we'd have to be different," says Smith. "In order to succeed, we'd have to provide a different appeal than what was available. We thought about the roofs. It wasn't a universally accepted idea. Three promoters said no to the idea, but that's the way we ended up."
The idea of a cheaper purse needed to be there as well. The top payout was set at $2,000. When you added it up, the total payout hit $12,200. Some series required a $19,800 outlay. It was a win-win situation for promoter and racer alike.
"We started with 21 shows that first year (2001)," continues Smith. "The next year, we had 23. This year, we'll probably have 23."
The idea has caught on to the point where topless racing is reaching beyond the Late Model realm. TORA now promotes events for Sprints and Modifieds. The Sprint schedule is coming along nicely, but the idea of topless Modifieds is having a tough time finding takers.
Even though there was some initial resistance to racing without the roof, it didn't come from the competitors or the spectators. "Fans love seeing the drivers sawing on the wheel as they pass," adds Smith.
The 2002 season saw drivers coming to the events in droves. The final tally listed 127 different names in competition. Drivers loyal to other series will often visit a TORA event if it's not in conflict with their regular group. After all, it's easy to make a car topless.
"Eight rivets and four bolts," explains Smith on how he makes his car topless. "Most of the cars we see on the series are standard GRT and Shaw cars. They can just do what they have to do to take the roof off. It's a simple procedure to put it back on and go off racing somewhere else. There are some places where my racers go without the roof for practice, but the promoter will make them put the roof back on."
Though it should be completely understood, it bears emphasis. The drivers are only removing the roof, not the rollcage. Consequently, there's not a safety issue. "We've had guys roll over, but it's like any race car: It's just a piece of 0.040 (inch) aluminum. The rest of the car is built safe," Smith asserts.
Batesville Speedway in Arkansas has hosted a special topless event for the past several years, so the drivers were somewhat familiar with the concept well before the series started. The group understands the importance of safety, and the series mandates state-of-the-sport safety requirements.
Perennial NCRA champion Larry McDaniels won the 2002 championship and earned the $5,000 champion's bonus. "Larry's behind this series 100 percent," adds Smith. "He's raced every TORA show, which is saying something with him being an eight-time NCRA champion. In fact, Larry's gotten more involved because he's going to be booking the Sprint shows."
The end of the season points fund was healthy for series members. McDaniels earned the $5,000 top prize, but the payoff for finishing 15th was a very respectable $500.