We are now, as of the date of the release of this issue, at the mid-point in the off-season and while many teams are well into their planning and preparation, some still have not necessarily decided on the direction they want to go in circle track racing for the new year.
So, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a summary of what we have discovered on our travels around the country so that everyone, decided or not, could have a good grasp of the current definition of short track racing in America. It's beneficial to some to understand the make-up of the class structure and how changes in classes dictate the direction we're going in the immediate future. The big question we need to ask in this day and time is: Do we still have people who want to go racing in America? Of all we've seen, all that we've done, and all we report on as we travel around the U.S., the answer to that one question will decide the future of circle track racing in this country. And it's a valid question to ask. We live in very volatile and uncertain times where our economy is wounded and the distribution of wealth is a widening gap.
Before we dive headlong into the new 2012 racing season, I wanted to share some of what I learned so far on our AMSOIL CT Tour of America related to the above. So far I've covered more than half of the short track racing territory and population in the U.S. by roaming around the Southeast and Northeast. We've been to racetracks in 22 of the 48 continental United States and those states contain more than half the population of racers and general population of this country. Looking back, I still see the passion for racing. I still see family involvement in the teams, working together and building yet another racing legacy for future generations.
The answer to the question I asked earlier is a resounding, Yes, people still want to go racing. The difference between now and 10 years ago is money. There was a day not too long ago when racing a foreign car on a short track was considered treason. Not so anymore. Why? It's because many of the car makers from other countries saw the need, both economic and political, to establish assembly plants in the U.S., in places such as Tennessee, for example. I visited and did work at one such plant way back in 1994 in western Virginia, it was the Volvo truck plant near Pulaski, Virginia. Now it's common to hear of Americans working at Toyota, Kia, and other car manufacturing facilities around our country. Smart move I say to the foreign automakers.
This marriage of automakers with the workforce of America has had a profound effect on not only our economy, but our perception of those "other" cars to the point that we now readily embrace them as a choice for stock class racing here in America.
The Most Popular Classes
Right now, the most popular classes we've seen through two of the four years we have traveled are: 1) Dirt and Asphalt Late Models; 2) foreign compact stocker class cars; 3) scaled race cars such as Legends, Mini-Mods, Allison Legacy Series, and so on; 4) IMCA-type Modifieds on dirt and asphalt; and 5) fullsized American cars.
Some of this might surprise most of you. It's understandable since most of us don't travel the country going to racetracks. That's why we do what we do.
Dirt Late Models--Dirt Late Model racing, be they built motors, crate motors, or other forms of power, are still super popular with both the racers who love the relaxed rule structure and the fans who adore the action involved (NASCAR, take notes!).
The whole way Dirt Late Model racing is set up fulfills all of the desires of both racer and fan. You have almost complete freedom of design, the challenge of developing driving skills, and winners and losers. Parity kills any sport. In all of the history of sports, interest grows from a distinction between winners and losers. That system of winners and losers does several good things. It motivates the losers to work harder, it rewards those who do work hard to create and drive cars made capable of winning. And it tells our youth that there is a reward for hard work and consequences for being lazy. One only need look at the final race in NASCAR Sprint Cup series in 2011. The two points leaders ended up battling for the lead, win, and championship. They outdistanced themselves from the rest of the field which told the fans and fellow racers that they deserved to be there and that the system of rewards for hard work pays off. And the winner, Tony Stewart, became the champion based on the number of wins he had over the season.
The Asphalt Late Model cars have become boring to watch due to the restrictive rules, similarity in body styles and engine packages, and documented cheating with the crate programs. If the rules were enforced and cost controlled, this class might rebound from the declining numbers we've seen the past five years. Compact Foreign--The new kids on the block, compact foreign cars, present a new challenge for racers. Instead of the familiar double A-arm front suspensions, we see strut/shock front ends, and instead of solid axle rear suspensions, we see front-wheel drive. Yes, there are some rear-wheel drive cars out there, but the majority and future of this class is FWD. That picture doesn't thrill an engineer like me who grew up with the former, but I'm just reporting here and I can tell you that the lower-cost ranks of circle track racing are jumping all over those cars and putting them on the racetrack in record numbers.
Everywhere we went we saw more and more classes with varying names put big numbers of cars on the track each and every week. And the numbers are growing quickly. Leave it up to the racer to solve the problem of antiquated 1980s style cars becoming hard to find. Scaled Cars--Racing scaled race cars offers a little of both worlds--real time racing in fabricated cars that are more affordable, and being easier to transport and store in the garage back home. One of the first of those types of cars was the Legends brand and they started out in the mid-1990s in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Looking back, that concept might have been a little premature then, but now those cars are primed to be just the ticket for racers who must race and have the need to watch their spending. There are even dirt models now available and more and more builders are coming to the surface with these types of cars. We could include the Quarter Midgets in this scale class too. These cars provide the perfect transition where our youngsters can graduate from karts to full cages mini race cars. A few years of the Midgets and then the team can move on from Briggs and Stratton motors to motorcycle four-cylinder, high power-to-weight ratio, fast race cars.
The upper tier of scaled cars are the three-quarter scale cars that are very similar to the Late Models, and have more powerful motors and suspensions that are identical to the full-scale cars. I feel much better seeing those cars racing around at upwards of 100 mph on a half-mile track. IMCA-Style Modifieds--Let's give credit where credit is due. The rise of the IMCA sanction showed many promoters across the country that racers could indeed have a high level of competition while keeping the spending down. That concept was so needed and so well accepted that it caused a movement to where we now see both dirt and asphalt Modifieds running in numerous sanctions.
The old and the new, side...
The old and the new, side by side. Here a Northeast Modified similar to the Tour Mods sits next to a Honda stock class car. This represents the two ends of the stock car scene in America at this point in time.
The Dirt and Asphalt Late...
The Dirt and Asphalt Late Model short track cars make up a large portion of all stock cars and represent what we call the upper tier of weekend racers. The DLM is particularly interesting and significant in that the rules are few and the competition is unbelievably good. Hard work in this particular class pays off, and that’s the way it should work.
The four-cylinder compact...
The four-cylinder compact cars take many shapes and forms. With the large numbers of these cars available at very reasonable prices, this class will continue to grow, supplanting the larger, American sedan cars built in the ’70s and ’80s.
The numbers of female racers...
The numbers of female racers are also growing. I observed a few very competitive and winning girls racing in the Northeast this year. Put a girl in a well-prepared car that runs consistently and you’ll have as much chance at winning as anyone else.
Even these Briggs-powered...
Even these Briggs-powered glorified karts were present in good numbers at Mahoning Valley Speedway. This form of racing is a cheap way for kids to become involved. We even saw adults driving these cars. Hopefully the kids were required to add weight.
Here we see big sister talking...
Here we see big sister talking with her racing brother. It’s a huge plus when all of the family members are involved. This group of cars at Seekonk Speedway ran a very competitive race. Many of the youngsters were children of racers in higher divisions and plan to carry on the tradition.
Let's face it, these cars are fast, fun to work on (read that as being able to change the geometry and setups within the more relaxed rules), and with limited tires, able to race competitively for less money than most other top level forms of short track racing.
The Northeast Big Block Modifieds are a variation of those early Modifieds and are bringing in large numbers of both racers and spectators where they run. And the SK and Tour-type asphalt Modifieds that started in the Northeast are now being run in the south, in and around central North Carolina and doing quite well.
But the more global and successful cars in the modified ranks are still, and will be for a long time, the IMCA-styled cars. Scaled four-cylinder versions of those cars are a real possibility, if not already in the making.
Fullsize American Cars--I see a decline in both the numbers of teams and the interest in these outdated and dwindling numbers of cars. It has been known for some time that these are crappy race cars. They don't handle well, they're hard to find parts for, and large to tote around. The types of racers who run stockers are moving on to the compact cars more and more, on both asphalt and dirt. Tiring of searching for parts that are becoming more and more scarce has those who will continue to race stockers building the easy to buy and maintain foreign cars that get better fuel mileage, are easier to transport, and take up less room in the garage. Is this a good thing? You bet. How many race weekends have you watched a bunch of Monte Carlos and Camaros race where numerous crashes delayed a 25-lap race and caused it to last more than an hour? That's ridiculous. On some nights it's difficult to get in two or three clean laps before a caution comes out. It's no wonder they're disappearing.
Race Cars of the Future--As for the future, there's one company that's getting in on the rush to buy and race smaller and more affordable race cars. Bruton Smith and Ray Evernham have teamed up to start a new series for specially designed Legends cars that are adapted to dirt. These cars will be part of the stable of race cars produced by U.S. Legend Cars International.
The series was first run at East Lincoln Speedway in Stanley, North Carolina, and will presumably expand out to other tracks as time goes on. The cars look very similar to cars that race in Europe in that the driver sits well back in the car, kind of like a Sprint Car, and there are plenty of nerf bars all around the car to enable and possibly enhance contact, but not disaster.
Many racetracks are asking teams to use more inexpensive powerplants to reduce costs. In the past, a large percent of the upper tier race cars' costs have been in the engine department and shocks. So, restrictive rules on engines, i.e. running crate or spec motors to disallow high-priced parts and procedures, have lowered the overall cost of racing those cars. The key is in the inspection and enforcement of those restrictive rules. One thing that has suppressed the growth of racing and goes against the natural desires of more than 90 percent of racers is the disallowance of working with and redesigning the chassis, suspension, and setups. I say 90 percent because we all know that there's a certain small number of racers who complain that they aren't competitive and that those who win, and those who run up front competing for the win, must certainly be out-spending them, and/or cheating.
Both of those arguments are, in most cases I've seen, just not true. In several instances where teams I have worked with dominated the competition, cries went out that we were cheating. The truth is that we had better setups than the others and spent zero money on parts to attain those setups. We just rearranged the parts and pieces we had to a combination that suited the car and gave it what it wanted. One trend I witnessed related to the future of racing were race shops that built and offered for rent or sale multiple cars in the compact stock class. This is another area of future thinking that benefits those who want to race, but don't have the time or knowhow to build and maintain a race car. More of the knowledgeable teams could finance their racing by offering cars to those who are less adept at building and setting them up.
A shop that successfully builds one car that is competitive can easily duplicate that effort for multiple cars at a very low cost. Then by renting those out, the shop could recoup its investment in a relatively short amount of time and thereafter, profit from the enterprise. Another area we have explored mentally is the concept of financing of race cars. Many wannabe race drivers have the cash flow and collateral to make payments on race cars, but not necessarily the reserves to outright purchase one.
So, for a small amount of down payment, a security agreement with the lender, and monthly payments for, say five years, a wannabe racer can own his own car and be a short track racer. These newcomers can start out in lower classes with a $12,000- to 15,000-car which would require around $1,500 down and $2,700 per year, plus interest for a cost of about $250 per month. I know plenty of people who have boats or motorcycles who pay more than that and get less use out of those toys. And, the race team can consist of an entire family in the mid-week preparations, going to the track for a weekend outing and being part of the pit crew.
Whether you race compacts, scaled cars, or Late Models, you might be thinking about changing classes, preparing for your kids to go racing, or even moving to a more inexpensive class so that you can continue to race. Now is the time to consider the options and make that decision. The good thing is that there seem to be a lot more choices now than ever before, and we like that. It's good for short track racing to be affordable and the thrills experienced by the racers and fans is the same. It's all in the level of competition and we see no lack of that. Promoters, just don't over-rule the teams, OK?
Father and son racing is special....
Father and son racing is special. Of course, it could be daughter too, but the impact is the same. The bond grows between father and child and the time spent in the garage at home supplants the time the child is on the computer or playing games. I think our society needs more interaction between parents and their children.
The Legends car class is growing...
The Legends car class is growing all across the country due to the need for more affordable racing. If there were financing available for these cars, I believe the numbers would surge. Someone will eventually take the lead and offer financing for a new race car.
This vintage car is representative...
This vintage car is representative of the early Modifieds that I believe the modern IMCA-type of Modified is fashioned after. These early cars well typify the idea that racers have a need to experiment, tinker, and otherwise work on their cars and make of them what they will, without restrictions. This is why the Dirt Late Models and IMCA-type Modified classes have grown and continue to grow.
The interesting thing is that...
The interesting thing is that we rarely see a one-design, if you will, race car that has been run and been successful on both dirt and asphalt. But the IMCA-style Mod has been just that. This car could be run on both in the same weekend with minor setup and tire changes.
The Northeast Big Block Modifieds...
The Northeast Big Block Modifieds are the king of the short track Modifieds, their numbers are huge in and around New York and the competition is strong. These cars usually only run on dirt, but they often outnumber the Dirt Late Models and in some areas are more popular too.
The future for even the best...
The future for even the best prepared American stock car based on the Monte Carlo and Camaro bodies seems dismal. More and more we see the stocker class being made up of more easily obtainable and cheaper compact cars. Maybe the best use of these cars now would be to remove the body and use the frame for building a Modified.