Race Weekend Central

Thursday Morning Thunder, Vol. 2 – Dirt Late Models Full Stream Ahead to Kick Off 2021

Anyone that’s ever groaned about NASCAR’s offseason being the shortest in professional sports ought steer clear of dirt late model racing. 

For those at the top of the pyramid racing super lates, that offseason ended New Year’s weekend, a mere 19 days after the checkered flag flew over the National 100 at East Alabama Motor Speedway. And while 411 Motor Speedway’s Hangover race, as well as this coming weekend’s Ice Bowl at Talladega have long been early-season SLM fixtures, this weekend marks the kickoff of what has become the most congested schedule in all of sports other than baseball. When the green flag falls on the Xtreme DirtCar Series event at Cherokee Speedway on Saturday, it marks the beginning of a stretch that will see 33 super late model events contested across the South and Arizona in a span of 35 days. And that’s not counting the crate late model classes that will contesting parts of Speedweeks across Florida and Georgia.

Now granted, the number of races has gone up, though not dramatically; five years ago there were still more than 20 SLM features being run across the South in the month up through Speedweeks in Florida. What is new, however, is when these races are starting. The Lucas Oil Dirt Late Models are starting their season January 22, two weeks earlier than their customary “Super Bowl” event. The DirtCar Xtreme Series has been racing since November, tackling Cherokee Speedway this weekend in year two of a series brought back by a sanctioning body more familiar to the legions of big-block modified fans up north. And then there’s the World of Outlaws, which are headlining “Sunshine Nationals” to run at Volusia January 14-16, nearly a month before the annual Winternationals kick off.

One could look at the 2021 slate and call the World of Outlaws all but confrontational in scheduling their season-opening events. Though the WoO late model tour also opened in January last year, that was done to providing a grand opening show for the newly built Vado Motorsports Park. Volusia has had January races before, but not at the level of a WoO show.

By scheduling the Sunshine Nationals, the WoO late models are now running A-main events on the same weekend as both the Chili Bowl Nationals midget car races and the Wild West Shootout in Arizona, a SLM racing event that’s been going on for nearly a decade. And it’s not like this was the only instance of such scheduling; the WoO late models are also tackling Bristol Motor Speedway on April 9, the same night the Lucas Oil dirt lates are tackling 411 Motor Speedway a mere 100 miles away. 

That’s not to say WoO’s competitors are taking this development sitting down; on the Blakesley Sports Media podcast December 22, Wild West Shootout director Ben Shelton noted that the purse for his SLM finale on January 17 had been bumped up to $25,000 to win at least partially in response to “an [unnamed] series in Florida.” That’s big money; the WWS final will be the richest SLM race of the season up until the Bristol Nationals conclude in March.

This is nothing new in race promoting, dirt or otherwise. Formula 1 knew exactly what they were doing when they scheduled the United States Grand Prix in Austin the same weekend as NASCAR’s Cup Series was in Fort Worth. And NASCAR has been flexing that muscle on their own, removing Eldora Speedway from the Truck Series schedule the exact same season that owner Tony Stewart announced his own racing tour (and a TV deal to go with it). The only competition more cutthroat than cars on track is among those that work (or want to work) around the sport off of it.

There are, however, plenty of explanations as to why early-season races are proliferating that go beyond competition among promoters. For one, the perpetual civil war between fendered and non-rendered racecar fans still rages, and at this point in January, the open-wheel guys have been winning… because the stature of the Chili Bowl has been growing, thanks in large parts to the main event’s ties to big-league NASCAR. Current Cup regulars have now won the Chili Bowl A-main four consecutive years. Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson went as far last year as to celebrate his driller win by stating “I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest f***ing race I’ve ever won.”

Now, heading into the 2021 edition of the event, six full-time Cup Series drivers are scheduled to contest Tulsa. That includes 2020 Cup champion Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver and marking the first time in nearly a decade that a sitting Cup champion will race the Chili Bowl. 

Tulsa is a hard race to contend with, but it’s not the NFL’s Super Bowl, incapable of being challenged. Scheduling late models at Volusia are about as big a counter-punch as fendered dirt racing can throw, and speaking as a card-carrying member of the fendered brigade, I’m thrilled to have super lates to look forward to when I need a breather from literal days of midget cars I can’t identify.

There’s also something to be said about the uncertainty facing the 2021 racing calendar, even as schedules get dropped left and right. With the COVID-19 pandemic refusing to go away, there’s a very simple explanation to why big-money races are proliferating down South… the time to make money is now. Cabin fever that has gripped the country is still driving many to go wherever they can for live entertainment, and Florida for better or worse has left its doors open with a welcome mat out (the Lucas Oil LM season opener was moved to All-Tech Raceway in Florida after Golden Isles Speedway cited COVID restrictions as a reason to cancel the annual Super Bowl race). The only constant in pandemic America has been changing restrictions, and no one knows when another change could bring closed grandstands further South.

But Inside Dirt Racing’s Richard Allen hit the nail on the head in a recent roundtable discussion about the most likely driver of so much racing so early in the season… the proliferation of streaming services. Just like Disney+, Netflix and Hulu have spent fortunes to create original content to justify recurring subscriptions, dirt streaming platforms also need original content (read: racing) as often as possible. DirtVision and Lucas Oil Racing TV will always have their parent touring series to lean on, but with Flo Racing, RaceXr and SpeedSport all making their presence felt in the streaming world, the need for live racing continues to grow.

For those of with subscriptions and plenty of cabin fever time on our hands, it’s an embarrassment of riches. And that’s one of the beauties of dirt racing… there is always another race, another track, another type of car making laps. If the show sucks, there is another one.

But if dirt racing can learn anything from their asphalt brethren, it’s that there can be too much of a good thing. Having A-mains in Arizona, Tulsa and at Volusia going almost simultaneously across what will be three different platforms come January 16 is not doing any of the three promoters favors. And it’s also important to remember that the teams dirt races rely upon to contest races are not massive operations with 20-plus cars. When events like the Hangover at 411 this past weekend force 17 SLM teams to retire early, the reverb can be felt for weeks across entire regions. And watered-down fields are bad news for all involved.

Just as streaming movies and TV are threatening to forever upend that industry’s business model (just look at the outrage across the film industry Warner’s decision to put theatrical releases on HBO Max for 2021 caused), the dirt racing industry will have to reckon with similar issues sooner than later. Tracks will need to be cut in sufficiently to remain viable hosts for the races streaming platforms rely upon. Promoters will need to ensure there is sufficient geographic dispersion of major events to ensure fields are high quality. And ultimately fans will have the final say as to just how much streaming, and of what, they’re willing to pay for.

As Allen stated, 2021 is going to be a pivotal year for dirt racing. For now, it’s a new year. Enjoy the glut.

In Case You Missed It

  • Dirt racing fans in Georgia appear to be able to breathe a sigh of relief, as DirtonDirt reported Monday that the sudden sale of the New Senoia Raceway will be to parties that intend to continue operating the site as a racetrack. DoD confirmed that the Southern All-Star Series late model tour dates for the track in 2021 are proceeding as planned.
  • I had planned to include a recap of the opening night of the IMCA Winternationals from Cocopah Speedway, but events in our nation’s capital Wednesday afternoon prevented that from happening, as this riot hit close to home. I’m a former resident of the DC area. I work within two blocks of the White House, and several of my co-workers have spouses that are members of the Capitol Police. To my knowledge, they’re all coming home tonight. That’s about the only silver lining to put on arguably the nation’s darkest day since 9/11. I applaud our elected leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, for immediately returning to session. I’m grateful to the law enforcement officials that mitigated what could have been a far greater tragedy. And I wish them all the best in ruthlessly pursuing and prosecuting all those that desecrated Capitol Hill. One of the most striking memories I have from 9/11 was seeing a local business on my way to school putting up a message on the marquee reading simply “Get ’em Mr. Bush.” Be it Trump, Pence or Biden, get these bastards.
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