Race Weekend Central

Thursday Morning Thunder, Vol. 8: World of Outlaws Is Going NASCAR at Bristol – That’s Bad

It’s been a bit of a hollow start to the 2021 winged sprint car season. But not as hollow as the World of Outlaws story has been this week.

For as good as the racing was out west, the inaugural Wild Wing Shootout drew less than 30 410 sprints only a week after a field of 50-plus super late models contested the same Arizona Speedway. The All-Star Circuit of Champions lost race dates on their Southern Swing exhibition tour due to weather. Rain at East Bay forced the “King of the 360s” part of the Winternationals to be cut short. And a much ballyhooed effort by Lincoln Speedway to move up their annual Icebreaker to kick off the sprint season in Pennsylvania has already been delayed thanks to a winter storm only 2021 could bring us.

The WoO tour hasn’t been immune to these issues. Rain cost them one of their opening nights during the DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia. The same winter weather that delayed the Icebreaker saw scheduled Outlaws shows in Mississippi and Alabama canceled. The same winter weather also forced this weekend’s scheduled shows in Mississippi and Louisiana to be rescheduled for March.

They’re being rescheduled, not canceled, because the WoO tour suddenly had dates to fill, with the announcement made Wednesday that ongoing COVID restrictions out west had led the tour to cancel their scheduled West Coast swing to Arizona, California and Nevada next month.

I mentioned to start that the WoO’s words were ringing hollow this week. We’ll start with canceling the entire West Coast swing. The whole COVID excuse line is valid in California, where ongoing pandemic restrictions are preventing grandstands from being open pretty much everywhere. But considering Arizona Speedway (which had a WoO doubleheader on the cards in March) has run major touring events throughout the month of January with open grandstands and the only restriction being “wear the damn mask,” Twitter has a point that the WoO seems to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Plus, both Central Arizona Speedway and Cocopah Speedway in Arizona have been racing all winter long. 

That little episode doesn’t hold a candle, however, to the stunt both the WoO sprint car and late model tour pulled earlier this week. Well over a month after announcing that both WoO touring series would be hitting the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track in April, the WoO announced that both of their April events would be “invite only,” with the sanctioning body ultimately making their own call as to who would and wouldn’t get to tackle the hottest dirt track in America.

This is not at all analogous to the situation that occurred with the Bristol Nationals event going off next month, where race organizers capped the maximum number of entries that would be accepted for all car classes. For one, with more than 1,100 cars entered for that event, it had to be done to get the event competed in the five days it’s scheduled for. But more importantly, that was the message sent to both fans and competitors alike when the race was announced. And when some classes went over their entry cap so fast that race organizers couldn’t turn the entries off fast enough, they did the right thing and honored all entries received before they were turned off. 

To make this slipstream change a month after the events were announced and fans have been buying tickets is a disingenuous move I’d expect from a hustler running a bankrupt bullring, not from a nationally recognized touring series competing on one of the most prestigious short tracks in the world. Judging from the social media reaction, dirt fans weren’t having the wool pulled over their eyes.

The fact is, every argument that’s been made to support the decision to go “invitational” rings hollow.

Yes, Bristol is going to make the sprint cars go really freaking fast (Sammy Swindell recalled being pegged at 185 mph when sprints last tackled Bristol in 2001). That fact has been known since this race was announced. And seeing as how no laps have been taken on the recently constructed Bristol dirt, nothing has changed to make an argument that a new safety issue has come up. Making this decision, again, over a month later, rings hollow.

Let’s also not forget that speeds were the same concern when dirt last graced Bristol’s high banks in 2001. Those races were not invitationals. 

And let’s also not forget that though the subject of this article is the sprint car world, the WoO made the same announcement for it’s late model tour as well. The late models are full-bodied and much heavier. They’re not going to go anywhere near as fast as a 410 sprint. Why the one-size fits all approach?

Can’t argue it’s a COVID safety issue either. Take one look at the stands in Volusia last week or the Dirtvision broadcast crew spending the whole week maskless. But we’ve already established that COVID’s become an excuse when needed and something to ignore otherwise on this tour.

So let’s consider it from a promoter’s angle. I’ve been openly critical of several short tracks in 2021 that, thanks to scheduling eight classes in one day, have been putting on shows that have gone more than 13 hours a day. Now, the WoO shows at Bristol will not be that (they’ll each feature two classes, with the Super DIRTcar Series joining the sprint cars and the UMP modifieds joining the late models). But judging from the enormous number of entries that were received from those looking to compete in the Bristol Nationals (they got to over 1,000 entries in less than a week), it’s not unfathomable to think that a car count of 100-plus for the WoO programs would have been in the cards. That could make the tight 3-4 hour shows normally run by the WoO a difficult standard to meet.

Having said that, there’s plenty of ways to mitigate that without robbing the fans and events themselves of an open field. Employ a one-strike policy on cars that bring out the yellow flag in a heat race – if they spin, park them. To keep said heat races moving, utilize single-file restarts during qualification events to speed up realignment of the fields. And, as discussed last week, we could always get sacrilegious and put starters on sprint cars. But I digress.

No, there really isn’t a valid competitive or safety argument to be made here for the WoO to turn two of the most anticipated dirt races of 2021 into invitationals. Which begs the question… are they just big-leaguing? Is racing in NASCAR-land proving contagious? 

I certainly hope not. Dirt racing, even the WoO tours, have always made for special shows because they harken back to the good old days when the locals could be counted on to show up en masse to stack up against the nationals. Tennessee is chock-full of late models. Nearby Ohio is chock-full of sprint cars. None of that matters now Bristol has become invite only. 

I wrote earlier this year in response to the Chili Bowl’s revamp of their Race of Champions excluding all-time wins leader Swindell that as a race promoter, “if NASCAR is doing something, it’s likely a good idea to do the opposite.”

The WoO would do well to remember this. Just rewind back to last week at Daytona, where the all-but-invitational charter system locks away 90% of the Daytona 500 field even before cars hit the track. For the second year in a row, that system turned the Duel qualifying races, once the tensest 150 miles of the Cup Series season, into a farce where fans were all but tracking who was last on the lead lap to figure out who’d fill out the 500 field. Great American Race indeed.

Yes, that’s sarcastic. This isn’t: Watching the World of Outlaws make literally the same mistake with their biggest headline event this side of Knoxville may well have me snipping “‘Greatest Show on Dirt’ indeed” before long.

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All valid arguments, but…., given the right track this venue would be an awesome addition. I’m just not so sure Bristol is the mechanism for the feat. I think adding Eldora to the schedule would be a much more welcome change. I’ve been there a few times and I just love the racing and fan-friendly atmosphere of Eldora. I would pay double the ticket price for a front row seat there.


Honestly if you wanted to cap the fields for the Sprint Cars at Bristol. They should’ve announced in the beginning of the season that the field is limited at Bristol and only the top 30-50 drivers using the “National Sprint Car Rankings” would be permitted to attempt to qualify. Meaning any driver of a 410 Sprint could have a shot. Depending on their results throughout the year. Similar to the PGA Tour limiting fields based off of their points system. Reward the drivers that participate. Honestly it’s a shame. I was hyped for this event and I remember watching the WOO at Bristol on TNN when I was a kid. I love the heat races and seeing drivers earn their spot. Open wheel racing is still one of the most demanding and challenging forms of motor sports.

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