Race Weekend Central

Dirty (Half) Dozen: DuQuoin Monday, Late Model Silly Season & Reutzel Rage

ONE: Get Well, Nick Hoffman

One of the understated challenges/dangers of dirt racing at a national level is the constant travel, often through the night, required to haul from one racetrack to the next. Sadly, that caught up to DIRTcar Summer Nationals modified champion Nick Hoffman and his father, who were involved in a violent wreck this week in their hauler that left both men hospitalized with severe injuries.

Now, the good news is that both men have shown some improvement since being hospitalized, with the younger driver Nick tweeting for the first time over the weekend.

It will undoubtedly be a long road to recovery for both men, and no commentary here other than wishing both a speedy and full recovery. Hoffman has been arguably as dominant in a modified as any driver in any form of dirt racing the past few years, and while I don’t agree with many of his very opinionated takes on social media, the reality is dirt racing is better for having Hoffman’s talent and personality in it. 

For those interested in supporting Hoffman’s family and race team, the links included are available either for donations or merchandise. Assuming it’s been restocked anyhow… many items sold out fast.

TWO: Welcome Back to Labor Day, DuQuoin!

Hoffman was on the brain of many racers at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in Illinois on Monday (UMO modified feature winner Kyle Steffens dedicated his win to Hoffman), but perhaps more striking to me was how much fun it was to have ARCA’s annual 100-miler back on Labor Day Monday for the first time since 2018, after the race was postponed for rain Sunday night.

Yes, the track proved to be bumpy as all get out by the time the ARCA cars actually got on track (the modifieds and the USAC silver crown cars ran their features first) and left the field looking a demolition derby has ensued, but it was awful entertaining, both because a) dirt ringer Ryan Unzicker put on a masterclass of how to wheel a heavy stock car on dirt and b) there was no competition from the Southern 500 as far as a grand national stock car audience was concerned.

I was admittedly more excited to see the Silver Crown cars race this Monday, but regardless, having mile-dirt action on Monday was a treat — one that I’ve missed. Would love to see ARCA make this the actual schedule in 2023.

THREE: Sheppard Out of Rocket House Car a Boon for Sport

Dirt racing has its own Silly Season, and it got off to a big start last week with the announcement that defending World of Outlaws late model champion Brandon Sheppard would be leaving the Rocket Chassis house car at the end of the 2022 season, opting instead to return to his family-owned No. B5 car for 2023. Sheppard’s announcement did not indicate if the Sheppard team would follow a tour or join the ranks of Jonathan Davenport, Chris Madden and others who have been poaching big-money races this year.

The split, one which has been described by all involved as amicable, has to be seen as a net positive for dirt late model racing. Why? Because Sheppard is returning to his family-owned team at the top of his game. Currently second in Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series points and in the middle of a 2022 campaign that has netted 14 feature wins, including the Prairie Dirt Classic, there’s no chance that Sheppard will not be present on the national late model scene in 2023. 

Adding a new race team to those ranks is a very welcome development.

FOUR: Rocket Lands Their Man

It wasn’t an hour later after Sheppard’s announcement that the Rocket House team announced they had signed Hudson O’Neal to drive their flagship No. 1 car for 2023. O’Neal, despite being only 21 years old, has a wealth of experience in super late model racing, winning LOLMDS Rookie of the Year in 2017 and finishing runner-up in points on that tour last season. This year, O’Neal has won six feature races, including a prelim night win at the North/South 100 last month.

By any measure, this is a home run hire for Rocket. O’Neal, despite his age, has proven to be a very adept racecar driver and one that does not tear up equipment. He’s a personality in the LOLMDS pits that has not made enemies and that is exactly what will suit the Rocket House team well, as Sheppard has similarly been successful without playing dirty over the last six years racing for the team. 

A well-deserved promotion for the driver and a glove fit for a team that’s earned its success. This will be a fun debut to watch at Speedweeks in January.

FIVE: I-30 Closure Yet Another Ominous Sign

I don’t know what Copart as a company has against dirt racing, but within a week of it being announced they had purchased and will close the Grandview Speedway in Pennsylvania after the season concludes this fall, news broke that the company has done the exact same thing with the I-30 Speedway in Little Rock, Ark., which will close for good after its season finale on Oct. 1.

Just like Grandview, this is not a case of a racetrack that was struggling for cars or attendance. I-30 Speedway has been a fixture of midget and sprint car racing for decades, with numerous national tours making stops at the venue in 2022. 

The business case makes sense for owners selling dirt tracks. It’s a low-margin business, where the facilities are open only a few weeks a year and are labor-intensive. Plus, I-30 Speedway is literally in the city of Little Rock, an untenable position for pretty much any racetrack in this day and age.

But for race teams and fans, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that racetracks that are in fact being supported, both with cars in the pits and butts in the seats, are the ones going by the wayside. 

SIX: The Problem With Points Racing

It’s not on the scale of his 2021 cheating scandal that saw him lose his World of Outlaws ride with Roth Motorsports, but Aaron Reutzel made a lot of headlines (and enemies) at Huset’s Speedway Sunday night, taking out the track’s points leader in Austin McCarl with an ill-timed slide job in the track’s season finale, ultimately costing McCarl the track championship.

Much of the vitriol directed at Reutzel is reputation-based; he was a polarizing driver before the WoO scandal last summer, also getting into a well-publicized fight with Wayne Johnson in the pits that spring. But there was also no shortage of consternation that a driver with no stake in the points race at Huset’s largely decided it Sunday night.

As long as there is points racing, this will never be solved. Huset’s (and pretty much any dirt track for that matter) cannot pull a NASCAR and limit participation in their “championship races,” simply because the car counts will not allow it. Huset’s is a nationally-renowned track with weekly 410 sprint car racing, and even they only had eight cars that started 15 or more features during the 2022 season. Eight-car fields will not sell tickets, especially on championship night.

If nothing else, I just wish this would be a wake-up call to all involved to stop putting stakes in points racing. Points exist solely to incentivize race teams to regularly frequent a track, tour, etc. They’re a business necessity, but more often than not a lesser competition than simply watching a race to see who crosses the finish line first.

Sadly, that’s no reconciliation for Austin McCarl.

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