ROSSBURG, Ohio – Through four editions of the Aspen Dental Dirt Derby, Eldora Speedway has answered one question – can a NASCAR national series deliver an entertaining show on dirt?
Wednesday night’s compelling drive by winner Kyle Larson (who rallied from a lap down) and the redoubtable effort by relative unknown Bobby Pierce (who nearly won a year after finishing second) were the latest examples of how and why Tony Stewart’s historic half-mile oval annually has churned out heroic storylines since its 2013 debut minted Norm Benning as a social-media folk hero.
But the success of the compelling Camping World Truck Series race has prompted a new question: Should there be more dirt races on that circuit’s schedule – or of another NASCAR series?
The top three finishers at the half-mile oval Wednesday night concurred that the idea has merit but with certain modifications and qualifiers.
Larson, who outdueled Pierce and staved off 2015 winner Christopher Bell for the stirring victory, doesn’t want to see dirt races in the Xfinity and Sprint Cup series but believes there are other venues that would work for the truck circuit.
“I think it’s pretty special it’s a truck-only thing,” he said. “There are a lot of other great dirt facilities out there that would be really cool for the truck series. Knoxville (Raceway in Iowa), for sure, would be an awesome place. They have the (National Sprint Car) Hall of Fame there with suites, so all the rich pavement fans can go there and stay clean. But then the racetrack is cool, too.”
But Bell warned discretion would be necessary in selecting other tracks, noting that the windshields necessary for stock cars are a limiting factor. Because water is necessary to help prep a dirt track, windshields limit the ability to keep a surface wet because of concerns over getting mud on the windshield. In the open-cockpit vehicles that are hosted nearly exclusively by dirt tracks, a few dozen laminated tearoffs help drivers keep their visors clear, and races sometimes are stopped to permit helmet changes.
“Having one (truck) race on dirt definitely helps keep the prestige of the dirt racing going,” Bell said. “If they have more than one race, they’d have to be really careful where they took the trucks because there’s not a lot of places they could go that would race well on dirt. Eldora’s just a really unique place that fits well within the guidelines.”
Third-place finisher Rico Abreu, who calls Eldora “by far, my favorite track in the entire world,” believes NASCAR has latitude in adding dirt races.
“I feel like they can do whatever they want,” he said. “They just have to pick and choose wisely on races that put on good racing. I feel like the trucks are very sensitive to moisture on the surfaces, and you need a track wide enough to make big arcs where you can get the trucks to turn. Eldora is the smallest track the trucks go to besides Martinsville. I feel there’s a few tracks out there they can bounce around off of, but I don’t think the racing is going to get any better than it is here.”
The trucks also have shown that faster isn’t necessarily better on dirt, either. Abreu turned a 12.7-second lap last year in qualifying for an open-wheel race at Eldora. He was in the 21-second bracket Wednesday night in his Toyota.
“Trucks are slower, less power and a lot heavier,” he said. “I think anytime I get to race, I’m happy. I’m in my comfort zone. To run a truck around here is its own feeling. There’s nothing else I ever felt as far as the slowness, the wheelspin and sliding all four tires.”
Larson’s average speed over 150 laps was 41.9 mph, which he joked was his slowest victory since running a box stock go kart as a 7-year-old.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver believes the NASCAR experience could be duplicated on dirt elsewhere but favors cautious growth.
“There are a lot of other dirt tracks that have nice facilities, just like Eldora does,” he said. “But I think if you get too many of them on the schedule, it takes away from how special they are. Or at least this event. If it happened to just stay Eldora (as) for the only dirt race on the schedule, I think it would be cool also.”