NASCAR ready to play in the dirt

Eldora Speedway — the historic half-mile, high-banked clay oval in Darke County — celebrates NASCAR’s return to its dirt roots with the Tuesday Night Tailgate practice session and the CarCash Mudsummer Classic race on Wednesday. It’s the first time any of NASCAR’s big three series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide, CWTS) have raced on dirt since Sept. 30, 1970.

NASCAR couldn’t have picked a better track. Often described as dirt racing’s equivalent to Daytona International Speedway or Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Eldora is certain to make an impression. A few will likely come from dents as drivers attempt to figure out how to race next to those unforgiving concrete walls.

“Two thirds of our drivers have as much dirt experience as probably you do in a truck,” CWTS director Chad Little said. “It’s going to be interesting. Some of the drivers are gung-ho about it. Some are very nervous. And a lot fall in the middle.”

That also might be the safest place around Eldora for some of the dirt rookies. Dirt veterans — including those mudslingers like late model veteran Scott Bloomquist and USAC champion Tracy Hines — could gain traction early as one-race ringers.

Drivers get their first Eldora experience starting with tonight’s split practice sessions. The first practice goes from 4:30-6:30 p.m. The second lasts from 7-9 p.m. An invitation-only dirt late model practice session is at 6:30 p.m. and a 25-lap late model race follows at 9 p.m. The SPEED Channel will carry the action live from 7-9 p.m. Tuesday and 7-11 p.m. Wednesday.

“Eldora stands out for several reasons. One, it’s in the middle of nowhere,” Little said of the track surrounding by campgrounds and corn fields. “And it’s always surprising when you find a track like that that sits where it is geographically and is so successful. When you get there you notice it’s not your typical dirt track when you see the suites and the grass and how it’s laid out. It’s quite a facility.”

To race on dirt some modifications were made to the trucks. Among them, Little said, was removing the splitter so it doesn’t dig into the dirt and damage the nose of the truck. Additional filtering on the grill and other openings are permitted. And Goodyear developed a new tire based on its modified dirt tire.

As for Wednesday’s 150-lap race, it’s divided up into segments of 60, 50 and 40 laps. Teams can work on the trucks between segments.

“Do not underestimate the laps,” said NASCAR and dirt veteran Kenny Wallace. “One lap on dirt, in my opinion, is equal to five laps on asphalt. You are always steering the car, you are always playing with the gas pedal. One lap of asphalt you don’t use a lot of body English. One lap on dirt, you’re really sawing on the wheel. … They are going to look forward to those breaks.”

While the trucks get to play in the dirt first, the question many fans are asking is when will the stock cars get a turn?

“I think we need to run with the Truck Series before we can pose that question,” Little said. “It’s one thing to do it with the Trucks. We need to show we can put on a good race. That’s not one year, that’s over several years before they would look at it.”

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