Love it or hate it, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is heading for the dirt.
Tony Stewart and Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, spoke to the media via teleconference on Wednesday, November 28 and announced the trucks will race at Eldora Speedway in Ohio, owned by Stewart, on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. It will mark NASCAR's return to a dirt track at the national series level for the first time since 1970.
"We've had talks about getting the trucks on dirt in the past," O'Donnell said. "The door-to-door racing that our truck series is known for plus Eldora's popularity and Tony's dedication to putting on great shows for the fans is a perfect fit. We'll have a maximum starting field of 30 trucks at Eldora. More details on the race format are still being developed."
"I think the race itself is going to be pretty exciting," Stewart said. "We've seen what the Prelude to the Dream has done in the past, bringing in drivers that weren't accustomed to running on dirt, how quickly they adapt to it."
The drivers may also have to adapt to a different way of scoring.
"I think we're still in discussion with Tony and his group," O'Donnell said. "I think what is fair to say is we are looking at how races are competed at dirt tracks historically with heat races or last-chance races. I think we're very interested in looking at that."
While it would seem that the race would create a lot of work for the teams in terms of preparing the truck for the dirt, Stewart said the only thing they had to do for the test was remove the splitters from the front of the trucks.
What about SAFER Barriers?
According to Stewart, officials from the University of Nebraska visited Eldora and provided a report saying the track will not need SAFER barriers, but he says they plan to make changes to the exits and entrances to the pit areas.
Eldora has 16,600 seats. With lawn and patio seating, they have 20,000 seats. Stewart says they will discuss adding temporary seating on both ends of the track, depending on how advance ticket sales go.
Given NASCAR's history on dirt, I was curious to see what a local dirt track official had to say about the impact this race might have on dirt tracks across the country. I called Lee Ackerman, who writes a racing column for the Omaha World-Herald and also works at I-80 Speedway, located between Omaha and Lincoln, Neb. for his perspective.
"It'll probably bring dirt track racing to the forefront a little more," Ackerman told me. "There are so many fans out there who don't relate to dirt racing, but they relate to NASCAR.
"I think some of the dirt tracks will use this for promotional purposes, saying, 'Come to your local dirt track, just like the trucks are doing at Eldora.' It's going to be a good healthy shot for dirt racing and the sport needs it because dirt track racing is suffering right now."
As a teen, I had a friend whose family often went to Sunset Speedway, a now-defunct dirt track in Omaha, during the summer. I tagged along with them and it was my first exposure to the sport. But the growing number of entertainment options we have, combined with tough economic times have hurt the attendance at local dirt tracks -- especially when it comes to young people.
"We have a big race called the Silver Dollar Nationals here at I-80 Speedway," Ackerman said. "It's going to pay $27,000 to win next year for dirt late models, which is a huge purse for this part of the country. And most of the people who buy advance tickets are 50 years old, and older. It's just harder and harder to get young people into it."
That's one of the reasons Ackerman is glad to see Stewart involved in this venture to put the trucks on the dirt. He knows Stewart's involvement will introduce new, hopefully younger, fans to dirt racing.
"Tony has always given back to the dirt tracks," Ackerman said. "I was in Fargo two years ago and Tony Stewart was there competing in a Sprint car. You'll probably see him at the Chili Bowl in Tulsa. We saw him at Eagle Raceway, right down the road from us, this spring. He's one of those drivers who has not forgotten his roots and he still loves to race any kind of vehicle, any time."
NASCAR teleconference quotes: NASCARMedia.com
Lee Warren has interviewed and written a number of features about NASCAR drivers over the years, including Trevor Bayne, Bobby Labonte, Sam Hornish Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Morgan Shepherd, David Reutimann, Brad Coleman and others. His NASCAR devotional book, "Racin' Flat Out for Christ" from Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, is due out in the fall of 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @leewarren.