There are some 200 touring series in America and more than 15,000 drivers race in them.
Most are small, regional Saturday night affairs, and their drivers dream of making their way into the limelight.
For stock car drivers, that means NASCAR. Road racers dream of racing Daytona prototypes, while sprint car drivers wait for the day they will get to race with the World of Outlaws (WOO) – the self-proclaimed "Greatest Show on Dirt."
Last year, Brian Carlson's dream was to race the full season in the WOO after running a handful of features in 2004. In 2007, the expectations are loftier. At Manzanita Speedway on Saturday night, he qualified for his first A-main feature of the season in what he described as "a pretty brutal year."
"Really it's disappointing because we should have made two or three before this at least anyhow, but we'll take what we can get, " he said. "We weren't fast, but we're in." For drivers like Carlson – who are not necessarily expected to transfer every weekend – qualifying for the feature race is the difference between a fairly decent payday and earning less money than it takes to haul the rig from his Midwestern home in Linden, Ind. to Arizona.
This year the task of making feature races is even more difficult, since last season's rival National Sprint Tour folded and sent their superstars back to the WOO series. A total of 36 cars checked in at the pit gates to race on Saturday night, and nearly every one of them had a chance to be one of the 24 cars to qualify on time.
Carlson does not have a big budget team. His wife, Sarah is his crew chief, and that is the entirety of the fulltime team. Friends and fans will help out during the evening, but there is no swarm of mechanics to divide and conquer the race-time tasks.
Carlson began his night qualifying 22nd, posting a lap time of 15.669, which was about four-tenths of a second slower than Kerry Madsen – who was the seventh different driver to set fast time in the first seven WOO races. That effort caused him to start relatively deep in his heat race. As with the night previous at USA Race Park in Tucson, passing was at a premium during the eight-lap dashes and he finished well outside the final transfer spot in seventh.
The B-main went a little better. Carlson started fourth behind Dion Hindi, Chad Kemenah, and Jac Haudenschild and needed only to finish there to make his first big show of the year. At the start of the race, Kemenah was chasing down Hindi for the lead when his engine abruptly shut off exiting turn two on lap four.
Carlson's crew chief, Sarah, spun around on the top of their war wagon for the next eight laps in anticipation that Brian could hang onto his third position on the track. Relief was in sight when Tim Shaffer got into the fence in turn three and brought out a late-race caution. Yellow flag laps don't count in the WOO, so they circled the track slowly until Shaffer's sprinter could be towed back to the pits, while the drivers mentally prepared for the final two laps.
On a restart, anything can happen. Dustin Lindquist, Sam Hafertepe Jr., and Chad Hillier set their sights on Carlson when the green flag flew, and the driver who was simply trying to make his first A-main of the season fought to repel their advance. In the first turn, Carlson lost a spot and might have lost his rhythm, which would have been devastating.
"They were taking four [from the B-main], so I knew I was in even when Lindquist got by me, but I didn't want anyone else to get around us<” Carlson said. "So it was kind of 'hang on.' I overdrove in turn one trying to hit the bottom and that allowed Lindquist to get by me, but it's OK – we're in the show."
Making the race might have come as bit of a surprise after missing the first six A-mains. While a support series readied to run their feature race, Sarah had to scurry to buy more fuel and adjust the car. The sprinter was running hot, and so Sarah called out orders in her pits with all the confidence and authority you would find in any NASCAR garage. The crew made some adjustments to the engine, checked the tire pressure, re-filled the sprint car, and waited for the show – there is only so much that can be done to these cars in such a short period.
The adjustments weren't quite enough, however. On track during the A-main, Carlson continued to run hot, so rather than risk blowing the engine, he pulled off the track on lap nine of the 30-lap feature. The ice is broken, however, and more feature appearances will follow.
Last year, in 70 WOO attempts, Carlson transferred to the feature 28 times. His best finish of the year was a 14th at Red River Valley Speedway in North Dakota, and for that appearance he brought home a little more than $1,000. During the entire season, he made less than the last place driver in a NASCAR short track event. For drivers with passion, racing is certainly not about the money, but rather it is the hope of surviving to run in every feature that keeps them rolling from town to town. After a short break, the series heads east for a two-night show in Houston on March 16 and Pike County Mississippi the following day.
Meanwhile, at the front of the pack, Donny Schatz elevated his sprint car from fifth when he powered past Joey Saldana, Randy Hannagan, Paul McMahan, and Justin Henderson to become only the first repeat winner in seven races.
The battle for those particular bragging rights came down to a furious fight between Schatz in the low groove and Saldana on the high side. Australian Brooke Tatnell lurked in third and waited for the two front runners to make a mistake that never came. They crossed under a packed grandstand in that order.
1. Donny Schatz
2. Joey Saldana
3. Brooke Tatnell
4. Tim Kaeding
5. Paul McMahan
6. Jason Sides
7. Justin Henderson
8. Jason Solwold
9. Steve Kinser
10. Craig Dollansky
11. Daryn Pittman
12. Kerry Madsen
13. Becca Anderson
14. Danny Lasoski
15. Terry McCarl
16. Sam Hafertepe Jr.
17. Johnny Herrera
18. Jeremy Campbell 19. Jason Meyers 20. Dustin Lindquist 21. Dion Hindi 22. Tony Bruce Jr. 23. Randy Hannagan 24. Jac Haudenschild 25. Zach Chappell 26. Brian Carlson