A few months ago in this space, the subject of a possible return to dirt track racing by a major NASCAR series was discussed. Rumors that a Camping World Truck Series race would be staged at the half-mile dirt Eldora Speedway in Ohio have turned into reality.
The NASCAR trucks will race at Eldora on July 24. Credit Tony Stewart – or, to be fair, blame him, if you think this is a bad idea. From this vantage point, it’s impossible to see it as anything but marvelous.
NASCAR sanctioned some grassroots-level racing on dirt about a decade ago with a late model stock car series based in the heartland states, but largely has had nothing to do with dirt since 1970, when three races on what is now the Sprint Cup Series were held on dirt tracks.
Richard Petty and Bobby Isaac split a pair of races at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway and Petty won the last one, on Sept. 30 at Raleigh, N.C.
The handwriting was on the wall, for sure. The number of dirt races had been steadily dwindling.
It was in 1970, coincidentally, that the drivers of the Indy 500 ran their last championship races on dirt. Ever since a national championship was established under AAA sanction in the early 20th century, races had been contested on both dirt and paved tracks, with the balance shifting from non-paved to paved surfaces as time marched on.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, originally with a crushed-cinder surface, was paved with bricks and later, in increments, covered with asphalt, with the final brick segment – the front straightway – blacktopped after A.J. Foyt’s first 500 win in 1961.
The Milwaukee Mile, like many fairgrounds tracks originally built for horse racing, was paved in 1954.
But in 1970, four of the last five races on the Championship trail were on dirt tracks, the one-mile state fairground tracks in Springfield and Du Quoin, Illinois; Indianapolis; Sedalia, Missouri; and Sacramento, California. Mario Andretti won the final dirt race October 4 of that year at the California State Fairgrounds track in Sacramento.
Beginning in the 1950s, when the roadsters of Curtis and Watson and other builders began to take on characteristics that were less and less suited for dirt, champ car drivers competed in the dirt races in separate equipment, the old-fashioned upright cars that resemble the sprint cars of then and now.
In the 1960s, European rear-engine cars crowded the roadsters out of existence and after 1970, Championship racing was a paved oval-and-road course sport.
However, the NASCAR equipment did not change enough to render dirt tracks obsolete. ARCA stock cars – almost identical to NASCAR machines – have raced on dirt through the years since 1970.
Scheduling on the truck race at Eldora bears out the conviction that NASCAR machines can very easily run on dirt tracks.
Stewart is a throwback driver in many respects, particularly in his affinity for dirt racing. In 2004, he purchased the famous Eldora track from its founder, Earl Baltes, and promotes a regular schedule of races, including some of the country’s most prominent events for sprint cars, midgets, dirt late models – just about everything that races on dirt.
It was Stewart’s idea to bring the truck series to Eldora. On Nov. 28, NASCAR confirmed that they’re coming.
Those of us who miss the days when NASCAR drivers had to be competent on short ovals, mid-length ovals, superspeedways, road courses and dirt and paved surfaces can’t help but salivate at the idea that this might, just might, be a precursor to the Cup Series coming back to non-paved racing.