I got my first taste of dirt track racing Tuesday night -- literally.
On the advice of a fan I met at Hooters earlier in the week, I made the drive west to Volusia Speedway Park, near Barberville, Fla.,about 15 miles from Daytona Beach. There was no mistaking the place when I found it. The bright lights shown through the biggest man-mad cloud of dust I'd ever laid eyes on.
Grandstand seats were $30 to watch super late models and northern D.I.R.T. models race on the half-mile clay oval; pit access cost $5 more. Inside, I discovered that this is where the hard-core citizens of "NASCAR Nation" really congregate.
I was a little late in arriving, 9 p.m., and hadn't had dinner. So, I grabbed a chili-dog first thing and learned my first dirt track lesson: A little dirt don't hurt. The grit gets everywhere, and permeates anything permeable. But to tell you the truth, I couldn't taste it.
You'll never get any closer to racing than this, unless you're racing yourself. I stood by Turn 1, and got plunked in the head by the occasional clod of dirt. At one point, a driver lost control coming off Turn 4 and slid down the short frontstretch against the wall and chain link fence that separate the track from the fans. There was a beautiful shower of sparks and the car wound up with its back end resting on top of the wall in front of me.
OK, I'll admit it. I jumped back out of natural fear. No one else flinched.
The fans picked me out right away as an out-of-towner. "You must be from up north," said Gary Jones of Palm Coast, Fla., after looking me over. "Yeah," I said. "How can you tell?" "Those shorts. You must be freezing your ass off, " he said, laughing his off.
Gary was more appropriately dressed for the weather. He told me that the cold snap in Daytona was the worst in 40 years. The biggest concern was for the strawberry crop, he said.
Gary coached me up on the racing. I caught a couple hours' worth of 10-lap sprints, with the top 3 drivers advancing to the next round of races. It was rare when a sprint didn't have a caution, with the drivers doing (mostly) controlled skids around each turn. Even though they were racing on dirt, as the night wore on, so did the rubber onto the track. A shiny black groove appeared in the middle of each turn.
I took a walk through the garage area later. The crews were banging out sheet metal, turning wrenches furiously, to get ready for their next turn.
Some of the drivers I saw looked barely old enough to have a driver's licence. These are the stars of tomorrow, paying their dues, getting in touch with stock-car racing's roots. There were some older guys, too, still in it for the thrill.
Kenny Wallace was here racing. Some other Cup drivers are known as being big dirt track enthusiasts, most notably Kenny Schrader and Tony Stewart, who bought the Eldora race track in Rossburg, Ohio, in 2004.
I met a fan from Centerville, Indiana, near Tony's hometown of Columbus. John Smith (his real name, he swears) won't pick a favorite driver, though. He just loves to watch racing. John drove 1,000 miles to take in the action during Speedweek -- the dirt track racing more than anything else. He says Daytona Speedweeks feature the best dirt track action in the nation at Volusia and nearby New Smyrna Speedway.
John won't even be here for the 500. He plans to take in the Gatorade Duels tomorrow, then drive back to Indiana on Friday to watch the Busch and Cup races with his family.
John calls himself a "big race chaser." He'll drive anywhere to catch the dirt track action. He considers Winchester Speedway, a half-mile track in Indiana, his "home track." He says it's the oldest half-mile track still in existence, except for the Indianapolis Raceway Park.
When I return, I'll definitely have to catch the action at Old Dominion Speedway, near Manassas, Va. I called my wife to tell her, and I swear I could hear her rolling her eyes.
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