NASCAR is set for an off-road detour through the dirt.
The Truck Series is headed for the Eldora Speedway half-mile dirt track for a one-night only special designed to reconnect NASCAR with its early roots and give fans raised on asphalt and stock cars a taste of the wild races run in the dust.
The last time one of NASCAR’s top touring series competed on dirt was Sept. 30, 1970, when Richard Petty won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (called the Grand National Division at that time) race at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh.
The dirt drought ends when the trucks race tonight at Tony Stewart-owned Eldora in Rossburg, Ohio.
Stewart, still a regular on the weeknight racing circuit, has naturally become a big booster of NASCAR’s return to dirt. Most of the field drove their first Eldora laps at Tuesday’s practice.
“It’s a neat facility,” Stewart said. “It’s well lit, it’s a wide racetrack, it gives you a lot of options of where you can go and what you can do. I think it gives those guys an opportunity. The practice day on Tuesday should help a lot of those teams be able to get acclimated before they come back to the track on Wednesday.”
Eldora’s grandstands are sold out for the 9:30 p.m. race, even as some of the series’ biggest winners. Ryan Newman and Dave Blaney are the only Cup drivers in the field. The race will feature a handful of so-called ringers, such as Scott Bloomquist, a member of the National Dirt Track Hall of Fame with more than 500 victories in a lengthy career. The 49-year-old Bloomquist is set to make his NASCAR debut driving the No. 51 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
The race also gets a twist on qualifying. There are five, eight-lap qualifying events and a 15-lap last-chance race to come up with the 30 competitors (regularly 36 in the series) who will start the 150-lap Mudsummer Classic. Because there is no pit road, the race is broken into three segments of 60, 50 and 40 laps.
Trucks driver James Buescher raved about Eldora after he tested there.
“It was a lot more fun than I expected it to be,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be interesting when we get 30 trucks on the track at the same time in tight quarters like that. It’s going to be an action-packed race. I just hope there’s not too many cautions.”
It could happen. Trucks weren’t built to race on dirt, so some adjustments were needed.
The Goodyear dirt tire has been widened from 10 to 11 inches to provide a larger contact patch with the track and give the trucks more grip. The Eldora left-side tire is 3 inches shorter (85.8 inches) to build in more stagger, which will help the trucks turn better.
The trucks will be fitted for mesh shields and hood deflectors to hold off debris kicked up from the muck.
The drivers who know how to get dirty are the easy favorites.
Kyle Larson, pegged as NASCAR’s next big star, is one of the few drivers with experience on the dirt oval. Larson is one of only two drivers to sweep the USAC Four Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway. Larson also won in the USAC Midgets in 2012.
There’s a reason this track was selected for him to make his second Truck Series start of the season.
“I have been looking forward to this race for a really long time,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of fun racing at Eldora and have had quite a bit of success, so I am excited to get back. I can’t wait to see how the trucks run there.”
Even with the lengthy gap between NASCAR dirt races, fans and drivers are buzzing over the race, a rarity in a series that often runs in front of mostly empty grandstands as a support race in a Sprint Cup weekend.
But a big crowd, big ratings and a great race could go far in making an Eldora a regular stop on the Truck Series circuit — and maybe make stock car racing there a reality.
“If it has incredible success, who knows how far this could go?” driver Kenny Wallace said. “You could put the Nationwide Series there. One thing I always remind people of — and I race dirt all over the United States — this is where Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman came from. Three quarters of the field in Sprint Cup came from dirt tracks just like Eldora. I think this is a really good deal.”
The race comes six weeks after the death of NASCAR driver Jason Leffler on a dirt track in New Jersey. State police say a mechanical problem was to blame for the spinout that ended with Leffler’s car slamming into a concrete wall.
The 37-year-old Long Beach, Calif., native was a two-time winner on the NASCAR Nationwide Series and a one-time winner in the Truck Series.