Keep on Truckin’

Matt Crafton (88) and Stewart Friesen battle for the lead.

Matt Crafton (88) and Stewart Friesen battle for the lead.

(Images by Jim DenHamer)

When you think of legendary dirt tracks, Eldora Speedway is a place that quickly pops into the minds of both fans and racers. What Earl Baltes carved out in the corn fields of Rossburg, Ohio is a true destination.

Racers want to go there and win. Fans want to go there and see who is truly the best behind the wheel.

It’s been that way for over 60 years, and as long as this rock called earth continues to spin in circles, I expect it will always be that way. It’s a true mecca of the motorsports world.

With events like the World 100, the Kings Royal, the Four Crown Nationals, and the Dirt Late Model Dream, the facility has more than its fair share of prestigious events.

Five years ago – in 2013 – the facility made history once again as it welcomed another signature event. The high-banked oval was selected to be the location of a homecoming of sorts. For the first time since 1970 one of NASCAR’s top touring series booked a dirt event.

On July 24, 2013 the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series invaded the track, which is affectionately known as the “Big E.” Eyes from around the motorsports world turned their heads to a dirt track on a Wednesday night. For many of these onlookers it was likely the first time they had ever expressed any interest what-so-ever in what a dirt track had to offer.

John Hunter Nemechek (8), Ty Dillon (99) and Matt Crafton

John Hunter Nemechek (8), Ty Dillon (99) and Matt Crafton

Sure they had probably been a party to some stereotypical joke involving dirt track racing. Whether you are a dirt fan or not you’ve heard them or maybe even said them before.

Hardcore stereotypes like “Dirt racing is full of nothing but toothless hillbillies,” and “It’s just a bunch of broke good ole boys playing in the dirt.”

However, on this fateful night they quickly realized how legitimate our sport truly was.

Sure it didn’t hurt that multi-time NASCAR champion, Tony Stewart now owned the joint. It goes without saying that his involvement and passion for dirt racing had a strong influence on NASCAR giving dirt a chance again.

It also goes without saying that five years ago NASCAR was full bore experiencing a downturn in both their attendance and their viewership. I remember thinking to myself that it was a genius idea on their part to make a bold move back to their roots.

So on a warm July evening in 2013 NASCAR came home to dirt. The Eldora field was full of not only the usual suspects from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but there was also no shortage of ringers. Some of NASCAR’s top drivers from their highest series looked to stage an upset, while dirt pros also lined up one-time rides.

The NASCAR guys quickly found that with an 11” Goodyear dirt tire, their Trucks were more than a handful. Spins were a plenty, and at times it was almost comical watching the early practice sessions. Despite the challenge, many of the drivers were quickly able to adapt.

When the inaugural checkered flag dropped on major league’s return to dirt it was technically a NASCAR driver who took the win. I say technically because while Austin Dillon may have been claimed by the NASCAR world, he had and still has strong roots to dirt racing.

The end result was a huge success. Television viewership was through the roof. The event was sold out. There was a massive buzz in the international media.

It was truly a win-win for both NASCAR and dirt racing.

Fast forward five years and the Eldora Dirt Derby returned on July 18-19 to Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway. A packed house saw a field of 30 plus entries take their shot at qualifying for the coveted feature.

This field would have a little bit different feel though. Again the normal suspects from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series were on the entry roster, but almost all of the NASCAR Monster Energy Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series drivers decided to not take a shot at the event.

Sheldon Creed (20), Ray Ciccarelli (10), Christopher Bell (4) and Bobby Pierce

Sheldon Creed (20), Ray Ciccarelli (10), Christopher Bell (4) and Bobby Pierce

There were a few dirt ringers in the field. Guys like Bobby Pierce, Chris Windom, and Rico Abreu looked to score the upset win for the dirt track world.

However, it just seemed like the entry list had lost a little of its pop. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a really diverse field, but it just seemed a bit off.

The 150-lap finale itself seemed to be a bit “off” as well. Again it came down to an exciting finish between two drivers with dirt backgrounds – Matt Crafton and Stewart Friesen – but a plethora of cautions resulted in an event that just wasn’t as “edge of your seat” as years past.

While I was less than floored by the 2017 edition of the program, I still enjoyed it. And even though the live airing got bumped from Fox Sports 1 (FS1) to Fox Business, I was still gracious that a dirt track race was live on television.

Apparently I represented the minority in my enjoyment of the event.

During the race and following the broadcast I watched as social media and internet forums blazed about how terrible everything was. From complaining about the commentators to criticizing the racing to about anything you can fathom, it was like a free-for-all bash session.

I’ll admit that it was a bit disappointing to see all of the negativity, but at the same time it wasn’t totally surprising. Some of the same individuals that I saw slamming the event were the same ones, who incessantly bash dirt racing.

I even made a joke to a good friend, that the NASCAR community was being exposed to some of the unstoppable negativity that exists in the dirt racing community. In hindsight, my comment may have been closer to a stating of a fact than it was to just making a comical quip.

Either way, after having some time to process the 2017 edition of the Eldora Dirt Derby, here’s some of my thoughts and evaluations.

On the commentator front, I understand some of the frustrations from diehard dirt heads. Yes, some of their terminology was a little inaccurate, but overall I think these guys do a great job.

I find it very flattering when I – along with my dirt announcing brethren – get tagged in posts saying that we should be the ones doing the event since we know dirt. The reality is that while these commentators might not be completely versed in the vernacular of dirt racing, they know 95% of these drivers and crews like the back of their hand. They all run in the same circle on a weekly basis.

Matt Crafton celebrates in NASCAR Camping World Victory Lane at Eldora.

Matt Crafton celebrates in NASCAR Camping World Victory Lane at Eldora.

If a major dirt series went and ran a paved oval, we wouldn’t expect pavement commentators to announce the race just because they know asphalt. One would expect that the dirt guys would be the ones on the call, since it’s their series and mainly their drivers.

It’s no different with the normal NASCAR broadcasters commentating the event, when their series comes to dirt.

In regards to the number of cautions, I don’t think it’s a direct reflection that these asphalt guys can’t handle dirt. Yes, there are some exceptions but for the most part these guys do a damn good job. Let’s not forget there was also a fair number of dirt guys that spun to draw cautions.

This all points to one glaring fact for me – these Trucks are a handful on dirt. Because of the challenge that it presents, I find the event to be quite entertaining.

Sure it’s frustrating that the race got bumped to a lesser-known channel, but the reality is that ratings for any type of racing on television are going to have a hard time measuring up against an internationally-renowned sport like Soccer.

For example, there is one dirt track within two hours of my home in Memphis. Conversely, there’s roughly 40 soccer complexes, housing hundreds of teams in that same area. Do the math on which sport is more popular to the masses, and it’s easy to see why we got the boot.

Again, on the same token I’m just very thankful to see our sport on live television on a Wednesday night.

As far as seeing fewer of the biggest names in NASCAR entering the event, I too would like to see a few more of them entered. Conversely, I understand the situation.

Just like the Prelude to the Dream –  which went away after the 2012 edition – as this event moves along it will be harder and harder to entice the superstar names to drop in on the event. These guys are so busy with their existing schedule that once the luster wears off a new event, they just aren’t going to wear themselves out to participate.

Matt Crafton celebrates in NASCAR Camping World Victory Lane at Eldora.

Matt Crafton celebrates in NASCAR Camping World Victory Lane at Eldora.

They might attend as an onlooker or watch it on television, but it’s just not feasible to squeeze it into their insane schedule.

At the end of the day I’m just thankful that NASCAR and Eldora Speedway continue to have this event annually. It continues to put our little sport on display to the world for one night each year.

It’s definitely not hurting the NASCAR cause either. Take a guy like me, who has lost connection with anything NASCAR. Other than the Daytona 500, I might not watch another NASCAR race all year, but you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be tuned in for the Eldora Dirt Derby every July.

I’m sure I’m not the only one, who feels this way. In addition, this might even lead to some new or former NASCAR fans giving other events a shot. The bottom line is that it can’t hurt.

So take this article for what it’s worth. We all have our opinions, and that’s what makes America great. For me I love seeing the NASCAR Camping World Trucks on dirt. In fact, I hope to see them on more dirt tracks in years to come.

Until next year, keep on truckin’!

About the author

Ben Shelton

Ben got his start at historic Riverside International Speedway. His accomplished motorsports media career includes journalist, race announcer, and on-air personality.
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