Dirt racing returns to the public eye
Words by Ben Shelton; Photos by Byron Fichter
At least a few times every night, I get asked the same question at the racetrack. It doesn’t matter what track it is or which division is being featured, race fans always have the exact same inquiry. When can we expect to see more dirt track racing on television?
I get asked so often that I’ve become well versed in my response. The highlights of my answer include how expensive television can be, how dirt track racing is a bit of a niche sport, etc.
Everything I say is true. I wish I had a better answer regarding what it would take to get more dirt racing on television, but I just haven’t been able to crack the puzzle yet.
While I’ve been in the corner scratching my head about what it would take to make racing more prevalent in primetime television, others have been putting the proverbial rubber to the road to make it happen.
Enter Corey Dripps, who is breathing life back into the once wildly-popular show The Dirt Knights. In 2011, the show originally aired for a single season on the Versus channel. Cameras followed a group of six racers as they chased glory on the ultra-competitive United States Modified Touring Series (USMTS). While the show was highly regarded by the racing community, it saw the red flag dropped by the network after just one season.
“We had a strong product that gained momentum really fast, but unfortunately, we were a victim of politics and business deals,” Dripps recounts. “Comcast bought NBC Sports — which owned Versus — and they wanted to make a push toward a more ESPN type-scenario with only live events. We clearly couldn’t budget to broadcast live, so we hit the cutting room floor.”
Show organizers even considered moving The Dirt Knights to Fox Sports 1 (FS1), but due to contractual deals, the program couldn’t be aired anywhere else.
For Dripps and other show organizers, it was a sobering blow. It also left a bitter taste in the mouths of racers and race fans alike. We finally had a dirt racing show that was very well produced and wasn’t overrun with pre-staged drama. Just like that — poof — it was gone.
Luckily, you can’t hold a good man (nor a good idea) down, and new life has been breathed into The Dirt Knights.
“We’ve got some great new backers on board who are allowing it to come back to life, and the Pattison family at MAVTV has helped us put together a TV package that makes it affordable for us,” Dripps notes. “We learned from so many mistakes the first time around. I’m really excited on where we can take it this time. The support thus far has been incredible.”
One of the racing industry’s top manufacturers, Jones Racing Products, recently had the chance to see some of the filming for the upcoming season. Company president CJ Jones, along with fiancée Melanie Trimper, attended a handful of events during the 2017 Dakota Classic Modified Tour.
He was instantly hooked on the racing and the product.
“I was truly blown away by not only the number of competitors, but also the competition level on the tour,” Jones notes. “The racing was awesome, and it was especially cool to see so many of our customers running the tour and involved in the filming of The Dirt Knights.”
During his jaunt to the Upper Midwest, Jones also had the opportunity to meet with Dripps.
“I was very impressed with his vision for bringing major dirt track racing to broadcast television again,” Jones comments. “Bringing the great racing action, and also the behind the scenes footage, to the general public is going to only help our sport grow.”
While The Dirt Knights focused on the USMTS tour its first go-round, this time, it has its sights set on the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) Modified ranks.
Filming began with the six-night Dakota Classic Modified Tour held July 8-13. Six different tracks — including five stops in North Dakota and one in Saskatchewan — were part of the docket.
“Brett Root and IMCA really got behind us when they heard about our idea to want to bring back The Dirt Knights,” Dripps recounts. “From a logistical and a cost standpoint, it made sense to start our filming with the Dakota Classic Modified Tour. Plus, there’s a ton of great racers and great tracks that we could feature in that six-race run.”
Filming for the first season will conclude in September during the 2017 edition of the Speedway Motors IMCA Super Nationals at Iowa’s Boone Speedway.
Drivers featured this season include Hunter Marriott, Johnny Scott, Jason Wolla, Cody Bauman, and Corey Dripps. Twenty episodes are slated for the return season of the program, with airing tentatively slated to begin on MAVTV in November.
Seeing several of his clients taking part in the rebirth of The Dirt Knights, Jones is even more excited.
“Drivers like Marriott, Scott, and Dripps are some of the toughest racers out there, and to have them utilizing our products is very exciting,” Jones says. “As a company, we are very proud to be working with not only them, but also great engine builders from the tour and the GM engine suppliers, like Friesen Chevrolet.”
Al Walters, performance sales manager for Friesen Performance, echoes Jones’ excitement.
“Series like the Dakota Classic Modified Tour and shows like The Dirt Knights makes this a great time for our sport,” Walters states. “Furthermore, to have companies like Jones Racing Products supporting both entities is a major shot in the arm.”
Selling more than 250 engines per year, Friesen Performance supplies GM crate power plants for many of IMCA racing’s top performers. The company is focused on providing engines with the most dependable and durable parts available. This led them to a partnership with Jones Racing Products in 2013.
“I was having a hard time getting the custom components that I needed for our engines, and that’s when I came in contact with CJ [Jones],” Walters remembers. “He told me he could build me custom belt drives for the front of any motor that we had. I gave him a chance to prove it, and he did just that. I immediately started using exclusively Jones Racing Products for my front belt drives, and it’s been that way for four years now.”
For Friesen Performance, the company takes pride in putting top-of-the-line components on their engines.
“At Friesen Performance, we are focused on producing motors that will win races and still have longevity,” Walters notes. “Sometimes, there’s cheaper options out there, but more times than not, I see racers paying more for multiple motors in the same time frame that they could’ve paid less with us and just bought one.”
The Dirt Knights world has seen its top two performers running products from Jones Racing Products and Friesen Performance.
Missouri’s Hunter Marriott has been a standout in the Modified ranks during the past few seasons. With double-digit wins in 2016 and 2017, he is a contender anywhere he unloads, recently clinching his second-straight Dakota Classic Modified Tour title.
“I’ve been with Friesen [Performance] since 2013, and their engines with the Jones Racing Products on them are pretty amazing,” Marriott says. “With any motor, there’s always a chance for something random to go wrong, but it’s been really impressive to see how powerful and durable they really are.”
Becoming involved with The Dirt Knights is a bit of a dream come true for the 25-year-old racer.
“If you had told me even last year that I would be a featured driver on a TV show, I would’ve told you that you were crazy,” Marriott laughs. “It’s really cool to be featured, and what I like even more is that they just tell us to be ourselves on the show. It’s not like a soap opera or anything like that.”
While Marriott claimed the Dakota Classic Modified Tour crown in 2017, he had a newcomer on the IMCA scene nipping at his heels. New Mexico transplant Johnny Scott actually led the standings by a few markers heading into the final event, before ultimately finishing second in the final points.
“I know lots of people have told me that they know how bad it must sting to come up short on the title like that, but really I consider it a huge accomplishment to finish second in the points in my first year on the tour,” Scott proudly comments. “Before this year, I had never seen any of these tracks, and this competition is amazingly tough. Sure, I wanted to score the title, but to do what we did, I consider it a big win for me and my team.”
Late in the 2016 season, Scott was approached by Dripps about the possibility of becoming a featured driver on The Dirt Knights. He regarded it as a great opportunity.
“When Corey came to me to see if I wanted to be part of the show, I was like, ‘Heck Yeah! This sounds awesome,’” Scott remembers. “I always like trying new things, and I’ve been wanting to race up this way for a long time.”
While he enjoys new challenges, Scott quickly admits just how tough the IMCA scene is in the Upper Midwest.
“I knew it was going to be tough because I had never even seen most of these places, but it was even that much harder,” he says. “On that Dakota Modified Tour, there was roughly 100 guys every night, and over half of them have a real chance to win. It’s been fun, but it’s definitely been an eye opener.”
Scott has a long and successful relationship with Jones Racing Products.
“I’ve been working with CJ [Jones] and the gang at Jones Racing Products for about 10 years now, and they’ve always been top notch,” Scott comments. “They are really easy to deal with and can build you pretty much anything you could ever need. Best of all, when you are in a pinch for a part, they go out of their way to get you exactly what you need, when you need it.”
With a strong game plan for its return season, The Dirt Knights is already looking at 2018 and beyond.
“Based on the support and enthusiasm that I’m seeing, I really believe this show is here to stay,” Dripps says. “2018 could be an even bigger and better year for us, so definitely stay tuned!”
For Jones and Jones Racing Products, they are loving everything The Dirt Knights represents.
“Grassroots guys out battling every night to beat 100 other guys — that’s what dirt track racing is all about,” Jones says. “Jones Racing Products and I are just honored to be a part of the winning puzzle.”
Source: Jones Racing Products, jonesracingproducts.com