In mid-October, a 2005 Dodge Dakota left the Albany, New York, area pulling an open trailer. Strapped to it was a four-cylinder, front-wheel drive race car that began life as a 1990 Acura Integra. Driver PJ Bleau, crew chief John Napoli, and fabricator Danny Krajewksi, along with Bleau’s wife, Amber, proceeded to haul the race car for 13 hours to North Carolina.
They logged nearly 800 miles on their journey down the East Coast and encountered numerous puzzled looks from other motorists.
The race team simply wanted to test themselves in the inaugural OneDirt.com World Short Track Championship at The Dirt Track at Charlotte. The event was hosted by the World Racing Group and built to provide a showcase for grassroots and hobby racers.
“We had success for just a part-time deal; we have 10 wins on the season up there, and we kind of want to see where we stack up with the rest of the country,” Bleau, an automotive technician by trade, said before finishing 11th in the Hornet division on Friday and 4th on Saturday. “We like to think of ourselves as one of the more competitive guys in our area, but we have no idea what these guys are capable of or what they have.”
Bleau and the rest of the team may only be able to run part-time at their local tracks like Glen Ridge Motorsports Park, Lebanon Valley Speedway, and Fonda Speedway, and do so in one of the more cost-efficient classes due to budgetary constraints, along with work and family commitments, but that doesn’t make them racers any less.
It is drivers and operations like Bleau’s that the World Racing Group had in mind when it put together its plans for the inaugural event spotlighting grassroots heroes.
“We wanted to do this for a long, long time, and we knew that Charlotte meant a lot to the racing community,” said World Racing Group CEO Brian Carter. “We’re the World of Outlaws and DIRTcar, and DIRTcar is such a foundational part of our business, it’s where racing really lives and breathes every Friday and Saturday night. So, to give these guys an opportunity to come to Charlotte, have fun, relax, and race hard, and then have a good time – it’s been our focus for a long time.”
The glistening Dirt Track at Charlotte, a red clay, 4/10-mile oval, lies nestled between Charlotte Motor Speedway and Zmax Dragway. It is literally in the heart of stock car country.
On a windy mid-fall weekend, more than 300 race cars packed the massive pit area across nine divisions: 66 FOX Racing Shox Pro Late Models, 36 VP Racing Fuel Sportsman Modifieds, 42 Summit Racing UMP Modifieds, 28 Driven Racing Oil Crate Sportsmans, 39 Gotta Race Hornets, 6 Chevrolet Performance Pro Sprint Cars, 50 Quarter Master Monster Minis, 29 Hoosier Tire Pro Modifieds, and 24 COMP Cams 360 Sprint Cars were on hand during the three-day affair.
While weekly heroes had their time on a national stage, the event also attracted those who have reached the sport’s pinnacle. NASCAR stars turned dirt stalwarts Kenny Wallace and Ken Schrader each were on hand, as were former Cup series regulars David Stremme and David Reutimann as drivers, along with former driver turned chassis builder Ron Hornaday.
Hornaday, a four-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion and native of Palmdale, California, was parked just a few rows from Bleau with the DIRTcar UMP Modifieds. Hornaday’s grandson took up dirt racing when he was not yet old enough to race in NASCAR. He found some early success, which led to Hornaday founding his own chassis shop, Hornaday Race Cars.
“Dirt racing’s fun, and asphalt racing’s hitting a little too expensive right now,” Hornaday said. “This is kind of where it’s at right now.”
His house car is piloted by Billy Workman Jr., a driver Hornaday calls his ”test dummy” who provides R&D in an effort to both collect checkered flags and sell more race cars. He finished 24th in his A-Main and 17th in the All-Star feature. Hornaday says that while, chassis-wise, dirt racing is a great deal different than the vehicles he raced for so many years, he tries to utilize safety aspects he learned from NASCAR in his own business.
Among the many safety advancements in every Horanday Race Car are bigger cages, strengthened door plates, precisely mounted seats, seat belts, and fire extinguishers, and more. It’s all part of how Hornaday says he’s using dirt racing to give back to the sport that brought him so much success over the years.
“It just brings a lot of people together, a lot of friends and family, a little more kicked back where you can have a good time,” Hornaday said. “When you’re done, [you] open a beer and talk to your friends and meet different people from different parts of the country.”
While Bleau and Hornaday are originally from opposite ends of the country, but were brought together in Charlotte, for some local drivers, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to compete at The Dirt Track. 360 Sprint Car racer Johnny Petrozelle is one such example.
“Before I had my driver’s license, I would always come out here in May and November and see the Outlaws,” said the Denton, North Carolina, native. “Growing up as a kid, it was always cool to come to Charlotte and see the biggest, baddest guys run one of the biggest, baddest tracks in the area. We’ve been running Sprint Cars for a couple of years now and just couldn’t wait to get out to Charlotte.”
It was Petrozelle’s first time on the track, where he would turn in a 10th-place result, but he had spent years just a few miles away.
“I actually went to college up at UNC Charlotte, so this is almost home, it’s like a second home,” he said.
Those three distinct stories are what World Racing Group CEO Brian Carter and his staff had in mind when the weekend finally came to fruition.
“I think the event has so much potential,” he said. “I’d like to see the classes develop, and as we get more and more comfort … we can make the event bigger and better.”
(Main image by Zackery Kloosterman/ZSK Photography)