Spot News Writing
J.A. Ackley, Speedway Illustrated
New Dirt Late Model Rules
Just before Santa placed presents under trees, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series delivered a package of its own — the 2016 rule book. In it is roughly two pages of suspension rules—an unprecedented measure for a class of cars that historically has had relatively free rein, especially for chassis setup.
Most late model sanctioning bodies started tightening up shock rules last season, eliminating certain designs, like thru-rod, interter, and cross-connected, and prohibiting shocks with electronic or external controls. The new rule book from the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series outlines much of the rear suspension design, defining lift arms, pull bars, radius rods, birdcages, and mounts. It also limits the number of shocks and provides dimensions for radius rods and rear suspension mounts.
“We feel they were getting to the point where technology was going to pass some people,” says Ritchie Lewis, series director for the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. “People were already scared that it already happened. It was going to continue to escalate and create more separation between the people who can have the technology and race it successfully versus people [who cannot]. We try to balance the [interests of the] weekend warriors and the regional racers, and the national guys. It’s not just about Lucas … we’re doing this because we feel this is the right thing for the industry.”
Around 10 drivers usually follow a national dirt late model tour like the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. Thus, its car count on race day greatly depends on local and regional drivers making an attempt at its races. Last year, only eight of 38 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series races were won by series outsiders. The 2015 series champion, Jonathan Davenport, won 12 features—nearly a third of the schedule. Series runner-up, Scott Bloomquist, won eight—over a fifth of the schedule. Between Davenport and Bloomquist, the duo found victory lane 52.6% of the time in Lucas Oil competition. Lewis adds that the 2016 rules package resulted from listening to its racers.
“People kept bringing this to us that [the sport] wasn’t [headed] in the right direction,” says Lewis. “They said there would be too many engineers, too many this, and too many that. That was partially true. You had the perception that the weekend warrior and regional racer was going to be bumped out real quick. We don’t need to screw our industry up. Our races pay more than ever. Our sport is at a very healthy place. We don’t need to get back to 18 cars at an event for several thousand to win.”
One of those regional racers, Winfield, Tennessee’s Mike Marlar, operates a towing business by day, but could view his dirt late model racing as a secondary source of income as he cherry-picks high-paying races. Marlar favors the new rules.
“They’ve stopped the problem from getting bigger,” Marlar says. “Our sport’s getting to the point where it’s going to consume itself if we don’t draw some guidelines. [the sport] was built on ingenuity, on a deal where a guy in the shop could build a better mouse trap and outperform everybody. That worked great for a long time…. It was starting to get to the point, for me, where the working guy couldn’t have a chance of being competitive.”
Dustin Linville works for a living as a carpenter and races for a hobby. His low-budget team races competitively with the national stars when they visit tracks nearby his Bryantsville, Kentucky home. Like Marlar, he also feels the rules help his efforts to compete.
“If you got the money, you can get the parts to go fast,” Linville says. “The new rules] slowed the technology [advances] down, but it does not stop it. They’re on the right track for somebody like me.”
World Racing Group’s Tom Deery understands Linville’s dilemma.
“It’s our job [as a sanctioning body] to keep a level playing field,” says Deery, COO for the World Racing Group, owners of the World of Outlaws Late Model Series, a national rival to the Lucas Oil series. “A level playing field is best described as access to technology. Sometimes access is limited by the financials or whether the part is available or not. When we look at it, we want to create as much access to as many participants as possible.”
National racers, like Bloomquist and Davenport, have been able to exploit their access to technology. And, judging by their success, arguably Davenport and Bloomquist have possibly the most to lose from the changes. Davenport’s crew chief, Kevin Rumley, developed a new left-rear suspension, which he can no longer run under the new rules. Other crew chiefs and chassis builders say they had to shelve some ideas they were working on. Rumley declined to comment, but Bloomquist offered his philosophical perspective.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bloomquist says. “On one hand, yeah, it’s probably going to save everyone some money, time, testing, and development. On the other hand, it’s part of what made this sport so beautiful — the ability to go in the garage and out-work the other guys and out-think them.”
Lewis says the rules, while necessary, still offer room for creative thinkers.
“The more talent in your pit area, the more definitive your rules need to be because people will push things to areas that are not healthy,” says Lewis. “We didn’t take one step backwards — we just defined where we are at because we still have a good product. We’re not trying to dummy things down. We’re just trying to make it where everybody knows where certain locations of certain things have to be. Therefore you create a box, and people will have to play in that box. There’s still a lot of open area in there.”
“We don’t have to go looking for things completely out of the box that we haven’t even thought of yet,” Bloomquist says. “The rules are still open enough to be able to fine tune things and get a little bit better than the rest.”
Marshall Green, of Capital Race Cars, which builds cars for the likes of World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion, Shane Clanton, says once he understood the premise behind the rules, he favored them.
“Initially, I thought they were trying to hold the sport back,” says Green. “But, the more I thought about it, they saved us about 10 grand that’s not necessary to put on a good race. The stuff we’ve been doing that wouldn’t fit the new rules would make it so you wouldn’t be able to win a local race without it. All the technology starts at the highest levels and it trickles down to the local levels. Sometimes it takes a couple of months. Sometimes it’s a year or more. The more I thought about it, I really appreciate them trying to protect our industry.”
Bloomquist feels it will make the weekend warrior more welcome at series events.
“It’s going to make everyone feel more comfortable, more confident, since they have at least close to the same thing [as we have],” Bloomquist says. “It’s not going to be as easy to come up with [an excuse] now.”
Many tracks and sanctioning bodies are waiting to see how the rules play out during Speedweeks before instituting them. Some critics say the new regulations will be hard to enforce by the average tech inspector and make tech a far longer process than what the dirt late models are accustomed to.
Lewis disputes that the rules significantly make the tech process more difficult. Lewis adds that the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series will share with tracks and sanctioning bodies the best practices on how to enforce the rules, just like they did with tire treatments years ago. Ultimately, Lewis acknowledges they may tweak the rules as they start to work with them, but he stresses the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series is determined to make the new suspension regulations work.
“We will do it and be successful at it,” Lewis says. “We’ll learn along the way and we will be able to make changes. As long as what we’re doing doesn’t hurt the product, with side-by-side racing, we’ll be fine. What we’re doing is evolutionary — not revolutionary.