In a sport that is constantly flirting with technological improvements and modern advances, NASCAR finds itself contemplating a step back from the future.
Its latest quandary came one week ago when NASCAR rediscovered something the folks at Macon Speedway have known for more than 65 years: It’s hard to beat racing in the dirt.
For the first time in more than 40 years, NASCAR held a race on a dirt track, bringing the Inaugural Mid-Summer Classic truck race to Eldora Speedway in Ohio — a track Macon Speedway co-owner Tony Stewart purchased in 2004.
It may have been a roll of the dice for NASCAR, mainly because the track is relatively small (20,000) and because it was unclear what kind of ratings it might draw on Speed Network. As it turned out, the truck race blew the lid off expectations.
A brief recap: Another Macon Speedway co-owner, Ken Schrader, became the oldest driver in history (58) to win a NASCAR pole. He then won a qualifying heat race. Schrader finished 14th and Kenny Wallace, still another Macon Speedway co-owner, finished 17th.
Stewart orchestrated the race and showed that his facility was more than up to the task.
Tickets were purchased from fans in 48 different states. The TV ratings were excellent. And NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell called it, “a great night for NASCAR and the sport.”
Best of all, Sprint Cup drivers were glued to the action, too, some traveling to Eldora in person, others following on TV or the internet. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was traveling, lamented that he’d messed up his attempt to record the race.
Subsequently drivers like Jeff Gordon have prodded NASCAR to at least give thought to a Sprint Cup dirt race.
That probably won’t happen, although I’ll bet some wealthy track owner wishes he owned a one-mile dirt track with 100,000 seats to give it a go.
But there’s no question the buzz among fans and drivers will ensure that NASCAR at least revisits dirt in some way in 2014.
What the “Classic” showed is what most drivers already know — that dirt is a surface conducive to fast, door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper racing.
It’s why those three Macon Speedway co-owners continue to turn up at short tracks everywhere, embracing a grass roots love for the sport that lets the mud fly and leaves the fans breathless at the edge of their seats.
“For years people have asked me, ‘Why not pave Macon Speedway in asphalt?’ ” Macon’s non-driving owner, Bob Sargent, said on Tuesday. “I’ve always said that dirt racing is unique. It’s exciting and the fact that the surface changes throughout a race only adds to the excitement.
“The race at Eldora was a huge success. Tony was here at Macon on Saturday and that’s what everyone was still talking about. Now the question becomes, will they do a dirt race any place else or will they put dirt on an existing asphalt track?”
That’s already been done, and the Eldora race should challenge NASCAR to think outside the box. This race rippled like a bolt of electricity through the fan base and they’re clamoring for more.
“They even put dirt on Bristol a few years ago when the World of Outlaws (sprint cars) were there,” Sargent said. “It can be done and it has been done.
“I promote a race in Elko, Minn., and that’s a paved track. But each fall they put dirt on the track and race, then leave the dirt in place all winter and race again on the dirt in the spring. Then they clear away the dirt and race all summer on pavement.”
Setting the top NASCAR drivers apart from stars in other sports is their willingness to race on small dirt tracks right in the heart of their Sprint Cup season. That Stewart was racing at Macon the night before the Brickyard at Indianapolis is rather unbelievable.
But it’s what he does.
And on Monday, he was in Canada at the wheel of a sprint car — racing on dirt — when a wreck caused him to flip five times. Stewart emerged unscathed and shrugged off suggestions that he’s risking his high-dollar stock car driving career.
“It’s just part of it,” Stewart said. “I am one of those who believes when it’s your time, it’s your time.”
In fact, on Thursday night Stewart will be in Paducah, Ky., at another track he and Sargent own, driving on dirt again before competing in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Pocono.
The next time someone asks Stewart about his curious penchant for finding short tracks in the middle of the corn, I’d suggest he give them a very brief answer.
“Dude, it’s dirt.”