It’s a Dirty Sport, but Somebody’s Got to Watch It

Now this guy, Ned Jarrett, knew how to race on dirt. (Ford Motor Company)

Now this guy, Ned Jarrett, knew how to race on dirt. (Ford Motor Company)

Gotta an indie bookstore!

Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, July 23, 2015, 9:44 a.m.

My memory is mostly photographic. If you ask about some NASCAR incident, I won’t remember it by fact but by image. I’ll have to look up the facts, but, in my mind, I’ll see a wreck, say, and I’ll know where it was because of the perspective of the image or because I see “Talladega” or “Atlanta” on the wall behind my image of cars crashing.

Monte Dutton

Monte Dutton

So my memory of attending NASCAR races on the then-dirt of Greenville-Pickens Speedway involves the smoky image of Richard Petty roaring into the turn in a Plymouth Road Runner, and I’ll know those races were in 1968, and I can see that lovely Petty blue blended with the swirl of the red clay dust. The track was paved in 1969, and my image of Bobby Isaac driving the K&K Insurance Dodge Charger to victory is unclouded by having to squint to see it on the back straight.

Big Diamond Raceway in Pennsylvania. (Monte Dutton photo)

Big Diamond Raceway in Pennsylvania. (Monte Dutton photo)

While I covered NASCAR, there were no dirt tracks, but I sometimes traveled nearby to watch the masters slip and slide. Jim McLaurin and Rick Minter accompanied me to 311 Speedway in Madison, North Carolina, near Martinsville, Virginia, and Len Thacher and I spent a marvelous night at Grandview Speedway in Pennsylvania. I drove alone from Pocono to Big Diamond to watch USAC Sprints, and David Poole and I drove over to Eldora to watch Midgets back before Earl Baltes sold the place to Tony Stewart. The mental snapshots of all those trips are vivid.

Bobby Isaac (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

Bobby Isaac (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

My trips got rarer when I ran out of people who’d go with me, and now I find it amusing that a few Truck races at Eldora have turned all my colleagues who wouldn’t have gone to a dirt track with a gun on them into boosters declaring them the greatest of them all.

Back then, they wouldn’t have gone to a dirt track for Marriott Points.

I suspect many of dirt-track racing’s great media champions have never been to one that isn’t named Eldora.

It was a grand show last night, but the racing wasn’t any better than when I watched Billy Hicks win at 311 or Steve Francis capture the Shrine Race at nearby Laurens Speedway.

Curtis Turner (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

Curtis Turner (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

Plus, I watched it on TV. I expect many of those now hyperventilating watched it on TV, too, albeit from the refuge of the Eldora media center, where they had tighter access than I to all the glowing remarks from drivers who have less experience racing on dirt than they have watching it.

The true fan test of appreciating dirt-track racing isn’t from the living room. It’s better in person, and it’s better when most of the drivers have a clue about how to do it.

Christopher Bell's celebratory dust-out.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Christopher Bell

Christopher Bell’s celebratory dust-out. (Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Christopher Bell

I’m neither surprised nor displeased that a dirt tracker, Christopher Bell, won the Mud Summer Classic. Nor am I surprised that the Dillon brothers, Austin and Ty, did well, because the first time I saw either of Richard Childress’s grandsons race was at 311 Speedway.

One of the reasons dirt tracks fell off the NASCAR radar screen was growth. The box score lists the attendance at one of those long-ago Petty victories at 7,200, which was a packed house at Greenville-Pickens. NASCAR left the dirt tracks, though, because they were untidy and NASCAR wanted races that were tidy.

When I go to a dirt track, I wear safety glasses or goggles because I also wear contact lenses, and without protection, it feels not unlike having thousands of tiny needles fired at my eyeballs.

USAC Sprint cars at Big Diamond. (Monte Dutton photo)

USAC Sprint cars at Big Diamond. (Monte Dutton photo)

If it’s hot — and when isn’t it? — do not wear a white shirt to a dirt track. It will never be white again.

The last time Minter and I drove down to Madison, on the Saturday night before a Martinsville Sprint Cup race, the next morning I drove to the race before the sun came up, and I left it long after the sun went down. The next morning, when I drove home, I noticed people gaping at my Honda, the one I still drive, and discovered it was no longer blue but rust-colored. It had red clay caked all over it. I pulled off the highway in Salisbury and ran it through a car wash lest I feel compelled to live out of it.

It’s worth it. Dirt tracks are great, but they’re not for the casual watcher (someone wisely pointed out to me the other day that “casual fan” is as much a contradiction in terms as “tail end” or “forward bite”) or the captain of industry. They are uncouth places to “wine and dine.” Dust is a much better condiment for hot dogs than sushi.

You got your dirt-track fans right here. (Monte Dutton photo)

You got your dirt-track fans right here. (Monte Dutton photo)

Many of NASCAR’s present-day movers and shakers are out of their elements at Eldora, though they are able to tough it out in the comfort of their refuges from the dust and smoke.

The race is a nice, little diversion. It’s quaint.

A year ago, when Kyle Larson’s truck spent more time on the wall than off it — one of the TV announcers actually said he hit it 433 times, and I laughed so hard — you would have thought he’d not only done it by design but because he possessed more skill than Curtis Turner.

Me? I thought it was embarrassing.

Once upon a time, it was not unusual for NASCAR's finest to race on dirt  ... or know how. From top, Buddy Arrington, David Pearson, and Cecil Gordon.

Once upon a time, it was not unusual for NASCAR’s finest to race on dirt … or know how.

Trucks are unwieldy on dirt. Stock cars are unwieldy on road courses. It’s part of their charm, but the allure of real dirt-track racing isn’t charm. It’s control of the uncontrollable, in addition to power, boldness, courage, and skill.

I enjoyed the race, too, but if I really want to see racing that will blow my mind, I’ll go to Laurens Speedway on Saturday night.

Of course, I doubt I will. I won’t be able to find anyone to go with me. To paraphrase one of my favorite stanzas from the philosopher Tom T. Hall, they might pat your fanny and say you’re a dandy, but they still don’t like dirt tracks in Daytona Beach.


My new novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, has one small reference to a trip to Talladega, but mainly it’s crazy in other ways. Please take a look at it here:

Most of my previous books, some of which are about racing, are available here:


About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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10 Responses to It’s a Dirty Sport, but Somebody’s Got to Watch It

  1. GinaV24 says:

    LOL, great column and you are so right, most of the NASCAR writers have probably never been to another dirt track. When I was growing up, we went to a lot of local tracks here in NJ – yes, don’t gasp – there used to be a lot of local tracks in NJ, but no more because as you said – it is dirty and noisy and it annoyed the neighbors moving in who wanted things to be clean, quiet & more refined. It’s a shame – they don’t know what they missed. Your comment about the white shirt made me smile because my brother picked up his girlfriend to go to a race one night and she was dressed in white jeans – he politely suggested she go change.

    I have a pair of safety glasses that I wear even at “regular” tracks at NASCAR. The first time we went to Darlington, my sunglasses looked like they had been sandblasted at the end of the race.

    Where did Schrader finish? That was the real reason I tuned in last night – unfortunately listening to Mikey continues to be a way to make me turn off the tv so I didn’t watch until the end. Congrats to the dirt racer who won!

  2. Al Torney says:

    If you are ever in the Harrisburg, Pa. area on a summer Friday make the short trip to Williams Grove Speedway. They have a tunnel on one side of the track and a bridge on the other side to get to the infield. Go to turn one in the infield during hot laps and watch those 410 inch sprint cars coming in there at well over 100 mph. It’s hair raising. It’s up close and personal.

  3. Monte says:

    Always wanted to go there. I’ve watched races there on TV.

  4. Troy says:

    Catch a ride with Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon or Kyle Larson and come to Knoxville in 2 weeks for the Knoxville Nationals. Those guys will all be in attendance (and have skin in the game too). Tony owns 2 cars (and as a car owner has won at least 6 of them), Kyle owns a car and Jeff’s Children’s foundation and original Sprint Car paint scheme will be on the car that Kyle owns (and Shane Stewart drives) as a tribute to Jeff.
    Always a great time (and Jeff, Kyle and Tony can give you the “Knoxville Experience” and take you to Dingus after the races too.

  5. Jay Halladay says:

    ….and after the Friday night sprint car show at Williams Grove slip on down to Lincoln Speedway for the sprints there on Saturday nights (except this weekend, the World of Outlaws are running both nights at the Grove.)

  6. Monte says:

    Well, as I am highly unlikely to be in Pennsylvania any time soon, I can but dream.

  7. Monte says:

    Aw, hell, those guys don’t even remember me. Catch a ride? There’d be a hundred ahead of me.

  8. Andy says:

    > Aw, hell, those guys don’t even remember me.

    Don’t put yourself down so. You’ve won as many races this year as Tony, Jeff and Kyle combined.

  9. dawg says:

    One of the pictures in my mind happened at the old Joplin Mo. dirt track. They had a small steep grandstand right in the middle of the 1, & 2 turn. A friend & I had just climbed up, & taken our seats during warmups. When a car flipped up a small rock, & it caught someone sitting a couple of seats away. Right in the middle of the forehead. He went down like he’d been shot, & we decided to change to the main grandstand. What they say about head wounds bleeding, is all too true.

  10. Al Torney says:

    Like they say “dirt is for racing, pavement is for getting there”.

    Just read the results from the Grove last night. Pa. Posse driver Danny Deitrich passed Donnie Schatz for the feature win.

    Lincoln Speedway is my favorite dirt track. Attended that track for the first time in 1962.

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