Earl Pearson Jr. discusses the evolution of Dirt Late Model racing

Earl Pearson Jr.

Few, if any, would be more qualified to discuss the evolution of Dirt Late Model racing over the past couple of decades than Earl Pearson Jr. The veteran driver from Jacksonville, Florida won four consecutive Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series championships from 2005 to 2008 as well as some of the sport’s biggest races. Still competitive at 51 years of age, ‘The Hurricane’ won on the Lucas Oil tour last season and used a season’s worth of consistently solid finishes to end the year fifth in the final standings.

Without a doubt, dirt racing has undergone some significant changes during Pearson’s career as one of the top drivers in the history of the sport. During an interview with InsideDirtRacing.com while the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series was racing at the Golden Isles Speedway back in January, the former World 100 winner reflected on some of the differences between racing in the midst of his championship run to now.

Answering the question of what would be the biggest surprise to him had he been able to jump from 2008 to the present, several things came to mind.

“I would say just how much everybody has grown in the sport and how competitive it is nowadays,” Pearson replied. “Back in the day when I started, you had three or four guys and they were the class of the field. Nowadays when you pull in the pits, and I don’t care if you’re at a local race, a Lucas Oil race, or wherever it may be, Eldora or whatever, you’ve got thirty, forty, or fifty cars that can win on any given night and on any given track across the country.”

One of the factors that allows for such competitive fields in those races is the fact that many drivers and teams have very similar equipment. While experience does make a difference, Pearson believes that it does not provide as much of an advantage as was the case a few years ago.

“What I’m saying is that you’ve got these guys like Longhorn, Rocket, and some other chassis builders building cars and they are so precise that a guy who doesn’t have the experience I do or somebody else can jump in there and be competitive,” he explained. “Don’t get me wrong, the more we race we do things a little bit different and maybe pick up speed that way but this day and time you can jump in a race car, no matter if it’s Super Late Model, Crate Late Model or whatever and be pretty competitive.”

According to the driver who won the 2010 Dirt Track World Championship, the driver can’t make as much of a difference now as in the past.

“Fifteen years ago, the cars were a lot harder to drive and you had those three or four guys who could outdrive somebody by working the pedals or whatever it may be and win the race,” he pointed out. “This day and time, that’s about over with. And it’s hard to start 15th and win a race nowadays if it’s a 50-lap race or even a 100-lap race. Back in the day, you could start 20th and drive up through there to the top-5 or even win the race. This day and time, it’s extremely tough to do that. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot more money involved, you’ve got these teams with the haulers, the shocks and springs, the motors and everything. If you’ve got the money, you can buy speed and that’s where it’s all gone to. You look in this pit area, if it’s Super Late Model or even the Crate cars, they’ve got the big rigs, they’ve got the shocks, they’ve got the motors, they’ve got everything. It’s hard to get an advantage nowadays.”

Earl Pearson Jr. in his Jason Papich-owned Longhorn Chassis

As a result of the changes made to the cars over the past several years, driving styles have had to change as well. Where someone might be able to lay back and bide their time in the past, that is no longer the case. The cars are too good now and can withstand the punishment involved in going all out.

“That’s a big change I’ve seen,” Pearson declared. “I grew up racing Bloomquist, Moyer, Skip Arp, Freddy Smith and all them guys. We drove the race cars. We could take a car that wasn’t quite right and win the race. This day and time, you’ve got to drive the car as hard as you can every lap in a 100-lap race or whatever it may be. You’ve got to be wide open and drive it just as hard as you can drive it because everybody else on that race track is doing the same thing.”

This current generation of racer has a different mindset from those of the past because the equipment allows it.

“Like I said before, we could use our pedals or whatever it may be to win the race,” he stated. “Those days are over. These young kids, all they know is wide open. They never grew up with a spring in front and the cars not lifting up where you had to drive the car. They don’t understand that. When I sit down and talk to some of these younger guys, they’re like ‘What are you talking about?’ These cars raise up, they’re locked to the Earth, soft tires, 900 horsepower, got the bodies all up in the air, aero is tremendous, so you just drive it as hard as you can until the checkered. That’s all there is to it.”

Another major difference in the sport compared to a couple of decades ago is the amount of money involved.

Is this a good time to be a racer?

“It is and we’ll just see how long this goes,” he replied. “The biggest thing I see right now, all the across any sport, it’s all about TV and the live streaming. You’ve got all these people sitting at home watching, which is great, I don’t have no problem with that at all. But what we’ve got to watch is these race tracks, if the fans don’t show up then they start suffering so we’ve got to watch that a little bit. But it’s great for us to run for the money and be on TV, that’s great for our sponsors.”

One concern going forward could be that promoters could get burned by the new business model being employed within the sport.

“But we’ve seen over the years that if it’s iffy weather, people sit home,” Pearson said. “Prime example, it’s cold tonight so a lot of people are going sit at home and watch it in their garage instead of sit in 30 degree weather. That’s something we’ve got to watch on that stuff. But hey, it’s working for everybody right now and everybody is going to have to share a piece of the pie to make all of it work. But as far as a owner, driver or sponsors, it’s all working really well. There’s lots of money out there this year and hopefully it continues. Hopefully it don’t die off. Right now, it just keeps climbing every year. It’s good competition, like the World of Outlaws, they stepped up their game, XR stepped up their game, Lucas has stepped up their game so it’s great for us as long as it can continue.”

Please consider also reading:

The real grind of the Dirt Late Model season is about to begin

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