With racing having taken place at the Smoky Mountain Speedway and the Volunteer Speedway over the past two weekends, we can finally say that the east Tennessee racing season is in full swing. Very soon, all of our local tracks will be up and running on a regular basis.
Here, Richard and Michael discuss the events of the past two weekends.
Richard: Well, the 2014 dirt racing season is finally in full swing in east Tennessee. The NDRL shows at Smoky Mountain Speedway and the Spring Nationals at the Volunteer Speedway served as a great kickoff to what looks to be a busy year in this area.
Both of the tracks listed above hosted double-header weekend events and one thing that immediately stood out to me was the sizes of the Saturday crowds at both events. Fans in the area were apparently ready to see some dirt slinging on those nights.
Also, there was no shortage of news to come out of those races. Newport’s Jimmy Owens officially switched chassis brands and immediately won in his new Darrell Lanigan-built Club 29 car while Chris Madden continued his run as the hottest Dirt Late Model driver in the country by winning the more lucrative races on each of those weekends.
What has stood out for you so far, Michael?
Michael: A couple of things stood out to me.
One is the crowds you mentioned. Volunteer continues to pull in good crowds on Bristol race weekends and the Saturday attendance for Smoky Mountain’s NDRL event was unbelievable. I’ve been going to races there all my life. The only races I didn’t see at SMS were some of the NDRA races in the mid 1980’s. The Saturday NDRL crowd was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen there. I’m glad fans turned out considering the purse that was on the line and the caliber of drivers on hand. It’s been since 2006 since we’ve seen the likes of Billy Moyer, Scott Bloomquist, Steve Francis and some others on the same track in this area.
Conversely, the Friday crowds were disappointing, especially at Smoky Mountain. I think it goes to show that fans have to choose between one of the two nights because most cannot afford to go to two nights of racing. Most prefer Saturday nights since many people don’t have to work on Saturdays. I believe it would be best if another track takes that Friday date, or turn it into a two-day, $20,000-to-win race.
The other thing that stood out is how many drivers are already on top of their game. Madden is a prime example of that. He could easily be 5 for 5 over the last three weeks. Bloomquist seems to be back on his game after a bit of a lull at the end of last season. Dale McDowell was strong at SMS. And Owens could probably take a street stock to a win as good as he is.
Richard: I definitely agree that fans are likely to choose the Saturday show when having to make a choice on those two day affairs because the Saturday race is typically the one with the bigger purse, which makes it more enticing.
As you mentioned, many drivers and teams have found their “A” game very early in the year. And to make things even more interesting, some of them are doing so in new cars. I don’t remember a time in recent history when so many national, regional and local guys were switching chassis to something different. A prime example of that played out at Smoky Mountain when it was announced that long time Bloomquist Race Cars drivers Eric Jacobsen and Rick Eckert would move away from that brand. Eckert showed up in Maryville to take the Warrior Race Cars house car for a test drive.
As we reported earlier this week, Jacobsen was never able to make it to east Tennessee from his California home and no deal ever materialized between Warrior and the two drivers.
As you mentioned, Owens was fast right out of the box in his new Club 29 with chassis builder Darrell Lanigan on hand to watch in Bulls Gap. But more than just having a new ride, I thought I saw a revitalized Jimmy Owens last weekend. He seemed to have that old pep back in his step that might have gone away over the last year or so. Perhaps a new challenge was exactly what he needed at this stage of his incredibly successful career.
Michael: Racing has always been a monkey-see, monkey-do business. After a few years of it being relatively calm with big name drivers and their chassis, it finally blew up this season. Every driver wants to be in the hottest thing. Just look at the area drivers switching to CVR.
The Bloomquist chassis suited Owens’ driving style to a T. I know he still has some in his garage, but it will be interesting to see how the Club 29 car progresses as the summer goes along and the tracks tend to get slicker and slicker. Between Owens and crew chief Chris Fox, I have no doubt they’ll be dialed in during the summer months.
Of the drivers changing chassis who raced here the last two weekends, I was disappointed in the performance of Billy Moyer in his Longhorn Chassis at SMS. He took a provisional the first night and still wasn’t up to speed the second night. Meanwhile, Billy Moyer, Jr. looked really looked really good. After starting off hot in Arizona and Florida, I thought Moyer would be one of the drivers to beat at Smoky Mountain. But he hasn’t run that great in this area his last few appearances. Maybe that’s why we rarely see him race in east Tennessee these days.
Richard: I have been very impressed all season with Billy Moyer, Jr. He has been fast everywhere he’s been, especially in qualifying and heats. I’m sure he’ll learn to carry that over to the features with experience. And yes, the Bloomquist cars have always thrived in the dry, slick conditions, which served Owens well. But as one observer put it, “Jimmy Owens would be fast in a wheel barrow.”
In other action in these first two weekends, Jimmy Elliott and Jensen Ford looked very strong in Crate Late Model races held at Smoky Mountain and Volunteer Speedway respectively. Both drivers went flag-to-flag for wins over pretty good competition. In the Limited Late Models, Cory Hedgecock just kept on rolling over the competition with his win at Smoky Mountain. And what a finish in the LLM feature at Volunteer when Josh Henry and Jason Manley banged off each other as they crossed the finish line with Henry just edging Manley for the win.
Michael: One thing is for sure, we have seen some good racing the first couple of weeks here in east Tennessee. Let’s hope the good racing and good crowds continue throughout the whole year.