Dirt Track Racing and NASCAR have always had a complicated relationship, since the very early days of both forms of auto racing. In the beginning, across the southeastern United States, the relationship was strong, with local dirt track racing superstars easily taking their talents and teams to the next level, competing at various NASCAR sanctioned events on both dirt and asphalt. Some of the series' biggest names, like Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, and Richard Petty, would cut their teeth and became local legends on the dirt, before ever making a NASCAR premier series start.
As time went on, NASCAR expanded nationally with the help of major television contracts covering their entire season, flag-to-flag, each Sunday afternoon, starting full-time in 1989, with dirt track racing fighting for their lives, only able to draw a few TV spots each month, with most events being on tape delay or small features in an airing of ESPN's Worldwide Leader in Sports or Thursday Night Thunder.
The 2000s brought on a whole new era of disconnect between the two auto racing forms, as CART and the IRL split, NASCAR assumed the out-right top spot in American racing revenue, attendance, merchandise sales and the almighty television rating/dollar, with dirt track racing again taking the backseat in any-and-every category you can think of. Short Track stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, and Ryan Newman chose a career in Stock Car Racing, leaving the dirt tracks of the North, South, East, and West milking story-lines, and revenue out of a small number of superstars like Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, Billy Moyer, Jr, and Scott Bloomquist, to hold their own against NASCAR and the newly reformed IndyCar.
Over the course of the ladder 2000s, a struggling economy and fundamental failed changes by NASCAR executives saw the sport fighting for its popularity life, moving from the country's second-most popular spectator sport to third or fourth in line. Even with sagging attendance and ratings, the series maintained their stature as the top auto racing form in the Lower-48, with IndyCar, Formula One, NHRA, IMSA and many forms of dirt track racing going through hard-times of their own.
During the last handful of years, NASCAR has gone through an overhaul of talent, with young drivers taking over for retiring superstars, new management, television contracts, schedule changes, and a changed business model, as well as new generation car coming within the next two seasons, the sport has seen a second-wind. So far in 2019, the series has delivered three grandstand sellouts, with the Daytona 500, Southern 500 and their annual trip to Watkins Glen International, all selling out of tickets, the most the divisions has seen at this part in the season since 2015. Couple that with a 5% rise in Nielsen Television Ratings, year-over-year, so far in 2019, NASCAR may be seeing a resurgence with American sports fans.
Even with this rise in popularity over the past few years, Dirt Track Racing may be seeing the most momentum out of any racing form in the world, with national touring series and crown jewel event car counts and payouts being at an all-time high, along with an extreme streaming and social media presence, many divisions are seeing the most success they have in generations. Couple that with a young crop of drivers look to make their names in the dirt, like Bobby Pierce, Tyler Erb, Rico Abreu and Ricky Weiss, America's best kept auto racing secret could soon be out-of-the-bag and taking over the motorsports landscape.
With both forms of motorsports on the rise, once again, it will be dirt track racing's responsibility to not get lost and forgotten about as they did in the early 1990s when NASCAR first rose to national prominence. If the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, NOS Energy Drink World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series or AMSOIL USAC Sprint Car National Championship can acquire the necessary television contracts over the next decade, or continue social media and streaming success online, along with convincing young talent to stay in the various dirt ranks, instead of moving on to asphalt, coupled with corporate sponsorship gains, dirt track racing's most successful years could be ahead.
With all of that being said, the question is this; over the next decade, could we start seeing a shift in the American Motorsports Landscape, with a Dirt Track Racing series' assuming their reign at the top spot of popularity?
(Racing News Photo)