NASCAR drivers use varying strategies to prepare for Food City, Weather Guard dirt races
By LEE SPENCER
There’s nothing like the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track —and even the best drivers in the business are at a loss to find an advantage on the half-mile clay-covered bullring.
An iRacing program with the most recent configurations might offer competitors a glimpse of the conditions. But unlike permanent tracks on the NASCAR tour, currently there are no ideal simulators to duplicate what drivers will actually feel once they arrive at the dirt-transformed Last Great Colosseum.
So how does a racer train for the high banks of Bristol Dirt?
“I don't know,” said three-time Chili Bowl Nationals winner Christopher Bell. “I guess I’ll probably watch race film, SMT (SportsMedia Technology). As far as simulation, there’s nothing that would do a good job preparing you for that event. So past race notes, stuff like that.”
SMT can provide drivers with the telemetry data from how they used their throttle, brakes and gears as well as the speed and RPM that accompanied those actions.
Unfortunately, for Tyler Reddick, who moved to 23XI Racing this year, access to his own data doesn’t exist. He’ll have to rely on muscle memory to recapture the success he experienced in last year’s race.
Reddick led 99 laps and was one corner away from the victory when an overly aggressive move from Chase Briscoe knocked the No. 8 Chevrolet out of the lead and opened the door for Kyle Busch to win.
“All the details of how we were set-up-wise and everything, I don’t know from last year,” said Reddick, who finished second. “We’ll just have to go into it with an open mind and try to get it close through practice and try to get it better. We’ll just see how it goes.”
Briscoe, a third-generation dirt tracker, believes racing on dirt his entire life offers him an advantage.
“You know what to expect going into it,” Briscoe said. “I’m sure it’s hard for the non-dirt guys to find anything that’s even relatively close, because there’s nothing that’s really like it. We do have a simulator, but it’s not really accurate at all. So, we just go with what we feel like is best.
“You get quite a lot of practice there, so it’s nice to run through some things. But I don’t think there’s really anything you can do to prepare. How they prep the dirt is going to determine how the car drives, and it’s hard to replicate that.”
The Cup and Craftsman Truck drivers will have one hour and 15 minutes over two practices during Bush’s Beans Practice Day on Friday to dial in their cars for Saturday’s qualifying races.
When NASCAR first announced the Cup tour was returning to dirt, several drivers with little to no experience jumped out of their comfort zones, opting to wheel a midget, late model or modified to gain experience on a foreign surface before the race.
Former truck champion and last year’s Bristol Dirt winner Ben Rhodes recently honed his dirt skills at Millbridge Speedway just north of Charlotte. His average Bristol Dirt finish is 1.5. He credits ThorSport’s previous success at dirt tracks for providing its drivers with solid baselines.
“ThorSport has a ton of speed on dirt tracks and that goes all the way back to Eldora,” Rhodes said. “It translated to Knoxville (Raceway) but mainly Bristol. I just really like that track. The amount of banking it has really lends itself to truck racing on dirt.
“Dirt changes from day-to-day. You can’t replicate it. You can’t do a lot to prepare, just show up and drive as hard as possible and be as smart as possible.”
Still, some of the most accomplished dirt trackers in the sport have been tested on Bristol dirt.
Stewart Friesen was a big block modified ace and track champion before and after joining the truck series. Yet his dirt success hasn’t carried over to Bristol. Still, Friesen was recruited to test/develop the Goodyear dirt tire at Lancaster (S.C.) Motor Speedway earlier this year. He’s hoping the test time pays off.
“We learned a lot about our truck there—and our tire,” Friesen said. “It’s a really racy tire. Hopefully, that’s a little bit of an advantage for us because we’ve missed it there the last couple of years. Just missing some stuff in the front end but hopefully we got it closer.”
Having a second truck at Bristol should certainly help Friesen’s cause. He’ll be joined by wife Jessica—an accomplished dirt racer in her own right.
“As a driver, she’s very analytical,” Friesen added. “She has a good feel for the vehicle whether it’s a modified or a sprint car or a truck. When we’re barking up the same tree, we’re complaining about the same things we’re fighting at Bristol and at Knoxville last year. But I think we got our platform a little bit better during the test and hopefully it pays off for us.”
Kyle Larson’s dirt victories include the Chili Bowl, Kings Royal, Prairie Dirt Classic and the Knoxville Nationals. Certainly, the soon-to-be Cup champion was considered the favorite entering the inaugural Food City Dirt Race in 2021. Yet after battling from the rear following an engine change, Larson tangled with his former dirt rival Bell 54 laps into the contest.
“Well, I felt like Bell and I both were going to be really good the first year at Bristol,” Larson said. “Then, ironically, we got collected in a wreck together. Last year, I don’t remember where Bell finished. We were fourth.
“But it’s annoying that fans and media all point to us as the favorites because it’s on dirt. These cars are 3,600 pounds with no horsepower. It’s nothing at all like what we race on dirt. It doesn’t feel like a dirt race. It doesn't feel like a dirt car. It isn’t a dirt car. It’s more of a stock car race.
“Sure, maybe we can read track conditions a little bit better, but in the end, it’s a heavy Cup car with no horsepower. It’s not a 950-horsepower, 1,400-pound race car. If it was, then 1,000 percent we would be the favorites, but in the end, it’s a stock car race.”
The Bristol race weekend is highlighted by the NASCAR Cup Series returning to its roots with the Food City Dirt Race on Sunday evening, April 9 (7 p.m., FOX and PRN Radio). The WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt will see the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series take to the clay-covered track on Saturday (8 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio) and will be preceded by Bush’s Beans Qualifying, which offers four heat races to set the starting lineups in each series. On Friday, teams in both the Cup Series and Craftsman Truck Series will be able to fine-tune their machines during Bush’s Beans Practice Day.
In addition to cheering on their favorite drivers during the weekend and enjoying the Easter Celebration, Bristol Motor Speedway fans will definitely want to take advantage of so many activities to make a complete weekend of family fun. There will be great video entertainment provided by Colossus TV, the world's largest center-hung video screen, premium VIP experiences like the Super Fan Suites, tailgating, a visit to the BMS Kids Zone, BMS Fan Zone and Fan Midway, on-site camping, concerts and other entertainment at the Food City Fan Zone Stage like the Race Day Revival with Kenny Wallace and John Roberts, great food and beverages in the concession stands throughout the property, and so much more.
To purchase tickets for Sunday's Food City Dirt Race or Saturday's WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt and Bush’s Beans Qualifying, please visit the BMS website, or call the BMS Ticket Sales Center at (866) 415-4158.
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LEE SPENCER is an award-winning journalist. She's covered racing for the last 30 seasons and is currently the senior NASCAR Cup Series reporter for RacinBoys.com. Spencer is also a freelance contributor to Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio.