Tuesday, September 11, 2018

NASCAR K&N Pro Drivers Ready To Kick Up Dirt In Las Vegas

Hailie Deegan is one of the few K&N Pro drivers with experience racing on dirt heading into Thrusday's big race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Jonathan Moore/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Via NASCAR Media

It’s time to get dirty. Literally.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West will race on dirt. The Star Nursery 100 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway dirt track has been a talking point of drivers, fans and teams for months.

And why wouldn’t be? The impending duel in the desert will be one of the few NASCAR-sanctioned dirt track races in the last couple decades to take place and the first one in the series since 1979 at Ascot Park in Gardena, California.

Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive from Eldora Speedway whenever the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series makes their midsummer trip to the Rossburg, Ohio, oval. It’s something different. It bucks the trend.

Tim Richter, Short Tracks Racing Operations Manager at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, has been spearheading the preparation of the half-mile dirt track. In addition to ensuring the event has a special feel like Eldora, he’s also making sure the desert heat doesn’t dry out the 10-degree oval.

“It’s been really good,” Richter said of the track preparation. “We’re ending our second week of prep on it. We started the last Sunday of August with water, and that was three full days of getting moisture to make the ground workable. It’s been a process, but the track is really looking good. We’re looking smooth and we’re excited for the challenge with these K&N cars on the dirt track.”

Having full-bodied stock cars race around the track compared to much lighter, smaller cars is going to be the biggest obstacle for the track to navigate.

“The K&N cars don’t have the suspension the traditional dirt cars do,” Richter explained. “Asphalt cars are 50/50 hooking up with the left rear or right rear (tire). So using K&N cars, which are more traditionally asphalt cars, on the dirt track is a challenge.”

“The dirt can’t be too heavy, mud can’t get on the windshield so they can’t see. That’s the challenge for us, making the right mixture of moisture and hardness to where they can get a decent racing surface.”

Current K&N Pro Series West championship points leader Derek Thorn admits he’s no dirt ace. And due to the expected high influx of entries, he just wants to get through it unscathed.

“If we can get through the dirt race—there’s going to be probably 30 cars out there and probably 15-20 are going to be out there to have a good time, and then 10-15 of us are going to be out there racing for points,” Thorn said. “I feel like that’s another bullet to dodge, so to speak.”

His champion crew chief and series veteran Bill Sedgwick agrees with his driver, hoping to leave Las Vegas with the car in one piece and the points lead intact.

“I’m not looking forward to it, but at the same time I’ve sat down with Derek and we have a gameplan going into it,” Sedgwick said of the Star Nursery 100 this upcoming Thursday evening. “We’re going to go there, unload and run 100 laps if we can. We’ll look at where the chips fall. Dirt racing isn’t one of our strongholds … but I think if we go in there with a good attitude and just try to stay out of trouble, we’ll tally up the points at the end.”

Thorn’s Sunrise Ford teammate, Ryan Partridge, sits second in the championship standings 25 markers behind the No. 6, and understands the event could either help rejuvenate his quest for a title, or sink his hopes.

“It could be a catastrophic night for a couple of people and I’m sure it will be,” Partridge said. “I’m pretty sure 90 percent of the field in the West Series aren’t dirt racers. I’ve been doing what I can as far as getting some dirt experience. I’ve ran a couple races at Perris Auto Speedway which is a half mile dirt track in southern California. Just trying to get my feet wet and a better understanding of dirt. What you have to do because the track is always changing, how setup applies, all that stuff. Trying to prepare the best we can.”

One driver that’s been eyeing this race for a while is Bill McAnally Racing Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Hailie Deegan, who has an extensive background racing on dirt.

“That track is definitely one that I’ve been excited for,” Deegan said. “I felt like Iowa was more of my driving style pavement wise, but hopefully I can do well at the dirt track … I feel like I can come out there and do really well. I’m hoping. It’s going to be either really good or really bad.”

Richter said feedback from the higher-ups at the speedway, fans in the community and drivers preparing to compete has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Everybody’s excited,” Richter said. “When it first was announced, you had your skeptics that didn’t know if it was going to work. Now that it’s getting close and coming to fruition, it’s really like ‘oh wow, this is something that’s going to be a spectacle.’ You’re going to want to be here you, want to experience it.”

The Star Nursery 100 from the Las Vegas Dirt Track is scheduled to go green at 8 p.m. ET local time on Thursday September 13.

Christoper Bell and Brendan Gaughan will make their returns to the K&N Pro Series West on Thursday, both driving for Bill McAnally Racing. Gaughan will have his crew chief who led him to back-to-back titles in 2000-01, Shane Wilson, atop the pit box. Bell, who is third in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings, made a pair of K&N Pro West starts in 2015.

Tim Ward, David Hibbard, Michael Kolfoid and South African Arnout Kok are all making their K&N Pro Series West debuts. Ward is an IMCA dirt modified driver from Iowa with 44 wins to his credit, and will be drivin the No. 36 Stoney’s Rockin Country/Sams Town Gambling Hall Ford for car owner and former NFL star Shawne Merriman. Hibbard, from Oregon, also has extensive dirt experience. In July, he won his fifth 25-lap Kendall Oil Sprint main event of the season at Southern Oregon Speedway. Teenager Michael “Buddy” Kofoid is a rising star in the dirt sprint scene as well. The 16-year-old recently won 29th Annual Bob’s Burgers and Brew Summer Nationals at Skagit Speedway in Oregon. Kok is competing for Obaika Racing, owned by Nigerian entrepreneur Victor Obaika.

Like Deegan, Cole Keatts has off-road dirt experience. The 17-year-old previously competed in the Red Bull Global Rally Cross Series among his various racing pursuits. He has three top 10s in three K&N Pro starts this year, including a sixth-place run at Washington’s Evergreen Speedway.

Buddy Shepherd is also back behind the wheel for Jefferson Pitts Racing after making five series starts (with two top fives and four top 10s) from 2015-2017. The 18-year-old from Bakersfield, California, is coming off a big money, asphalt Late Model win win as he took down $10,000 in the JM Enviromental Highline 150 last weekend at All American Speedway in Roseville, California.

Vanessa Robinson will make her sixth career series start and fourth this season. Her best finish in 2018 came at her home track of Tucson Raceway (fifth). The New Mexico driver raced in the Super Late Model Division at Tucson in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and was the 2015 Arizona state Rookie of the Year.