Ahead of its championship race Saturday — part of a full-racing program that also includes fireworks as part of an early celebration of the Fourth of July — the track’s second-most prominent class includes feature drivers such as Oliver Gentry and Jason Smith.
Of those two, Gentry was a past points champion in the class, while Smith has won the Crate Late Models points championship before. Neither are within 70 points of current points leader Jake Herrell, though.
For Gentry, the reason for falling back has been a combination of not being around at the track as often and not running up front as much as he did as a points champion.
“We hadn’t been racing like we (were),” Gentry said. “My kids are playing a lot of ball. We’ve been softballing.”
Although Herrell leads the class with 186 points — 52 points better than Rucker Orr — there have only been two multiple winners since the season-opening race May 5. Orr has won three races at Dixie, while Mark Bunch has won twice.
“We hadn’t been running (well) this year,” reigning Limited Late Models points champion Michael Brewer said. “We’re trying to get the kinks worked out in the car. The competition is real tough this year. Everyone’s real competitive. We haven’t had too many repeat winners. It’s not the same guy every week.”
One of Orr’s three wins came last week when he beat out Gentry, Herrell, Brewer and Bunch. For Orr, this is his 12th year in dirt track racing, though it’s his first year running at Dixie Speedway full-time.
All the same, he has had good deal of success in the track in just his first season.
“Lady luck has played a major role,” Orr said. “We seem to draw some good starting positions. … My car is working real good right now. We’ve got some real good horsepower to the ground. Everything is kind of falling together right now.”
Still, Orr would like to make up the difference between himself and Herrell by the end of the season. A win Saturday would certainly help his cause.
“Jake’s real good,” Orr said. “Nothing against the guy — he’s a good race car driver. I believe that I can give him a run for his money, no doubt. I’m not blowing my own horn, but I think we are one of the top contenders to be dealt with in this class. I have DNFs that hurt my points a lot. I think Jake has 40 to 50 points over me right now, but this points battle won’t be over until October, so there are still plenty of races to go.”
Among other potential reasons for falling behind, Brewer and Gentry both said they have had difficulty making adjustments to what they each described as a slicker track than in years past.
“It’s been a lot slicker than in years past,” Gentry said. “I don’t really know why. I don’t know if (Dixie president Mickey Swims) is putting something on the track, or if it’s just so hot. I feel like he’s doing something to keep the dust down, and it’s just slicker. Therefore, there’s not as much traction, so you have to change things to where you can get some traction.
“We’re still working right now, and just hadn’t had as much time to devote to racing as I had at one time. Somewhere along the way, we’ll get back on track and make it all happen.”
Orr believes getting to the front is less about making adjustments to the car than it is about making changes to his driving style.
“Dixie’s racetrack is known to throw you a curveball every week,” he said. “It keeps you on your toes. You have to adjust to it as the night goes on. … Normally, it gets real slick. It’s a very hard surface, kind of like black ice. It’s hard to find traction, and that’s when you have to change your driving style dramatically.
“You have to finesse the gas pedal. You just have to be so smooth on the gas pedal and finesse it so much to get it going. You can’t get it in the corner, stomp the brake, then mash the gas wide open. That type of racing is a thing of the past. Nowadays, when the racetrack gets slick, you have to drive it more like an asphalt car.”
On top of staying out of accidents and adjusting to changing track conditions, the series itself is different from the elite Super Late Models in that there is no change to qualifying.
Instead of having a wheel to invert the field, the Limited Late Models handle qualifying with two heat races, splitting the field in half. The first heat race decides the inside line on the double-file rolling start, while the second heat race decides the outside line. Unlike the Super Late Models, which invert the field after qualifying, the two cars that finish first and second the week before are moved to the back of their respective heat races and start where they qualify in the heat race.
For example, if a driver finishes third in the first heat race, then that driver would start on the inside of the third row — or fifth in the field.
Brewer, who has qualified mostly between third and fifth this season, can attest to the fact that starting up front lends itself to better results.
“Usually, if you start up front, you’re more likely to finish up front unless you have car trouble,” he said.