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Why NASCAR Should Be At Churchill

5/5/2009
A vision of McGee's dream. 

So, Mr. Motorsports Fan, you say want more old school in your modern day NASCAR, a little more yesterday in your Car of Tomorrow? And you, Mr. Trifecta Wheel, you say the only track you prefer to visit is the one that trades in horsepower for actual equine energy?

Well, now I have a solution that will make us all happy. Even if I can't get anyone to buy in. Not yet, anyway. Here it is: The Sprint Cup Series should race each year at Churchill Downs.

Last Saturday, like 22 percent of all Americans watching TV, I tuned into the Kentucky Derby from Louisville. Then I flipped over to watch the Crown Royal 400 from Richmond. At the same time I logged onto the worldwide interweb and sorted through my ESPN.com inbox. Each and every week for years now I have received a steady stream of complaints from race fans claiming that, as LUVRACING1973 states on behalf of the group, "If NASCAR was real racing they'd run at least one race on dirt just like we do down here at so-and-so short track every Saturday night".

So I started calling people.

"Uh no," the very polite woman at the Churchill Downs switchboard said as I pitched my idea. "Although we are very big NASCAR fans here in Kentucky, I don't think that would work here at our facility."

Sure it would. The place is ready-made for Sprint Cup racing. It's a perfectly flat one-mile oval that can accommodate roughly 150,000 fans. It's in the heart of the racing-crazed border that connects the southeastern U.S. to the Midwest, home of a little race called the Indy 500. Kentucky is also the birthplace of the Waltrips and the Bluegrass State wants a Cup date so bad that a handful of its residents have filed an antitrust suit against NASCAR to have a race sent to the Kentucky Speedway, just northeast of Louisville on the road to Cincinnati.

The dirt of the Downs would be better. Just ask the racers.

Most of these guys came up racing on dirt. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, you name them, they've all crossed it up sideways in the clay on bullrings from Kansas to Indiana to little hole-in-the-wall villages you've never heard of.

"Forget racing," Kahne says. "My entire driver's ed took place on dirt. My brother and cousins and I dug an oval in our backyard and we used to race our parents' street cars back there. We got in a little trouble over that."

Even the guys who didn't grow up playing in the mud can't resist the chance to do it now. On the eve of the Aaron's 499 at the Talladega Superspeedway, a handful of guys snuck across the street and got dirty at the Talladega Short Track, a nasty little high-banked 1/3rd-mile red clay oval. And on June 3, no less than 25 NASCAR stars will travel to Tony Stewart's half-mile dirt hole, Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, OH to raise hell and raise money for charity in the "Prelude to the Dream."

"I had no idea what I was doing," admits Bogota-born Formula One vet Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished 15th out of 25 entries in his 2007 dirt debut. "But I've never seen racers have so much fun in one night."

Then there's history. Of the eight races on NASCAR's original Strictly Stock schedule in 1948, seven were run on dirt ovals and the eighth was run on Daytona Beach. The next year, the Darlington Raceway (site of this weekend's Cup race) became stock car racing's first asphalt speedway, and nine years later Daytona International Speedway opened. Dirt was doomed.

But as late as 1970, the series we now know as Sprint Cup was still playing in the dirt. The 48-race calendar included three dirt races, the final version won by Richard Petty at the Raleigh, NC Fairgrounds. "The dirt tracks are rapidly becoming a thing of the past," The King told reporters that day, not yet knowing that the Home State 200 would be NASCAR's last romp in the sandbox. "I hope a few dirt tracks are kept on the schedule. This is where our brand of racing started."

Two weeks ago I asked His Royal Fastness if he still felt that way. He answered simply, "Yes sir."

People will try to tell you that the cars are too heavy and too fast to allow a dirt or clay surface to hold up. They'll say that the rooster tails kicked up and the cloud of dust produced will create an environmental hazard and that it would take months to pressure wash the Twin Spires back to their sparkling white glory. And you should look them in the eye and politely call B.S.

"It can be done," says Frank Kimmel, nine-time champion of the ARCA Re/Max Series (think Triple-A baseball for stock cars) and a dead ringer for Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips. "We run full-body 3400-pound stock cars just like NASCAR. In fact, a lot of the cars our teams race are secondhand cars bought from NASCAR teams. And we run on one-mile clay ovals twice a year at the Springfield Fairgrounds and DuQuoin Fairgrounds, both in Illinois."

Does anyone get hurt?

"No."

Do people get dirty?

"Yes."

Is it the funnest thing ever?

"No doubt."

After the nice lady at Churchill Downs hung up on me and the folks at NASCAR laughed so hard that they dropped the phone, I finally turned to the one man who truly knows if dropping the green on the 134-year old racetrack is doable.

In 1999 Owensboro, Kentucky native Jeremy Mayfield took his No. 12 special edition Churchill Downs-sponsored Penske Racing Ford to Louisville to promote the upcoming 125th Derby. They rolled the car out onto the track, he slipped behind the wheel, and off he went for a hot lap…albeit at around 20 mph.

"They were pretty nervous about me tearing the place up," says the five-time Cup race winner, who unwinds on a couple of homemade dirt tracks scattered over the property surrounding his home north of Charlotte. "I had to take it easy and I was sliding around a good bit on those slick race tires, but I still wanted to make sure I broke the track record."

That mark is held by Secretariat, who completed his 1973 lap in just a hair over one minute, 59 seconds. Hey Jeremy, if they'd let you open it up how long it would it have taken you to make the Run for the Roses?

"I don't know, probably 30 seconds. That'd be pretty cool to see wouldn't it?"

Yes it would. Far too cool not to at least give it a try.