An interview with Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series driver Earl Pearson Jr – Topic: Dirt Late Model technology and rising costs of racing
Earl Pearson Jr recently returned to victory lane in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. It was his 31st win in the series. From victory lane at Boyd’s Speedway he said something that sparked my full attention. Paraphrasing, “Now days, it feels like the computers are driving these cars more than the driver himself.”
That sounded important. It was a quote that led me directly to the #1 hauler at East Alabama Motor Speedway. The following interview was curated the night after he stood in victory lane. As an avid short track fan, I wanted to discover a bit more detail. The night previous, what exactly was Earl trying to tell the crowd through the microphone?
My curious trip to the Dunn-Benson Motorsports hauler led to a very interesting conversation. It also gave me some worrying feelings. Feelings that have long been felt about the current direction of dirt late model racing.
So what did he mean exactly? Earl Pearson Jr explained, “Now-en days there’s so much computer stuff involved. At the shop, at the race track, inside these trucks there’s computers and machines. We didn’t have none of that stuff back in the day. It was more or less the driver and his feedback, what he felt, he [the driver] made the changes.”
We have opened the doors to a new era, the computer-sorcery era. The computers are a major part of chassis setup, not just in NASCAR, it’s also in short track racing. EPJ stated, “Now-en days, you come in, put it up on jack stands. [Then] you gotta go in there, look at the shock, how much it traveled. See what the load number is. A lot of people don’t understand how much we got down to a science of how much this thing moves every time it gets on the race track.”
The times are changing, fast. Shocks now control a bulk of these racecars, it’s probably the most important piece of the setup puzzle. The Dunn-Benson Motorsports driver continued, “We got indicators, how much that shock travels. We can take it off the car, go in there, put it on the machine. And travel that down to that distance and show you how much load is to that tire. Where ten years ago, that was never heard of. What I’m saying is… It’s all about these loads and shocks and what was built inside the shocks this day-in-time. Back say, 10 years ago, we never went inside of a shock. There was no adjustability to them.”
To me, one of the greatest things about dirt late model racing and short track racing in general is that a local guy can show up with mediocre equipment. The have a single, yet important advantage over the touring series drivers. That’s more laps, pure knowledge and experience of their local track.
Knowledge is power, the complete understanding of the track surface vastly neutralizes the performance gap for the local teams in comparison to the equipment that rolls out of the touring haulers. That’s something that’s long disappeared in the NASCAR ranks. The days of a group of guys building a NASCAR stock car in their garage during the winter, are long gone. In NASCAR, you need the equipment, the setup, the crew, the data. Without it you might as well stay in the garage, you’re going to finish in the same position anyway, last.
Racing technology has now trickled down to the dirt racing ranks. At always has, just never at this rate of change/speed. It’s actively moving our grassroots sport in a very similar direction of the popular asphalt stock car division. If you’re an anti-NASCAR fan, you just read that and said, “That’s not good.”
Agreed. However, it’s still not as drastic, yet. In NASCAR, the data is locked behind a fire proof safe and guarded by big guys with big guns, for overly dramatic purposes of this point. Realistically, it’s more likely NASCAR data is stored on password protected cloud backup servers. There’s a vast difference in data accumulation and sharing when you compare NASCAR and your favorite dirt series of choice.
In the local and national dirt late model division the data is mutually shared across the board. The Penske Racing Shocks trailer is parked at every Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series event.
The LOLMDS driver explains the data sharing process, “Longhorn Chassis, Penske Racing Shocks, all the chassis builders and all shock builders. Even though we got it, they still help their local people. After a time, they still get it. It ain’t like it’s a hidden secret.”
The four-time Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series champion continued, “You got all these local people that race every week, they know that they need to load the machine, they need to be up on the data of the shocks. They can get the feed back from Longhorn, the chassis builder [or] the shock builder. So, they get that feedback. I ain’t saying they get it the day we got it.”
As local car counts drop, we can easily point directly at the root cause. Earl Pearson Jr has been racing since 1982. He’s seen the sport change first hand, “What’s a shame about it, 5 or 10 years from now, I don’t know who’s going to be able to afford to do it. When I first started racing, you could buy a whole racecar, with a motor and everything ready to race for say $35,000. Now these things are $80,000. The shocks are huge expense, the motors are a huge expense, the chassis. Everything’s going up and up and up.”
They’ve had meetings with the drivers and the officials in attempt to slow it down. “We’ve had several meetings. I think it’s gone too far, too fast. There’s no turning it around. What I’m saying is, I don’t think you can stop it. We’re headed right behind NASCAR.”
I like solutions. But how do we fix something that can’t be stopped? “The discussion has been talked about several times. Just putting 5 shocks and springs on there. No double stacks. Double stacks, are two springs on the shocks. Just make it one spring on one shock.”
Even on the national dirt racing level, it’s hard to police. “How are you going to police that every week? You ain’t got enough officials to police it every week, not every car in the pit area. So, things like that, you gotta have 10 officials to police everything. The series ain’t got the money to have that many people employed. Well, NASCAR can do that. They can give you a set of shocks and you can go race. But here, we only got 3-4 officials, they can’t look at every single car that goes onto the racetrack every single night.”
It’s add added series expense in itself to add more cost-preventive rules. Doing that means they also need to make sure the competitors are following those new rules. “The good thing with the Lucas series, every night the top 3 get pulled to the side and the officials go through it. They’re not checking every car, no.”
How about the top 3 and 3 random? “By the time they go through 3 of these cars, you’re looking at an hour after you’re done racing. If you add 3 more to it then everyone’s sitting there waiting on their money, for 2 hours.”
2 hours isn’t acceptable when these teams sometimes have to travel 2-3 states overnight. So, if you tech the top 3 and additional 3 random cars in the field it would require the series to hire 2-4 more officials. They can’t do that, yet. Pearson Jr explained, “They’re doing a good job with it. But the technology of the world is moving so fast. If you put a rule on something, somebody’s going to come out with something else. So, it’s going to be a hard way of stopping it.”
“We have technical data stuff from the years previous. A lot of teams do that, every week. You gotta have a guy that can read all that data and put it to use. Us not being engineers, we gotta test and work with that to figure out what we need to do. Well now, the expense of hiring an engineer is $100,000.”
Dirt late model technology and costs move together, in parallel lines. Those lines aren’t moving as fast as they are or have been at the NASCAR level. That’s only because the money’s not at the dirt track, yet. If it was, we’d have the same exact issues that NASCAR is going through at this very moment. What issues are those exactly? The biggest one being that only 4-5 super-teams can realistically win a NASCAR Cup Series event.
Dirt late model costs and ultra-fine tuned technology tells us we’re heading in the same direction as NASCAR. We’re just moving at a slower rate. If it continues to rise, it will net a situation where no local hero’s can stack up against your national titans, even on their own home turf.
Author: Shane Walters