Promoter Cody Sommer recalls the near catastrophe of the first night – The Gateway Dirt Nationals rebounded, in less than 24 hours
Thursday, December 15th, 2016 was a historic date for dirt racing. That’s the night the Gateway Dirt Nationals debuted to the World. Now, most people know the Gateway Dirt Nationals as one of their favorite races of 2016. It certainly has well deserved placement on that list.
But, very few were there to witness the near colossal catastrophe that was, Thursday night at The Dome. Attendance was slim that night, compared to Friday and Saturday. And at midnight, with two and half hours remaining in the show, it thinned further, as people bailed from their seats and headed home early.
If you were one the of few fans in attendance that night, you remember it well. You also certainly have a much greater appreciation for what you saw on Friday night and Saturday night.
The last lap wasn’t turned until 2:30am. I began writing this Thursday report at about 4am. I remember fighting off a rude, abrupt moments of sleep, attempting to prevent my forehead from smacking the desk keyboard. Errors in that story are rampant and I’m aware of every one of them.
I never fixed them. Those errors fit nicely with the theme of the night. On Thursday at The Dome, the errors were the story.
What did you learn?
Because Thursday was terrible. I think you’d agree?
“It was very terrible,” Cody Sommer remembers it well. He’s the promoter of the Gateway Dirt Nationals, the man behind it all.
Then you followed it up with the greatest race I’ve ever seen in my life. The very next day. How did that happen?
“Well, there’s several things that made it happen. If you watch the movie, ‘The making of Gateway.’ There’s a shot in there where we’re all in a room. It’s only a little clip. But, I was talking to the entire team.”
“It was probably about Midnight and I knew that we were in trouble. We were already behind and a ways to go. It was gunna be tough. I had people coming up to me, ‘So are we moving it to tomorrow?’ It was getting to be bad.”
Today is gone as far as the impression that we can leave on people’s minds.
“I can’t remember if we stopped the show or if it was just a break in the show. But, I called everybody in. I said, ‘Here’s the deal. Today is gone as far as the impression that we can leave on people’s minds. So no, we are not moving anything until tomorrow. We’re going to fight this out together, finish what we started. We’re going to try some new things right now, learn and adapt that to tomorrow.’ ”
“Basically, just reiterated to the team that, ‘we are capable of this. Yes, we’ve had a bad night. But we all can do this.’ That moment was very key. But, that moment wouldn’t have mattered if the people on the team weren’t who they are. We have an amazing team of people.”
“The way that we all rallied together. That’s what made it happen.”
“Once we got through Thursday night, then Friday we all had the right attitude. We all knew what we needed to do. We had a plan and we did it. I think this year, people should expect the same quality outcome that they experienced on Friday and Saturday.”
Thursday’s lap count
On Thursday in 2016, they ran dual qualifying rounds. The second round wasn’t originally on the schedule, it was added at the request of most drivers. That’s on top of a huge car count.
In qualifying, they all ran a single groove. Naturally, the track soon locked down. For the heat races that followed, it was a mad scramble for the bottom, as soon as the green flag dropped. In itself, that scenario created cautions, which further prolonged to the program. Things compounded, problems created more problems.
Kevin Gundaker prepared the track that night. In February, he told me is was something like 7,000 laps. Or somewhere along those lines.
“I don’t remember the lap count either,” Cody Sommer states. “The format and the schedule of events certainly hurt. It’s almost like we were starting off in a very bad position. Compound that with the fact that it was our first time doing it.”
“Compound that with, we were learning the fumes and how to handle that. We were learning a lot of different things, all at once. The two qualifying rounds, if we had been doing this race for twenty years, that might have been fine. But, we were already at a disadvantage just having so many scheduled laps and so many cars.”
“Those heat races, there were quite a few cautions. It was just a rough night, in general. It did, it locked down on the bottom. That was the other thing, there was some track things that we needed to tweak and change.”
“I remember Kevin and I having some… I wouldn’t call them tough conversations. But, ‘We need to get this track better.’ Bottom line. There was a lot of moving parts to Thursday. There was a big team effort to get it back on track. By the end of the night, it was fine. But, that’s why we started Friday fine.”
“We would have only hurt Friday if we moved anything to Friday. It would have also made the show longer on Friday. We just needed to accept the bed we made and lay in it.”
Is that part of the reason you reduced the car counts this year?
“Partially, the other part is I wanted the ability for more competitors to have trailers, inside. A lot of guys, really wanted that last year.”
“We actually wanted that last year. But, with space and time, it’s hard to have that many trailers indoors. This year we’re kind of setting a number and sticking with it. A good chunk of the teams will now have their trailers indoors. 2/3 will have their trailers indoors.”
On Thursday, my eyes, nose and throat were all on fire. At one point, I remember feeling trapped on the infield. I really needed a break for clean oxygen, I legitimately felt like I was on drugs.
On top of that, there was a lady from the EPA, I think. That or she just worked for the building. But, either way she held an air quality reader, in hand. Any time air quality got too bad, she would force the staff to red flag the event. This caused regular brief breaks in the action. To the point where they eventually lost the crowd. ‘What are we waiting for?’ racing fans screaming into the silenced Dome.
That’s when Kevin Gundaker drove out on the track and began watering the wall. Not the top groove, he was very literally, watering the wall. He was stalling as the crowd began to act up and become anxious. It was a brilliant move by the way, as the crowd relaxed.
The very next night, all those fume issues disappeared. How did you solve that?
“There was a lot of things that we had to do. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is, The Dome, although it’s a larger scale, it’s no different than any HVAC. Where the temperature and the weather outside plays a factor.”
“If it’s recirculating air from outside, that’s already 7 degrees. Well what does that do to the equipment that you’re using? You have to kind of play all those factors.”
“I learned more about air handling equipment in those three days than I’ve ever known in my whole life. You can’t run something at 100% that already has a tendency of freezing up. You can’t run something at 100% when it’s 7 degree’s outside.”
“You have to kind of balance the use of the equipment. At The Dome, they have a staff where that’s all they do. There just in that room handing the air.”
“We’re at an advantage if the weather is a little bit better. In some aspects, the air handling issues we had last year were arguably the worst case scenario for us. With how cold it was. If it’s thirty degree’s outside this year. That’s like a normal wintery day in St. Louis. If we just get normal, we’re already gunna be at an advantage. We’ll be able to run the equipment harder.”
Air circulation played a role
On Thursday, the Gateway Dirt Nationals staff didn’t know how to manage the airflow. This was a brand new problem for all sides of the operation. At the start of the night, nearly every door in the building and pit area were closed, after all it was near zero degree’s outside.
By the end of the night, they learned to open certain doors, cycling the fresh air into the building. It didn’t really effect the temperature inside The Dome. But, the pit area was filled with drafts of freezing air. Which we can handle for the sake of fresh air, by the way.
“Plus, we had to learn the doors. Open this door, let air in here and don’t let it in here. It was just a lot of learning stuff. I had to meet with The Dome staff on Friday morning to discuss what the new plan was because of all the issues we had the night prior.”
“Now, we’ll be able to start this year at that point and just get better from there. We just had to learn. They never had to deal with anything like that either.”
“The negative was, it got cold in the pit area. It’s either open these doors, let air come in here, suck into The Dome and do this do that. Or go home and don’t race. Which do you want? I think most people would take the cold air flowing through the pit area.”
At one point deep into the AM of Thursday night I remember looking high into the rafters, I saw ‘The Suits’. These weren’t people with the Gateway Dirt Nationals. They were the higher up executives of The Dome itself. All 4 of them, in suits, looking down on the event from a closed portion of the upper level.
This was after a delayed show. This was after air problems. At this point, the track was completely locked down. The modified heat races were underway. Those drivers couldn’t even turn one lap without a crash. Caution, after caution. Red flag, after red flag. The night continued to roll on, forever. At this point, there was no racing, it was a crash fest.
Yet, for those suits, it was probably their first dirt race. I remember thinking, ‘They must think we’re a bunch of idiots who just want to watch cars crash in circles.’
What was the conversation like with those guys after the races on Thursday?
“I think there was a lot of nerves. Which I think was natural to see something the way it went down on Thursday. I don’t blame them or anybody, having doubt going into Friday.”
“But, I just knew that if we did things like we were capable of, per the plan. That we were going to be fine. I knew that, but most people didn’t.”
they were nervous.
“Yeah. The suits, so to speak, they were nervous. They’re less nervous now. I had to have some pretty tough conversations. People probably don’t realize how much stress I had to deal with that week.”
“There is a realistic feeling of scariness. Of whether or not this is going to work out. I had to kind of manage that, with confidence and balance it. Thankfully, we rallied and it worked out.”
I don’t know how you slept at all after Thursday
“I didn’t really. I didn’t really sleep those 3 days. If you go back and look at any of my interviews, I didn’t look very healthy. I lost a lot of weight that weekend. I gave it my all.”
2017 Gateway Dirt Nationals
This is the first of many stories to come from Cody Sommer. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be publishing a wide variety of stories on the upcoming Gateway Dirt Nationals event in St. Louis, MO. I’m going to promote that thing, until every seat is sold.
The 2017 Gateway Dirt Nationals will be held at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The races will be run on December 14th-16th, 2017. This year, the schedule is a bit different. Each night is a good one, take your pick.
THURSDAY – GENERAL ADMISSION
CLICK HERE – DEC 14th
FRIDAY – SINGLE DAY TICKETS
CLICK HERE – DEC 15th
SATURDAY – SINGLE DAY TICKETS
CLICK HERE – DEC 16th
2 DAY TICKET – FRIDAY & SATURDAY (SAVE $5)
CLICK HERE – DEC 15th-16th