Phil Line: “A track needs to have classes that are parallel with their local economy”
When the crate late model class was introduced, I thought it was the answer. Im from St. Louis, they exploded in the area. Then, just as quick as they appeared, the class died.
Note: Since this interview it was announced that Kevin Gundaker is bringing the crate late model class back to Tri-City Speedway.
But, that didn’t happen everywhere. In some areas the crate class is the only late model class. Kankakee County Speedway, for example, has a full field of crate late model drivers.
The majestically named, Phil Line is a UMP Pro Late Model driver from Kankakee County Speedway. He finished 3rd in track championship point standings following the conclusion of the 2017 dirt racing season.
Tell me why the crate class is thriving here?
“I think that each track is individual. You know, you can drive 55 miles to Fairbury and Super Late Models thrive but they can’t survive here,” Phil Line discusses the regional classes.
“I think a track needs to have classes that are parallel with their local economy and the local interests. I’m not trying to say anything good or bad about another community but some communities have better support, better financing, of an interest.”
“It’s a hobby for everyone. Anyone that gets good backing, is getting it from somebody that just loves racing. It’s not a good investment. There’s no ROY in racing.”
“So, it’s doing well here because the economy was tough. So, the track classes reflect that.”
“I was the 2015 modified champ. We came back, last year, in 14 days I blew two motors. I only have another 4-5 years, then I’m probably looking at retiring.”
“This is my 32nd year of racing. So, it didn’t make sense to go and dump, even for one motor, $25,000 into a mod to be competitive. My stuff was older and it needed to be replaced.”
“If you’re a young guy and you’re projecting yourself to be in this sport, it makes sense. For me, the crate just made more sense. I’ve got $18,000, bumper to bumper, in a competitive race car. Motor, carb, everything included.”
“When we blew those motors, I had a late model, just sitting in the back, just in case. We put it together in roughly, 10 days. In that $18,000 I got a brand new engine, brand new carburetor, there’s a lot of things I had to buy brand new because I didn’t have anything from the mod.”
“Even at the end of my championship in the mod, I really politicked for them to convert the modifieds to a B Mod. I’ve lived here my whole life, I’ve seen the transition. I’ve seen 7 different promoters, over four different decades.”
“That’s where it’s going. For grassroots, it needs to stay grassroots. Even the modified is starting to out price itself.”
Now, pretty much everyone in my area says that the reason it died out is because UMP didn’t tech ’em. Do they tech them here?
“UMP has tech’d us. They’re not as thorough as maybe you’d like to see them. But, they’re checkin’ stuff,” Phil Line confirms.
I don’t think that crates fail because of the utter lack of teching.
“I don’t think that crates fail because of the utter lack of teching. If you’ve got one guy that comes in and he’s got his act together and he blows everybody away — Then, he doesn’t get put under a microscope, that’s when you have an issue.”
“But, if they’re not teching and winners are trading each week and you got a half dozen winners at the end of the year. I think it’s already policing itself at that point. The class is doing it’s job.”
“It’s when you have one guy that’s just so dominate and so far above, there’s just going to be that suspicion. If you don’t go over it with a fine tooth comb and prove to everybody that he is, then there’s always going to be that suspicion. Then, that hurts it down the road, because guys won’t come.”
Promoters drawing cars
“I think that another problem with racing is that too many promoters try to draw cars from another track. When gas went to $4.30 a gallon people stopped going to two nights of racing in a week. Fans and drivers, now everybody’s back to 1 night a week.”
“You need to not think, ‘Well if we run this class we can always draw cars from another track.’ ”
I’ve always been told that if there’s two tracks close to each other, they share the growth, together. You’re saying that’s no longer the case?
“As drivers, we want to have that, so we have that option. But, there’s very few drivers that do two nights a week.”
“Back in the 90’s, I did two nights a week. I was running 55 nights a year. It was a different time, a different expenses.”
“Nobody’s making money at this. But, the purses haven’t kept up with the cost of racing. That’s where the crates come in. I think the street stocks should be in a crate. It’s $3,500 to buy a 602 crate. There’s not a street stock out here that, that’s running the top 10, that doesn’t have $3,000 in his engine.”
“That gives a guy the ability to move up a class. He can run that 602 crate in a street stock, modified or a late model. When my dad drove, there was that ability where guys could move up. They could take a car and move up. It was just a matter of a little bit bigger engine, a tire and things of that nature.”
“Everything is so cut and dry that by the time you get competitive in a class, you’ve got so much invested in it that you can’t afford to move up. You can’t sell your stuff for anywhere near what you got in it. You’re going to be starting from scratch again.”
“I tell people, that want to get into racing. They ask, ‘What class do you think I should start?’ I say, ‘Start where you want to end up.’ This way, every time you put into your program it gets you closer to your end goal.”
“Whatever money you got, put it into a program. If you want to run crates and all you got is $5,000, you can put one together for $5,000. You can do that, you’re not gunna win. But, if you’re a new guy, you’re not going to win anyway because you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“But, every year that you upgrade something — Let’s say the 2nd year you buy some good shocks. The 3rd year, maybe you get your engine freshened. After 5 or 6 years, you’ve got good equipment.”
“Instead of spending 3-4 years in a lower division. Because then you gotta sell everything, for nothing. And you’re still starting down at the bottom and have to re-learn a new car.”
How much did you spend to upgrade your crate?
A brand new 604 crate is priced right at around $6,000. But, I’m told most crate racers will put some personal tweaks on it.
“Well, other than bolting on the things that have to bolt on anyway, carburetor and everything else, we have haven’t done anything.” Nothing?, I asked for confirmation. “Nothing.”
“Yes, I’ve talked to engine builders. They can pull ’em down and they can double check them. They said, ‘Unless you’ve got a motor that’s really running flat, they maybe somebody built on a Friday or a Monday. I might get you 5 or 10 horsepower.’ ”
“I talked to Travis Kern. I called him up when I blew all my stuff up last year. I said, ‘I wanna go crate racing. You got one laying around the shop?’ Travis Kern is a straight up, awesome guy. He said, ‘You don’t need to buy a motor from me. Go buy a motor, run it 50 nights and then come see me.’ ”
“And if it’s running, he’ll rebuild it for $1,800. It’s $5,000 at a minimum to rebuild, anything else.”
It’s the future on the local level because they’re spending $50,000 on a super motor now.
“Yeah, it’s insane. To put it into perspective, back in the late 70’s or early 80’s, when my dad was racing — A top of the line, I mean you had the best, you could spend $10,000 on a motor. That was big money. But, it was $500 or $600 to win.”
“Now, they race for $1000 or maybe $1,200. But, you’ve got $45,000 in it. So, the purse doubled and the cost quadrupled.”
“So, that’s the evolution. I just think it takes a strong commitment, from tracks.”
“There’s a lot of competition for entertainment these days.” And the kids don’t wanna get out of the house. “Yeah.”
“It comes down to the parents getting them out of the house. And the promoters making it interesting for the kids. Like in Late September, we struggle with fan count. Because it’s football season.”
“Promoters need to think about that sort of thing. Maybe we don’t need a 6 month season, like we used to.”
I’ve talked to many promoters. A bulk of them say the answer is to not run a weekly program at all. Specials alone, pay the bills.
“To a point, maybe every other week. Or take off every 4th week. They tried rotating classes here at Kankakee a couple years ago. That works for the drivers, but it doesn’t work for the fans. They gotta have a break.”