Down and Dirty

April 8, 2023

Trackhouse will get “Down and Dirty” this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway in the only dirt race of the season on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

It’s the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a three-stage, 250-lap, 125.5-mile contest on Easter Sunday held at night that is one of the most unique events of the season.

It’s a dirt race not on a real dirt track with cars that aren’t real dirt cars.

Bristol Motor Speedway is a concrete track covered with dirt using the NASCAR Cup Series cars that are designed to run on asphalt and adapted to the unique challenges of racing on dirt.

“NASCAR and SMI have done a fabulous job with the surface and the whole aura around it,” said Trackhouse Shop Manager Gary Putnam, who oversees the preparation of the Chevrolets for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. “Scheduling it around Easter and keeping it a night race keeps the moisture in the race track and seems to be better for everybody involved and makes a better race.

“They are enjoyable to watch because it’s different. It’s not your typical mile-and-a-half downforce race track. They have a lot of mechanical grip built into them and a lot of driver ability needed.

“It’s neat because it’s different.”

Chastain will drive the No. 1 AdventHealth Chevrolet, and Suarez will race in the No. 99 Jockey Made in America Collection Chevrolet in Sunday night’s race. The two drivers will also compete in Saturday’s Heat Races that will determine the starting lineup of Sunday night’s race.

“I love it,” Chastain said of the only dirt race of the season. “I love how different it is. I love how we are going back to some of the roots of this sport where 75 years ago, they were racing on the dirt, just in a natural way. That’s what racers did.

“I didn’t grow up racing on dirt. We farmed and we wanted to get out of the dirt and go to the asphalt track. I’ve had to learn it.

“My goal is to finish the race. I don’t know how to slide the car like a real dirt racer does. I’m used to asphalt and concrete. The two years we ran it, we got in a wreck with two of the best dirt racers in the sport in 2021 and last year we blew up because we sucked dirt into the intake, it collapsed the air cleaner and went into the motor and blew it up.

“We’re just looking to finish. That will be goal number one.”

Chastain’s confidence is boosted by knowing Putnam and his staff have built him a competitive Chevrolet for the dirt and crew chief Phil Surgen will create a strategy for a contest that does not feature live pit stops.

The race is red flagged after the first two stage breaks. Teams can then bring the car into the pits for a short break and the crews can make changes to the cars during that break.

“Last year, we got to the end of the first stage, and we stayed out,” Chastain recalled. “Daniel and I didn’t pit. We stayed in the top couple positions.

“Turns out, we thought for tire life and fuel we were good to go to the end of Stage 2. What we didn’t know was we were sucking in so much dirt, we needed to pit to put a new air cleaner in it and clean out the inlet. That made us blow up.

“We’ve upped our air cleaner game and got some new, fancy, double throw-down stuff.

“As for strategy, that’s up to them to decide. I don’t know what the strategy is. I drive. The yellow light comes on. I slow down. They either tell me to pit or not. I don’t ask any questions and Phil Surgen is my guy who tells me what to do.”

The “Watermelon Farmer” from Alva, Florida never competed in a dirt race until he arrived in NASCAR. Some of the other top NASCAR drivers, such as Kyle Larson at Hendrick Motorsports, have an extensive background of racing on dirt.

“There are a few guys in the Cup Series that know so much about it and have a huge passion for it which is cool,” Chastain said. “Bristol dirt is a unique event and I practice on the simulator as much as I can and kind of hope for the best.”

Chastain’s confidence level is knowing his team will always prepare one of the best cars on the track, whether it’s on a high-speed superspeedway, a short track, a 1.5-mile oval, a road course or on dirt.

“I wake up every day and I have 140 employees giving the 99 and myself the best race cars I can possibly have,” Chastain explained. “I know they have our back when we go to battle.

“Gary is a special guy. He’s a modified racer that is Cup racing because he loves racing. Neither one of us are too in-tuned with dirt, but he knows what to do with this car to make them go fast. We put the best product out there.

“This car is a kit car. It’s not like the Xfinity or Trucks where you can custom build it week to week. Everybody has the same pieces. You adjust the alignment of the settings of the car and other than that, that’s it.”

Suarez has shown a remarkable ability to “get down and dirty” the past two years at the Bristol Dirt Race. The driver from Monterrey, Mexico is another driver who did not compete on dirt earlier in his career but has two top-12 finishes on dirt and led 122 of 503 laps in the two dirt races at the track.

In 2021, his Trackhouse Racing crew visited Smoky Mountain Speedway in Marysville, Tennessee a few days before the Bristol race for him to drive a street-stock on the .4-mile dirt track.

Driving from his 18th starting spot, Suárez finished fourth in Stage 1 and second in Stage 2 -- both the best stage finishes at the time for his then first year Trackhouse team.

He led 58 laps and finished fourth as he battled for victory against drivers who grew up racing on dirt. 

He started 21st last year and took the lead at the beginning of the second stage. He led the next 64 laps before Christopher Bell passed him. Suarez finished Stage 2 third.

After a long stoppage because of rain, Suarez restarted 17th and finished 12th.

“I can say my team has given me a great car in both races and we have had a really good strategy,” Suarez said. “I am having fun racing on dirt. We'll see what happens Sunday, but we are going to Bristol with plans to win the race and have a heck of a party afterwards."

Travis Mack is the Suarez’s crew chief and is confident that his driver will once again let the dirt fly in Sunday night’s race.

“It started two years ago when we started working with each other,” Mack explained. “I told him we were going to be positive and upbeat. The first time we went to Bristol, a lot of guys were negative about racing on dirt and taking these cars to the dirt race.

“I told him we were going to go there and have fun; somebody is going to win the race. It might as well be us.

“I told the engineers to leave the computers at home, I listened to the driver and what he was fighting, reading the track, changed the springs and wedge a little bit. We went back to NASCAR roots a little bit, where you listen to what the driver is saying, throw a bunch of stuff at it and see if it works.

“It has worked out pretty good for us the last couple of years. We have led 20 percent of the races the past two years. Daniel has led the most laps in the dirt race. That is pretty cool to be the crew chief with him those two years.

“We get more phone calls now about how to do this, but I’ll keep that playbook in our pocket, try to have fun, hopefully have a good race, stay up front and lead at the end of this thing.”

Without live pit stops, that dramatically changes the strategy for Mack and Surgen at Trackhouse. They give the regular pit crew the weekend off for Easter because they don’t have the pit box.

“Our road crew will go, and they are looking forward to it,” Mack explained. “I have a guy on our team who came from World of Outlaws. He did the tires for Kasey Kahne’s Sprint Car for several years. He has a lot of knowledge on how all of this worked in the World Outlaws races and how it will play over to the Cup Series.

“I’m like a fan, watching the race happen and play out and helping the driver all I can,” Mack continued. “I’ve really enjoyed it the last couple of years and looking forward to this one.

“Last year was a little funny. The plan was to pit at the end of Stage 1 and then you could stay out until the end of the race. With the rain coming last year, we chose to stay out at the end of Stage 1, and it might rain out in the middle of Stage 2.

“It played out pretty well. We were leading most of Stage 2, it got down to the end and running top 3, then it started pouring down raining. It would have played out in our favor, but we got back to racing, had to pit at the end of Stage 2 and lost all our track position.

“There are a few different things you can do to maintain that track position. Normally, it’s hard to pass, but for the Bristol dirt race, it’s really about visibility. When you get back in the pack in 15th or 20th, it’s very hard to see what is in front of you and hard to make maneuvers when you can’t see what you are doing.”

According to Putnam, the NASCAR Cup Series team make some pretty significant changes on the NextGen cars.

NASCAR requires each team to remove the full carbon underwing. NASCAR and Fibreworks Composites, which builds all the bodywork on the NextGen, have created a dirt floor – a smaller version of the full carbon underwing.

The center floor and splitter are made of a tigress material, the same material that was used on the Gen 6 splitters and the current splitters on the NASCAR Xfinity Series cars.

The panel underneath the engine and what would have been the diffuser is now made of aluminum, as well as the rockers.

Putnam and his staff remove the skid plates and cap and replace them with aluminum to keep that part of the car from digging into the race track or into the dirt.

The cars also have rain flaps and defoggers to keep dust off the inside of the windows.

The rocker box fans used to keep the door foam cool are removed for more tire clearance.

“You are turning the wheel more to the right in a dirt event and a lot of that stuff hits the inside of the tires,” Putnam explained. “Rocker boxes and crush panels, NASCAR allows us to cut back for tire clearance. They also allow us to put some inner fender wells out of regular aluminum crush panel material to keep the mud off the motor.”

Putnam can convert a car that was designed and built for pavement into a dirt car. NASCAR does not allow the use of a purpose-built dirt car and each team is limited to seven cars per driver per season.

“It was a challenge with the old car, too,” Putnam said. “It’s an asphalt car going to a dirt race. You try to do as much stuff as possible to help it. Goodyear brings a treaded tire, a dirt tire, and it’s the only time we run a bias ply tire. That helps. The compound is really soft. NASCAR has gotten rid of the minimum shock length rule and that allows us to raise the car up a fair amount more to keep it from digging into the race track.

“Now that it’s a coil over car, it’s closer than it has been in the past. Independent rear suspension gives you more things you can adjust on as you drive the car around the race track.”

The windshields are left on each car. Purpose-built dirt cars have the windshield removed.

“We tested without the windshields, and it was too much for the drivers,” Putnam said. “Most of these guys haven’t run dirt. They don’t like getting pelted in the face and wearing tearoffs. Plus, they are exposed to dirt and rocks.

“We use antistatic guard on the inside of the windshields and that helps some. We use a defroster and that helps blow it around a little bit. And a Swiffer mop inside of the car that the driver can use to clean the windshield under caution.”

To keep the radiator from overheating from dirt and mud clogging up the grills, shaker screens are placed in front of the radiator. That is similar to what teams use at Darlington Raceway, where the abrasive asphalt track creates a lot of “marbles” – rubber pellets that come off the tires.

Some drivers use tearoffs on the visor of their help. Last year, Chastain never tore his off. Suarez puts them on and took them off after each stage break.

There is also a different style of racing as the cars slide in the turns for speed instead of finding downforce to keep them stuck to the racing surface.

“The surface takes care of a lot of that, lack of grip, but the cars aren’t real dirt cars,” Putnam explained. “Speeds aren’t high like a purpose-built dirt car, and they are heavy, so they put a lot of rubber down.”

Mack’s focus for racing on dirt is to pay careful attention to the tires, more than the car.

“I came from a background of local short track racing and being at dirt tracks and tire stagger and watching your tires,” Mack explained. “Last year, I went straight to the tires instead of the car and started working on the tires right off the bat.

“We will pay more attention to the tires this weekend, getting the stagger right. That’s another adjustment we have in the race cars, not only with air pressures, but also move tires around to change the stagger of the car from one run to the next.

“You are limited on the track constantly changing, the drivers looking for different things. You might be leading one run and the next run you are 20th. Everything is constantly changing. You have to be prepared. It’s another tuning tool that you have.

“Normally, on a weekly basis, you try to be as consistent as possible and tune the rest of the car, but on the dirt track, you go to your tires first and tune around that.”

Mixing it up by racing on dirt will create a unique challenge for Trackhouse and the other NASCAR Cup Series teams.

That’s part of the fun of getting “down and dirty at Bristol” according to Mack.

“I don’t care where we are racing or what we are racing,” Mack said. “I’m going to bring the best car that I can and hopefully win it.”

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