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Fast, Dirty Action: Auto Racing in Arkansas


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Batesville Motor Speedway
Batesville Motor Speedway
    Batesville Motor Speedway
Batesville Motor Speedway
       
 
Batesville Motor Speedway
Batesville Motor Speedway
    Batesville Motor Speedway
Batesville Motor Speedway
   
May 9, 2003


Fast, Dirty Action: Auto Racing in Arkansas
*****
By Craig Ogilvie and Jay Harrod
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Dirt track racing is to NASCAR what the minors are to Major League Baseball. It offers the thrill of watching drivers race towards the checkered flag, the stories behind the drivers, the strategic decisions made in the pits, and the possibility of seeing high-speed crashes, though most fans don't want to see anyone injured. These are the reasons fans say they're drawn to stock car racing, whether its NASCAR or dirt track.

Auto Racing History

In 1903, less than 50 automobiles were scattered around Arkansas. It didn't take long for their owners to question who had the fastest car, and cow pastures often became impromptu racetracks to resolve challenges.

The first official auto race in the nation took place in Chicago in 1895, but by 1912 the sport had reached as far as Winfield, Kansas, where racing was staged on a horse track.

While becoming a new sporting event in large cities, auto races in rural America prior to World War II were little more than exhibitions at county fairs and carnivals. After the war, stripped-down Model-As with fast V-8 engines became "hot-rods" -- first on drag strips, then on oval dirt tracks.

The oldest dirt track still in use in Arkansas, Riverside Speedway in West Memphis, was built in 1949. By the 1970s there were several banked oval tracks around the state. In 1974, a 15-year-old Batesville youngster named Mark Martin started his career and raced on dirt tracks for several years before joining the NASCAR circuit in 1981. Martin's fame has since spread worldwide.

The Big Business of Dirt Track Racing

Today there are 17 oval dirt tracks in Arkansas, many of which equal big business for the local economy. Mooney Starr, owner of the Batesville Speedway, claims that during the racing season his business brings in more revenue for Independence County than any other attraction.

Last year, the premier race at Batesville Speedway, "Comp Cams Topless 100," brought more than 15,000 fans to the city, and Starr says every hotel room within 50 miles is booked for this year's Topless 100, scheduled for August.

On a typical Friday night, weekly races at Batesville Speedway draw about 500 fans to the grandstands and, including the race crews and some fans, another 250-350 in the pits. Terry Butler, who leases and manages Beebe Speedway, says his Friday night crowds also average between 700 and 900, including those in the pits. And Little Rock's I-30 Speedway might have 1,000-1,200 in attendance on any given Saturday night during the season.

"More and more people are getting into [dirt track racing]," says Starr. "It's becoming a family event."

Both Starr and Butler contribute much of the increased interest to NASCAR. "It's kind of like what happens with Major League Baseball," Butler says. "People who like to watch the major leagues will go to minor league games, especially if there aren't any major league teams around. NASCAR has created a craze for auto racing, and a lot of the fans want to see a live race. Dirt track racing gives them that opportunity."

In Batesville, Starr has done all he can to ride NASCAR's coattails. In addition to introducing special events, like the Topless 100, he has made several improvements to the speedway since taking ownership in 1991. The biggest change came in 1997 when he brought in 2,500 seats from Atlanta's Fulton County (Braves) Stadium, which was about to be razed. The bright red seats increased the speedway's seating capacity to 6,000, the largest in the state.

The Batesville track was also the first in the state to add skyboxes. Even before construction of the 16 private viewing areas was completed this spring, all were sold out for the season. "That means we need to start work building more," Starr says.

Starr, who got his start racing cars at 16, also contributes the growth in dirt track racing to new classes of cars, which makes the sport affordable to more drivers.

A Level Playing Field: Auto Racing Classes

Just as baseball has its different levels, auto racing also has different classes or divisions. In both cases, what makes the difference is talent and money. Butler, who's been in the business for more than 20 years, admits the auto racing classes and the different sanctioning bodies can be confusing.

First, there are different types of cars. The highest divisions that race in Arkansas are sprint cars and late models. Sprint cars, which in Arkansas race only at I-30 Speedway, are open-wheeled custom-built cars and which have air-flow stabilizers. Late models are highly modified, full-size cars with aluminum bodies. The most common in Arkansas are the modified stocks, which are custom built with open wheels, metal bodies and varied engines. Common lower -- and more affordable -- classes in Arkansas include mini-stocks (small cars with increased horsepower) and pure stocks and front-wheel racers (factory-built cars with added safety features).

There are also different sanctioning bodies that determine the rules for each class. The best bet for Arkansas fans wanting to see late model races is through the Mid-South Racing Series, or MARS, which was started by Starr and is based out of Batesville. MARS races take place at Batesville Speedway, I-30 Speedway, Thunder Valley Speedway in Fayetteville and at tracks in Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky. (Like MARS, most of the other late model circuits cover particular regions of the U.S.)

Most of the modified stock races that take place in Arkansas are sanctioned by the International Motor Contesting Association, or IMCA. According to Butler, the IMCA ensures fair competition. "IMCA is designed for racers that wanted to move up but can't afford late models or sprints," he says. "It gives them a fast class without the expense."

And auto racing can be expensive. Butler says that on average an IMCA car costs $15,000, and a sprint car or late model might run between $20,000 and $30,000 or as much as $45,000, "if you're running in the big leagues."

But, like baseball, the pay-off in the big leagues is bigger. A driver winning a sprint car race could win $15,000 or more. On most race nights at Starr's track, MARS winners take home $3,000. Across the state, IMCA first-place finishers receive around $600, and winners of lower classes receive anywhere from $100 to $400.

Of course, prize money alone doesn't always pay the bills. Many drivers and crews in the higher divisions have sponsors, often the same corporations that support NASCAR drivers. Sometimes corporations might sponsor a track or special race, such as the late model Comp Cams Topless 100 at Batesville Speedway. Comp Cams will contribute a portion of the $42,000 paid to the winner. ("Topless" means the top portion -- excluding the safety bars -- of the cars are removed, affording fans a better view of the drivers.)

The biggest names in Arkansas, those that race in the state's top events and on the national circuit, are the types of racers that have corporate sponsors -- like five-time national champion Billy Moyer, a late model racer from Batesville.

Some of the modified stock drivers receive financial support -- maybe a few thousand dollars each year -- from local businesses, according to Starr. With little or no sponsorship money and low pay-outs, it's not surprising that most drivers in the lower classes are locals who have other jobs and race on the weekends as a hobby.

When You Go

The racing season in Arkansas runs from mid-March or April through September or October, and, most tracks have races once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday nights. Across Arkansas, admission to dirt tracks ranges from $7 to $10 for adults and about half that for children.

Most of the tracks in Arkansas are one-eighth or one-fourth mile clay ovals and have several heats to determine the feature race in each class. Depending on the track, there might be as many as four different classes and as many as 10-15 races each night, and a feature race might have as many as 24 cars on the track.

The Tracks in Arkansas

Arkansas Raceway Park
, near Mt. Ida -- Racing pure stocks, street and hobby stocks, modifieds, and mini-stocks on a three-eighths mile dirt oval. Saturdays at 8 p.m. from early March until late October. (479) 576-2539; www.arkansasracewaypark.com.

Batesville Speedway -- Racing modifieds, super stocks, hobbies, super stars and front-wheel drives on a three-eighths mile dirt oval. Fridays at 8 p.m. from March until early October. (870) 251-1200; www.batesvillespeedway.com.

Beebe Speedway -- Racing modifieds, street and hobby stocks, mini-stocks and special racing series on a one-fourth mile dirt oval. Fridays at 8 p.m. from mid-March until mid-September. (501) 516-6001; www.beebespeedway.com.

Centerville Super Speedway -- Racing modified stocks, street and hobby stocks and mini-stocks on a one-fourth mile clay oval. Saturdays at 8 p.m. from mid-March until late October. (479) 576-2539; www.centervillesuperspeedway.com.

Crawford County Speedway, near Van Buren -- Racing modifieds, factory stocks, hobbies, mini-stocks and front-wheel drives on a three-eighths mile clay oval. Saturdays at 8 p.m. from March through September. (479) 474-1942; www.crawfordcountyspeedwayracing.com.

Crowley's Ridge Raceway, near Jonesboro -- Racing late models, modified and street stocks, cruisers and four-cylinders on a one-fourth mile clay oval. Saturdays at 8 p.m. from mid-April to October. (870) 236-3141; www.crraceway.com.

I-30 Speedway, near Little Rock -- Racing IMCA modifieds, hobbies, street and hobby stocks on one-fourth mile clay oval. Saturdays at 8 p.m. from mid-March until late October. (501) 455-4567; www.i-30speedway.com.

North Central Arkansas Speedway, near Yellville -- Racing modified stocks, cruisers, mini-stocks, super and hobby stocks on a three-eighths mile oval track. Fridays at 8 p.m. from late March until mid-October. (870) 449-5277; www.northcentralarspeedway.com.

Northwest Arkansas Speedway, near Pea Ridge -- Racing factory and hobby stocks, sprints and special racing on a three-eighths mile dirt oval. Fridays at 8 p.m. from March through September. (479) 451-8636; www.nwaspeedway.com.

Plummerville Speedway -- Racing street and pure stocks, sportsman, mini-sprint series and bombers on a one-fourth mile clay oval. Saturdays at 8 p.m. from early April through mid-October. (501) 354-3067.

Poinsett County Speedway, near Harrisburg -- Racing modifieds, late models, pure and hobby stocks, and four-cylinders on a three-eighths mile clay oval. Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. from March until October. (870) 578-2224.

Riverside Speedway, at West Memphis -- Racing late models, Sprints, modifieds and street stocks on a one-fourth mile clay oval. Saturdays at 7 p.m. from May through September. (870) 735-8071.

Rollin' Stone Speedway, near Prescott -- Racing modifieds, hobby and street stocks and pure stocks on a three-eighths mile clay oval. Fridays at 8 p.m. from March until October. (870) 887-6841.

Sixty-Seven Texarkana Speedway, near Texarkana -- Racing modifieds, street and hot stocks, cruisers and bombers on a quarter-mile banked clay oval. Saturday nights beginning in early April. (870) 773-0029.

Southwest Arkansas Speedway, near Murfreesboro -- Racing pure and street stocks, modifieds, sportsman and bombers on the three-eighths mile banked clay oval. Saturdays at 8 p.m. beginning in early April. (870) 845-5546; www.swarsuperspeedway.com.

Thunder Mountain Super Speedway, near Caddo Gap -- Racing modified and hobby stocks, pure and street stocks and mini-stocks on a one-fourth mile clay oval. Fridays at 8 p.m. from early March until mid-September. (479) 576-2539.

Thunder Valley Speedway, near Fayetteville -- Racing modifieds, B modifieds, factory and super stocks, plus cruisers, on a three-eighths mile clay oval track. Saturdays at 6 p.m. mid-March until late September. (479) 582-1319; www.thundervalleyspeedway.freehomepage.com.

Natural State Dragstrips

Centerville Dragway
-- Racing on Saturdays and Sundays on the one-eighth mile track. www.centervilledragway.com.

George Ray's Wildcat Dragstrip -- U.S. 412 east to Arkansas 135, turn south for one-fourth mile, then east. Racing on Sunday afternoons on a one-eighth mile strip. www.geocities.com/georgeray12345

Newport Raceway -- Arkansas 18, off U.S. 67, to Comet Drive. Racing on Sunday afternoons on a one-eighth mile straight track.

Prescott Raceway -- Racing on Sundays during spring and fall, Saturdays during summer on a one-eighth mile track. (870) 887-3984.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"



ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF PARKS & TOURISM
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