Auto Racing in Arkansas

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NASCAR racing is one of the most popular sports in the nation. The bright colors, smell of rubber, sounds of screaming fans and engines as the cars careen past create a concoction that seems to hook people to auto racing.

In Arkansas, dirt track racing gives fans an opportunity to experience the action of a live race.

“The excitement is probably what draws people at first,” said Mooney Starr, owner of the Batesville Motor Speedway since 1993. “Being there to see a big wreck is what stands out in the mind of the newcomer to racing. But the competition of the event is what keeps the true race fan coming back. Racing is like any other sport in that its always more interesting if you are involved in the event or know someone racing.”

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. The racing season typically runs from mid-March through October. Most tracks have races once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday nights.

The first official auto race in the nation took place in Chicago in 1895. In 1903, less than 50 automobiles were scattered around Arkansas. It didn’t take long for their owners to question whose was the fastest and interest in racing ignited quickly. By the 1970s there were several banked oval tracks around the state, including the 1-30 Speedway in Little Rock, which now hosts the prestigious O’Reily Short Track Nationals.

“I think auto racing is popular in Arkansas because of the talent we have here,” said Tracey Clay of the 1-30 Speedway. “Mark Martin is the first name that comes to mind. Some other drivers are Billy Moyer (Sr. and Jr.), Wendell Wallace, Bill Frye, the Swindell Family, Bobby Ward, Ralph Henson, the Jenkins and many more.  Arkansas is also home to two of the Late Model Chassis builders…GRT Race Cars in Greenbrier and Larry Shaw Race Cars in Batesville.”

Arkansas has several locals that are at the top of their game but Mark Martin is the only racer that has gone all the way to NASCAR. In 1974, the 15-year-old Batesville native started his career and raced on dirt tracks for several years before joining the NASCAR circuit in 1981. The Mark Martin Museum was built in Batesville in 1996 to honor the racer.

Batesville is a hotbed for dirt track racing and home turf to many seasoned veterans including Starr, who has been involved in the sport since he was 16.

“I have always been interested in cars…fast cars,” Starr said. He did a little racing in the 1980’s and after that, owned a couple of race cars, teams, and even a racing series.

Then he got involved in the Batesville Speedway.

Starr said the Comp Cams Topless 100 is the track’s most popular event. This will be the 17th year for the event, which is one of the top Dirt Late Model events in the nation. “Topless” means the top portion – excluding the safety bars – of the cars are removed. “Fans can look down into the cars and actually see the drivers,” he said.  

According to Clayton Allen, owner of West Memphis based Riverside International Speedway, built in 1949 and the oldest dirt track still in use in Arkansas, dirt track racing offers spectators a chance to see the many different styles of cars that make up the versatile sport, which is composed of different classes, sanctioning bodies, and types of vehicles.

The highest divisions that race in Arkansas are sprint cars (open-wheel custom built cars) and late models (highly modified, full size cars). The most common are modified stocks, which are custom built with open wheels, metal bodies and varied engines. Different sanctioning bodies determine the rules for each racing class. The best bet for Arkansas fans wanting to see late model races is through the Mid-South Racing Series.

Starr, Allen, and Clay all mentioned that a common misconception surrounding the aura of auto racing is that it is a “redneck sport”. “We have doctors, lawyers, teachers…people from all walks of life, racing with us or attending the races every week,” said Starr. “Racing or going to the races is a great experience for everyone to try at least once. And usually nine out of 10 times, they return.”  

Once at the races, a good bet is that you’ll be leaving with a bit of the track on you.

“It’s a dirt track, expect to get a little dust on you,” said Clay. “Fans say, “If there’s not dirt in your beer, you’re not at a real race track.” …It’s loud, you can feel the ground shake beneath you. The earth rumbles with the roar of the Late Models and the wind blows with the speeds of the Sprint cars. There’s really nothing quite like it.”