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What Is Dirt Track Racing, And How Is It Different For NASCAR?

The latest episode of "Race For The Championship" sees the drivers head to the dirt track at Bristol Motor Speedway. 

Episode 4 of “Race For The Championship” sees the drivers trading in the traditional NASCAR asphalt for dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway. While it certainly makes things difficult for the drivers, it also introduced newcomers to the concept of dirt racing, where professional motorsports got its start. 

In short, dirt racing is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a paved track, drivers have to contend with the unpredictability and drift of compacted dirt or, in some cases, clay. This can make for a myriad of issues for drivers who have to worry about the accumulated dirt limiting visibility on the windshield as well as clogging up key engine ventilation. That’s not even mentioning the talent and skill it takes to maintain control of a car when it starts to drift on the dirt — a problem asphalt doesn’t have to the same degree. Every turn tests the driver's instincts.

Currently, the NASCAR Cup Series has only one dirt track — Bristol Motor Speedway. In fact, it’s a relatively new inclusion in the organization’s premiere series, only coming back for the first time since the 1970s in the last few years, according to NBC Sports

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ESPN covered what it took to fully convert the typically asphalt track to a dirt one capable of playing home to NASCAR’s Cup Series. The three-month process included two weeks of more than 2,000 trucks delivering more than 23,000 cubic yards of red clay that weighs roughly 30,000 tons. In short, it’s no easy feat. 

Bristol Speedway

However, working with dirt is something that’s all too familiar to anyone in professional racing, whether they’re behind the wheel or not. Most NASCAR drivers got their start on dirt tracks. Racers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. continue to keep up a presence in the dirt racing scene for the sheer love of the game. In fact, according to an article that appeared in a 2014 edition of Speed Sport Magazine, professional racing in general literally came up from the dirt. 

In the 1920s, tales spread throughout the American south of moonshiners whose prowess behind the wheel helped them outrun the law on many occasions. These folk stories (or possibly real stories) drove people to state and country fairs where it was easy enough to bulldoze a quick oval in an open field and get some drivers racing for fans’ amusement. 

Fast forward about 100 years and moonshiners have been replaced by world-class athletes driving at unprecedented levels to deliver one of the most exciting American sports. 

However, that doesn’t mean dirt racing is a thing of the past. There’s still a robust dirt scene with open-wheel cars completely dedicated to performing well on dirt tracks. However, on “Race For The Championship,” viewers will see Cup Series drivers like Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finding out what their next-gen cars can really do when they get back to the sport’s roots. 

You can watch it all happen on “Race For The Championship” every Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on USA Network. You can also catch more NASCAR content on Peacock right now. 

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