Small tracks' NASCAR role dwindles

On Motor Sports

Auto Racing

April 11, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Hard-packed dirt. Flying dust. Grimy faces. The first images in the birth of a sport.

Stock car racing started on the tiny bull rings of the south.

Richard Petty can tell mind-bending stories about driving 500 miles on a quarter-mile dirt track.

In the early days, the tracks were anywhere from a quarter-mile to a half-mile.

It was on those rutty surfaces that stock car racing's soul was forged out of sheet metal rubbing side-by-side to a finish line.

The short tracks have almost disappeared. The ones that are left are all about a half-mile in length, but they're paved now and surrounded by 100,000 seats.

As NASCAR's Winston Cup series has matured, the short tracks have given way to the super speedways.

On the cup circuit, the only ones remaining are Bristol, Martinsville Speedway and Richmond International Raceway.

Combined, they account for just six of 34 points races on the schedule.

The thought of their disappearance makes driver Ward Burton's eyes get red.

"A Winston Cup season without short tracks would be like Christmas without candy canes," he says. "It'd still be Christmas, but it just wouldn't quite be the same. It just wouldn't feel right."

The cup series rolled into Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend for today's Food City 500, reminding many of how much professional stock car racing is changing.

Beautiful new super speedways are going up across the country, putting pressure on the small tracks, like Bristol, to keep pace -- with amenities for fans and sponsors and with purse payouts.

Can they continue to survive?

Car owner Michael Kranefuss wonders, "Are there places where we would rather be?" And adds: "Everybody's opinion is as good as the next guy's. I think NASCAR's position is to add rather than take one away so I think we're going to keep the short tracks."

NASCAR president Bill France said as much in Daytona a couple of months ago, though he hinted there may come a time when tracks with two races might have to make do with one.

And NASCAR management has made it clear it is on a fast growth track, with prospects of races going to Chicago, Kansas City, Mo., and New York City. An organization could get blinded by the lights.

"I can't imagine a NASCAR without short tracks," says driver Jeremy Mayfield. "Man, they're fun. Sure, sometimes things can get heated up and sometimes you can get put in the wall but the short tracks are part of all of us."

Not so Funny Car

We've all seen those wild Funny Car film clips, the ones where fire roars from the car's underbelly and the driver miraculously escapes uninjured after the parachutes stop the run.

Well, Carroll County's Carnie Fryfogle didn't wait for the parachutes at the NHRA GatorNationals in Gainesville, Fla., a couple of weeks ago.

His fuel pump twisted, breaking the fuel line and spewing fuel all over him. The car erupted in flames, and once he saw fellow competitor Todd Paton safely past, he steered his Funny Car into the wall at about 230 mph.

"It worked just like it was supposed to," said Fryfogle, 50, recovering from two burned hands and bruised ribs. "The [car's] body flew off, taking the fire with it."

The car was destroyed, his fire retardant driver's suit a complete loss. The heat radiating through his gloves -- not the flames -- caused the burns on his hands.

But he's already out looking for more sponsorship dollars. He needs about $35,000 to purchase an available and assembled car.

Fryfogle, a 30-year racing veteran, competes in the NHRA sportsman Funny Car Division 2. He finished second in the points standings a year ago and says this was his first serious accident.

"It was a freak thing," said the building contractor and developer from his home in Manchester.

He hopes to be back competing in May -- or June at the latest.

"I promised the Westminster Air Show that I'd bring my car there June 19-20 and compete against an airplane," says Fryfogle. "I'm looking forward to it. It's not something you see done everyday."

Obviously, it's not called Funny Car racing for nothing.

Nuts and bolts

Another Maryland drag racer, Bob Weickgenannt of Columbia, also had a difficult start to his NHRA Funny Car season. His '98 Avenger failed to qualify at the GatorNationals.

"I've hired a Top 10 crew chief, Rick Castle, and we went to Florida with everything changed on the car," said Weickgenannt. "Teams with big budgets would make the changes we did and then go test for a week. We made the changes and went to the GatorNationals. That was our test session. We learned a lot, and we'll be in good shape for Richmond."

Weickgenannt will run 10 races this season, including the Richmond event the April 30 weekend.

Jeff Gordon is looking for his fifth consecutive win in the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway. If he gets it, he would join Petty as the only drivers in the history of the sport to win an event five years straight.

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