As I write this column, I am three days away from making a return to pavement open-wheel racing after a 12-year hiatus. I was never a huge fan of pavement racing but, as I have gained more experience, I am ready to tackle the challenge.
For a driver, there are many huge differences between dirt and pavement. Obviously driving styles are nearly opposite, especially when comparing non-winged cars. Dirt sprint cars have to be driven aggressively and are controlled more with the throttle than the steering wheel, while pavement requires some finesse and the chassis to react well to steering input.
The biggest frustration I always faced on pavement was being able to “feel” what was actually fast on the stopwatch. When I felt smooth and comfortable, I was slow, and when I felt out of control it was faster.
In a dirt car, I can immediately feel if my car is fast or not, and I can feel the changes that need to be made to improve it. On pavement, the adjustments are much smaller and knowing what changes to make and in what increments is crucial.
Changing track conditions are important on both surfaces, however, on dirt you can physically see the changes, while on pavement the appearance of the surface does not change. This makes it incredibly hard on pavement to predict what the track will do, and rewards experience and having a large notebook (cue Kody Swanson).
Another aspect that I struggled with in the past on pavement was that fact that the driver cannot overcome an ill-handling race car as easily on pavement as on dirt. I feel like I can search around for different lines or patches of moisture on dirt to improve my performance, while on pavement you have very few options.
I did have my share of success on pavement in my career, but it was relatively sporadic. I was able to sit on the pole of the 2007 Night Before The 500 and also won my first career USAC sprint car race on pavement at Winchester Speedway in 2008.
My now-wife happened to be the trophy girl at that particular race and, little did I know, it would be the most influential win in my career.
When you have a very good-handling car on pavement it is extremely fun, but without knowing the specific keys to why your car was so good on that particular day, it is very hard to replicate that success.
Pavement open-wheel racing was, admittedly, on life support for several years in the recent past, but USAC, as well as other groups, have managed to breathe new life into it.
No doubt, the biggest pavement race of the year is the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway, which has also hosted several Thursday night races throughout the summer.
Lucas Oil Raceway has also revived some marquee events, including the Night Before The 500, and recently announced an impressive list of high-paying events for 2021.
Pavement Silver Crown races still make up around half of the series schedule, which has given many dirt racers, such as Justin Grant, Chris Windom, and Shane Cottle, an opportunity to spend more time on pavement.
As tracks and series continue to add more pavement events, it makes it much more enticing for new or returning teams to build cars to compete.
Also, as the events keep paying great purses, it will continue making more drivers, like myself, look at pavement races to add to their schedule.
“Pavement specialists” like Kody Swanson, Tanner Swanson, Kyle Hamilton, and Bobby Santos, dominate most of the races right now, and with such a limited number of races each year it is extremely difficult for other teams and drivers to gain the experience needed to challenge them.
I do anticipate that as its popularity continues to grow, teams and drivers will begin to close that gap and the competitiveness throughout the field will increase dramatically.
I hope that I, now older and wiser than in my youth, can compete for wins again on pavement as well.