By Justin Nuzzo The Mount Airy News firstname.lastname@example.org
ELKIN-- When Phil Hall of Mount Airy and Dennis Wood of Boonville, veterans in dirt-track racing, leased Friendship Motor Speedway before the 2008 racing season, they decided to bring the Elkin track back to its roots, converting it from asphalt back to dirt.
So, you might ask yourself, "Is dirt track racing excitement contagious to both fan and driver? And if so, why?"
Watching cars turn completely sideways going into a turn on a firm dirt track and seeing the left front wheel of a Late Model car come two feet off the ground. That's what it's all about.
Friendship Motor Speedway, a four-tenths of a mile track, was basically carved from a pasture on the outskirts of Elkin in 1982. It was sold and paved in 2003.
A message posted on www.friendshipracing.com explains the reasoning behind Hall's and Wood's decision to switch the track back to dirt.
"Going back to dirt has nothing to do with us not liking asphalt racing ... But in this area, if you're going to an asphalt track, you're going to go to Bowman Gray. But this track was real popular when it was dirt. The feedback we're getting from fans and drivers around is encouraging."
Encouraging is an understatement.
Noel Tucker, driver of the double zero Granite City Auto-Aunt Bea's BBQ Crate Late Model machine, said he prefers dirt to asphalt. He has raced at Friendship since 1999.
And Tucker's recent results prove that he's dangerous on dirt. Tucker won his first three Crate Late Model features he has raced in at Friendship Motor Speedway this season. He also won the Crate Late Model feature and ran second and third in Twin Super Late Model races at the New 311 Speedway on Saturday.
"When Friendship was built originally, it was a dirt track," he said. "There was a big background in dirt racing when they paved it. I'm a dirt man myself. When they paved it, I quit goin' over there."
With Bowman Gray Stadium being the stadium of choice for the area's asphalt racing fans, Friendship was always at a disadvantage for attracting asphalt racing fans.
"You're not gonna compete with those people," Tucker said of Bowman Gray. "They might put 15,000 people in the stands on any given week. When Friendship went to asphalt, I remember us struggling to get 400 people in the stands some nights."
Tucker said the tires that drivers run on asphalt are different than the ones you'd run on dirt. "Our cars have tires that are grooved so they can grip the dirt," he said. On asphalt, they run slick tires."
Tucker said 4-cylinder cars can be set up to run asphalt or dirt, but late model cars typically cannot.
"The Late Model I have can't race much on asphalt," he said. "These dirt cars we're building have a lot of bite in them. Dirt has a lot of traction. When you go into turns, the left front (tire) won't even touch the ground."
Jimmy Watson, who got his start in dirt track racing at Friendship in the mid-'80s, currently sits in fifth place in the Super Street points.
"We were pretty excited," Watson said was his reaction of the switch to dirt. "When Ararat decided to build something we could race on, me and my friend, Keith Holder ran there. When Friendship went back to dirt, Keith and myself said, 'We can run Friday nights at Ararat and Saturdays at Friendship."
The switch to dirt has proven a good one for Watson and Holder.
"Between us two, we have 11 wins at the two tracks," Watson said. "We've been tickled to death so far. Phil and Denny are both friends of ours, so we were pretty excited about them gettin' it. We've stood behind them 100 percent."
After the track was given a new asphalt surface by new owners in 2003, things were bittersweet for Watson.
"I never even went over there to watch a race," he said. "We went to 311. It was kind of a heartbreaker after running over there nine or 10 years."
Once Watson heard the track was being switched back to dirt, he knew it was time for he, other drivers and other fans to come home again.
"I think Phil and Denny are doin' an awesome job getting a lot of fans back in," he said. "They're trying hard to make it as good or better than it ever was.
"I get to play in the dirt pretty often; It's a part of life for me," added Watson, who works in the logging business.
Keith Holder of Dobson drives the No. 7 Watson Logging Crate Late Model car that currently sits in fourth in points.
"I was tickled to death," Holder said of the change. "I raced there from 1991 to 2003."
Holder took a car to Caraway Speedway to get some asphalt practice, but he said he never got the hang of running an asphalt car.
"Years ago, I practiced at Caraway, but I didn't like it," he said. "It's a driver's preference. You're either a dirt driver or you ain't."
And that led to a tough decision for Holder. Do you learn to drive on asphalt or do you travel to a track many miles away that features dirt track racing?
"I quit," Holder said. "Until last year. Then, I started running at 311."
Holder has a pair of championships at Friendship to his credit -- the 1994 street stock division title and a 1996 Super Street title.
"I'm glad to see it's back to dirt," Holder said. "I run at Rolling Thunder, which is dirt also."
Ryan Atkins of Mount Airy drives the Atkins Fertilizer machine currently in 11th place in the Crate Late Model points.
A rookie driver, he too has a favorable view of dirt track racing.
"I was really excited about it," he said. "It's the closest dirt track we've had to here. Before, there was Wythe Raceway in Va. or Madison (311 Speedway), but that was an hour away. It's a real positive, especially with rising fuel prices.
"My dad has owned the car for 14 years, and I've always enjoyed dirt a lot better than asphalt. It all takes skills in different areas, but I really admire someone that runs a dirt car. I'd also like to give a special thanks to all my sponsors, because if it weren't for them, I couldn't race."
Operators Manager Dennis Wood said drivers and fans alike are happy about the change back to dirt.
"The Piedmont has historically loved dirt racing," Wood said. "It's so much different than asphalt. When they changed it to asphalt, it was a different crowd, different racers coming in, and the local people didn't like the asphalt part of it."
Several drivers have approached Wood to tell him they're in favor of a dirt surface.
"Drivers are commenting, saying things like, 'We sure are glad you've come back to dirt. You have a nice facility. The operation is fair and square.'"
One has to wonder if there will be any opposition to the change back to dirt. Unlikely so far, said Wood.
"I haven't talked to anyone that's unhappy it's changed," he said. "I'm sure there's someone out there that wants to see asphalt racing, but we've had a positive reaction from fans and positive reaction from the community."
Wood said the track's faithful fans like seeing cars run sideways in the turns, and on a good night, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 are attendance, not counting the as many as 300 people in the pits.
"Attendance was really good at the beginning of the year, but it's been down a bit the last couple of weeks," he said last week. "We're hoping it was the weather. We're gettin' to the part of the year where it's gonna be a lot of fun with the kids out of school. Everyone wants somewhere to go on a Saturday night."
Turning the track back into a dirt surface was not an insurmountable task according to the web site.
"About 550 truckloads of red clay, mixed with sawdust to provide moisture and dust reduction and to aid adhesion to prevent the track from coming apart, have been spread and packed over the pavement. Two inches of rock dust are sandwiched between the dirt and the pavement, to aid in the removal of the dirt if a return to asphalt is ever desired."
Wood is the brother of Bob Wood, Friendship's original owner and developer.