Dirt racing at Petaluma

by Ed Foster on 27th August 2015

“Can any ex-military please stand up! Ladies and gentlemen, give these guys and gals a cheer – they put their lives on the line for you!”

We’re not at Silverstone, that much is clear. We’re sat in a grandstand big enough for 2000 or so and laid out before us is the… hang on, stand for the national anthem… Petaluma dirt oval in California. It’s Saturday night, the sun is slowly dipping over the horizon and once the words of the Star-Spangled Banner fade away we take a seat for the first Mini Stock heat. Over the noise of the tannoy we can hear the engines fire up in the paddock beyond turn two and as the cars stream onto the oval the cheers start from the crowd and the commentator reaches fever pitch. Quite what he has left in reserve for the big final I don’t know. I’m with ex-tin top racer and Simraceway’s business development and programme manager Paul Charsley and, while he’s pretty clued up on what we’re about to see, I am new to dirt ovals.

The basics are simple – from a rolling start the races run for a set number of laps. If your car is damaged this will usually result in a full-course yellow, which gives you the chance to limp away from the track, take a hammer to whatever needs mending and then return, rejoining at the back on the same lap as everyone else. There are lots of full-course yellows. As for the more complicated rules, well, there aren’t many. Not that the casual observer needs to worry about anyway.

After a parade lap – where some drivers, presumably local, get a much larger cheer than others – the Mini Stocks are shown the green flag. The engine notes rise and there’s a shout from behind us: “27 will win!” Number 27 is near the back and it’s pretty clear the man responsible for the outburst has less of an idea about current form than Paul and I.

The front-runners have the car sideways long before the corner and with minimum effort on the wheel, glide through the corner applying more throttle as they go. Some of the cars at the back take two, sometimes 10, cuts at each corner. With 15-odd cars on track it’s not long before two tangle, there’s a huge cheer and quad bikes rush onto the track to help with the carnage. One limps to the back of the circulating grid while the other dashes for the pits (outside the track). The former tries the handling a few times and it’s clear something isn’t right. That something turns out to be smashed suspension leaving the front-right wheel at 45 degrees. Once the driver’s realised the problem he stops testing the handling and closes up on the pack. Even at quarter speed there’s smoke pouring from the wheel arch. The pitted car rejoins, the grid closes up and within 10 seconds we’re racing again. The laps tick down, punctuated by more full-course yellows, and on the last lap car number 27 takes the lead and wins. What do we know?

The beauty of the racing is that there seems to be two set-up approaches. The first is to find more grip, the second is to leave the car loose. If you go for the ‘more grip’ option then the tyres go off quickly, but with so many full-course yellows the races are effectively five three-lap sprints. Not always, though, and that’s when someone with a slower car at the start will suddenly start flying through the field. It’s fantastic entertainment.

We finish our evening – local beer in hand – with the Winged 360s. The ‘it’s all about the engine’ class is quite something on such a small oval (they have up to 900bhp) and not much can prepare you for the acceleration once the drivers have them pointed vaguely in the right direction. As you can see from my sub-standard photo above, they’re quite hard cars to get in focus. With so much power and such a tight track it’s no surprise that 20 minutes into the race they’ve only completed two laps. The yellows come thick and fast and since the 360s need a bump start the track is immediately flooded with trucks to add to the chaos. Once they do get going they have to keep to the right of a traffic cone on the start finish straight. Paul and I wonder how they’re going to move it out of the way as they stream past it on the restart when an official starts reeling in some rope that it’s attached to. There’s only the latest technology here...

The evening cost $16 each, plus $4 to park the car, which, for a couple of hours’ entertainment, isn’t bad. It’s cheaper than Formula 1 anyway. If you haven’t been to watch dirt oval racing yet, go. It’s what motor sport should be: noisy, brash, fast and over-steery.

The trip to Petaluma was part of a much bigger piece on Simraceway (the old Jim Russell Racing School), which will be in a future issue of the magazine.

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