Sprint Cars are the Gritty Glue that Binds the Bedrocks of Motorsport
Ernest Hemingway must have been a dirt track fan. He is famously reported to have said that there were only three sports: bull fighting, motor racing, and mountaineering. The rest are just games. After The Speed Journal spent a day dancing in the dust with a 700 horsepower bucking bronco sprint car around a one-fifth mile oval, it is difficult to argue. Sprint car racing is not a sport for the timid – and it is very dirty.
Readers of The Speed Journal have followed adventures including drifting an AMG sedan, racing a vintage Jaguar at Laguna Seca, motoring with McLaren and Radical at Donington Park, and pushing a Porsche around Le Mans and the Nürburgring. The Speed Journal has even driven a Formula One car at Paul Ricard in France. Despite all of that mileage and experience, nothing adequately can prepare for the violence, novel technique and sheer effort involved in convincing a sprint car to quickly claw through the dirt around a tight oval ringed with unforgiving concrete walls.
Cory Kruseman has the dirt disease. Kruseman, a life-long Ventura, California resident, has done almost everything there is to do behind the wheel of a midget or sprint car. A calculator would groan to count his racing laps steering a sprint car around tight bullrings across the world. The result is his full trophy case. He now operates a sprint car driving school with a tight-knit team of family and staff.
Corey Kruseman’s Sprint Car and Midget Driving School is located at the Ventura Raceway. Situated within the confines of the Ventura County Fairgrounds and next to the sandy dunes of the Pacific Ocean, the dirt oval is ringed with concrete walls topped by chain link fence. Dirt splatters color the walls. Sponsor banners and metal cables keep tumbling cars from climbing up and over the walls. Modest spectator grandstands line the barely straight front stretch and offer no escape from the elements.
Kruseman and his team have seen it all. They’ve raced and taught others to race. They’ve coached amateurs and professionals. They’ve watched experts in other disciplines take quickly to the dirt and observed as overconfidence humbled others.
Sprint car school bypasses chalkboard lessons or abstract driving theory lectures. Based on experience, classroom time would be wasted and learning by doing is far more effective. As is typical, resident Speed Journal driver Jeff Francis arrived, met the team, handled the familiar paperwork, slipped into his driver’s suit, and pulled on his helmet and gloves.
He stepped on top of the huge left rear tire, climbed up the side, swung his legs over the tall roll cage tubes surrounding the driver’s compartment, and slid down into the driver’s seat from above. There are no doors here – entering a sprint car is much like a tank driver slipping down into their machine. After a tour of the controls and a few quick tips delivered through the safety net by instructor Barry, Francis set off to do battle with the oval.
A sprint car has only two speeds – on and off. With no onboard starter, a push truck gets things started. The driver engages the direct drive and locks up the rear wheels by dragging the brakes for about ten feet, releases, waits for the rear tires to spin the motor and then punches the power button to awaken the engine and break the silence. The procedure isn’t complicated but perfectly visceral and primal.
The goal? Survive six twenty-five lap sessions and improve with each lap.
The challenge? Be smooth, refine the technique of combining throttle, brake and steering, and drive the car rather than let the car dictate its own path.
The first laps? Angry. A sprint car does not like to go slow. As Francis did a few slow reconnaissance laps and engine temps and tire pressures rose, the car bucked at partial throttle and hit every bump and chased every groove in the dirt. Handling was unpredictable at best as the front wheels bounded across the pitted clay track. The engine was frustrated and testy.
Likewise, it is a rugged animal. No traction control. No anti-lock brakes. No transmission or clutch. No electronics. No fussy interior or fancy exterior styling. No windows or doors. A sliver of narrow steel mesh serves as a windshield. No carbon fiber. This isn’t quite the race car that time forgot, but good luck telling the difference between a “modern” sprint car and a car from decades earlier.
Structurally, it wraps the absolute minimum material around a Chevrolet 360 cubic inch V-8 engine – just enough to attach four wheels and a narrow open cockpit cocoon for a cowboy bold enough to ride the angry beast. The car only weighs 1400 pounds – flirting with the power-to-weight ratio of a modern Formula One car.
With more speed, the bumps receded and the sprint car reveled in its environment. Driving required a particular technique, executed aggressively. The casual observer might just think that dirt track racing a sprint car around an oval is a succession of drifts – pound the throttle, slide and steer through the corner, repeat.
Ironically, the secret lies with the brakes. Mash the brakes with authority at corner entry, pitch the car sideways, aim towards corner exit and work the throttle and steering wheel to get there and accelerate into the straight.
The otherwise angry and unpredictable sprint car delights in this type of maneuver. All of the geometry, tire choice, handling, brakes, and power steering is optimized for this specific flick. The brakes clamp down on three wheels, leaving the right front to spin freely. The quick corner turn allows the driver to maximize the length of the straight – and make full use of every single pony of the 700 available horsepower.
Like everything else on the car, the rear axle and tires are purpose built. The Hoosier rear tires are both enormous and dwarf the front tires, but the right rear is larger than the left rear. Known as “stagger,” the difference is part of the set-up formula and varies depending on the track surface and banking, grip conditions, and driver preference. The tires are connected with a single one-piece rear axle, so the difference in tire sizes inherently encourages the car to turn.
Tires are designed to flex and change shape. Pressure in the right tires is a paltry six pounds per square inch. At rest, the tires fold and wrinkle but at speed, the flex puts the maximum amount of rubber in contact with the dirt in the cause of finding grip.
Francis enjoyed a mostly empty track for his day at Ventura Raceway. Only three or four other cars circulated, giving space to focus on lines and technique rather than navigating traffic. Corey worked with two racers who were experimenting with different lines. In competition, passing might require different approaches than running the ideal line. It was tempting to watch as the pair worked on running the extreme outside where a softer dirt berm built over time (known as the cushion) but Francis was cautioned to work on his own lines and walk before running.
The fastest drivers take between twelve and thirteen seconds to orbit Ventura Raceway, translating into an average lap speeds touching 60 miles per hour. Top speeds on the straights are just shy of 100 miles per hour but everything about a sprint car is designed to help it corner, so steering a sprint car in a straight line at full throttle is no easy task. The chaos of the screaming engine as the car bounces and skips across uneven ground is enough to give the eyeballs a strong shake and make the world ahead look a bit blurry.
The best of the best in American racing cut their teeth on dirt in sprint cars. AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti, Bettenhausen’s and the Unser’s wrestled sprint cars to victory lane before making history at Indianapolis. Jeff Gordon made his name in sprint cars before moving to NASCAR. Old school sprint cars populate the family tree and provide the DNA that led to the race cars that battled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Dirt track racing runs so deep in Tony Stewart’s blood that he not only raced sprint cars, but bought and continues to operate the well-known Eldora Speedway in Ohio. Standout NASCAR driver Kyle Larson still races sprint cars in the dirt on off-weekends or in the off-season. If you can successfully sling a sprint car in competition with a few dozen other gladiators in the same cramped space, you can probably handle just about anything with four wheels.
Sprint cars have deep roots around the United States, as well as Australia and New Zealand. They’re fun to watch, challenging to drive, and range from full bore sprint cars to smaller midget or micro racers. The family tree has multiple variations, with winged sprints probably the best known. Wings on the roof and nose produce downforce which helps on their preferred venue of half mile banked speedways.
With the benefit of trial and error laps, and coaching from instructor Barry, Francis got more comfortable and found glimpses of rhythm. The experience was completely engaging and required total focus. The muscles strained to keep up with the sheer effort required to work the wheel and pedals. With more laps, Francis found that turns one and two have a slightly different layout than turns three and four. Barry stood out on the track itself at various points to provide immediate guidance via his body position and hand signals.
Asphalt road racing encourages a gentle arc that maintains momentum through the corner and avoids sliding and torturing the tires. Unlearning those skills to embrace the hard-braking slide as the best way to pivot around a corner is a mental re-wiring challenge. Find the right line, right braking point, ideal combination of throttle and steering, navigate the bumps and manage the changes of grip – there is a good deal going on in one brief corner. Eyeballs continually search for sight lines around the roll cage bars while simultaneously engaging the brain to send urgent messages of action to the feet and the hands.
But when it works, it works. The car pivots with nimbleness, grabs the clay beneath the tires, and launches forward with an instinctive urgency.
As if mastering the beast wasn’t enough, the dirt surface itself was a fickle mistress. Every car churned up dust and sprayed dirt on each lap. As the clay gave way, Kruseman lapped the track with a water truck during breaks. The water settled down the swirls of dust but completely transformed the grip, introducing another ever-changing variable. Friction improved as the moisture diminished and the tacky clay packed down lap after lap.
Perhaps appropriate given the dirt below, the snug seating position had more in common with a farm tractor than a race car. In an asphalt open wheel racer, drivers recline to move the center of gravity as low as possible and adapt to the aerodynamic needs of the car’s shape. A sprint car seating position is more akin to sitting upright on a chair. The throttle and brake are directly below the knees, requiring a technique of stomping downward. The brakes require heavy pressure to be effective. There is no place for subtle feathering or tapping the brakes.
The gas pedal includes a clip across the top of the toes that helps with control and also is a safety feature in case of a stuck throttle. A firewall separates the driver from the engine located ahead, but there are no footwells and no extra space for feet. The driveshaft runs directly from the engine under the driver and to the rear end sitting just behind. No driver has time to look while in motion, but the spinning driveshaft is visible and exposed to the elements. Covering it would not make the car go faster.
Six twenty-five laps sessions flew by. After spending a day focusing on lines and technique, there was a renewed respect for those who race competitively. The idea of racing among dozens of other cars on the same packed piece of real estate at the same time conjured thoughts of combat, gladiators and fights for survival. With such tight quarters racing, the open wheels of different cars often touch and climb up on each other, launching cars end over end or into barrel rolls. The strong fencing around the perimeter of the track is no accident. Its sole role is to keep flying cars from exiting the track completely and finding their way to the parking lot.
After it was over, Francis watched from the sidelines in his dirty drivers suit, dirty driving shoes, dirty gloves and dirty helmet. The day didn’t only teach him to drive in circles, however. It also completed a family circle because his father ran midgets on dirt 60 plus years earlier. After 150 laps, Francis joined the community of those who have bathed in the dirt – experiencing a sport rather than just playing a game.
The Driver’s Series scours the world to find and explore compelling driving experiences for anyone with a driver’s license and passion for speed. We send our resident driver Jeff Francis to get behind the wheel and report back to Speed Journal readers to ride along virtually or become inspired to take on the driving experiences themselves. Are you involved with a driving experience that should be featured on The Speed Journal? Do you have a driving experience suggestion for The Speed Journal to investigate? Please contact us.