ROSSBURG – With the entire racing world watching, young drivers with aspirations of making the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series see the Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway as a golden opportunity.
The Dirt Derby, a Camping World Truck Series event, is the only race contested on dirt in any of NASCAR’s three national series. The uniqueness of the event makes it one of the season’s most popular races and gives young drivers a chance to get noticed by Cup Series teams.
“This place is definitely different,” 18-year-old Kaz Grala said of Eldora. “It’s not your typical place that you would think about moving up the ladder, but you know what, every single Cup and Xfinity (Series) driver watches this race simply because it’s the most exciting one of the year. And all the team owners … I mean this is a great place to get noticed. I think a good run tonight, especially as an asphalt guy, to show my versatility that could go a long way for me potentially.”
Having never raced on dirt prior to Wednesday’s race at Eldora, Grala practiced by driving a modified at a pair of tracks in North Carolina.
“I’m pretty new to this dirt thing,” he said. “I just did my first dirt race in a modified about a week and a half ago so just starting to get my feet wet, but I am loving it so far. Oh, my gosh. It’s a blast.”
The trucks present a completely different challenge, though, as they’re not designed to run on dirt like the modified cars.
“It makes them like driving a school bus on ice,” 18-year-old Justin Haley said of driving a truck on dirt.
With the vehicles being so difficult to control, the Eldora truck race really tests the ability of drivers.
“It’s pretty much just an asphalt car that you throw out there on dirt so it’s not exactly wanting to do what you need it to do, and it’s up to the driver to hustle it and kind of make it do what you need it to do,” Grala said.
Like Grala, 16-year-old Harrison Burton entered the fifth annual Dirt Derby without previous experience racing on dirt. But he came to Rossburg hopeful of a strong performance.
“I think it’s one where you just want to get through and have a good finish and have fun is the biggest thing, but you also can come out and show how fast you can learn a new thing and do some cool stuff on the dirt,” he said. “It’s kind of hard for me to tell because I don’t know good I’m going to be. I’ll tell you after the race.”
Being just 16 years old, Burton is restricted in which NASCAR races he can compete. The rules limit drivers younger than 18 to short tracks and road courses, which post slower times and thus are considered safer for the younger drivers.
“The goal would be to run trucks full time when I turn 18 because of the age restrictions of a mile and a half and all that,” Burton, the son of former NASCAR Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, said. “I can’t go to some of the bigger tracks because of my age. So I want to be running full time trucks by the time I’m 18, and hopefully I can make some noise then and move my way up.”
Burton is accustomed to driving restrictions whether it’s on the track or on the road, having just recently received his full provisional license in his home state of North Carolina.
“I actually just got my after 9 (p.m.) license so I’m good to go at all times,” he said.
The teen drivers in the truck series all want to showcase their driving abilities and continue moving up through the NASCAR ranks. The Dirt Derby is a difficult race, but overcoming the treacherous conditions at Eldora could signal the start of a blossoming career for these young drivers.
“I think every kid that races wants to be in the Cup Series at the end of the day,” Burton said. “It’s a hard thing to do for sure. There’s only 40 people in the world that get to do what I want to do every Sunday. It’s a competitive job field for sure, but hopefully we’ll get there.”
Having a strong race at Eldora in the national spotlight would be a big step toward fulfilling those dreams.
“This is one of the shows that you just want to run good for,” Haley said.
Kyle Shaner may be reached at 937-569-4316. Follow me on Twitter @KShanerAdvocate or get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com.