TOP FIVE GRASSROOTS RACES

When the question “Where is the race this weekend?” is asked in NASCAR circles, the answer is the Sprint Cup Series location. But for many fans nationwide, “the race” can mean a multitude of tracks or tours. There is an abundance of racing activity beyond the Cup and diehard followers of many divisions can make valid arguments that their regional circuit is better than the national tours. The grassroots-racing world has some outstanding events and these five shine brightly.

1. Knoxville Nationals. Sprint car racing’s biggest race of the year takes place every August in Knoxville, Iowa. Four nights of racing narrow nearly 200 entries into a 24-car field for the championship finale. The 2010 running will be the 50th edition of the historic show and the purse will exceed $1 million. Donny Schatz earned $150,000 for winning the 40-lap 2009 contest. The “King of the Outlaws” Steve Kinser has been victorious 12 times in his career. Other sprint car greats such as Danny Lasoski, Dave Blaney, Doug Wolfgang and Sammy Swindell can boast of winning the Nationals. This is arguably the biggest short-track race of the year.

2. World 100. The week after Labor Day brings campers, fans and race transporters to Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. Like Knoxville, the 100 is unsanctioned. And for the 100’s dirt late-model participants the trophy is a coveted reward. In the previous 39 editions the prestige has grown along with the purse to become late-models racing’s Super Bowl. Over 200 drivers run the time trial on Friday night. The fastest 120 go to the heats and their last chance to form Saturday’s 28-car lineup. A cool $1,000 is added every year to the winner’s share and next year $44,000 will go to the driver who crosses the checkered first.

3. Super Dirt Week. Northeast DIRTcar regional racers take center stage in Syracuse, N.Y., each October for their crown jewel event. The New York State Fairgrounds’ mile hosts pro stocks, sportsman and small block modified races and big block modifieds in a 200-mile grind. The money and history define this dirt-racing celebration. Matt Sheppard cashed a $50,000 check for winning in 2009. Buzzie Reutimann, father of current NASCAR Sprint Cup driver David, won the first version, which was 100 miles. The list of winners is a who’s who of regional dirt modified racing and includes Brett Hearn, Bob McCreadie, Gary Balough, Billy Decker, Jimmy Horton, Dick Tobias and Billy Osmun. If a big block racer can only win one race a season, this is the one.

4. Snowball Derby. Pavement super late model teams have focused their crosshairs on Pensacola, Fla., every December since 1968. Five Flags Speedway organizes the 300-lap Derby and pays out a $20,000 first place prize. In 2009 over 60 cars competed for 37 spots. Kyle Busch won and added his name to a list of pavement stars to have stood in victory lane. Jody Ridley, Butch Miller, Bobby Gill, Rich Bickle Jr. and Rick Crawford are among the champions. Syracuse winner Balough has also conquered Pensacola’s big race.

5. Little 500. Thirty-three drivers lined up in 11 rows of three race for a large purse and a prestigious trophy at an Indiana speedway on Memorial Day weekend. The Indy 500? Nope. A short drive to Anderson the night before Indy brings in the sights and sounds of the Little 500, a USAC sprint car endurance grind. Held on a steeply-banked quarter-mile oval, the race features infield pitting. Crews set up fuel rigs, tires and tools in the infield figure eight course. This requires each car that pits to get a push-start from pit road after every stop, as these are true sprint cars with direct drivelines. Sam Skinner won the first 500-lap running in 1949. Since then, names that have taken home trophies include open-wheel masters Bentley Warren, Eric Gordon, Chet Fillip and 2009 champ Dave Steele.

(Patrick Reynolds is a professional racing mechanic who has worked for several NASCAR teams.)

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