It was a massive curveball when it was revealed that Eldora would be joining the NASCAR Truck schedule in 2013, and with it being one of the most popular races on the calendar, the fact that NASCAR West has added a dirt race at Las Vegas this year proves that it’ll probably stay on the calendar for awhile.
NASCAR’s Grand National Division ran its last race in 1970, and though NASCAR West continued to run a few dirt races in the ensuing years, after 1979 they were also removed. However, around the turn of the millennium, NASCAR began flirting with the idea again, leading to one of the most interesting races of the early 2000s.
In the early 2000s, NASCAR began considering a return to dirt. They’d last run a high level dirt race in 1979 when the West Series ran Gardena, and were looking around for a suitable track to make their return to. Angie Wilson, a former competitor in the Goody’s Dash Series, suggested that NASCAR hold a Dash race at the Oglethorpe Speedway Park. This was eventually agreed upon, and a race was scheduled.
Opening in 1951, the Oglethorpe Speedway in Pooler, Georgia is one of the more prestigious dirt tracks in the South. It held a few Cup races in the mid-50s, closed in the mid-60s, and reopened in 1977. The track was a 1/2 mile d-oval for many years, though it’s currently being shortened to 3/8ths mile.
Immediately after the Daytona race in 2003, the NASCAR Goody’s Dash Series competitors were in for a fun time setting up their cars for a dirt race. The cavalry, which was mostly made up of Pontiac Sunfires, with an odd sprinkling of Mercury Cougars, Ford Escorts, and Toyota Celica Coupes in the mix, had about two months to prepare for the race, which was to be a 150 lap jaunt known as the Lucas Oil Dash On Dirt 150.
On March 15th, open practice began. The session saw several drivers head to the track, only for a light rainstorm to hit the area. Jake Hobgood, the defending champion, decided to test the track anyway, though most of the other drivers decided not to due to the approaching rain. Testing continued throughout the next couple weeks. Drivers praised both the facility and the idea of a dirt race. Robert Huffman even referred to the first couple laps as “trial and error”.
Eventually, race day arrived on April 5th, 2003. The weather was rather overcast for most of the day, and light rain during the afternoon forced crews to dry the track quickly, but by the time the lights came on, the facility was as ready as it would ever be. 23 drivers had showed up to the circuit, though officials expected somewhere around 30. Jake Hobgood qualified on pole in his #64 Toyota, with the #37 Toyota of Robert Huffman on his outside. Rounding out the top five were the #65 Pontiac of Justin Hobgood (somehow sponsored by a Toyota dealership), the #18 Pontiac of Jay Godley, and the #19 Pontiac of Joey Miller, no relation to the 2005 ARCA runnerup. Danny Bagwell’s #10 Mercury started sixth. Lining up seventh was the #26 Pontiac of T.J. Majors. Majors, who currently works as Joey Logano’s spotter, had met Dale Earnhardt, Jr. while racing online, and Dale had taken Majors under his wing as a sort of protégé. On race day, however, organizers inverted the top four. Jake Hobgood kept his pole position, but now Godley started second, Justin Hobgood remaining third and Huffman dropping to fourth.
Jake Hobgood led the field to the green and quickly took the advantage, though the opening caution on lap two quickly mitigated that. When they resumed, he pulled away again, only to quickly lose it with another caution. This would be a recurring theme throughout the opening laps.
Jake Hobgood ended up leading until an early caution around lap 25 either for Mike McConnell in the #61 crashing out or the #77 of Michael Guerity blowing his car’s clutch. Most of the field pitted, but Eric Wilson and T.J. Majors did not. Wilson led a few laps before running off course in turn three, giving Majors the lead.
Majors’ lead, however, was cut short on lap 49, when paraplegic driver Ray Paprota looped his #0 Pontiac on the front chute. Majors and the lapped car of Ned Combs both collided and spun off of turn four, and Combs’ #9 piled into Paprota’s #0. Majors was able to soldier on, but Combs and Paprota were done. The red flag was waved so crews could clean up debris and help the wheelchair-bound Paprota out of his car. Nobody was injured.
Another caution flew for the #95 of Greg Goodell crashing out around lap 60, and around lap 77, Jake Hobgood brought out another yellow when he ran off course in turn one and collided with a tree. He’d already been in at least one incident during the race after colliding with and spinning out Danny Bagwell a few laps prior, and this just made things worse. Hobgood was all right, but he was out of the race. Danny Snell’s #25 caused another yellow around lap 90 when he wrecked out. These were only some of the yellows, as the dirt surface, though it provided an exciting race, also provided a crashfest, littered with fifteen yellow flags.
On lap 102, Robert Huffman slid up the track in turn one, giving Jay Godley the lead. Godley almost immediately thereafter ran wide, and Danny Bagwell was the beneficiary. Bagwell pulled a gap and led up until the end of the race. Justin Hobgood chased down Bagwell in the closing laps, but was never able to pass him, and Danny Bagwell was the one in victory lane. Hobgood fended off Godley for second, with Robert Huffman and Joey Miller rounding out the top five. The #93 of future Cup team owner Randy Humphrey finished sixth, last car on the lead lap. T.J. Majors had to settle for eighth, one lap off. Eric Wilson placed 13th, seven laps down, having gone to the pit area for radiator repairs after smacking the frontstretch wall about halfway through the race.
1. #10 Danny BAGWELL
2. #65 Justin HOBGOOD
3. #18 Jay GODLEY*
4. #37 Robert HUFFMAN
5. #19 Joey MILLER
6. #93 Randy HUMPHREY
7. #11 Brandon WARD (-1)
8. #26 T.J. MAJORS* (-1)
9. #2 Scott WEAVER (Out Of Fuel)
10. #1 Scott KREHLING (-2)
11. #02 Kelly SUTTON (-4)
12. #17 Mike WATTS (-6)
13. #4 Eric WILSON* (-7)
14. #98 Roger MOSER (-7)
15. #5 Scott HALLER* (-13)
16. #31 Zach BREWER (-38)
17. #25 Danny SNELL (Crash)
18. #64 Jake HOBGOOD (Crash)
19. #95 Greg GOODELL (Crash)
20. #9 Ned COMBS (Crash)
21. #0 Raymond PAPROTA* (Crash)
22. #77 Michael GUERITY (Clutch)
23. #61 Mike McCONNELL (Crash)
Cautions: 15 for 70 laps
Lead Changes: 4
Leaders: 5 (#4, #10, #26, #37, #64)
MoV: 0.410 seconds
Race Duration: 1h39m55s
Hard Charger: #17 Mike Watts
Winner’s Purse: $1,725
Pole Speed: 77.922 mph
Average Speed: 45.038 mph
The event was very popular amongst the fans and the drivers alike, and all in all was ruled a success. However, NASCAR had already announced by the time the Oglethorpe race was conducted that they’d be selling off the Dash Series after 2003. Even when the series was purchased by Buck Parker in 2004, Oglethorpe was not on the calendar, though I was not able to find if Oglethorpe was ever on the schedule to begin with being as several Dash events jumped ship after the death of Roy Weaver III (I’m inclined to believe it was not).
Even still, this race’s uniqueness and entertainment value made it a fond memory for everyone, and it proved ten years before Eldora did that, despite having been a pavement based series for many years, NASCAR can put on a show on dirt.
“Jake Hobgood tests at Oglethorpe”, March 18th, 2003 article on motorsport.com
“Dash drivers making tough transition onto OSP’s dirt track”, April 2nd, 2003 article on SavannahNow
“Oglethorpe: Race summary”, April 8th, 2003 article on motorsport.com
“Danny Bagwell wins Goody’s Dash Series, NASCAR Touring race on dirt”, April 5th, 2003 article on Oglethorpe Speedway’s website
Various driver websites