Dirt track racing gaining momentum
Mike Murphy has been dirt-racing modified cars for about nine years now, and according to him, the sport is quickly gaining popularity.
"This dirt thing is really starting to take off," said Murphy. "A lot of the asphalt tracks are turning over to dirt because they say they're gettin' bigger crowds for dirt."
Murphy and his crew do all of the work on his car at his shop in Boyer.
"We do it all except build the car," said Murphy. "I've got three of the guys that work here for me; Bill Ross is kind of the crew chief, Steve Halterman, and Justin Warner, and then also Jimmy Ryder. My crew right now is really good. They know what I need, they know what I don't need. When I pull in, they always get right to work. We're not second guessing, we pretty much know what we got to do."
Murphy and his crew run every Friday night at Elkins during the race season, generally from May through mid-September.
The modified cars are distant cousins to what you see on an asphalt track, and absolutely nothing like what you see on the road every day. The engines are gas powered, but Murphy's car is outfitted with a 415 cubic inch, 700+ horsepower engine, and the car itself only weighs 2,400 pounds.
"These cars are pretty unique in the back," said Murphy. "They rotate and raise up and change traction and put weight to different wheels. There's so much movement in the back of these cars, it takes a while to learn what everything is doing. It took us, as a crew, the last three or four years to understand what's actually going on back there."
The cars are almost like computers, every couple of years, they become obsolete.
"The thing is right now, there's so much engineering going in 'em, if you don't buy another car about every two years, you get behind," said Murphy. "I was running old cars there for awhile and I just wasn't keeping up with technology. I bought this car here, and ever since we've had this car, we've run up front."
Keeping pace with the developing race technology has been especially difficult the past few years. NASCAR drivers have taken to the emerging sport and automotive engineers followed.
"With those guys getting involved, there's been more technology going into it and it's bringing the cost up, too," explained Murphy.
Dirt track racing isn't about trophies, it's all about the prize money, and with some of the sizable purses it's no wonder the sport is gaining attention from top NASCAR drivers.
"The late-model series is starting to become pretty big," Murphy said. "You're getting a lot of your top NASCAR drivers out here doing it and they're paying some pretty big purses. They just ran in Richmond, it was $50,000 to the winner. Right above Morgantown, Friday night, I think it's $20,000, and Saturday I think it's $25,000 to win. Most of the time in Elkins you get between 13 and 25 cars. When they bring in some of the NASCAR drivers, they bring a crowd and you have to earn your way in."
Murphy and his team have won about eight races so far and he's has had a chance to not only race with, but beat, some of the biggest names in NASCAR.
"Those NASCAR drivers have come out to Elkins on a yearly basis now. I've run with them in Waynesboro, Virginia, too. I've seen Tony Stewart up at Shinnston. Kenny Schrader, we've run together a number of times. One time, we finished second, Kenny Wallace was behind us in third, and Ken Schrader was behind us in fourth, so we had one night where we out-run them."
Murphy said many NASCAR drivers got their start in dirt track racing.
"Clint Bowyer was a dirt modified driver," he said. "Same way with Kasey Kahne, they both come from the dirt."
One might think the dirt track would mean a slower pace, but Murphy said that with dirt track racing, the drivers are pushing the cars at breakneck speed. One track in Florida has speeds exceeding 150 mph.
"Over at Elkins, it's 4/10 of a mile race track. These cars will run about a 100 mph on there. The cars are squealing like they're on asphalt."
Murphy said with the dirt track, after a few runs the track is covered in rubber, and it affects the team's overall strategy for each race.
"The track is a clay-like surface," said Murphy. "By the time you get done, it'll blacken up just like asphalt. I mean, you'll peel the rubber right off your tires. The crazy thing about dirt, you go out in your heat race and the track will be tacky. The tire that you use then will be completely different than what you use later in the night because the track will get real hard, rubbered up. You gotta go to a harder type tire. You gotta be real protective of your tires, you can burn 'em off quick. Some nights, if we have good track conditions, we can go a couple races on a set of tires. Some track conditions we'll use a set of tires up in one race."
And anyone who thinks race car drivers are not athletes should have a chat with Murphy.
"On a hot night, you can lose five pounds of weight in those cars in a 100 lap race, just by sweating," he said. "They're extremely hot in those cars and those suits got the Nomex, you just don't breathe in there. You get used to drinking a lot before a race because you can lose a lot of fluids. When you get done, you're wore out, and you take such a beatin' in there. Some of the hits you take from a rock or a big chunk of mud can really daze you. They'll chip the fiberglass right outta your helmet."
And it's not just the physical aspect of fighting to keep your car in control, the mental focus required for racing can be taxing, as well.
"Those NASCAR drivers, it's not just the physical ability, it's the concentration, too," said Murphy. "Being out there for 500 miles, when they're out there running that many laps and they're that close together, it's a handful."
Surprisingly enough, some of the more basic safety features drivers would be used to, are nowhere to be found on a dirt track race car.
"We don't have mirrors in the cars, so we don't know who is behind us," said Murphy. "You're sittin' in there and all you can do is look straight. A lot of times you can hear their car and get a feeling for where they're at, though."
Murphy said wrecks happen all the time, but the cars are built with safety in mind, and drivers are rarely injured seriously.
"It happens when you're out there running that kind of speed," said Murphy. "You got front running cars, you got mid-pack cars and you got slower cars, and some people get pretty impatient. We've got tore up pretty bad a couple of times and wrecks cost you a lot of money. If you're gonna run against those guys, you gotta run the car on the edge. When you're runnin' on the edge, there's times you're gonna get wrecked up- and maybe collect a few people along the way."
Murphy recalled one particularly hard hit two years ago, during the last race of the year.
"We had a flat tire, I came in, we changed the tire," remembered Murphy. "As we were coming up, I didn't think anyone else was behind me and I came across the front stretch and there was a big pile up. We run a lot of left side braking in our car to make 'em turn, and I got on the brakes real hard and the car started sliding sideways. There was somebody behind me that I guess didn't see the wreck and he hit me broadside at whatever speed. It was an awful hit. That was the hardest I ever took, things happen quick out there."
Dirt track racing is almost a full-time job in itself. Maintenance and repairs take up a good portion of Murphy's and his crews' time, but they have it down to a science.
"We come in on Sundays and clean the car," said Murphy. "Monday nights we go through everything. That way if we have stuff broke or needs ordering, we can order it and have it here by Thursday or so. But we go through the car from one end to the other, every week."
For the Murphy family, racing is a family tradition. Frank Murphy, Mike's dad, has been a huge influence on Mike's racing. They started racing four-wheel drives and jeeps when Mike was in seventh or eighth grade. Health issues last year prevented Frank from attending some of the races.
"He wasn't able to make it to some of the races there last year," Mike said. "He had a serious operation, but our first win was his first time back to the track, so that made it a good win. A lot of my racing surrounds him, ever since I was a kid. It's one of those things that has kind of always been in my blood. When he got sick, he wasn't able to go, so I didn't travel much. If he quit going, I don't know how much I'd do it. It's been a pretty good experience for us. Dad enjoys it. My girls- they like it, my wife likes it. They go just about every weekend when I'm around close. Mom goes every once in a while. It's been exciting, we've done real well with it."