New king of dirt crowned tonight

Who was the last driver to win a NASCAR race on dirt? Since Sept. 30, 1970, the answer has been Richard Petty. NASCAR gets a new answer tonight.

Nearly 43 years after the dust settled from Petty’s win at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, N.C., it gets kicked up again tonight at Eldora Speedway. The Camping World Truck Series makes NASCAR’s first appearance on dirt among its three national touring series — Sprint Cup, Nationwide and CWTS — with the Mudsummer Classic. That’s a span of 2,825 NASCAR races.

So, what took NASCAR so long to return to its roots?

“As our sport grew, we sorta grew outta the small dirt tracks and fairgrounds and into the bigger paved speedways,” Petty said. “That’s just the way the sport went in the 1970’s, 80’s and up until today. Maybe the fans wanted to see something different, and get back to the grassroots of everything. The Truck Series is a good place for NASCAR to try it and see what everyone thinks.”

About 6,000 spectators watched Petty beat Neil Castles by two laps in the 200-lapper around the half-mile track. More than 20,000 are expected for Eldora’s 150-lap Classic. Unaware the race would hold such significance, Castles doesn’t remember much about that runner-up finish. But he does remember one thing.

“Back then there was no fence,” said Castles, 78, who raced from 1957 to 1976. “Mainly it was some old boards.”

Even that didn’t slow down Petty. He topped a field that included Bobby Isaac, James Hylton and Cecil Gordon, who rounded out the top five. Bobby Allison finished sixth.

“I don’t know how I fared but I know I did not win it,” said Allison, 75, who who had one dirt victory among his 84 NASCAR wins during a career that lasted from 1961 to 1988. “Richard Petty was in a habit of winning those things all the time. He hogged the deal for sure. I beat him one night at Savannah, Georgia, but that was before then.”

Petty’s 30 dirt wins are good for fifth all-time in career that started in 1958 and parked in 1992. Even with safety upgrades from those old boards in North Carolina — visitors to Eldora will find a state-of-the art catch-fence, infield care center and various other improvements — Petty, 76, isn’t feeling the urge to go trucking on dirt.

“I haven’t raced in a long time, and I have raced a fair share of dirt races,” Petty said. “I kinda had my shot and now it’s time to give these others a chance to do it. Some of them may not like (dirt), but some may. It’s bringing in a lot of interest.”

And some apprehension. As a points race the Truck Series regulars have little choice but to run. The top 20 trucks in owners’ points are locked into the feature, leaving 10 spots for the remaining 16 trucks.

“Some guys may like it, some may not, but if you’re a regular you gotta race,” Petty said.

Allison said he hopes to make the trip to Eldora. But if previous engagements prevent that he’ll be parked in front of a television to watch the Classic on SPEED.

“I’ve paid attention to the papers and the coverage I’ve seen on Eldora Speedway,” Allison said. “I recognize it as one of the great places around the country for races to go on. If it was easier I definitely would be there Wednesday night without a doubt. I still might be there. “I’m glad to see it happening. I’m sure the fans will see a really good show.”

And a new answer to a trivia question, one that’s been a long time coming.

“They held them for years and years but you never did think the last one was coming,” Castles said. “I liked it when I started because dirt was the only thing going. That was more or less what we grew up with.”

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