BULLS GAP — Dirt track racing has its own fan base, its own superstars, its own culture and its own universe completely separate from NASCAR.
The average dirt racing fan probably wouldn’t take the trouble to cross the street to get an autograph from Jeff Gordon. But that same fan will cross the country every weekend just to get a glimpse of the king of Late Model dirt racing, Scott Bloomquist.
Every so often the worlds of NASCAR and dirt collide. This is one of those occasions.
While the superstars of NASCAR are competing this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, the superstars of dirt Late Models will be a short drive down Interstate 81 at Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap Friday and Saturday night for two 100-lap events dubbed the “Rusty Wallace Toyota/Toyota Tundra Running of the Bulls.”
One of the biggest dirt stars competing this weekend on the high-banked 0.4-mile dirt oval nicknamed “The Gap” is East Tennessee’s own Scott Bloomquist.
He’s the driver everyone wants to beat, even the stars of NASCAR. A couple of NASCAR drivers will usually sneak over to The Gap during Bristol race week without warning or publicity and try to steal a trophy.
More often than not, that trophy has gone home with Bloomquist.
Although Bloomquist tours the country, he considers Volunteer Speedway his home track. For the past 23 years he’s lived in Hawkins County, where he also keeps his race shop a few miles from The Gap in the unincorporated community of Mooresburg.
Bloomquist will be spending a lot of time at Volunteer Speedway over the next two weekends with 100-lap Late Model features scheduled for this Friday and Saturday nights, as well as the rain-delayed “BB&T Spring Thaw” 100-lapper on March 22 — a race that was canceled last month due to rain.
“Volunteer Speedway is what everyone (on his team) considers home,” Bloomquist told the Times-News Tuesday. “We don’t get to race there more than any of the other top guys, but we’ve always done well there. It’s close to home, and we enjoy going there. Bulls Gap is always known for good racing, and there’s not too many times you’ll go to a race at Bulls Gap and not be able to get to the front if you’ve got the fastest car.”
Bloomquist will celebrate his 45th birthday this year, and with nearly three decades of experience behind the wheel he’s closing in on 500 feature wins. He’s probably got the most recognizable name and definitely has the most recognizable paint scheme on his car in the world of dirt.
With so much success throughout the course of his career, Bloomquist is often asked why he never made a move to NASCAR.
Certainly NASCAR stars receive more publicity and recognition, and the pay is better.
He’s fielded offers from NASCAR teams and even made a few visits to the world of paved ovals with tests in Nationwide Series cars, as well as starts in the ARCA series and the old NASCAR Slim Jim All Pro series. He actually finished second in his first All Pro race.
But he wasn’t willing to give up the freedom that dirt track racing offers. In this genre of racing, he is his own boss beholden to no one. He can choose to run for a series championship at his own discretion — as he’s done successfully on numerous occasions — or simply pick and choose to run the big money races as he’ll be doing in 2008.
The main reason he avoided a NASCAR career, however, is that “dirt is more fun.”
“Asphalt doesn’t entertain me like the dirt does,” Bloomquist said. “It’s so much more car than driver compared to dirt. And I don’t really care for day jobs.
“You have to pretty much — not necessarily sell yourself out — but not be in control of your own life (to compete in NASCAR). I enjoy calling the shots.”
Bloomquist occasionally watches NASCAR races, although he’s often quoted saying he likes to watch the beginning of a race, take a long nap, and then catch the last 10 laps. Any race that takes more than one tank of fuel is too long for him.
Dirt racing may never achieve the prominence that NASCAR has achieved. Bloomquist figures some people “just don’t like to get dirty.”
Dirt racing is still growing, however, and will always have a strong following of loyal fans, he added.
“Big NASCAR fans who had never been to dirt, when they do go are usually pretty complimentary of our type of racing and can’t wait to see another,” Bloomquist said. “There’s a lot more excitement.”
This weekend’s races at Volunteer Speedway were organized in only a couple of weeks after negotiations for a World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series event this weekend fell through at the 11th hour. Several NASCAR stars have competed in the dirt Late Models at Volunteer Speedway over the years, and the question on many people’s minds this week is who will show up Friday and Saturday night and try to steal the show from the dirt regulars.
It’s a tall order to expect NASCAR stars who visit the dirt Late Model series sporadically to steal a win against drivers who race two or three times a week. Drivers like Clint Boyer, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Ken Schrader and Bill Elliott have tried over the past couple of years, but without much success.
“They understand that, just like we’re never going to go in their game and beat them,” Bloomquist said. “Tony Stewart does real well when he races dirt because he came from it. Carl Edwards does fairly well, and if you watched the race on pay-per-view last year at Eldora, Jeff Gordon did well. Obviously they’re all good race car drivers, and the ones who have dirt experience shine over the ones who don’t. But we enjoy beating them. It’s good for the sport.”
As of Tuesday, there weren’t any hints or publicity leaks as to who, if any, NASCAR drivers might compete this weekend at The Gap. It’s usually a well-orchestrated surprise.
“They’re looking at it as a good time, and we’re looking at it as making a living,” Bloomquist said. “When they come and want to have fun, they like to not be bothered too much, so sometimes surprise visits are better for them then announcing it and having to deal with the public.”
Bloomquist is nearing the age when a lot of drivers start thinking about retirement. Dirt racers seem to have a slightly longer life expectancy than NASCAR drivers, but even at 45 Bloomquist feels he’s in his prime.
He said he doesn’t foresee cutting back his schedule for at least 10 years.
“We’re running a little bit less, and I’m hoping to eventually work on just running the major events and the televised events, and stuff that’s close to home obviously,” Bloomquist said. “We don’t run anything that’s under $10,000 to win, and if there’s something bigger than that, that’s where we’re gonna go.”
Between the NASCAR events during the day at Bristol and the Late Model events at night in Bulls Gap, race fans in the area have an opportunity to see exactly 1,000 laps of exciting short track action this weekend. But which track is going to put on the best show? No surprises as to how Bloomquist answered that question.
“That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “The best show this weekend is going to be right down the road from Bristol. The top guys are coming from all over the United States. Anyone who has been already, I know they’ll be there. Anyone who’s not been needs to come check it out.”