BULLS GAP -- The Steel Heads are coming back to "The Gap" in full force to kick off Volunteer Speedway's 41st season of weekly dirt racing action.
Coming off of a two-night Spring Thaw Super Late Model double-feature last month, Volunteer Speedway's regular season begins Saturday, April 5 with a $1,500-to-win Steel Head Late Model features, as well as the Crate Late Models and the fan favorite Hobby Stocks.
The driver's meeting will begin around 7:15 p.m. Saturday, followed by hot laps, qualifying, and the feature races. Admission is $15 for the grandstands and $30 for the pits.
There was a good mix of drivers testing out the high banks of the World's fastest 3/8ths mile oval Wednesday afternoon during an open practice — including a defending champion, a top contender, a rookie hopeful, and a local racing legend.
The Steel Heads are a fairly new division created with the help of master engine builder and five time Volunteer Speedway championship driver Vic Hill.
The division is based around a "limited" Late Model engine that has a lot more power then the traditional "Crate Late Models" but is a lot more affordable than the engines powering today's elite Super Late Model racers.
The final two Volunteer Speedway races of 2013 saw 49 and 50 "Men of Steel" respectively fighting it out to make the feature race.
But being a "Man of Steel" in the Steel Head division doesn't always make you mild mannered, and Hill said Wednesday he believes the excitement that closed out 2013 will carry over into 2014.
"What we're trying to do is build a weekly series that pays good enough to come race every Saturday night, and build the fan base up, and at the end of the year have one real big money race," Hill said.
Hill explained that when it comes to horsepower, and cost, the Steel Head is somewhere between Super Late Model and a Crate Late Model.
The motor has a steel block and a steel cylinder head, and there's a 365 cubic inch rule, but aside from that, engine builders have a lot of wiggle room to use ingenuity in creating more horsepower.
The Steel Heads put out between 650 and 700 horsepower, compared to 800-900 in the Super Late Models.
Hill, who provides engines or engine consulting services to several of Volunteer Speedway's Men of Steel, noted that the more engine rules they make, the more expensive the series gets. That's why he's working to keep the rule book pretty basic.
"They've got enough power to where it's a good race — they can spin the tires and get loose," Hill said. "Crate races are good races, but there's not a lot of moving around because they're so limited on power. This is a more affordable way for a weekly racer to have enough speed to entertain the fans and the drivers who are competing."
One driver in the "contender" category is Jensen Ford from Piney Flats who will start the 2014 Volunteer Speedway season in the Crate Late Model division, but hopes to move up quickly to running both the Steel Heads and the Crates.
Last year Ford toured with the Fastrak Racing Series where he finished 13th in the Southeast tour season point standings. He'll be running Volunteer Speedway's full schedule in 2014 targeting a track championship. He got off to a good start last month, winning the Spring Thaw Friday night Crate Late Model feature.
Ford said he likes his chances for carrying that momentum into Saturday's race.
"I was looking the other night, our last 15 races here we've had like 12 poles and eight wins," Ford said up. "Chassis setup is the biggest thing. When everybody has the same horsepower it comes down to chassis setup and driving ability, and driving ability really makes the difference when it's slick. When it's hooked up you're just running wide open, and hopefully you qualify good enough to where you can get out front, and that's it."
Ford's car owner, Jonesborough racer Tim Byrd, is the defending Volunteer Speedway Crate Late Model champion.
It was Byrd's first championship as a driver, which was made more special because he was able to share that championship with his father, who also won a driving championship at Volunteer Speedway in the early 1980s.
Byrd said the goal for 2014 is to repeat as champion, while putting his teammate Ford in victory lane in the team's lone Steel Head entry.
"There's a lot of good competition here," Byrd said. "We'll need to have a lot of luck, and no mechanical failures. Your best chance to win is by qualifying on the front row. There's a lot of passing, but still, it's pretty equal. You've got to figure your chassis out and set it up for the long run to win these races. TNT Chassis run better on the long greens. The blacker the track gets, that's where we want it to be."
Greeneville High School junior Bryson Dennis will be a rookie in Volunteer Speedway's Crate Late Model division in 2014, moving up from national dirt go-kart tours.
The 17-year-old said he chose to continue his racing career on dirt because he feels it makes him a better racer. He got off to a good start last month, finishing seventh in the Friday Spring Thaw race.
"My goal is to run in the top-10 as much as I can," Dennis said. "I know it's my first year, but I'd like to get a few top-5 finishes too, and run for Rookie of the year. It will take a lot of effort and set up, and once I get a little bit of experience under me I think I'll be good to go."
Volunteer Speedway is located at 14095 West Andrew Johnson Highway in Bulls Gap, just off of Exit 23 on I-81.