Speedway, Indiana (February 6, 2024)………It will have been 125 days since the last time we were witnesses to a USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship event.
The time off has been used to catch up, recharge the batteries and reload for 2024, and the time can’t possibly come soon enough.
It seems fitting that a season which brings us the largest field of full-time USAC National Sprint Car contenders ever (15) also brings us to the largest Winter Dirt Games schedule ever.
Seven nights, seven events and two different racetracks across the state of Florida present the grand opening to a grand season – February 9-10 at Ocala Speedway; February 12-13 at Barberville’s Volusia Speedway Park and February 15-16-17 at Ocala Speedway.
The winter hibernation is over. It’s time go racing.
HOW THE DOMINOES FELL
The new season is chockfull of new driver and team combinations with no less than five full-time USAC National Sprint Car teams going with a different plan in 2024.
Kevin Thomas Jr. (Cullman, Ala.), a 39-time series feature winner has joined Rock Steady Racing, a seat which has been occupied by Kyle Cummins for much of the past decade. Cummins (Princeton, Ind.), an 18-time USAC Sprint Car winner himself, has switched over to the brand-new Petty Performance Racing team.
In fact, Cummins is one of two drivers on the USAC scene this year who is going into a new sprint car situation with a new team. Logan Seavey (Sutter, Calif.) captured both the USAC National Midget and Silver Crown titles for Abacus Racing in 2023. Now, the team has added a sprint car to its stable with Seavey and Abacus gunning for the USAC Triple Crown.
Seavey’s former ride, the 2B Racing No. 2B, has gone to Jake Swanson (Anaheim, Calif.) who broke out last year with five wins under USAC sanction with Team AZ Racing. Meanwhile, Team AZ will now field 2023 series Rookie of the Year Daison Pursley (Locust Grove, Okla.) as its driver after the pairing went two-for-two in its first two races together in October of 2023 at Arizona’s Cocopah Speedway.
RETURNING TO THEIR ROOTS
Those with a bit of a more relaxed offseason by returning to their mainstay rides this season include two-time and defending USAC National Sprint Car champion Justin Grant (Ione, Calif.), who is back for year seven with TOPP Motorsports.
The winningest combo in USAC National Sprint Car history with 45 victories is back. Four-time series titlist Brady Bacon (Broken Arrow, Okla.) takes the reins of the legendary No. 69 once again. Fresh off his first USAC win in 17 years, Matt Westfall (Pleasant Hill, Ohio) has a special year coming up with his team as it will mark Ray Marshall Motorsports’ final year in the sport.
C.J. Leary (Greenfield, Ind.), the 2019 USAC National Sprint Car champ, is back in familiar territory for his second year at BGE-Dougherty Motorsports. His teammate, Carson Garrett (Littleton, Colo.), again is in the team car to Leary after capturing USAC National Most Improved Driver honors a year ago.
As an independent driver/team owner, no one has won more features in USAC National Sprint Car competition than Robert Ballou (Rocklin, Calif.). This year, he’s once again back in his familiar No. 12 which has graced USAC National Sprint Car victory lane on 32 occasions since 2014 in addition to a series championship in 2015.
Mitchel Moles (Raisin City, Calif.) has been in USAC Sprint Car victory lane in each of the past two seasons with Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports, who’ve teamed up for year three on the series’ trail. Jadon Rogers (Worthington, Ind.) got hot late last season after joining Michael Dutcher Motorsports, winning three times on the local level. In 2024, these two have paired up for their first full-season USAC run together.
NEW TO THE USAC NATIONAL SCENE
Another tandem of drivers will be new to full-time USAC National Sprint Car duties in 2024 with the likes of Joey Amantea and Trey Osborne taking on the challenge.
Nineteen-year-old Amantea (Mount Pocono, Pa.) will drive his family-owned JPA Racing machine and brings with him a pedigree of USAC East Coast 360 Sprint Car winning experience, racking up a pair of wins. The Lehigh University Mechanical Engineering major owns 13 career USAC National Sprint Car starts, which included some fine showings in 2023, going 18th to 7th during Indiana Sprint Week at Lawrenceburg.
Trey Osborne (Columbus, Ohio) has made a splash in the sport right from the get-go, which earned him National Non-Wing Sprint Car Rookie of the Year honors in 2023 from the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. For the 2024 USAC season, he’ll pilot the Baldwin-Fox Racing ride for the majority of the season and fill in the remainder of the shows with own car. At the local level in Indiana last year, Osborne won thrice at Paragon Speedway and Gas City I-69 Speedway.
NEW LOOK FEBRUARY, NEW LOOK FORMAT
The only other occasion in which USAC’s Winter Dirt Games crossed over to include two different racetracks was 2015 when Ocala and East Bay Raceway Park took part in a five-race series, which until this point, marked the largest slate of events in the series’ history.
For 2024, the Winter Dirt Games schedule has expanded to seven dates (five at Ocala and two at Volusia), surpassing the five events that took place nine years ago. Furthermore, as a changeup compared to last year’s Winter Dirt Games, the Volusia events will now be full-blown points-paying races that will go toward the championship standings.
The first night of racing in Ocala on Friday, Feb. 9, will pay $6,000-to-win while Saturday night’s, Feb. 10, weekend capper will pay $7,500-to-win. Down the road at Volusia, Monday’s Feb. 12 event will be 25 laps in length and pay $6,000 while the Tuesday, Feb. 13, affair will pay $10,000 to the winner. Rounding it up at Ocala, the first two evenings of racing on Feb. 15-16 will pay $6,000-to-win with Saturday night’s 35-lap finale paying $10,000-to-win.
Additionally, new procedure rules will make their debut this week. Among them are the fact that all standard format events will consist of 24 feature starters unless otherwise noted, and if four (4) heat races are held, the top-five (5) finishers will transfer to the feature. If three (3) heat races are held, the top-six (6) finishers will transfer to the feature.
If 48 or more cars are in competition, five (5) heat races will be held with the top-four (4) finishers transferring to the feature.
At Ocala’s 3/8-mile D-shaped dirt track, if 28-47 cars are in competition on tracks under a half-mile in length, four (4) heat races will be held with the top-five (5) finishers transferring to the feature. If 27 cars or less, three (3) heat races will be held with the top-six (6) finishers transferring to the feature.
At Volusia’s 1/2-mile dirt oval, if 31-47 cars are in competition on tracks a half-mile in length, four (4) heat races will be held with the top-five (5) finishers transferring to the feature. If 30 cars or less, three (3) heat races will be held with the top-six (6) transferring to the feature.
Furthermore, Semi-Feature, C-Main and D-Main events will now be lined up by heat race finish. The only exception is the front row of the semi, which will be reserved for the fastest two non-transfers.
2023 FLORIDA REWIND
In what was USAC’s Volusia debut, Jake Swanson started the new year with the hot touch in 2023, scoring a a wire-to-wire 25-lap victory. The next night out at Volusia, Daison Pursley led early, lost the lead to Emerson Axsom, then gained it back late with six laps to go to score an emotional victory in just his sixth career drive in a sprint car.
Moving over to Ocala, Brady Bacon scored a monumental win, surpassing Jack Hewitt on the USAC Sprint Car career win list with his 47th victory, tied for fourth all-time. Hewitt then put an exclamation point on the evening by greeting Bacon and congratulating him in victory lane. Bacon has now upped his total to 53 wins, second all-time and nine behind Dave Darland for the number one spot.
On the final night at Ocala, Kyle Cummins and Rock Steady Racing came back from two blown engines suffered earlier in the week and capped the weekend with a $10,000 prize after being delivered a third engine just in the nick of time just when they thought they were done. From there, the team installed the engine in a hotel parking lot, and Cummins raced by Bacon with four to go to score his first Florida triumph.
A RICH USAC HISTORY IN FLORIDA
Thirty-seven (37) previous Winter Dirt Games events have been held since its 2010 debut. Damion Gardner, who won five of the first six Winter Dirt Games features ever contested between 2010-12, remains the all-time win leader of the series with five. But that very well could change this year.
Both Brady Bacon and Justin Grant sit one win behind Gardner with four victories apiece. Among the other expected entrants in the field, Robert Ballou possesses three Winter Dirt Games scores while Kevin Thomas Jr. owns two and both C.J. Leary and Chase Stockon (Fort Branch, Ind.) have each notched one in the win column.
As an aside, Bacon could also set another record this year. He’s currently amid a five-way tie for the most season opening victories in USAC National Sprint Car history. All drivers currently with three opening night series wins include Bacon, Gardner, Don Branson, Larry Dickson and Rich Vogler.
When it comes to Florida and USAC racing history, it’s definitely worth noting this little nugget. USAC and the Sunshine State have a history that dates back to the decade of the 1950s. In fact, the first three USAC Sprint Car races ever held took place in Florida in February of 1956. Bob Sweikert won the first such event at Southland Speedway in West Palm Beach, followed by Chuck Weyant at Jacksonville Speedway and Pat O’Connor at Medley Speedway in Miami.
FEB. 8-10 OCALA
Practice begins the Winter Dirt Games festivities on Thursday, Feb. 8 from 7-10pm Eastern at Ocala Speedway. Grandstand admission is free while pit admission is $20.
For the first night of racing on Feb. 9 at Ocala, grandstand admission for ages 13 & up is $30 while kids age 12 & under are free. Pit passes are $40 apiece for ages 6 & up. Pit passes for ages 5 & under are free.
On Saturday, Feb. 10, at Ocala, grandstand admission for ages 13 & up is $35 while kids age 12 & under are free. Pit passes are $45 apiece for ages 6 & up. Pit passes for ages 5 & under are free.
On both nights Feb. 9-10 at Ocala, pits open at 2pm Eastern, front gates open at 5pm and cars hit the track at 6pm. Outlaw 4’s will serve as the support class.
FEB. 12-13 VOLUSIA
On both nights, the pits open at 1pm Eastern with grandstands opening at 4pm, the drivers meeting at 4:30pm, engine heat at 5pm and hot laps at 5:30 followed by qualifying and racing. General admission tickets are $35. Reserved tickets are $40. Premium reserved tickets are $45. Child reserved tickets are $18. Pit passes are $45. Advance tickets available at https://dirtcarnationals.com/tickets/
FEB. 14-17 OCALA
Practice begins the return to Winter Dirt Games festivities on Wednesday, Feb. 14 from 7-10pm Eastern at Ocala Speedway. Grandstand admission is free while pit admission is $20.
For race night on Feb. 15 at Ocala, grandstand admission for ages 13 & up is $30 while kids age 12 & under are free. Pit passes are $40 apiece for ages 6 & up. Pit passes for ages 5 & under are free.
On Friday-Saturday, Feb. 16-17, at Ocala, grandstand admission for ages 13 & up is $35 while kids age 12 & under are free. Pit passes are $45 apiece for ages 6 & up. Pit passes for ages 5 & under are free.
On all three nights Feb. 15-16-17 at Ocala, pits open at 2pm Eastern, front gates open at 5pm and cars hit the track at 6pm. Outlaw 4’s will serve as the support class. Micro Sprints 270-250-450 will be the support class.
All seven USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship events from Florida will be streamed live and on-demand at https://flosports.link/usac.
Story - Richie Murray/USAC
Photo - Dave Olson