Super DIRT Week staff members took their seats in the auditorium of the Oswego Community Christian School as the clock neared 8 a.m. Coffee hovered to the lips of most. Eyelids drooped. Muscles, every muscle, fatigued.
It was Monday, Oct. 9. Day nine of Super DIRT Week 51 at Oswego Speedway. For some, day “who knows anymore.” About four inches of rain fell the night before in the area, on top of the rain that had already plagued a promising week on Friday and Saturday.
Jeff Hachmann, Super DIRT Week’s executive director of events, walked between the cluster of chairs and zombified staff members, clipboard in hand, directed toward the podium in front of them all. With no need to spare seconds, he delivered the medicine everyone needed. A message many feared may never come.
For the first time in Super DIRT Week’s 51 years, the northeast epic ran on Monday, producing three unforgettable Features and an unforgettable experience for those involved. Because getting to that point was a trial in overcoming the impossible.
On Saturday, Sept. 30 – more than a week before the Billy Whittaker Cars 200 – Hachmann initiated talks with Precision Weather Service and Meteorologist Wayne Mahar, who provided daily weather updates, to map out what was expected for the week.
Monday through Thursday, great. Friday through Sunday…
As the week progressed, the forecast never improved. With that knowledge, the first proactive move came Wednesday after the city parade, moving all Time Trials to Thursday.
“Knowing what was potentially going to happen over the weekend, we were trying to get to the point where we could set the field,” Hachmann said. “So, if worst case scenario is we don’t get to do anything or time to do anything, we can still run Features. So, that’s why we set all the qualifying on Thursday.
“We were told that Friday was a chance, and that Saturday was our best chance to get racing in. We were always focused on trying to get to Saturday, knowing Sunday, all week long, looked like a complete wash out. The whole intent was to get the fans home on the day they were planning on getting home.”
Mother Nature didn’t care about intents. She closed the initial window to get racing in on Friday and canceled the entire day. But what resulted from that was a moment rarely seen in any form of motorsports. Officials invited all 200-plus drivers on site to a town hall-style meeting to discuss options for the rest of the weekend.
“We had a small group that included, production, officials, operations, track crew, ticketing and PR, that I kept consistent throughout the weekend when making decisions, everything was thought out,” Hachmann said. “But we knew we were starting to mess with format and people’s time and the overall completion of the event and felt like the drivers needed to be up to speed on the situation and give them that one-to-one conversation, give them that opportunity to ask questions, instead of just putting out a press release.”
From the guidance of Precision Weather Service, the best window to get racing in was 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday. Sunday was never presented as a viable option. Monday was the rain date, but also had a threat of rain and presented several logistical issues.
So with that information, it was decided to try and give drivers and fans all the Features – the Billy Whittaker Cars 200, DIRTcar 358 Modified Salute to the Troops 150, DIRTcar Sportsman Chevrolet 75 and DIRTcar Pro Stock 50 – on Saturday. But, to do so, the Super DIRTcar Series and DIRTcar Sportsman Qualifying Heats had to be scrapped. Instead, the Top-30 Super DIRTcar Series qualifiers and Top-26 DIRTcar Sportsman qualifiers would be locked in. Drivers in both divisions would at least get to try and race their way in through Last Chance Showdowns on Saturday. Also, the Sportsman Feature had to be cut to 50 laps and the Pro Stock Feature to 25.
After presenting drivers with the changes at the Friday meeting, Super DIRTcar Series Director Dean Reynolds left surprised and relieved by their unanimous understanding.
“I’ll tell ya, about 260 drivers were at that meeting and only about 10 of them had gripes. And legitimate gripes,” Reynolds said. “I think the one thing we gotta say is the race teams were understanding. They really were. When Doug (Leonard, the Race Director) had the drivers meeting and said what we were going to do and we were going to cut these laps, and everything, we stood there and stayed and really it was some one-on-ones and that was it.
“I think they knew the forecast and I think they really put their trust in us.”
The meeting was a new experience for Jimmy Phelps. In his more than 30 years of racing at Super DIRT Week, he couldn’t recall seeing one like it before.
“I thought that was good,” said Phelps, who also had the SRI Performance/Stock Car Steel Pole for the Billy Whittaker Cars 200. “It seemed the decisions were certainly around trying to get it in, trying to get us a paycheck. It was disappointing that we lost the Big Block Heats, but it was probably a good call and a necessary evil. I think everyone made the best decision.
“It was disappointing for some of the fans that couldn’t stay. I didn’t really see that there were too many people upset. Everyone that was there, they were paying attention to what Mother Nature was dealing for a hand.”
With everyone in agreeance on Saturday’s plan, track crews massaged and cared for the track in preparation of a massive Super DIRT Week Saturday. In the 50 years of the event, the main Big Block Modified Feature had not run on Sunday only twice – Saturday, Nov. 5, 2005, and Saturday, April 15, 1978.
However, when the day came, the 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. window that had been touted all week tightened to 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Once the rain moved out at 2:45 p.m., the mission for the day became, “go, go, go!” Hachmann said.
Two Super DIRTcar Series Last Chance Showdowns, done. The 25-lap DIRTcar Pro Stock Feature, done. Two DIRTcar 358 Modified Last Chance Showdowns, done. Three DIRTcar Sportsman Last Chance Showdowns, done.
Then, it looked like it was finally going to happen. Big Block Modifieds, accompanied by four wheelers and toolboxes, staged in the infield.
Curious eyes peaked at phones and watches, then quickly veered away. The estimated window was closing. Fast.
With cars in place on pit road and drivers at their cars, the ‘200’ was seconds away from getting the greenlight. Seconds that turned into a fantasy with the first drop of water from the sky. Hopes of it being a passing cloud vanished as the sprinkle turned into an assault of rain drops.
“It rained hard enough that we knew there was nothing to do,” Hachmann said. “It wasn’t a tough decision. We knew, OK, now we’re in it.”
The release that night said the three remaining Features would be moved to Sunday, but officials would reevaluate the situation in the morning. Hachmann stated there wasn’t much confidence from any party that there would be racing on Sunday as Precision Weather Service called for the day to be a washout all week. But it would’ve been a disservice to fans if the option wasn’t left open.
When he woke up the next morning, the decision was easy. A bucket of precipitation was dropped on Oswego, accompanied by flood warnings and gale warnings.
Wasting no time when he got to the podium in the auditorium of the Oswego Community Christian School – used as the command center for Super DIRT Week staff during the week – Hachmann’s message was clear:
“We’re not racing today.”
Instead, for the next two hours, everyone focused on how to make Monday a reality for the first time in the history of Super DIRT Week. The ticketing department worked out how to accommodate those who could and couldn’t make it back. The track crew devised a plan on what they’d do to have the track ready in the morning. The facilities crew planned out what was needed to keep the grounds in good shape for an extra day. The public relations department constructed messaging and storylines everyone needed to know. Competition directors worked out the best plan of attack to get all the racing in. DIRTVision adjusted broadcast plans for fans who had purchased tickets but couldn’t stay for Monday. The events team meticulously mapped out details for the entire day.
And in addition to the event itself, there were several factors outside of it that needed to be addressed. Flights and rental cars needed to be changed. Hotels needed to be extended. Camper rentals needed to be extended. Internet service needed to be extended on the property. Porta-Johns needed to stay another day. The church school needed to stay closed another day for staff and security. The state needed to extend the event’s mass gathering permit. Oswego City Mayor William Barlow needed to enact an executive order to keep certain roads closed for an extra day. And more, and more.
Monday was the last chance to make Super DIRT Week 51 happen in 2023.
The day presented the largest window of opportunity to get racing in, but Mother Nature tried to throw one more curve ball at ruining the event. Nearly four inches of rain fell Sunday night, putting doubt in the mind of many if racing would still be possible.
“At 6:30 (Monday morning), I texted (the track crew) Larry Fink, Eric Fink and Paul Kirkland, and asked, ‘So, what do you guys think?’ Waiting for the answer to be, ‘We’re flooded, we’re not going to be able to do anything,’” Hachmann said, before pausing. “I’m going to get emotional here… Paul’s answer was, ‘We’ll have cars on the track by 11 (a.m.).’ Wow… Talk about the sunlight popping out of the clouds.”
When Hachmann returned to the podium in front of the group of tired and fatigued staff members for the 8 a.m. Monday morning ready meeting, he, again, wasted no time to deliver a clear message. This time, it dispersed through the audience like a divine message.
“We’re racing,” were words of healing, replacing torturous anxiety with excitement.
Cars rolled to the infield at 10 a.m. as committed fans filed into the grandstands, and the four-wide parade lap for the DIRTcar 358 Modifed Salute to the Troops 150 rolled at 11 a.m. The DIRTcar 358 Modifieds proved the track was even better than many expected with multiple lead changes, a smooth surface and cars able to run multiple lanes.
“The racetrack proved a lot of us wrong,” Phelps said.
The day progressed without a hitch – although Mother Nature, with her ever apparent sense of humor, spit a few sprinkles during the DIRTcar Sportsman race that never evolved into anything more – leading to a historic Super DIRT Week and Billy Whittaker Cars 200, won for the third time by Mat Williamson.
For Hachmann, it was a Super DIRT Week he’d never experienced before. And hopes to never experience again. But, despite the stress and chaos, it’ll forever be one of the most important moments in his career and for the World Racing Group team.
“I look at it as a team effort and we really showed the true colors of our ability to fight adversity and succeed,” Hachmann said. “Albeit all the pain of the rain and the pain of rescheduling and all the changes that had to be made, I’d say this Super DIRT Week had to be one of the most gratifying for myself in the sense that we were challenged, we had to make tough decisions that ended up being good decisions and ended up creating a sense of success for something that could’ve just been a wash.
“I saw something that you don’t always see. There are close to 250 employees and contractors and vendors that work Super DIRT Week and I saw a consistent vison that we are going to get this in. A consistent positive message around the group… On the drop of the green flag on the 358 race, I’ll tell you, a tear came to my eye. It felt good that we got there. We never gave up.”
Fans can renew their tickets for Super DIRT Week 52 at Oswego Speedway, Oct. 7-13, now at SuperDIRTWeek.com or by calling 844-DIRT-TIX.