2024 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series at East Bay Raceway Park

Five Takeaways Midway Through Georgia-Florida Speedweeks

Five Takeaways Midway Through Georgia-Florida Speedweeks

Unpacking the hotter topics through opening week of Georgia-Florida Speedweeks with the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.

Feb 5, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

With one full week of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series season come and gone, and Georgia-Florida Speedweeks halfway complete, there’s much to reflect on and bear in mind for potentially the weeks and months to come.

Below are five takeaways — hot topics of conversations, more or less — to make better sense of heading into the all-important and sentimental week ahead at East Bay Raceway Park.

Making More Sense Of J.D. vs. RTJ


WATCH: Jonathan Davenport and Ricky Thornton Jr. discuss Jan. 27's intense lead battle at Golden Isles.

Is there anything more to draw from Jonathan Davenport vs. Ricky Thornton Jr. now a full week removed from the dustup between the sport’s superpowers? Yes and no.

Yes as in there are a few backstories to make sense of. And no as in there hasn’t been any broiling moments between the two since Jan. 27 at Golden Isles Speedway. Lucas Oil Series director Rick Schwallie actually called both drivers to the tour’s trailer on Tuesday at Ocala (Fla.) Speedway for a “man-to-man conversation.”

“They talked back and forth, and asked why did this happen and why’d that happen,” Schwallie said. “And I really think, ultimately, in our season, some guy is going to have a dust-up with somebody else along the way. It’s going to happen.”

RELATED: A Growing Rivalry Between Jonathan Davenport And Ricky Thornton Jr.

Schwallie doesn’t feel skirmishes like Davenport vs. Thornton “need to be policed” because “they’re not careless.” Plus car owners Lance Landers (Davenport’s Double L Motorsports team) and Todd Burns (Thornton’s SSI Motorsports team) are “pretty good buddies.”

“They’re all professional enough at this level that that shouldn’t be the issue,” Schwallie said. “They race a lot of other races than ours and they always know the score they have of every guy out there. And we don’t.”

Now onto the backstories. There are two specific races from last year worth mentioning: June 23’s Firecracker 100 prelim where Thornton outdueled Davenport in a slider-fest of a finish and Sept. 30’s Pittsburgher where the two also peppered one another with sliders (with also Thornton prevailing).

Firecracker 100 prelims weren’t as ominous, though Thornton’s race-winning slider did send Davenport over the backstretch ledge. Thornton said afterward: “I didn’t really want to slide him. I just wanted to get alongside of him and then my right-rear caught his left front. Hopefully I didn’t really ruin his night.”

The Pittsburgher — the last race they went head-to-head for victory — is the first on-record dispute between the two.

Davenport remarked to Kevin Kovac then that Thornton’s go-ahead slider with four laps left “gave me a decision to lift or hit the wall (in turn two), and I tried not to hit the wall with the right-front and I hit it with the right rear. Aero-wise, it knocked half the spoiler off it, and I was just a sitting duck then.”

What came next is more revealing.

“I don’t know … I’m not gonna give him as much room as I do anymore,” Davenport said. “That’s all I can say.”

Thornton declined to comment on the past run-ins because he’s “looking forward.”

RELATED: Ricky Thornton Jr. & The Problem Dirt Late Model Racing Can't Get Away From

Davenport, meanwhile, didn’t hold back where he’s going from here.

“I’ve had a couple people text me saying this and that is on the internet,” Davenport said last Monday at Ocala Speedway. “I haven’t honestly haven’t hardly looked at anything. Everybody can talk s—, do this, do that, come up with different instances. It doesn’t matter besides what me and (Ricky) think about it, and what me and him do about it.”

“It’s just frustrating you have to worry about s— like that,” Davenport added. “There are some drivers out here you can run side by side for however many laps. And if we hit, it’s because we made a little mistake. It’s not because we’re trying to run over one another. I’m not saying he literally tried to run over me there, but racing in the rubber, anytime … obviously you have to slow down to race in the corner to run in the rubber. Well, anybody can run in there wide open and hit you, and bank off of you. But, I mean, we’re all going to have to race against each other some other time.

“I just don’t understand what he’s mad at me about for other s---,” Davenport continued. “He said I drove him dirty so many times, like maybe I have, but I really honestly don’t know when. I can name a couple times I feel like I got used up by him. So I mean, he’s just getting more strikes on the scorecard where I’m sitting. I really don’t know.”

Davenport ended the conversation with “we’re moving forward” and that “we ain’t have time to worry about the small s---.”

Touring Professionalism

Let’s recap the peculiarities of Lucas Oil Series season through one week:

  • Kyle Bronson failed post-qualifying droop rule check Thursday at Golden Isles
  • Brian Shirley’s Thursday qualifying lap at GIS disallowed because he didn’t report to scales
  • Dylan Thompson’s car catches fire on Thursday at GIS
  • Saturday’s GIS polesitter Garrett Smith penalized for using an unapproved right-front tire
  • Jonathan Davenport vs. Ricky Thornton Jr.’s skirmish Friday at GIS
  • Saturday’s lap 39 caution at GIS that negated Chris Madden’s pass for the lead
  • Ricky Thornton Jr. allegedly getting doored by Mike Marlar under Saturday’s cooldown lap at GIS
  • Estimated two hours of total track rework Friday at All-Tech

Rick Schwallie and his crew have certainly had their hands full. If anything, how the series has responded to the adversity only backs up their professionalism and readiness.

“You had all those things and they were still ready for them all,” Schwallie said. “I think that says a lot about the time we spend coaching them up. They’ve done a great job.”

Schwallie, a huge Cincinnati Bengals fan, likes to use the analogy of a penalty-ridden football game when summing up the eventful first week.

“We had a lot of 5-yard penalties and 15-yard flags to make our team better,” Schwallie said. “We had a couple 15-yarders along the way. But we still came out winning the games. I feel like our team did a really good job.”

There are so many ins and outs of Schwallie’s job and whatever he delegates to his employees that go unnoticed. For instance, Saturday night at Golden Isles, Schwallie stayed out into the after hours of the lively night and initiated conversations with Davenport, Marlar, Thornton and whomever else he chatted with.

On Friday at All-Tech, when the track had taken rubber around the top of turns one and two the majority of time trials (read the next note for more on why this happened), there were drivers and teams understandably upset and ready to unleash wrath on Schwallie or the track workers.

And Schwallie was readily available to absorb those frustrations.

“I don’t have to know they’re all standing out there at the tower ready to just gripe at somebody,” Schwallie said. “In most cases, they want to just be heard. We understand that. I came down here mainly because I’m not a coward. I’ll face it anytime. And I’ll continue to do my best to represent all of them and give them the best racetrack to race on.

“I don’t mind (having those hard conversations). This stuff is expensive. And everybody is emotional. Most cases, the teams that follow us full-time knows we’ll look each other in the eye and treat each other with respect. And they know how hard we work for them as well. We appreciate what they do for us.”

A transition that may have slipped under the radar through the eventful first week is Kenute Mausehund’s assuming the tour’s new role as technical director. Mausehund is the first official technical director of the series, which filled it by committee last year, since Steve Francis before he left for the World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series fall of 2022.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the team we have here,” Schwallie said. “We have a really good, positive attitude among them all. They’ve done a great job.”

Understand, Not Criticize

All-Tech Raceway received a lot of flack on Friday (and even times on Saturday) for its racing conditions.

Before criticizing the efforts of those behind the scenes whose hopes are just like yours — the desire for a good, worthwhile show — take a minute to understand how the track got to that supposedly loathsome place earlier on Friday.

The Lake City, Fla., half-mile rarely ever has cars on the track before sundown. To keep in step with the series 5:30 start time on Friday, that had to change (even 40 minutes before sunset is problematic), and general manager Wendell Durrance underestimated how starkly different the conditions would eventually turn out to be.

All-Tech marketing manager, Joe Kelly, said “it was a tough spot for him” and that Durrance takes his job to heart.

“I get it there are emotions involved and we are all passionate about this, but this is not a reflection of how Wendell runs this racetrack,” Kelly added.

On Saturday, the series pushed back the start time to 6 p.m. (with sundown officially at 6:09) and that made all the difference.

“Nobody knows the racetrack better than the track promoter,” Schwallie said. “Wendell knew by time trials (on Friday) he was in trouble, and where it was at. It was a woulda, shoulda, coulda. Those times, it’s not a time to attack the people, you know? It’s time to attack the situation. That’s the situation we’re in and we had to make the best of it in that moment. And we did.”

“This is incredibly hard to get these things spot on,” Schwallie added.

Rarely do people see what actually goes on in the back pit area of Dirt Late Model racing. That’s what journalism and the media are for. And social media has a rightful place in that conversation.

So, let the drivers speak for themselves, particularly for Friday’s turnaround in the feature.

“They did a great job,” said Chris Madden, whose affirmative words even came after spinning out battling for second. “They gave us something to race with. We could run all over it.”

Florida native Clay Harris approved of Saturday’s conditions, too.

“I thought it raced good,” Harris said. “It was a little rough, but I feel like that’s the best way to have a good race around here at a lot of the tracks. That’s just my opinion.”

While McCreadie remarked Saturday’s track was “faster than it needed to be,” he appreciated what kind of racing surface had been prepared for him and competitors alike because it invited a challenge.

“When it’s like that, (a mistake) is a big mistake when you make one,” McCreadie said. “I don’t know every driver, everyone wakes up differently, but when I watched my dad (legendary big-block modified driver Bob McCreadie) as a kid and all these guys that are amazing, you want to see guys pay for their mistakes. Drivers pay for big mistakes. As you could see, one lap time I’m slow and he’s going to get me. It’s just such a neat racetrack when it’s right. It’s so much fun.”

Old Guard vs. New Guard?


WATCH: Ricky Thornton Jr. discusses Feb. 2's victory at All-Tech Raceway.

The precedence of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series clearly runs through Ricky Thornton Jr. Hudson O’Neal these days. On the World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series, the power lies with Bobby Pierce.

Along those same lines, through eight Georgia-Florida Speedweeks races, only one driver over 40 years old — Tim McCreadie — has a win. All the above considered, is Dirt Late Model racing now down to an old guard vs. new guard debate? Mike Marlar has his answer.

RELATED: All-Tech Glory Pumps New Life In Tim McCreadie

“I think that’s bad terminology for it,” Marlar said. “It’s the cycle of life. The guy at 55 isn’t going to be as good as the guy as 45, and that’s fact. That’s facts. We’ve made our legacies. They’re trying to make their legacies. Whatever that legacy has, that’s to be determined, right?

“The old guard is always going to lose until the new guard gets old and they lose.”

Thornton, O’Neal and Pierce do have three characteristics in common: They’re younger than most drivers who once accomplished great things, they drive hard, and they’re from the bullring-centric Midwest.

“Our sport’s changed as if a guy had to be really good, you’d roll the car straight,” Thornton said after his Jan. 27 win at Golden Isles. “Scott (Bloomquist), and not taking anything away from Scott now, but I feel like you used to roll the car straight, get through the corner, and drag race down the straightway.

“Where now, our stuff has gotten so glued to the racetrack, you’re elbows up everywhere you go. I feel like the younger guys who grew up on bullrings, stuff like that, that’s how you drive now. I wouldn’t classify myself as a bullring guy, but when I have to get up on the wheel, I feel like I can.”

For a 46-year-old like Marlar, he isn’t repugnant to conversations such as these. Actually, it’s one of the reasons he’s stirred to stray from his usual, run-of-the-mill freelance schedule to run with the Lucas Oil Series this year.

“One thing I do love about it is it keeps me young, you know what I mean?” Marlar said. “I don’t ever want to down those guys because what they are doing is keeping me at my best. I feel like at 45, I drive the car harder than ever. I drive it harder now than 10 years ago. The competition and the equipment … makes you get to be way, way, way more aggressive.”

What’s Clay Harris’s Potential?


WATCH: Clay Harris breaks down Jan. 31's runner-up at Ocala Speedway.

Clay Harris has certainly grabbed the attention of Dirt Late Model racing onlookers of late.

Here’s what the 22-year-old of Jupiter, Fla., has done through 16 races of his Super career: Win a Coors Light Fall Classic semifeature at Whynot (Miss.) Motorsports Park, lead laps in a Lucas Oil Series feature, finish inside the top five of two Lucas Oil Series features, and put himself ninth in series points through six races.
So, the question now is, what is Harris’s potential in the sport?

“Everybody has always told me I have the potential to do it, but I’ve never seen it in myself until I started racing Supers, honestly,” Harris said after his 17th-to-fifth charge through Saturday’s field at All-Tech. “Like, the Super stuff, I’m just better with more horsepower. I don’t really tear stuff up. I’m a clean driver. People have always me (I have potential). Now I can start believing that better.

“I’m not saying I’m going to win every race or run top five, but it’s nice to know we can be competitive everywhere we go.”

RELATED: Who Is Clay Harris? After Ocala's Upset Bid, He's Keen On Making A Name

Harris’s notable start in the Super ranks is akin to that of Rockbridge Baths, Va.’s Tyler Bare in 2018, when the (then) 24-year-old finished third in his first Lucas Oil Series race at Hagerstown (Md.) Speedway and proceeded to win the USA 100 at Virginia Motor Speedway later that May. Now Bare seldom races in high-level Super events, but has carved out a nice place for him in steel-block and Crate competition.

Harris wonders his talent could take him next. That, of course, is contingent upon resources.

“The biggest problem is money,” Harris said. “You have a rig like this, it cost a few hundred dollars to get up and down the road. When you combine all of it, it’s like a million-dollar operation. You have to have all the right sponsors and enough money to do it. I’d like to stick to Hunt the Front right now. Next year? It might be different.”

Making every touring race through Speedweeks has enabled Harris to realize his strengths as well as his weaknesses. That kind of intel can only pay great dividends on the HTF Super Dirt Series tour this year.

“I struggle in the dry-slick stuff,” Harris said. “That’s definitely something we’re going to have to improve on. I just can’t get these tires figured out yet. If we get these tires figured out, we’ll be alright. That’s the biggest problem with me.

“When the track is good and hammer down, I have a good shot.”