2024 Lucas Oil Show-Me 100 at Lucas Oil Speedway

The Art Of Footwork In Dirt Late Model Racing

The Art Of Footwork In Dirt Late Model Racing

How do Dirt Late Model drivers handle the accelerator and brake to finesse their cars? We dive into the footwork and what it takes to cash the big checks.

May 15, 2024 by Todd Turner

For most of us driving passenger cars with automatic transmissions around suburban streets, what’s happening in the floorboard is relatively mundane. Your right foot pushes the accelerator to go, then you move the same foot to push the brake pedal to stop. Soon enough you’re at the grocery store.

For Late Model racers wheeling around topsy turvy dirt ovals at more than 100 mph, they’re using the same pedals, but it’s a far more complex and chaotic situation.

Drivers wearing fireproof footwear poise their left foot on the brake, their right foot mashing the gas and their brain telling them how hard to push either pedal — sometimes simultaneously — to get the maximum speed out of a race car that can be turned not only with the steering wheel but by using a pedaling technique.

Four-time Ultimate Southeast Series champ Zack Mitchell of Enoree, S.C., calls it “an art.” Chassis developer and racer Austin Kirkpatrick of Concord, N.C., describes it as “a dance.” And reigning DIRTcar Summer Nationals champion Ashton Winger labels it a “chess game.”

Whatever you call it, the drivers with the best footwork are the drivers cashing the biggest checks in the highest-profile Dirt Late Model races around the country. In combination with turning the steering wheel, a driver’s finesse with his feet is the best way to gain traction to outrun the competition.

“You pick up on things every single weekend and you're constantly learning, constantly getting better. I would say my footwork has grown tremendously from the time I started,” said Mitchell, a 28-year-old whose first victory in Late Model-style cars came when he was a sixth-grader in 2008. "I think that's one of the things that separates a lot of the guys that are really, really good, because it definitely takes a lot of concentration, takes a lot of seat time, to figure all that stuff out.”

Mastering the pedals isn’t as easy as it might seem, said veteran crew chief Jason Durham, who has worked with dozens of drivers throughout his career.

“There’s (tracks) where obviously when racetracks are muddy and heavy, it's not that big a deal to jab the brake and to get your car rotated and (get back on) the gas,” said Durham, currently crew chief for Stormy Scott and developer of the Category 5 Race Car. “But the more the racetrack slows down then you have to go to finesse. The driver's got to be able to ease on the brake pedal to keep from getting the car upset on entry. And the gas pedal's the same way, you gotta be able to ease into it.”

Up-and-coming racers in love with the accelerator usually have a lot to learn, Durham added.

"The young drivers are just fearless. It's just wide open, kind of like a light switch. It’s idling or wide open,” he said. “You have to teach them and start trying to help them understand that and then eventually they’ll (get it). It's like any other sport — some people can do it, some people can't, but for the majority of them that's out here, they'll eventually figure it out and get better.”

Beware the clutch

At a glance, the floorboard of a Dirt Late Model isn’t unlike that of a passenger vehicle with a manual transmission: the clutch to the left, the brake in the middle, the accelerator to the right.

(Of course, with 98 percent of new U.S. vehicles sold with automatic transmissions, a clutch pedal in a passenger vehicle has become rare. Additionally, the accelerator might look a bit different, often having a toehold that allows you to pull back on the gas in the rare occasion the throttle hangs.)

The way the clutch is used, however, is “backwards” compared to a regular car. Kirkpatrick explains:

“On a typical manual street car, when you press the clutch, it disengages the engine from the transmission. So it's effectively putting it in neutral when you press the clutch,” he said. “(Late Models) are the exact opposite. When you press the clutch, it engages the motor to the transmission. So you actually start the car in gear with no pressure on the clutch pedal, and then you press the clutch pedal and the gas to start moving.

“You're driving in the pits with the clutch pedal pressed and with the gas pedal modulating your speed,” Kirkpatrick added. “And then as soon as you get on the racetrack, you pull it into second gear — which is the second of the only two gears that we have, high gear — and you don't have to touch the clutch pedal anymore. And so then you would move your foot from the clutch pedal to the brake and you're driving with two feet from then on.”

The unorthodox clutch system doesn’t typically confuse Kirkpatrick from when he’s in a race car vs. a passenger car — "you're usually using a different part of your brain,” he said — but it did cause some confusion when he competed in lower division action earlier this season.

“A few weeks ago, I went and drove a street stock that had a regular manual transmission and there was multiple times where I fired this thing up in gear with the clutch pedal not pressed. And this thing about hit the back of the trailer because it was trying to roll forward as the starter was engaging,” Kirkpatrick said. As a reminder, he wrote “c-l-u-t-c-h p-e-d-a-l” on a piece of tape and put it on the dash “just so I didn't freaking drive into my toolbox or drive in the back of the trailer.”

Winger, whose home track is Senoia (Ga.) Raceway, has the Late Model clutch system figured out, but he doesn’t have to worry about confusing it with a passenger vehicle because he sticks with automatic transmissions.

“I’d probably end up ass-packing somebody at a red light” if he drove a manual transmission on the street, he said with a smile. "I drove the (manual transmission) wrecker at Senoia a couple of times, but I've also hit the light pole in Senoia a couple of times in the infield. It's not something that I advertise I can do.”

The pedal or the egg?

Around dirt racing all his life, Jason Durham remembers hearing the analogy of how drivers should avoid mashing the gas too hard.

“You raced around the South like you had an egg under the gas pedal — and you didn't break the egg,” Durham said. “You just have to be very, very gentle with the gas pedal just to keep as much traction as you can and keep from blowing the tires off of it.”

Because when it comes to the accelerator and the brake, the harder or more inconsistently you’re pushing the pedals probably means that things aren’t going well with the race car.

"I make the joke, like, when my car is pretty good, I run around most places at half-throttle. When my car's not any good, that's usually when I'm up there doing Dale Earnhardt (theatrics), you know?” Winger said. “Usually when you're up there trying to do cool stuff, your car is not usually very good. If you're just rolling right through the middle and running around there half- (or) quarter-throttle, that's usually when your car is pretty good.”

The way you use the pedals is usually particular to the size of the racetrack and how much traction is in the surface.

“Like you go somewhere that's really hammer down or you're running up against the cushion, you're going to be on the gas a lot more,” Mitchell said. “It don't take quite as much finessing, like, when it's tacky, than it does when it's slick. You kind of got to know how much you can get in the throttle — or how long you got to wait before you can get most of the way into the throttle.

“Like early in the night qualifying and hot-lapping and all, you'll be 100 percent in the fuel. Really it just depends on the racetrack. Like if it's a real tight racetrack, you’ll just kind of dump the fuel real quick and get on the brakes, help the race car turn. But if you’re somewhere kind of wide with sweeping corners, you'll kind of roll out the throttle just a little bit to get the car over on the right front, and then stand right back in the fuel.”

Mitchell says he uses “muscle memory” to know how to manipulate the pedals, while Kirkpatrick — a numbers guy who developed his own AK Race Car — looks at it more technically in making sure his footwork provides the most traction.

“We're trying to modulate wheel spin. There's a certain amount of wheel spin, it generates the most amount of traction. The tire's usually spinning 20 to 30 percent faster than the vehicle speed. So the vehicle will be going 100 mph, the wheels are going 130 mph,” he said. “Any less than that and the ability to accelerate kind of goes down, and any more than that, there's too much wheel spin, it generates too much heat and the acceleration also goes down.

"So you're looking for like 20 to 30 percent wheel spin. What's required to do that with your feet is just a lot of very careful modulation with the pedal. I run data acquisition a lot, so I can see exactly what the throttle position is at every point around the racetrack. There's a lot of times that we’re going around the racetrack and you never get past 60 percent throttle, 50 percent throttle the whole lap. And so you're just doing the whole lap, you're trying to modulate that wheel slip and try to” make the car go as fast as possible.

Mitchell said that Dirt Late Model footwork is “somewhat of an art. A lot of people are really, really good at it like Scott Bloomquist, Chris Madden, they’re, probably some of the best at it, but it's definitely a work of art.”

Lessons in footwork

Bloomquist, Madden, Billy Moyer and Dale McDowell are among the names that come up when competitors are asked to name the drivers with the best footwork. McDowell, who has long operated a driving school, has shared his expertise with many paying customers including Winger, who rode along in McDowell’s two-seater to watch McDowell’s footwork while he explained his technique via two-way radio.

"He'll put guys in his two-seater and you can literally watch him do what he does,” Winger said. “And he’ll really, really good about explaining like, ‘OK, if you get to the center of the corner here,’ like I remember we went to Boyd’s (Speedway), and he's got radios and all, and he's talking to you. ‘If you get to the center of the corner here and your wheel's here, either you need to apply a little bit more brake, but you don't stab the brake. You drag it and, like, if you get to the center of the corner and your wheel's here, you've used too much brake.’ ”

Former Show-Me 100 winner Chris Ferguson of Mount Holly, N.C., said developing successful footwork comes down to turning thousands of laps.

“Just experience. It’s experience. It’s one of those things that for the longest time I never really grasped the experience,” he said. “I knew I'd be fast in certain places and I go to a certain place and I'd struggle, and now, looking back, I kind of understand it, because now when I go to this place, I know how to drive it or when the track changes, how to change my driving style to fit the track a little better.

“It's funny. As I'm getting a little bit older, all the stuff that you didn't understand when you were younger getting into this, it all makes sense. And I'm like, ‘Man, if I could go back in time, I could really teach myself something or I could listen to people in a better way.’ ”

In his role as a crew member, Durham has had occasion to work with younger drivers who haven’t grasped the importance of handling the pedals.

"I just feel like that's part of teaching and part of stuff they have to learn is just how to finesse,” Durham said. “Crazy enough, it's even the steering wheel — if you're darty with a steering wheel, you unload the race car. So it's all of it: gas pedal, brake pedal, steering wheel. They just have to learn to be smooth in the car.”

Teaching youngsters to be smoother takes more than screaming at them to quit stomping the accelerator so hard.

"It’s how you handle it that's important,” Durham added. “You know, a young guy, they get broke down and their feelings hurt pretty easy. So you gotta go at it at in a way that you explain it to them without hurting their feelings and getting them all mad.”

Mitchell was fortunate to grow up racing in South Carolina with Chris Madden, a winner of many of the sport’s biggest races and current World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series regular.

“He’s one of the best at it,” Mitchell said. “I’ve learned a lot from him and a couple of other people, and really, it's kind of one of those things where you kind of just have to have to hone it to your own skills really. A lot of drivers aren’t alike so you kinda gotta do what’s comfortable to you.”

Simultaneous pedaling

For 16-year-olds testing for a driver’s license, pushing on the brake and accelerator at the same time is big no-no. But for some Dirt Late Model racers, depressing the brake while staying on the gas — sometimes described as “trail-braking” — is yet another way to maximize speed and keep the race car straight.

“I drag a lot more brakes nowadays than I used to,” Ferguson said. “There's a happy medium in everything, and certain racetracks or certain scenarios, you're better to drag the brake on entry to keep your car under you, where if you drive up in there and dump the fuel you'll slide.

“There’s a lot of character in the cars now, the way the lift bar, the way the four-link bars work. A lot of times nowadays a car stays in attitude when you're in the gas. So you have to, when you drive off into the corner, you can't let off the gas, you can't just completely dump the fuel,” he added.

When Ferguson first got into big-time Late Model racing 15 or so years ago, drivers would get into the gas hard on the left-front and left side would raise up significantly. The goal is the keep a car “on the bars” or “loaded” to gain traction.

"Now, you kind of want to control that (left-side rise) because your car, they're so stuck whenever we're driving into the corner. You don't want to unload the car from the bars or from the suspension,” Ferguson said. “So, as good as the brakes are nowadays and as good as the motors are, they do a lot more now than they ever have. The cars stop a lot faster, but they also take off a lot faster. So naturally throttle input and brake pedal and driving into the corner on the fuel or off the fuel makes a big difference.”

Mitchell says “there are times when you maybe trail-brake a little bit and try to keep wheel spin at a minimum. But yeah, I mean, you gotta work (the pedals) both together a lot of times.

"Most of the time, like if you’re trail-braking or something, it's gonna kind of be like right there in the center of the corner to keep wheel spin to a minimum. Most of the time you use brakes to turn the car to get in the corner. So, when you do that, most of the time you just kind of dump the fuel — when it’s tacky and hammer down — you’ll just kind of dump the fuel, get on the brakes and get the race car turned.”

Winger said there are “different opinions about what you can do with the brake pedal. I personally use the brake pedal to set my car, but a lot of people believe in not using brakes. And then there's guys that are really fast doing that.

“When you're out there with guys like Scott (Bloomquist) and, you know, Dale (McDowell) and guys like that, you see the sparks running coming off of their brakes, you know, probably from aggressive brake pads or something along that nature. And you can tell like they use a lot of brakes and they use brakes to set their car and use that to kind of set them up through the entire corner.”

Kirkpatrick seldom uses the trail-braking technique, electing to simply ease out of the gas instead of employing the brake simultaneously.

“If you were pressing the gas and the brake and it generated a certain amount of RPM of the tire, I don't think the tires know the difference between that and just laying off the gas a little bit,” he said. “So I more modulate the gas than I do press the brake, but you definitely have to use brake, especially when the track is slick and slow, to keep the car (straight), and you obviously have to slow down at the end of the straightaway. So you have to slow down and then you have to be really light on the brake pedal so that you don't accidentally shear one of the tires and the car gets loose or tight on corner entry.

"I think (using the pedals) kind of happens in the subconscious layer. So people are just feeling different things and their feet are kind of working in conjunction with their brain and it'd probably be pretty tough to articulate, but I think that's kind of what's going on.”

Handiwork or footwork?

So what’s more important for driving a Dirt Late Model? Your hands on the steering wheel or your feet on the pedals?

"Honestly, they're about split,” Ferguson said. “They’re half and half, in my opinion, you know. You can drive the car 10 different ways. That's what makes Dirt Late Model racing great, because you can have a guy who's driving on the cushion, you can have a guy who's dead straight on the bottom, you can have a guy who's driving sideways and crooked into the corner, and 10 different ways will be fast.

“It's amazing that you have all that in one machine and you do that without adjusting the car. You can do that from adjusting your driving style.”

Kirkpatrick leans toward footwork playing a bigger role than steering.

“It’s hard to kind of decouple those because they work together so much. But I would say that the footwork element is definitely more important than the hands part,” Kirkpatrick said. “I mean, because these cars turn with the rear tires, so much how you use the gas and brake can really dictate the orientation of the car. And so, the front tires are like — you can kind of move the wheel around a little bit and the car doesn't really do anything — because you're mostly driving with the rear tires.

"And so, obviously, you can't just let go with the steering wheel, or you can't turn in the wrong direction and have the car actually do what you want. But I would imagine that using your feet is a larger percentage of the total driving than just your hands and arms on the steering wheel.”

How you use the pedals and drive the car is “just kind of a subconscious,” he added. “Your body and your brain are feeling different accelerations and different pitch and yaw and roll moments, and your feet and your arms are working in conjunction with what you're feeling to try to point the car and accelerate the car in the directions that are required to make the car go around as fast as possible.

“It's definitely a dance,” said Kirkpatrick, suggesting fans watch the YouTube videos of in-car videos with a camera pointed at the pedals. “It doesn't look crazy from the outside. There's not a bunch of feet moving around, but it's just the tiny little corrections that are getting made the whole way around the track.”