2024 Lucas Oil Firecracker 100 at Lernerville Speedway

Lernerville Speedway's Case For 'Most Technical' Dirt-Track In America

Lernerville Speedway's Case For 'Most Technical' Dirt-Track In America

Home of Saturday's Firecracker 100, Lernerville Speedway is known for its unforgiving cushion, wall-less corners and elbows-up racing.

Jun 22, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

There were so many helping hands surrounding Michael Norris’s damaged race machine Friday at Lernerville Speedway, the hometown favorite stepped aside for a moment to gather himself. | RaceWire

At first blush, the three-time Lernerville track champion couldn’t believe the eve of the Firecracker 100 brought him such adversity and disappointment. His pole start in the final 25-lap semifeature ended horribly when Norris spun out of the second spot on lap eight to eventually finish 16th, a night “we won’t know the outcome because I screwed up and hit the wall.”

“The cushion’s been tough here the last two days,” a 32-year-old Norris said dejectedly. “If anyone should know how to run it, it should be me. Obviously, I don’t think I know how to run it that well.”

Despite ample experience at his hometown track, Lernerville can still throw Norris for a mysterious loop, particularly when a cushion develops around the 4/10-mile oval like Thursday and Friday.

All four semifeatures saw frontrunners snakebitten by the track’s outer edges: Thursday for second-running Devin Moran (flat right-rear tire), Thursday for second-running Gregg Satterlee (vibration from a mud-packed wheel), Friday for early leader Mason Zeigler (jumped the turn-one cushion) and Friday for Norris, who lost the lead on lap five when he too jumped the turn-one cushion before spinning on lap seven.

Even then, it’s hard for Norris to take consolation that he’s not the only victim to the track’s fickle, menacing character.

“Both turn-one incidents were me pushing too hard,” Norris said. “With those guys (Moran and Ricky Thornton Jr.) behind me, you gotta go. You can’t wait around. I should’ve backed myself down and been more conservative. You know who’s behind you and I screwed up. Like I always feel at this race, I made a mistake and it cost us big time. I feel like the car was good enough. I feel like I was not.”

What makes Lernerville so treacherous? Many drivers, Mason Zeigler and Ricky Thornton Jr. included, swear that the cushion entering turn one often runs off the ledge of the racetrack and slopes back down the banking.

“The cushion is basically off the top getting into the corner,” Thornton said.

“Oh yeah, it’s like that every night here,” Zeigler said. “Norris, he races here a lot. And I feel like he’s the best driving out of the racetrack and coming back in. It’s just a fine line. You have to have a well-balanced car and you have to hit your marks.”

In order to hit the cushion just right, “you can’t just back the car in the corner,” Thornton says.

“You’d almost have to drive it in straight, get the car back on the racetrack, and then haul ass,” Thornton said. “It’s just a little bit different.”

Zeigler echoed Thornton’s assessment.

“You have to be really aggressive while you run the cushion,” Zeigler said. “If you do it half-ass and sort of touch it, it won’t work. You really have to trust your equipment and not be scared to flip her over.”

Zeigler isn’t exaggerating. While there weren’t any flips Friday, two Super Late Model drivers — Joe Petyak and Randy Weyant — flipped on Thursday. The way Norris lost control of his No. 72 Rocket Chassis, his wreck could’ve ended in similar, airborne fashion.

Chasing Moran from second, Norris claimed to have hit a slick part of the frontstretch that “sprayed mud,” which then turned his car “into into the wall just enough that it ripped the wheel out of my hands.”

“And at that point, you’re along for the ride,” Norris said.

But when executed perfectly, a Dirt Late Model ripping around Lernerville’s cushion is essentially poetry in motion. Drake Troutman showed that during Friday’s victory. Moran didn’t need to blast his Double Down Motorsports No. 99 Longhorn Chassis around the top to win on Friday as he found traction through the middle groove during the 25-lap semifeature.

“This place is such a good racetrack,” Moran said. “It makes for really good racing.”

No driver, not Jonathan Davenport nor Thornton, appears to be fully comfortable at Lernerville. Thornton said Thursday he nearly threw his eventual prelim win away on the opening lap when he “went through the slick and thought I was going to blow right through the curb and go right off the racetrack.”

“It was drier than I expected,” Thornton said. “But after that, I knew we were going to be good.”

Davenport, meanwhile, has yet to win a Firecracker 100, one of the few crown jewels void on his future Hall of Fame resume. He has an idea why he’s yet to finish the job at Lernerville, but not fully.

“I’m usually good early and, like, really, really late here. It’s that middle transition here where it blows grit across the racetrack that I’m not good,” Davenport said Thursday. “I’m not good in that anywhere. I don’t know if that’s my driving style or my cars. I’m not sure. That’s a part we definitely need to work on a little bit.”

Satterlee was shocked when his right-rear wheel packed full of mud on Thursday.

“When a cushion gets that big and nasty, s--- happens,” Satterlee said. “Not a lot, but it does. These wheel covers are bolted on now. You wouldn't think they’d be flying off. The cushion is jagged, so I’d say the wheel cover got peeled somehow and then it rips it right off the wheel.”

But even with setbacks, Satterlee still very much enjoys Lernerville’s tricky nature.

“When the track’s like that? Yeah, it’s pretty fun,” Satterlee said Thursday. “Yeah, it was fun. I hadn’t raced on a cushion like that in a long time. Lots of racetracks we go to don’t get cushions. They’re just dry and s----- and hard. That was definitely elbows up.”

Norris stresses that “the track is harder on equipment than people think” because “if you slide up to the cushion too hard, you’ll pack the wheel full of mud” like Satterlee did Thursday.

“Like, Satterlee didn’t even hit it that hard,” Norris said. “But we all have to deal with it. Some deal with it better than others.”

Thornton adds that “top is so soft here,” and perhaps that’s a reason right-rear wheels are prone to mud buildup.

“You build the curb, but then, like, once the curb gets to the top, it doesn’t just fall off,” Thornton said. “It kind of stays there. It’s just different.”

On Friday, Norris’s race car suffered right-front suspension damage during the second semifeature in which Lernerville officials reworked the racing surface. A reworked racetrack couldn’t hide Lernerville’s technicalities.

“It’s so technical,” Norris said. “On a night like tonight, there was so much grip. Like the cushion was down a bit on both corners except for one. You enter on it and you have traction, so you gas it up. When you’re tight, you gas it up to get the car to rotate. Then you get to the center of the corner and the cushion is like 6 inches wide.

“You have so much momentum when you’re trying to turn the car, then you end up blowing over the cushion. It’s usually that’s sensitive. And then there's traction off the corner. The cushion is just so technical here.”

Zeigler’s hard-pressed to find another dirt-track like Lernerville that measures up in the technical department.

“It’s probably the most technical racetrack I’ve ever raced on,” Zeigler said. “I don’t race as much as (Tim) McCreadie and these guys do, but for me and my experience, it’s one of the most technical racetracks. It’s a great place for people to come and cut their teeth. If you can run the cushion here, you can run the cushion anywhere.”