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PLYMOUTH – The plan didn’t work quite as well as hoped. Well enough, though.
When the Interstate Racing Association scheduled a sprint car race for the Plymouth Dirt Track on the eve of NASCAR weekend at nearby Road America last year, promoters and eager fans hoped that meant some of stock car racing’s biggest stars would drop in.
Kyle Larson had gone on a tear the year before, dominating the sprint car races he entered while suspended from NASCAR. Tony Stewart, the popular NASCAR champion and a team owner, has enjoyed dabbling in sprint cars and had raced with IRA a few times, and even won at Plymouth. Christopher Bell’s name was thrown around by the hopefuls, as was Ryan Newman’s.
That didn’t happen on the first try, and such was the case again Thursday night.
Chase Briscoe, the Cup Series rookie of the year in 2021 and a first-time winner in 2022, has been the lone representative from the NASCAR world each time.
Still it’s “a big deal,” IRA president Steve Sinclair said. Big for his organization and its regulars, big for Road America, which helps with promotion, and big for fans.
“Anytime you can do one of these events so close – this is probably one of the closest ones you can have, where the NASCAR track’s literally five minutes away – you get a lot of people who maybe have never been to a sprint car race but they’re in town, camping over there,” Briscoe said. “They don’t have anything to do on a Thursday or Friday night, so they come over and check it out and they love it.
“The past few years, we’ve definitely seen more NASCAR fans going to dirt races and at the same time more dirt fans that will go to a NASCAR race so they can see the guys they’ve watched their career and they want to see them on Sundays.”
Even before engines were fired, several busloads of fans came from Road America, which is less than 4 miles away and has its campsites sold out for weekend. Another tie-in: The Sheboygan County Fairgrounds, where the track is located, will serve as a satellite parking lot for the second-year Cup race, the Kwik Trip 250, on Sunday.
Briscoe and others credited not only drivers such as Larson for exposing dirt-track racing to NASCAR fans but also the proliferation of streaming that has made races available to fans around the country online.
“Last year, we saw new fans coming through,” said Scotty Thiel, an IRA veteran from Sheboygan who also has competed with the All Star Circuit of Champions and World of Outlaws this year. “They did pick up some traffic from Road America that maybe didn’t know what kind of racing this was.
“Chase and your Kyle Larsons of the world and Bell, they’re really getting those NASCAR people to grasp onto what they’re doing outside of their normal job. … Are they coming back for more (IRA races or Plymouth races)? I don’t know. But it definitely has an impact to the fan base in a positive way. That’s all we can ask for, getting new fans in the stands.”
Competition from other events hurt the hopes for attracting star power to Plymouth. Larson and Bell have been racing in the Pennsylvania Sprint Speedweek, where they could compete night after night. Alex Bowman, who had expressed interest in Plymouth, was racing his midget at a multiple-division Thursday Night Thunder revival at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
All had plenty of time to get to Wisconsin after competing elsewhere, with the Road America’s first NASCAR on-track activity set for 4:30 p.m. Friday and Cup not even on track until Saturday. Sinclair said he’d consider adjusting the timing in the future.
Larson, the reigning Cup champion, won a lucrative All Star Circuit of Champions race here during his 2020 barnstorming tour. When he shows up, his presence affects both the attendance and the level of competition.
“When that car rolled into the pit area, people were saying OK, we’re running for second tonight,” Thiel said. “You know when he comes, that package is pretty dynamite.”
Bill Balog, a 10-time IRA champion who races the All Star circuit full time, won an entertaining 30-lap feature after passing Jake Neuman in traffic. Thiel looked to be a contender but dropped back to ninth after contact with Balog.
Briscoe, who spun in the feature last year, finished seventh the second time around.
“Last year when I came here, I hadn’t ran a sprint car in, like, three or four years, really hadn’t ran any dirt other than the Chili Bowl (indoor midget race),” Briscoe said. “This year, I’ve ran 15 to 20 sprint car, late model and midget races. I’m a lot more comfortable.
“Yeah, last year I had a lot of fun. This track is the perfect size (quarter mile), I feel like, for a sprint car. I’ve been here three or four times, even when I haven’t raced myself, and it’s always got a huge crowd. It’s a cool atmosphere to be a part of.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Road America NASCAR weekend helps sprint car race in Plymouth nearby