NASCAR’s Late Model Stock Car division has run on short tracks throughout the southern Mid-Atlantic — the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee — for 40 years, making it one of the most successful weekly short track stock car racing divisions ever created.
They were the brainchild of Dick Gore, who at the time promoted the now-defunct Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Va.
In the late ‘70s, the Late Model Sportsman cars were the local top division. But as Gore observed, the cost to racers was “getting out of hand.” On top of that, NASCAR allowed each track to have four national championship races offering extra purse and points, so when tracks had their big races, they drew cars away from other local tracks.
“I could see the handwriting on the wall,” Gore said. “That’s when the money got crazy.”
And the car counts diminished. Gore sometimes started his quicker Limited Sportsman cars with the Late Model Sportsman in features to fill the field. In the winter prior to the 1978 racing season, he called some competitors to his office to discuss the creation of a new division.
“It was colder than hell,” Gore recalled about the day he met with Doug Hartley, Billy Earl, Al Dailey and others to hash out a set of rules.
One of those competitors was Bobby Darne.
“Cars had become so costly the local car owners couldn’t afford to run every week,” Darne noted. “Many cars were just sitting in the garages. When the car count goes down, so does the fan base, as many of the fans attend because they have a friend or family member driving or on a crew.”
A new set of rules were created that utilized stock parts. Stock carburetors. Even stock exhaust and shocks. Competitors asked that the division not include the word “limited,” so the Late Model Stock Car was born.
Gore said, “You could build a car for $4,000 with the motor. It used untouched motor parts and Camaro front ends.”
The Late Model Stock Car became a division in 1978. Change doesn’t happen overnight, though.
“We had five cars the first race, and Dick had us start in the back of the Sportsman race,” Darne said. “We could almost stay with them.”
By the end of the year, the Late Model Stock Cars ran standalone races. But resistance was great.
“NASCAR, promoters all told me it could never work,” Gore said. “One car builder told me, ‘You’ll never see one of those come out of my shop.’”
Gore said the class had 10 or 11 cars by the end of the first year, then just grew from there.
Darne observed, “The next year we had many Late Model Stock Cars, and Dick dropped the Sportsman Division.”
“A lot of racers left,” Gore noted, “because they had the big cars (Late Model Sportsman). They’d tow right past the front gate on their way to somewhere else. But they eventually came back.”
Billy Earl won the first Late Model Stock Car championship. And as the ’79 season rolled into 1980 and the car counts (and crowds) grew at Old Dominion, the people who said the new car would never work began paying attention.
“Joe Carver at Langley (Va.) was the first to bring in Late Model Stock Cars,” Gore said. “That was 1980 or ’81. Then Southside picked them up, then Orange County and South Boston. Eventually, NASCAR decided they’d better put it in the rulebook.”
It was Lance Childress at NASCAR who first put the Late Model Stock Car division in the NASCAR rulebook.
“At one time it was the biggest division in NASCAR,” Gore said.
“As Old Dominion Speedway and other tracks started getting more cars, the fans increased,” Darne said. “If you didn’t get to the track by 7 p.m. you would be parking on the drag strip, so obviously the change was successful. We had 25 – 30 cars every Saturday night, and we ran every week. Eventually, some of the lower division car owners built cars and moved up to Late Model Stock Car.”
The division was successful for a number of reasons. The first was cost; Late Model Stock Cars were comparatively inexpensive. Another reason was that by 1982, the Late Model Sportsman cars competed in what is now the Xfinity series, so racers making the change to Late Model Stock Cars had a place to sell their old parts.
And, at Old Dominion at least, the cars were teched.
“I took a lot of parts,” Gore stated.
According to Darne, at least the first three years of Late Model Stock Cars the parts were relatively stock. But the changes began with the carburetor, as there were too many stock carburetors to keep track of. And by the mid-‘80s the stock Camaro clip was replaced with a racing clip, for safety and availability.
But the Late Model Stock Car that exists today is a completely different beast. It’s a full-blown racecar with race parts. Gore noted that if 25 cars were in the pits and 18 all had the same part that wasn’t in the rulebook, few tracks would toss those 18 cars out.
“It’s the inspection process or lack thereof,” Gore said, which began the escalation of technology and cost.
And Darne says, “It breaks my heart. You gotta have the cars to have the people. Some tracks only get 10 cars each week. It’s just like it was when we started the Late Model Stock Car, in some ways maybe worse.”
Late Model Stock Car competitor and car owner Mike Darne is Bobby’s son. Bobby recently spent some time in Mike’s shop.
“These Late Model Stock Cars are damn near an Xfinity car,” Bobby Darne said. “There’s no way tracks can keep them in there. They don’t get enough cars. People don’t want to come out to watch five or 10 cars race. I think within the next couple of years we’re going to see this thing go away. There’s a lot of Late Model Stock Cars out there, but they can’t afford to race.”
Gore also observed that a lot of tracks in the region are at risk.
“No cars, no people,” he said. “No people, no track.”
But Gore also said that Late Model Stock Car can be saved, as long as drivers will work with their tracks and come up with a less expensive set of rules for weekly racing.
“Now they have bump stops,” Gore observed. “It’s going to take some spec parts, but they can use the existing car with refinements. It’ll take the right spec parts, and tracks will have to tech it and have to enforce it.”
And just as it was when the Late Model Stock Car replaced the Late Model Sportsman, the region now has the CARS Tour for Late Model Stock Cars, so there is still a market for competitors to sell their high-dollar equipment if it gets outlawed at the local level.
But they’ll probably have to task somebody else with saving the division. Dick Gore stays involved in racing as NASCAR tasks him to hear appeals, but he doesn’t want to run a racetrack anymore. Late Model Stock Cars have been one of the most successful weekly racing divisions in the past 40 years, but somebody else will have to guide it into the future.
“I was lucky I was in it in its heyday,” Gore said.
Story by Craig Murto/Late Model Racer Magazine
Photos by David Allio/www.racingphotoarchives.com