All forms of racing change and progress over time, both on and off the track. The introduction of new engine technology usually makes costs go up along with horsepower numbers. The evolution of suspension technology is the easily biggest change in the last 10 years and has steadily changed the on-track competition along the way. Midget racing is the form of open-wheel racing that has had to make the most adjustments to keep up with the unintended consequences of these developments.
I started racing midgets in 2005 and it was an entirely different landscape than today. Once we started traveling heavily to compete in bigger events our schedule included tracks such as Knoxville, Dodge City, McCool Junction, Belleville, Terre Haute, Eldora, and Manzanita. A decent portion of the races across the country were conducted on big fast race tracks, and they also attracted healthy car counts. We were by no means a team with any kind of crazy budget and had standard Esslinger engines and were very competitive on tracks of any size. In the few years immediately following, things began to change rapidly, and car counts fell drastically especially in the bigger tracks.
Contrary to some long-time race fans opinions, no the drivers aren’t just scared of racing on the bigger tracks today. The type of great racing that midgets produced on the big tracks up through the mid 2000s just isn’t viably possible to reproduce in today’s environment. The chassis themselves are virtually unchanged but engine and shock programs are very different.
Once Toyota started to get a good handle on their engine program, which did take several years, it forced all the other competitors to push their engines harder until virtually everyone was on the brink of failure all of the time. Better parts are now available to increase reliability, however they are more expensive and must be timed out at the same rate as the formerly used less expensive pieces.
The mounting increase in costs here and there made it harder to family teams to compete especially on the bigger tracks, and most of them decided to save their resources for smaller tracks that gave them a better chance to be competitive. This is in no way an issue to blame on Toyota, it is just the natural progression of motorsports and is inevitable.
Shock technology has also drastically changed how much of your engine’s horsepower can be used by adding a substantial amount of grip to the cars. Twenty years ago, when tracks got slick, you were sliding around, spinning your tires, and had to use throttle control. Today’s cars can be run virtually wide open until the track surface has slicked off considerably. On big half miles, you might still be flat out for most of the feature. More grip means more load on your engine which means more wear on your engine components, not to mention shocks with the latest technology are also much more expensive than in the past but are necessary to be competitive.
Midgets now have so much grip and are relatively stable and that has changed the racing on the track. Today’s cars are so equally matched that drivers must run them on the ragged edge at all times to be fast. Momentum is crucial in current midget racing, even on smaller tracks. If you perform a slide job on someone in a sprint car, they are most likely going to spin their tires when they attempt to turn down underneath you, and you will have the advantage off the corner by being in the moisture and having forward drive. Performing a slide job in a midget is now very different. When you slide in front of someone, they can turn down the track without losing a lot of traction and you could easily bog your motor down when you get to the cushion.
It has become necessary to make sure you force your competitor to slow down when you slide in front of them to break their momentum.
The evolution towards this momentum breaking technique is what has unfortunately brought about the “slide or die” mentality. Even experienced racers are forced to change their style in midget racing. Once a few people start racing a certain way it trickles through the rest of the field. I am not defending nor do I agree with some of the blatant reckless moves that are seen in midget racing now, but unfortunately a little wheel banging has become inevitable. Midgets are much more resilient and resistant to damage compared to sprint cars, and thankfully this style doesn’t translate to sprint car racing, at least for now.
The combination of inflated engine costs, more grip, and changing competition is what has seemingly relegated midget racing to small tracks. There just aren’t enough teams willing to risk their equipment in order to race on the bigger tracks. The positive side is that the on-track product of current day midget racing is phenomenal for the fans and is as popular as ever. Just because things change does not mean it is any better or worse than before.