CONCORD, N.C. — 1984. Ronald Reagan was running for U.S. presidential reelection, Cheers was a top sitcom on TV, and Ghostbusters had just hit the box office. In Illinois, Michael Jordan was an NBA rookie, and the Chicago Cubs were in the playoffs for the first time since World War II.
Further south in the Land of Lincoln, the dawning of a new era in dirt track racing was on the horizon – a singular set of technical specifications adopted by a host of tracks to cut costs, level competition and strengthen weekly racing under the United Midwestern Promoters (UMP) banner.
Forty years later, that same vision of UMP founder Bob Memmer is celebrated in 2023 with DIRTcar Racing’s 40th consecutive year in operation.
Memmer founded UMP in 1984 and carried it into the 21st century through changes in ownership and leadership assistance. A 2004 acquisition from present-day World Racing Group later rebranded the organization to DIRTcar Racing in 2007.
Though it began with Late Models exclusively and a handful of tracks, DIRTcar has since evolved to sanction nine different divisions of racing at over 1,200 events and 120-plus tracks across the country. The regular season has traditionally spread weekly events from April-to-October and has also expanded to include DIRTcar-sanctioned events taking place in all 12 calendar months.
The vision of Memmer and leadership under modern-day DIRTcar Director Sam Driggers has evolved the once-small collective of rules and tracks into one of the biggest sanctioning bodies for dirt track racing in the world. DIRTcar in the 21st century thrives on the principles Memmer established under UMP, but it wasn’t until his ideas became actions that drivers, promoters and fans started to believe that vision could work.
Genesis of UMP/DIRTcar (1984-Late 1990s)
Since the 1960s, Late Models have been one of the most popular and widespread short track racing car classes, packing the pit areas of Friday and Saturday night tracks across the country. Old school Chevy Camaros, Novas, Chevelles, and the like were used as framework on which many competitors built their weekend warriors to compete in front of local crowds.
The 1970s played host to the dawn of the careers in some of the sport’s most accomplished stars, producing the Hall-of-Fame careers of names like Jeff Purvis, Charlie Swartz, Freddy Smith, Larry Phillips, and many more.
By the 1980s, the technology being used to develop the division’s top-performing cars was rapidly becoming more and more expensive with the meteoric rise of the wedge-style Late Model. Car builders like C.J. Rayburn and Larry Shaw were instrumental in the development of the wedge body – built primarily from sheet metal as opposed to the traditional fiberglass bodies of stock cars.
These new body designs, heavily dependent on the air-catching principles of aerodynamics, quickly became the key to more speed and control on the track. Bigger spoilers and body panels created levels of downforce never before seen in the division, and was complemented by larger engines, more tire wear, and thus, higher costs.
The 1982 and 1983 dirt Late Model racing seasons were reported to have some of the lowest car counts at local Friday/Saturday night venues in several years, and costs were only partly to blame. Rules regarding the new body designs and numerous tire brands/compounds available were different at every track, and in some cases non-existent, which only added to the inconvenience for the weekly racer to compete.
One such local racer, later-turned national champion, was 2003 National Dirt Late Model Hall-of-Famer Bob Pierce. He was emerging as one of Illinois’ most revered racers, and recalled the confusion and frustration that surrounded Late Model racing at any given track.
“It was getting so crazy,” Pierce said. “We didn’t know where to go on a local night.
“We didn’t know what [the rules] were going to be from Farmer City to Kankakee to Peoria, to over in Indiana. We didn’t know what the rules were going to be, sometimes until we pulled into the racetrack.”
Local car counts were thinning, and drivers were getting frustrated with the rising costs to compete. Promoters were growing unhappy with Late Model event turnouts, and in some places, cut the division altogether. Dirt Late Model racing was headed down a path to extinction and needed a master plan to save itself from its own self-destruction.
Enter Bob Memmer.
The middle-aged accountant from Southwest Indiana had been attending dirt track races for many years as a hobby and eventually became a reporter, recording his own race results for events he attended around his new home in New Jersey. By the 1980s, he had moved back to Indiana and decided it was time to make his own mark in the sport he’d come to love.
Taking note of the ongoing Late Model crisis, Memmer took part in organizing a formal meeting amongst track promoters and industry professionals to address the situation. At its conclusion, the United Midwestern Promoters group was born with the establishment of a standardized set of rules regarding bodies, tires and other various regulations.
Throughout his years, Memmer was often regarded as a prophet of fairness in competition; a protector of the underfunded racers and their chance to be competitive when the national touring series invaded their home tracks. Like Pierce, those principles weren’t lost on 2003 National Dirt Late Model Hall-of-Famer Billy Moyer.
“He tried to unite the rules to where, he called it the ‘little guy,’ could afford to run with the ‘big guy,’” Moyer said. “That’s what he did with the rules – the cars, tires and everything – trying to equal out the playing field.”
Comprised first of a group of just over 20 different racetracks, each UMP-sanctioned venue hosted Late Model competition with all cars adhering to the technical specifications set forth in the new rulebook, established before the start of the 1984 season. Memmer collaborated with National Dirt Racing Association (NDRA) Director Robert Smawley – founder of the first national tour for dirt Late Models – on the first UMP rulebook, which set the precedence for the next 40 years of Midwest dirt racing history.
On the track, the cars looked considerably different, now stripped of their aerodynamic freedom. Stock-appearing noses, body panels and limited spoilers, even a Hoosier-only tire mandate was in place to keep costs down. Though car counts at the local level began to creep back to healthy levels over the next few seasons, not every driver was on board with having their creative abilities outlawed.
“When Memmer came along and popped up with this idea, [a lot of racers] were like, ‘Aw man, we don’t want to do that,’” Pierce said. “Because nobody wanted to hear rules; they wanted to do their own thing. Everybody was pretty outlaw, free spirit, do-what-you-think.
“I wasn’t sure how long it was going to last; I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure if every track was going to jump on the bandwagon with it.”
But for others – the “little guy” that Memmer aimed to protect – the rules were a welcomed change. Though Pierce fit the mold of both a local, working-man’s, racer and a national touring competitor, he was unable to consistently keep up with the best-of-the-best and kept an open mind to this brand-new organization.
“I was kind of in the middle of it because I didn’t have a lot of money and my motors weren’t very big,” Pierce said. “If I tried to build anything halfway big, it didn’t last because I could never afford somebody to do it right.
“So, I was kinda like, ‘Hmm, this might not be a bad idea.’”
One year after UMP’s formation came the birth of one of its longest-standing promotion brands – Track Enterprises. In 1985, Bob Sargent headed-up the company, first purchasing Macon Speedway in Macon, Ill., and eventually conformed the weekly racing to UMP rules.
Like many of UMP/DIRTcar’s most noted promoters, Sargent frequently consulted with Memmer, capitalizing on their shared vision in the growth of short track racing.
“He and I would talk almost nightly, every night of the week, about rules and schedules, tires and engines and on-and-on,” Sargent said. “The thing that stands out to me about him is the passion he had for Dirt Late Model and Modified racing.”
A frequent racer of both local and touring series events, Moyer noticed the change in competition firsthand. He won his first two national championships in the years following the rules change, capturing both the 1988 and 1989 crowns with the newly formed World of Outlaws Late Model Series.
1993 and 1994 brought another back-to-back pair of points titles for Moyer, this time at the regional level with Memmer’s UMP Summer Nationals tour. Those years also brought him his second and third World 100 event titles at the UMP-sanctioned Eldora Speedway, kicking off an era of UMP dominance for he and his team from Batesville, Ark.
“He was a great guy, and he meant the best for the sport,” Moyer said of Memmer. “A lot of us argued about things that we didn’t agree with this-or-that or whatever that he was trying to do. But one thing that he always was trying to do was make the sport stronger. You’ve got to commend him for that.”
Pierce also excelled in the 1990s. Two UMP Summer Nationals championships in 1992 and 1995 was only the cherry atop the sundae of work he’d put in in 1990 when he garnered his lone UMP Late Model national points title. Armed with one UMP-legal car and another for his Short Track Auto Racing Stars (STARS) campaign, Pierce often raced a combination of local and traveling series events to gain points in the UMP standings and make a good cut of cash in the same weekend.
“I was trying to make a living, and it was a grueling summer,” Pierce said. “It wasn’t all because I was trying to win just the UMP points – it was how I had to win the UMP points and still make money was what was rough. It was a crazy summer, but we got it pulled off.”
From the competitor standpoint, the difference was becoming clear. Unified rules adopted from track-to-track reduced operating costs and confusion amongst racers, resulting in more local competition for series regulars to compete against throughout the country.
“I’m out there clicking races off, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, let’s go,’” Pierce said. “I could go clear out to Hagerstown, Maryland, and run second in a big race and never been there in my life because the body rules fit me.”
For most of UMP’s existence, Memmer was the one and only man in charge. When it came to enforcing the new rules, there was no discussion.
“He stood his ground pretty good,” Pierce said. “He never yelled, screamed or threatened anybody. He just said, ‘Look, this is the way it’s going to be, no arguments, I’m doing this to help you guys and keep racing going.’”
But come the mid-1990s, UMP had flourished into such a lineup of sanctioned tracks and events that Memmer was unable to deny his need for management help, and he soon hired present-day DIRTcar Director Sam Driggers. In their time traveling around the country during race season, Driggers was quickly taught the ways of Memmer’s persistence and values that carried the brand well into the 21st century.
“Bob was from old-school racing,” Driggers said. “It was what he wanted, it was the only option he had and there was no other way around it. It was what he wanted, and that’s all we were going to do.”
Armed with a host of tracks, drivers and a big book of rules, Memmer and Driggers had helped to get healthy Late Model car counts back at several tracks throughout the country. Soon, it became time for them to take the next steps in their quest to unify dirt track racing and lay the technical foundation for the next generation of the sport’s biggest events.