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Nathan Byrd raced a USAC Western doubleheader at Ventura Raceway this past weekend. (Byrd Racing photo)

BYRD: Challenged On The Dirt

VENTURA, Calif. — I hit the “Ventura Highway” this past weekend for some dirt racing at the famed Ventura Raceway.

It was another USAC Western doubleheader, racing a midget and a 360 sprint car with Cory Kruseman.

First off was the midget as we tried to pack the track to smooth out the surface. We did this by going out in groups to drive around the track slowly in order to compress the dirt of the recently oiled track.

Afterward, it was off to the races.

First, it was midget hot laps before they threw the checkered flag for my hot laps group and I had to line right back up to go out for qualifying.

I ran a lap at 13.564 seconds — a substantial improvement from my first time in the midget when I ran a 13.966. The time was 19th of 24 cars, compared to my 20th-place qualifying last time out of 23 cars.

Jumping out of the midget and into the sprint car for more hot laps and qualifying, I was comfortable with the car and in qualifying and ran a lap at 13.829 seconds. That was an improvement from the last time I was here and put me 15th out of 19 cars. The last time I was here, I was 17th out of 22 with a lap at 14.142.

In the heat races, no lap could be wasted, every turn mattered in giving me valuable experience and seat time.

In the first midget heat, I started seventh out of eight cars. The eight-lap heat was a struggle for me. I picked up a free pass because of an incident with one of the cars in front of me to finish sixth. Most importantly, I gained some good experience and an idea of what I needed to do differently in terms of my driving technique.

In the sprint car, I started second out of six in the third heat and had a good start. I took the lead, but immediately was passed back through turns three and four as I was too slow on the entry.

The next lap I got passed heading into turn three and tried to put up a good fight to run the high line through turns three and four. I made a mistake instead and was passed by two more cars. I was too high in the fluff, where there isn’t any grip.

I finished fifth but got faster and more comfortable with each lap. I was beginning to figure out how to run around the middle and top lanes of the corners.

In the midget feature, I was 19th out of 24 cars on the grid. The last time I race the midget, I finished 12th so I was looking to crack into the top 10. I got a lot of good advice from Kruseman and Keoni Texeira, one of the crew guys and a fellow racer with a lot of experience at Ventura. Between them, I felt pretty confident going into the features. 

The race was very hectic and action-filled because of the number of cautions that came out.

I steadily moved forward through the field because of attrition and passes on track.

The cautions forced the field to bunch back up and gave me ample opportunities to practice my restarts as well as make more passes for position. I crossed the start-finish line in eighth place, but was upgraded to seventh when one of the top-five finishers failed to report to the scales post-race.

By the end of the race, I felt like I was starting to understand what I needed to do to properly drive the car, not just on the bottom lane but on the middle and top lanes, too. This was pretty big for me because all I did the last time, I raced at Ventura was stick to the bottom lane, which didn’t teach me much in terms of dirt racing because I could almost drive the bottom as if I was driving a pavement car.

The final race of the night was the sprint car feature.

I was feeling pretty confident going into the race considering I had just driven and raced well in the midget an hour earlier. I started 15th in the 19-car field. I got a good start and quickly moved to 12th, keeping my nose clean around the bottom lane. However, this didn’t last long when I got caught up in a strange incident in the middle of turns one and two that stopped me on track and as a result placed me at the back.

Throughout the rest of the race, I moved forward a few positions, barely avoiding the second incident of the feature as I threaded the needle between two stopped cars. I dealt with a good amount of adversity as a combination of a few cascading variables came into play.

Those factors were a super bumpy track, a tight setup with the car, and a general lack of vision.

The bumpiness of the track and tight setup led to me struggling more with the car than I otherwise would and combined to create a situation where my helmet would rotate forward, and I would start to lose forward vision because my visor cam is just above my eyes.

This increased general stress levels as I had to simultaneously deal with the crazy traffic in the race, which led to me breathing harder and subsequently fogging up my visor. That further decreased visibility.

All in all, it wasn’t the most fun race in the world, but I still learned a lot through the process and finished 12th.

I finished all the laps of both races and made a substantial amount of progress and experience. It felt good to almost drive the car how a proper dirt racer would and to give myself a new foundation of skills to build from next time around.

Dirt racing is a great challenge for me as a driver and a lot of fun, so I can’t wait to do again.

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