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Note to self: Bring goggles to dirt tracks

By Ted Rubenstein
CNN

Bloomquist
"Bad Boy" Scott Bloomquist is one of the winningest dirt track drivers of all time.

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Tony Stewart

(CNN) -- A fellow Southerner and I were catching up one night when I told him something that left him absolutely stunned.

"I can't believe you've never been to a dirt track," he said.

He was amazed that I could grow up in northeast Mississippi, just a few miles from the Magnolia Speed Bowel, as the hand-painted sign called it, and I never once went to see a race.

He really shouldn't have been so surprised. Dirt is racing's best kept secret. Apparently dirt track racing fans have acquired some kind of stealth technology which has hidden them from major media attention for decades.

That's some feat, because about 30 million people attend dirt track races every year, according to the National Speedway Directory. A study by DIRT MotorSports found that dirt track racing is a $1.3 billion a year industry, Chief Marketing Officer Rob Butcher said. (Watch cars speed and dirt fly -- 6:42)

I began my dirt track trek by accident when I went to see a friend, Tim Lee, who was in town with his rock band. He told me he was editing a magazine called Dirt Late Model. We talked, and the more he explained the more I was intrigued.

For "CNN Presents: Dirt Track Warriors" we concentrated on dirt late models, one of the popular divisions. I'm not sure what the difference is with the other cars -- that's a bit too technical for me -- but late models are high-tech, lightweight racing machines that are bad fast. Many are faster than a NASCAR Nextel Cup car.

Blasted in the face with dirt

A lot of dirt fans derisively say NASCAR is "follow the leader" or they slam it as a freight train -- just one car after the other. T-shirts proclaim, "Dirt is for Racing. Asphalt's just for getting there."

The first race I went to was at Wayne County Speedway in Orrville, Ohio. The TV crew and I were setting up for our first shot in a turn during practice laps (they call them hot laps). The cars came zooming by and as they passed us -- WHAM -- we were blasted in the face with high-speed dirt.

I made a one-word note: "Goggles." But we never got them because we quickly learned the "Dirt Track Pivot": as the cars approach, you twist your upper body 90 degrees and turn your head away from the track. The dust hits shoulder and torso, not head.

Toward the end of the races the strangest thing happened. We had positioned ourselves a few hundred yards away, trying to get a wide shot of the track with its arc lights glowing in the summer sky. The picture didn't turn out like we hoped, so we didn't use it. But on the audio track, we could clearly hear a single bird chirping happily, even though the track's noise was resounding through the Ohio countryside. Machine and nature in peaceful co-existence. All was well that night in Dirt Track World.

We profiled three drivers in our documentary: "Bad Boy" Scott Bloomquist, one of the winningest drivers of all-time; Chub Frank, a racer known as "Chubzilla" who needs the prize money to pay the bills; and Josh "Kid Rocket" Richards, who has a lot of talent and a dad with deep pockets.

We follow them as they get ready and race in the Super Bowl of dirt racing -- the World 100 at Eldora Speedway, in Ohio.

The World 100 is the biggest prize in the sport. It's a combination of serious racing and three-day party in the middle of a corn field.

It's also a symbol of the stealth nature of this culture. The September race -- which draws up to 30,000 raucous fans -- doesn't rate a mention in the Dayton Daily News, especially when Ohio State is playing.

Two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart owns Eldora, and we snagged an interview while he was at the track racing sprint cars.

"I make my living driving on pavement every week," he told CNN. "I really think that dirt racing -- that's where my passion has always been. I mean, I've always been more interested in dirt racing than pavement."

Kid Rocket hopes to follow Tony's path from dirt to NASCAR. He seems destined for the asphalt ovals. I'll bet you an order of deep fried cheese curds at Cedar Lake Speedway, Wisconsin, the kid ends up in NASCAR. Years from now when he's racing stock cars you can say you saw him when.

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