When people talk about the world of racing, NASCAR immediately comes to mind. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Danica Patrick are the names associated with the big money sport, but when it comes to dirt track racing and super late models its a different story. A cacophony of dirt racing circuits crisscross this country, acting as conduits to ultimate dream of NASCAR. Funneling the top talent up the hierarchy, after they pay their dues, hone their racing talents and find the right sponsorship.
Right now there is one kid who is tearing up the circuit, winning all the races and making a name for himself as the next big thing. He hails from Oakwood, Illinois and is only 18 years old. But he has racing in his blood and has been involved with the sport since he was born. Can you say prodigy? Meet Bobby Pierce, #32 Smooth Operator.
“My dad raced forever and kind of made racing a living.” Bobby tells The Gr1nd. “Ever since the day I was born I was at the racetrack watching him and supporting him. By the time I was 8 years old I started racing quarter midgets. Up until then I always wanted to play football. I told everyone I was going to be a football player, but all that didn’t work out. I’m kind of a small dude.”
But in a race car his size didn’t matter. It’s only his heart, his courage, and his technique that counts. Taking those turns at close to 100 mph takes nerve and Bobby has plenty of that. From the time he started racing quarter midgets he showed a prodigious skill and natural ability to win races. An ability that followed him as he graduated to kit mods at age ten and then to the super late models he is currently racing on dirt tracks across the country.
“I started racing crate late models, which is the same as a super late model, but it just has a crate engine which is about 400 horsepower compared to 850.” Bobby says. “Then I moved up to super late models. It was a big learning curve, going through all those classes helped. They always say you gotta start young and its true, if you start young and start progressing you will find yourself at the top.”
Refuse to lose is the motto stenciled on his car and with 128 career feature victories Bobby takes those words seriously. His visits to victory lane are starting to attract interest from NASCAR. But going to NASCAR means racing on asphalt. A big difference from dirt. But Bobby takes it all in stride. In just his fourth asphalt race at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina, a track known as the birthplace of NASCAR stars, he finished second driving the #88 Speedco Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports.
“I’m a fan of the 100 lap races because you don’t have to hustle the car all the way through,” Bobby tells The Gr1nd.”You can kind of layback and be patient, so you don’t burn off the tires too fast and there’s some more strategy that goes into it. I’d like to try and get some more asphalt races in, but dirt racing is always going to be my favorite to race. But if you can make it big time on asphalt that’s where a lot of the money is at.”
And a lot of successful dirt track racers have made the jump to NASCAR- Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon to name a few. Jeff Gordon even used to race at Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Illinois the track where Bobby has won 15 or so features. Even winning four features in a row in late September. An extremely difficult feat in the world of dirt track racing.
“Even if you just have a good run, its a sport that you have to be very humble about because if you think about it you have 25-26 cars that make the feature race and there’s only one winner.” Bobby says. “Its not a sports game where its you versus them. Your percentage and odds of winning the race are kind of low.” And a lot of hard work and preparation goes into it before the car even hits the track, so Bobby and his crew savor each victory.
“Its awesome.” He tells The Gr1nd. “Its a lot of hard work. A lot of blood sweat and tears go into the cars every week and if you tear them up everything , it’s so expensive these days with the sport. But when you get in victory lane, no matter if its a big race or a local show or whatever it is, there’s a whole lot of things that go into it and you can’t really compare it to anything else.” The thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
In the race car game its like Ricky Bobby said in Talledaga Nights, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” And each win puts Bobby Pierce into a better position to reach the pinnacle of the race car world, NASCAR. “I have always looked up to NASCAR, so hopefully I have a good race in Martinsville and open some eyes there and get a ride.” Bobby says. “Sponsorship in NASCAR is basically the key. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you don’t have the sponsorship and money behind you, you’re not going to make it.”
NASCAR is the dream and Martinsville Speedway in Virginia is a NASCAR track.
“I raced the NASCAR truck at Eldora this past July and ran second in that race. That was my first time ever running any sort of NASCAR race,” Bobby tells The Gr1nd. “It will be different for me because its an asphalt track. I’m going to have to adjust to that.”
Bobby Pierce has a bright future but until he’s on the big stage he will just keep turning heads at the dirt tracks.
“If you haven’t been to a dirt race before then you definitely need to go to one,” Bobby says. ‘If you are close to me, where I’m racing then come. Go to my website and see where I’m racing and hopefully you can come watch me and come by the trailer and I’ll give you an autograph and talk to you.” You can also get one of his
Reaper two t-shirts with the dual gun toting skull face.
“Everyone that races always has some type of logo and I really like my logo. You see guns and stuff and it sets the theme and the style of driving that I do.” Bobby tells The Gr1nd. And there’s a some history behind his nickname, Smooth Operator, also.
“An announcer gave me the nickname the Smooth Operator.” Bobby says. “My nickname used to be the Short Cool One because my dads nickname was the Tall Cool One. I was thinking I didn’t want to be called the Short Cool One my whole life so some announcer gave me the nickname and it kind of stuck. Thats what you gotta be on the racetrack, you gotta be smooth.”
With over 50 thousand followers on social media Bobby Pierce epitomizes the essence of smooth too. But in the pits he keeps it a family affair. His dad runs his pit crew, builds his cars and both of his parents travel with him to every race. “My dad actually builds race cars, dirt modified and late models. He probably built 1000 modified and 300 late models.” Bobby says. “My dad drives the tractor trailer with my mom on trips and my crew guy Mason and me, we drive the motorhome and it pulls the trailer.”
Compared to NASCAR, dirt tracks are short and tight and the cars get sideways in the turns. Imagine hitting 100-110 on the straightaways on a half mile track and then hitting the turns at top speed. Bobby says there’s no feeling like it. Being built for speed is what racing is about.
“We’re haulin’ in there when the track is really fast, probably coming in at 100-110 mph because you barely ever slow down.” Bobby tells The Gr1nd. “It kind of throws you back in your seat. The first time I drove a super late model compared to a crate late model it was an awesome feeling. You know that feeling you get when you ride a roller coaster? You’re shooting through the turns and stuff, thats what it feels like. I don’t like rolling coasters though because I can’t control it.” But Bobby loves dirt track racing because he is in complete control.
“The races are thirty laps and a lot of people think thirty laps, thats not very long, but for a dirt race thats pretty long. When you’re in the race car it feels like a long time.” He says. “The track looks like asphalt when the dirt gets hard and when the track gets a shine like that you want to try and not run through the shiny stuff because thats where its slick and it feels like ice. When the track gets like that come feature time, tire choices and what tires to run, whether it’s soft or hard, became a big factor because that could win you the race or lose you the race.”
And flipping the car and rolling it is always an occupational hazard.
“I flipped the late model twice. It was crazy. You just close your eyes and hang on.” Bobby tells The Gr1nd. “I hit the wall in Tennessee head on and did somersaults in the air. It was pretty crazy and the second time I flipped was last year. I hugged the corner and these cars have so much bite. I started barrel rolling. It was pretty sick. I wasn’t sore. Thats the good thing about all the protection and safety equipment we have now.”
The life of a dirt track racer isn’t all glitz and glamor, but as the victories accumulate Bobby Pierce #32 Smooth Operator is putting himself on a crash course with NASCAR. As he continues to pad his resume with victories and attracting more attention from sponsors that outcome is very likely. But no matter what happens, whether he makes the show or not, he will be racing because its in his blood. He loves the feeling of being in the car, hauling into the turns at 100 mph and cruising into victory lane after leaving all comers in his dust.