Former NFL Stadium Now Hosts the “Super Bowl” of Dirt Racing

Cameron Neveu

In just over a week, NASCAR will take to the high banks for its “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing”—the Daytona 500. More immediately, this coming Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers will grace the gridiron in Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII. What would happen if you put these two events in a cocktail shaker? A high-profile race set inside a stadium?

Well, somebody already did, and the results were mighty sweet.

late model Dome St Louis football
Cameron Neveu

Here’s how the 2023 Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals went down: Last December, more than 200 race teams filed their way into downtown St. Louis’ stadium for the big event, arriving in a parade of semis, trucks, and trailers. Every winter since 2016 (aside from 2020’s cancellation due to the pandemic), the Dome at America’s Center has welcomed the nation’s top dirt late-model and modified drivers for a weekend of dirt-slinging and door-banging on a temporary fifth-mile banked clay oval. In its short history, the show has grown from an experiment to one of the discipline’s most renowned affairs.

late model Dome St Louis football
Meet me in St. Louis! Cars take the access road to the stadium floor. Cameron Neveu

The first-ever midget race was held in 1933 at Loyola High School Stadium in Los Angeles. Crowds grew quickly, and before too long, purpose-built arenas like Gilmore Stadium across town hosted races. (Hagerty Media editor-in-chief Larry Webster even sampled indoor dirt at the famous Chili Bowl midget contest.) Stadium racing is not limited to pint-sized roadsters, though. NASCAR has turned laps at venues like Chicago’s Soldier Field and Bowman Gray Stadium remains a bucket list attraction for stock-car thrill seekers. The idea of racing on an arena floor is not new. However, the idea of racing inside a football stadium in the middle of the NFL season—that’s a whole different ball game.

Football fans will recall that, in the early Nineties, St. Louis was in the market for an NFL franchise. The city’s beloved Cardinals left for sunny Arizona in 1988 and America’s gateway to the west was searching for a team to fill the void. Public bonds helped fund a newly proposed stadium to be built next to the city’s convention center. By 1995, a full-size football arena capable of holding over 67,000 fans was complete. Midwest football fans eventually got their wish as the Los Angeles Rams were moved to St. Louis later that year.

The new St. Louis Rams developed into a high-flying, high-scoring squad, earning the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.” The move lasted for twenty years, resulting in one Super Bowl win in 1999. Before the start of the 2016 NFL season, St. Louis Rams relocated from their home at the Dome to L.A. (the franchise’s home city from 1946–1994). The Rams were back in California, leaving the St. Louis dome with plenty of vacant dates on its event calendar.

Enter Cody Sommer, a fresh-faced mover and shaker within the dirt world. The 36-year-old has a history of big projects with varying degrees of success, from a three-year partnership with the dirt racing’s most popular driver, Scott Bloomquist, to an indoor midget race in the Indiana Pacer’s field house. In December 2016, Sommer and a crew hosted the inaugural Dirt Nationals in Gateway. While other projects have come and gone since then, the Dome has remained a staple on the dirt track calendar.

Part of its staying power has come from the incredible finishes and unlikely heroes. Tyler Carpenter comes to mind—a blue-collar from West Virginia who bested a roster of cars with better equipment to take consecutive titles in 2019 and 2021, winning $30,000 in his most recent triumph. His brash attitude and aggressive driving style are perfect for the track’s tight confines.

And he’s consistently good at providing a decent soundbite.

“It’s either make the move or be moved,” Carpenter told reporters in 2021. “I don’t want to crash them guys. Hell, I like ‘em all. We’re here to race … they’ve had their opportunity to win big races. This is the only shot I got as of right now. I ain’t got the backing they got (to win at bigger tracks).”

Indeed, indoor etiquette differs from the typical farm field dirt oval. “There’s definitely a different code of conduct at the Dome,” says Minnesota modified driver Jake Timm. “Everything happens so fast and the races are so short, you don’t have any time to waste. If you are faster than someone you need to be willing to throw an elbow to get by or you might as well not try!”

late model Dome St Louis football
That’s an odd hammock. Jake Timm needed a double-shot of tow truck after stuffing his dirt modified in the fence. Cameron Neveu

The sport’s purists may be quick to critique the on-track product, which more closely resembles a WWE match with plenty of contact and lots of hurt feelings. The temporary surface often develops deep ruts and the on-track speeds never hit triple digits. However, most are happy not to be sitting at home fighting winter boredom and accept the race for its minor flaws, understanding that no race at all would be a greater evil.

And so, tens of thousands of fans filled the Dome last December. This year, the event’s attendance had grown so substantial that organizers opened another section of seating for Saturday’s big dance.

The event is a three-day pressure cooker and reaches a massive crescendo on its final day. Preliminary races in the two days leading up to that night pare down the competitive field from over 120 late-model dirt cars to just 20 for Saturday’s feature race. “You have to segment out the night and not think too far ahead,” says Illinois driver Brandon Sheppard. “If you can’t qualify well and you’re buried in your heat, there’s no point in thinking about the feature until you’re in it. The key to going fast is balancing risk versus reward.”

He adds: “And keep it between the walls, baby.”

Tyler Erb did just that in 2022, winning his first Dirt Nationals in his Days of Thunder-inspired green and yellow paint scheme. The 25-year-old fan favorite from Texas captured the checkered flag just four days after losing his father to a heart attack. An emotional Erb stood on the roof of his car to celebrate as fans whooped and hollered.

Erb was back this year to defend his title, joining perhaps the strongest field to ever start a Gateway late model feature. The final night’s pre-race festivities are yet another thing that sets the December dance apart from the other thousands of dirt races run throughout the rest of the calendar year. After the Dome lights went out, fans held up their phone lights and sang “Proud to be an American,” which was followed by indoor pyrotechnics that sent heat waves into the lower seats. Each of the 20 drivers walked out of a smoke-filled tunnel, one by one, like pro wrestlers entering the ring. Dirt racing’s hottest driver, Ricky Thorton Jr., even wore a giant gold championship belt; other drivers opted for costumes or disparaging signs that took shots at their competitors.

late model Dome St Louis football
Cameron Neveu

The 40-lap late model feature was one of the cleanest yet, with only a few on-track incidents. Sheppard, who started on the front row, quickly assumed the lead and built up a decent gap on the rest of the field. Not to be discouraged by his lackluster starting sport, Thorton quickly charged through the field. With less than 10 laps to go, he was in second place and taking chunks out of the leader’s interval.

With one to go, the two were bumper to bumper. Thorton went low, and Sheppard went high.

Thorton’s shot was just short as he slid behind Sheppard, clipping the wall. Thorton ultimately settled for second. The crowd erupted as a new champion was crowned: King Sheppard, the Seventh. “To win in front of a home crowd that big is insane,” says the man who cut his teeth running on the dirt tracks that surround St. Louis. “It’s hard to put a number on it, but definitely a top 10 moment in my career.”

late model Dome St Louis football
Cameron Neveu

Sommer and crew have already announced that the Gateway Dirt Nationals will be back in December 2024, so mark this weekend on your calendar. Football be damned, this indoor contest might be the “Greatest Show on Dirt.”

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