Learning More About Dirt Track Sprint Car Racing With Sean MacDonell

My introduction to the world of car racing came via an interview with the Ginga Ninja, Ron MacDonell. In that article Ron references his son Sean a couple times. Sean MacDonell’s numerous accolades are listed in the cover photo to this article.

In the quest to continue learning about car racing, specifically dirt track sprint car racing, Sean is the logical choice. When you are done reading this interview, you will know that he was the perfect choice to play the role of teacher.

Instead of asking Sean simple straight line questions, I gave him conversational clusters of thought for him to react to and teach us with. I say “us” because the time is now to add a night out at the races to our to do lists. Class is now in session:

As a lifelong sports fan, the narrow focus is the result. This fan gets up in the morning and checks the internet to see who won, the details become secondary. Please explain to me the significance you put on your heats compared to your big race. It is understood the heats determine starting order but if you run a subpar heat does that ruin your mojo for the big race or vice versa? Is the mentality “eyes on the prize” or “the process”?  

The beauty with sprint car racing is that every time you are on the track, you need to push yourself and the car to be successful which is why the “sprint” name fits so well.
The night starts with hot laps, the purpose being to shake down the car, get your engine / gearing tuned properly, feel out the track if it’s a new facility for you or one that you don’t race as often, and to dial in the handling of your car based on the surface that particular night. You don’t achieve those things unless you are pushing the car and hard on the throttle.
Next you get to qualifying, where you have a warm up lap and two timed laps trying to finish as high up the leaderboard as possible. The qualifying results line you up for your heat races. They typically will invert 4 or 6 cars, (meaning the fastest car in qualifying would start 6th in their heat) giving the fastest qualifiers a good opportunity to earn “passing points” as well as finishing points in their heats, and more points will get you higher up in the starting grid for the feature.
If you run poorly in the heat it certainly makes it much harder to finish well in the feature, starting farther back will usually result in using up your tires faster, and if there aren’t many caution flags then the cars at the front can get away from the middle of the field in a hurry. From a confidence perspective a poor heat depends on the situation, if you are getting passed in the heats then you know you have work to do to be competitive in the feature, unless its a mechanical issue then you may still have confidence you can get that resolved and move forward in the feature. Like any competition you just have to be focused and shake it off when things aren’t going your way, but the mentality definitely has to be when you are on the track at any point that night, get on the gas!
Please tell us where else you raced in 2019 and why “360 wing sprints” are your choice? Do you currently race any other car types? 
For the past few years I have raced with the NSA Tour which in addition to running at Castrol Raceway also runs at Electric City Speedway in Great Falls Montana, where I got a couple of feature wins in 2019. 360 Sprints are my class because I grew up watching them (my Uncle Al MacDonell raced for my entire childhood), and being a competitive person myself I always had desires to end up racing them as well.
To me sprint cars have always been far and away the most exciting form of motorsports there is to watch, and the thrill of heading into a corner at the speeds we do, with the power to weight ratio of the cars, and the side by side action you get with dirt racing there is just nothing better.
I used to race double duty with a sportsman sprint car as well (similar to a 360 just less powerful engine and a heavier weight rule), and when I was younger raced high-performance karts across North America.
I spoke with Ron MacDonell about the perceived negative stigma around racing. You are an accountant who races. Please speak to the perception about racing, especially dirt track, that you want people to know about and associate with.  
That is a great question. I usually do catch people off guard when I tell them I race cars. They usually say something along the lines of “oh that’s cool! What kind of car?” I answer sprint car and 90 percent of the time they have no idea so I’ll show them a picture and they’ll say “oh those dune buggy type things” and they will ask a few random questions and that’s about it. It’s not until you get them out there to see it where their mindset kind of switches from “oh that’s cool” to “woah this is serious, you guys are crazy”.
There’s no question the first thing people outside the racing community think when they hear dirt track racing is rednecks and hillbillies going in circles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just can make it harder to entice both fans and potential sponsors to dip their toes in and see what it’s all about. Nascar stars such as Kyle Larson and Tony Stewart race sprint cars very regularly which definitely helps the perception issue, but there is still a long way to go to make sprint cars widely known and as popular as I obviously think they could be.
Sprint cars have a higher power to weight ratio than an indy car, have over 600 ft lbs of torque and over 800 horsepower, and to boot are open wheel and can slide across the track to make passes at over 100 mph. I want people to understand the intensity and difficulty in controlling these race cars, and not look at dirt as a step down from pavement racing just because we are playing in the mud.
Weather pending, Saturday July 18th you will race in front of only 200 fans. What impact, if any, does that on you. Do racers hear and feel the crowd or are you so zoned in you cannot even tell there is a crowd? Without a “proper” schedule due to the pandemic, why even race?
In terms of racing, to me it does not impact how I perform. You are so focused on what’s in front of you there is absolutely zero time to focus on anything else, and if you lose that focus you will either slow down or crash. I don’t want that perceived as me not caring if we have fans or not, we all would much rather have the largest crowds possible as it’s good for the health of the racing community in so many ways, and a victory lane with a large crowd cheering tops a few golf claps any day of the week!
We still choose to race with no schedule because racing is THE most fun thing we all do, without question. All of us that get to strap in and put a helmet on know how fortunate we are to be in that situation, and most of us do it for as long as we are able. There are so many families with generations of racers, and people that have been racing for the majority of their adult lives. To not race means to not be who we are. Some people go camping all summer, we go racing, and wouldn’t want it any other way.
Covid has been such a blow to our community. We had been gaining momentum the past couple of years with increasing car counts, larger crowds, and larger purses (prize money). Still racing through the pandemic is a way to try and keep the community alive and also to bring a sense of normalcy to our lives. I am 32 years old and haven’t had a summer without racing cars since I was 13 years old (and even then I was there watching). We are crossing our fingers that once we get back to a normal season in 2021 all of that momentum isn’t lost and we can pick up where we left off. Having sprint cars at a local track is rare in Western Canada and it would be a shame to lose that because we can’t get the crowds and/or car count back.
Thank you Sean for your educational answers. Check Ginga Ninja’s facebook page for racing dates and info. Races are held at Castrol Raceway.

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