Saturday, April 20, 2024

INTERVIEW: Dylan Parsons prepares for Pro SPEC jump in 2023

Dylan Parsons will enter new territory for the 2023 Championship Off-Road season as he moves from the 1600 Single Buggy to Pro SPEC trucks. Parsons was one of the top drivers in his previous class, winning the 2021 title and finishing second in last year’s points battle, but expects the transition to bring its own challenges.

The Checkered Flag had the opportunity to speak with Parsons on Friday about the switch and plans for the year.

Making the Switch

The plan to graduate to trucks started to form even before the 2022 season started as he acquired a truck chassis, though he was initially skeptical of the idea. Besides buggies, he also had a side-by-side programme to run part-time in the Pro Stock SxS class.

“We had built a new side-by-side and I was racing Pro Stock, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I could do both,’ and it just was too much,” he recalled. “And then this chassis came up for sale and one of my buddies was like, ‘Hey, you should go buy that,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ Then I told Matt Gerald and then he’s like, ‘Go talk to Mike Vanden Heuvel.’ And so I went, I stopped over at the shop that night and he’s like, ‘Go buy it.’

“So we kind of had it planned all last summer and we really didn’t tell anyone, and then on the Champ Off-Road Podcast (in July), I said I’m building a Pro SPEC for next year.”

While Parsons had something to look forward to, he still had a 1600 Single Buggy championship to defend. However, the effort did not start as planned as back-to-back runner-up finishes at the opener in Antigo were followed by a string of poor finishes in Crandon and ERX. Although he bounced back by never finishing worse than second across the final four races, including a pair of wins at Dirt City and Bark River, the midseason struggles helped John Fitzgerald beat him for the title by twenty-seven points. Parsons had held off Fitzgerald for the 2021 championship by roughly the same margin.

“It was just kind of dumb luck that was happening, a little bit of just little things,” Parsons explained. “We were so close where we should have won a couple of races and we didn’t at the beginning of the year and end of the year came strong. Just like every year, it seems like at the end of the year, I can finish off stronger than the beginning.”

Of course, racing buggies and side-by-sides is not quite the same as piloting a truck. However, he will not be the only one in that boat as the Pro SPEC category is expected to nearly double in size from its four-truck field in 2022. Tony Keepers, who finished fourth in the 1600 Single Buggy standings, is also a class newcomer.

“Going from a buggy and a side-by-side to a truck is going to be a huge learning curve,” stated Parsons. “I feel I got a lot of people behind me that I hope will help me make that jump quickly.

“It’s going to be a learning year for everyone, but the good part is this class is still fairly new. There were four trucks last year, I think three of those are returning, and then the rest of them are all new so everyone’s in the same boat. There’s a few guys that have converted their own truck, so they’re familiar with their truck, I guess I should say, versus some of us coming in that it’s all new to us.”

Introduced in 2021 with support from Chevrolet, Pro SPEC is intended to be a more affordable truck racing division than the premier Pro 2 and Pro 4. As the name suggests, many components are frozen and cannot be different from one another with the goal of ensuring equipment differences do not create disparities in the field; mandated spec parts include the intake manifold and throttle body, electronics, and the engine with its corresponding package and drive. While some drivers converted trucks from other classes like Pro Lite for Pro SPEC, others have purpose-built vehicles or are developing them from the ground up. Gerald’s Shock Tech Racing team, whom Parsons races for, is working to build his truck alongside Vanden Heuvel’s Flying Dutchman Off-Road and Jayce Gudex‘s Fabworx.

A YouTube video series of the development process began in October.

“Testing is soon. We had a few setbacks with some electrical components that really seems like it was beyond our control,” Parsons continued. “I started it for the first time this week, but we’re having some little bit of issues. It should be close. I want to drive it soon.”

Despite the obvious differences, he noted that the truck and buggy are not too unlike each other: “They’re all really similar to the same—they all have the same components, I guess I should say. It’s just some stuff’s bigger on others and it’s, like I said the other day, the truck’s just a big buggy. It’s got all the same components. It’s just where they are and how big they are and a little bit more fluids and stuff like that.”

Credit: Shock Tech Racing

2023 Plans

Championship Off-Road will visit the same Midwestern tracks in 2023 as the previous year: a redesigned Antigo Lions Roaring Raceway, Crandon International Off-Road Raceway twice, ERX Motor Park, Dirt City Motorplex, and Bark River International Raceway. However, the season will not end at Crandon as usual as the finale on 23/24 September will take the series to Oklahoma’s MidAmerica Outdoors for the first time. MAO has rapidly increased its presence in off-road racing in recent times, having purchased the Ultra4 USA series—which races with COR at the second Crandon date—and Great American Shortcourse while also developing a relationship with Travis Pastrana’s Nitro Rallycross. The track also runs its own side-by-side and Pro Lite championships which raced at the Lucas Oil Speedway dirt oval track in late April, which Parsons attended to support his colleagues.

“I’ve never been to MidAmerica,” Parsons said. “I did go to their event at Wheatland last week, just with some side-by-side guys and they seem like they have a lot going on. I’m not sure, I guess Champ is ran a little bit streamlined more. They’re still learning down there, but I’m excited to go to MidAmerica and they said that they’re spending like USD$50 million on the track or something down there. It’s pretty insane kind of money going around. Hopefully it all pans out and it’s fun and good and that facility seems top notch.”

MidAmerica Outdoors’ parent American Outdoor Events added GAS, the current premier division for short course on the West Coast, to its portfolio in April. Short course off-road racing is typically divided into Midwest and West Coast camps, both of which have endured turbulent histories with multiple series coming and going, and a single national championship is difficult if not impractical today due to most teams generally not having the funding or capability to travel long distance. Nevertheless, COR’s expansion into Oklahoma and AOE’s acquisition of GAS seems to indicate hopes to bridge the divide via a common party.

“I think like the last few years it’s been at its top, commented Parsons. “The West Coast guys all coming out here, like it’s hard on them and I could see how it’d be hard on us to go out there, so there kind of needs to be that happy medium between the two. I don’t know where that’s going to happen. Maybe this will open some doors to MidAmerica. I think Wheatland really needs to be on our schedule. That’s the first time I’ve ever been there and that place is insane. It’s a cool track.”

Although he has enjoyed success at all five Midwest courses in 1600, Parsons feels ERX and Bark River in particular will provide the best racing product for his truck. He swept his class at Bark River during his title-winning campaign in 2021.

“Crandon’s fun but it has all the hype and it just brings more stress on yourself,” he explained. “Just with all the hype and there’s just getting around there, there’s so many people there in the fall. I’ve done well at Crandon and I like Crandon, I’ve been going there for thirty years, whatever my whole life, but ERX, definitely the flowiness of that track is the best and it sets the drivers apart versus just holding it wide open.”

While Pro SPEC will be his main focus, breaking out the buggy on occasion is not out of the question as he did not sell it after the 2022 season. Outside of COR, he ran sporadically in the Short-course Off-road Drivers Association in 2022 and won the season-ending SODA Super Nationals in 1600 at Gravity Park USA. His 2023 will begin in the 1600 at Dirt City on 20/21 May when he runs the Mayhem at the Motorplex weekend.

Parsons’ method to his schedule was simple: he “learned that two years ago, racing the side-by-side and the buggy, the more seat time, the better. Doesn’t matter what you’re in, seat time. Last year, towards the end of the year, I started running a light buggy at the SODA races a little bit and then I ran it at Bark River. That seat time made me better in my own car too.”

A specific non-COR calendar was not given, though he is open to select races in SODA and the International Off-road Drivers Association. IODA, whose inaugural season began in late April, was formed following a rift with SODA leadership; series president Kelly Kuether had spoken with TCF a month before the opener. While aware of the drama, Parsons prefers “to stay out of all that. I was involved in that at the beginning, like back when Gravity came about, I was involved a little in the beginning of it and I don’t want to be involved. I’ll go race, but politics isn’t my thing.”

Many of the Pro SPEC competitors aspire to move up to higher levels in the future, and Parsons is open to that if he receives the chance. Until then, however, he is content with Pro SPEC and the increased parity that the aforementioned spec parts bring.

“I think the truck is the goal for everyone, to get into a truck at some point,” Parsons opined. “It seems like that’s the goal. This Pro SPEC, I feel we fit there pretty well. It’s still a driver’s class. It’s not who has the most money, hopefully, I mean hopefully it doesn’t go into that, but you’re pretty limited on what you can do. You can change gearing and stuff like that, in the tranny but not the rear end, so it’s real similar to what the buggy has going on as far as that kind of stuff.

“I’m excited on this, like it’s getting exciting. I couldn’t do it without everyone involved—Matt Gerald, Mikey Vanden Heuvel, we were at his shop most of the winter and I’ve learned a ton from him. Jayce at Fabworx, he got the aluminum done and he knocked that out of the park; it’s a little over the top, but he spent his time and he wanted it to look perfect and it’s probably one of the nicest out there for aluminum-wise on all the trucks. He’s been doing a lot of the side-by-sides and I’ve helped him along the way on that.”

The 2023 COR season begins at Antigo on 10/11 June.

Interview on YouTube

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