Last year, Mark Wertz spent less time in the cockpit than he had in previous years. His primary job was that of crew chief for Connor Hall, who competed for the track championship at Langley Speedway and won the venue’s biggest race, the Hampton Heat 200.
Needless to say, it raised a few eyebrows this weekend when Wertz turned laps at the Hampton, Virginia oval testing a Dirt Late Model at the pavement track.
Wertz is planning a busy 2020 season once racing resumes following the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Along with continuing his work with Hall, he will race on both pavement and dirt.
The Dirt Late Model car is owned by the Hubbard family, and frequently runs on Friday nights at Dixieland Speedway in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Wertz will drive the car when his schedule allows.
Sunday’s Dirt Late Model test with a small collection of team members practicing physical distancing offered him the chance to shake down the Dirt Late Model.
“This year, we plan on running a handful of Dirt Late Model races,” Wertz told Speed51. “The Hubbard family owns the car. They called me and said they had the car ready and wanted to see if I could shake it down at Langley.”
Wertz didn’t go into the test expecting to find any speed secrets on the pavement that will translate to dirt racing. It was simply a chance to double-check all of the hard work the Hubbard Motorsports team had put in during the offseason.
“The biggest thing yesterday was to find out if we were going to have issues with the motor, if the clutch was engaging right, if the hubs were going to leak.
“At the end of the day, were we looking for a dirt setup? Absolutely not. But we were trying to utilize time we won’t have later in the year. We’re hoping this little session avoided a long night at the race track when it is time to go dirt racing.”
Despite that, Wertz was stunned to see the dirt car actually performed quite well around Langley Speedway.
“We went out there and, to our surprise, the dirt car got around the asphalt track pretty damn good. After the initial shakedown, being cautious, thinking this thing’s going to be a dump truck, we noticed the tires were holding up pretty good.
“We tried a couple of carburetors, played with some gear, and before the end of the day we were making 15, 20-lap runs like we were in an asphalt Super [Late Model].”
While Wertz will be going back dirt racing in 2020, he still plans to compete in both a Late Model and a Modified during the year.
“We’re still going to run our Late Model. On the weekends we’re off, we’re going to run an asphalt modified. I’m still Connor Hall’s crew chief, and my primary job is to get him a competition if we can. There’s a lot of really good competition.
“However, I’ve devised a schedule that allows me to keep racing since I am fortunate to have Dunkin’ Donuts back for an 11th year and CorvetteParts.net and Keen Parts have come back with us. We’ve devised a schedule on the weekends Langley doesn’t run so I can race.”
While Wertz has enjoyed plenty of success on pavement, including three track championships at Langley and two NASCAR Weekly Racing Series regional championships, his career started on dirt. He found out late in 2019 he is still comfortable in a dirt car during another testing sessions.
“We snuck away last year and tested at Dixieland Speedway just to see if I was comfortable on dirt. Within 15 laps it was like old shoe. I’m fortunate to have people who believe in me.
“Asphalt racing, when I got started, was expensive enough,” Wertz recounted. “A lot of people who couldn’t afford it ran dirt, hoped you got sponsors, put together an asphalt team and hoped it worked out. We were fortunate enough to be decent on dirt, won a handful races at Dixieland, Saluda [now Virginia Motor Speedway] and 311 Speedway. We got lucky enough to get in an asphalt car and the rest is overlooked history and stacked pennies.”
Just like he found a way to elevate from those dirt races to one of the most recognizable names in Virginia Late Model racing, Wertz is confident he will find a way to make the busy schedule work. He also believes competing more regularly will be more beneficial to his crew chief role for Connor Hall.
“For me, when I stepped away last year, I had points-raced so many years, I needed a break. I wanted to give Connor a full fair shot at the title instead of trying to do the year before last where I’d make sure he was just okay and I was just okay.
“By me staying in the car, it keeps me relative to everything going on and keep the pipeline of information going towards his car. I think it is a better overall fit as driver and crew chief.”
Wertz also values the support he has received and continues to receive during his own racing career, and hopes to deliver on that support in the coming year.
“To be honest with you, we’re not promised tomorrow. As long as I’ve got people who believe in me like Dunkin’ Donuts and CorvetteParts.net, I should take advantage of it because it could be gone tomorrow.”
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51 Content Supervisor – Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Hubbard Motorsports Facebook