There are only a handful of events capable of packing out local short tracks nowadays, but the Bandit Big Rig Series has quickly become a star attraction wherever it goes.
The visual is just too much to resist: Over a dozen 13,000-pound trucks racing door to door at 80 mph on tracks no larger than a half-mile at historic venues like Hickory Motor Speedway (N.C.), Hawkeye Downs (Iowa) and Greenville-Pickens Speedway (S.C.). They race hard — and, of course, they crash even harder.
The October event at Hickory was paired with school bus races and a demolition derby. It proved to be such a hot ticket that late-arriving fans were actually turned away at the front gate. Meanwhile, the line to get in extended a full mile outside of the parking lot.
When was the last time that happened with any regularity at short tracks not named Bowman Gray Stadium (N.C.)?
The Bandit Big Rig Series drew a packed house last month at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
Montgomery Motor Speedway race director Nicholas Rogers said its date on the Bandit schedule was the best-attended event he’s ever seen at the Alabama venue. In fact, Bandit Series director of operations Brian Madsen says all but four races were complete sellouts this season.
“I don’t really know what to say except that we’ve been totally surprised by the growth of the Bandits,” Madsen said. “If you would have asked me two years ago, I would never have predicted this kind of success.”
After all, the tour was born from the failure of the short-lived and now-defunct ChampTruck World Series that took the same stock semis and raced them on road courses. It was a cool concept but didn’t quite register with the blue-collar, truck-driving target audience. The series folded in 2016. Madsen spearheaded the transition to ovals last year, and most of his drivers followed suit to the newly christened Bandit Big Rig Series.
A six-race soft launch emerged immediately after ChampTruck closed. It expanded to 13 races across the Southeast and Midwest this year, and a West Coast tour was recently announced for 2019.
The rapid growth is due in part to the affordability of the Bandit Big Rig rules package. Each race offers a $50,000 purse and $10,000 to the winner. The championship points fund is set to pay $20,000 to the eventual series victor.
Meanwhile, the trucks are less than $25,000 to build, providing a return on investment few other disciplines currently can offer.
Getting up close and personal with the trucks is part of the attraction to the Bandit Big Rig Series.
Driver Mike Morgan, nicknamed “88 Mike” by his fan base, made the jump to the Bandit Series after winning the 2015 ChampTruck championship. When not turning laps, he works as a master technician at a Mack dealership in Tennessee. With his Southern drawl and everyman charm, Morgan embodies the spirit of the Bandit Series.
“I’ve raced everything from SCCA to drag racing, but I knew I needed to be a part of this when they brought big-rig racing back to the United States,” Morgan said. “This is who I am and what I do. The competition is fierce, and there’s nothing like sliding one of these 13,000-pound trucks wheel-to-wheel on a tight short track.”
Due to ChampTruck’s road-racing roots, the Bandit Series has a diverse roster made up of traditional short-trackers and road-course ringers.
Tommy Boileau was a veteran sports-car racer who never pictured himself driving a big rig around Southern short tracks. But the former Richard Petty Driving Experience manager and current driving instructor has proven to be a quick learner on ovals and one of the discipline’s first stars.
“I drove for a car owner out of Hungary,” Boileau said. “He had one of these trucks on display at the Performance Industry (PRI) trade show in Indianapolis. They hired me to race the truck on road courses, and now we’ve somehow ended up here on short tracks.”
The series’ quick success can best be traced to commercial truck drivers and their families. Morgan says a large percentage of Bandit Series fans have some connection to the trucking industry. They arrive to the track already prepared to cheer for Mack, Freightliner or Peterbilt.
The series boasts brand loyalty for it’s many sponsors.
These are natural, built-in rivalries and perhaps eventual marketing partners for the still-growing series.
“We have brand loyalty,” Morgan said. “I don’t mean to disrespect NASCAR, but when Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge all look the same, fans just have a hard time investing in certain teams.
“Our fans are very passionate about which trucks they want to win or lose.”
Morgan argues big-rig racing has the wow factor of Monster Jam with the accessibility of local Late Model events.
“The most fun I have is hanging out with our fans,” Morgan said. “Racing needs kids to survive. They tell their parents to come to our races because we’re still cool. So if I have to stay until 2 a.m. signing autographs and helping kids get into my truck or blow the horn, that’s what we’re going to do.”
He just might save short-track racing in the process. Not even 20 years ago, Hickory was home to the NASCAR Xfinity Series; now it’s largely an afterthought in its own community. But the Bandits put tracks like this back on the map this year.
“Well, first of all, I hope that we’re not just a novelty,” Boileau said. “We think this can continue to grow. But we take a lot of pride in how many fans show up to watch us race. Every track needs some kind of big event to just get people talking. So we just want to put on a good show, and hopefully, we leave these tracks in a better place than we found them.”