On a Wednesday evening in Kalamazoo, Mich., a packed house of fans watched NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star Kyle Busch race twice in one night. David Ragan was also in the field for the CRA Super Series race and has been known to dabble quite a bit with his Super Late Model.
This trend is a somewhat frequent occurrence when it fits in the schedule for the drivers of the top divisions; however, given recent events in the last couple years involving Tony Stewart, could it be coming to an end?
Auto racing sets itself apart from other sports in many ways, one being its athletes’ competition across multiple series. One would almost never see a stick and ball athlete compete at the minor league levels during their off-time just for the fun of it. Many agree that the guys who race on Sunday should do the same.
There is a difference, though. Late Models, sprint cars, Modifieds and the rest are a entirely different animal than the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series machine.
Short track racing is not like a certain Friday or Saturday where someone like Busch can run away from the competition in a Camping World Truck or Nationwide series race at the same track the Sprint Cup Series is already at. Instead, there are unique track layouts in differing vehicles that present a new challenge to the driver and often result in close finishes, much like what was seen on Wednesday when Busch edged the nationally unheard-of Johnny VanDoorn, or at Lucas Oil Raceway Park in July when John Hunter Nemechek came 0.024 seconds short of beating Rowdy.
Beating the star is something for which these short track aces or those moving up the ranks shoot for. If Busch had not been competing in the 2012 running of the Snowball Derby, would Erik Jones have earned a ride in a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck after outrunning him for the win? Doubtful. If the eyes of NASCAR weren’t focused on Tucson’s Winter Heat or Phoenix’s Copper World Classic in the 1990s, where short track drivers at times mixed it up with the versatile Ken Schrader, would someone like Ron Hornaday, Jr. have made it away from the West Coast under the recognition of Dale Earnhardt and as a result launch arguably the most successful Truck Series career to date? Possibly not. If Kasey Kahne and Stewart weren’t so immersed in the sprint car world, would the World of Outlaws Tour have more than a handful of full-time teams and have as much of a loyal following as it does now?
Who knows, but their involvement definitely doesn’t hurt on that account.
But that is where a very fine line needs to be drawn. Today’s sponsorship tends to dictate whether you race or stay home. Drivers and teams cannot afford to lose multi-million dollars’ worth of support over a pastime on an off-night at the local bullring. At the same time, smaller racing facilities are looking for every way to sell tickets in a world where there are more than a few options for the general public to choose on any given night. Bottom line: without the big names, the short track community suffers a major loss and some do not recover from it for a number of variable reasons.
Stewart faces a very difficult situation in the wake of the unfortunate accident that killed Kevin Ward, Jr. last Saturday night. It is going to weigh on him competitively, psychologically and as a businessman. Being in the national spotlight, the decisions he makes going forward are going to affect partnerships as well as what others choose to do.
Additionally, Stewart’s broken leg last year already had fellow competitors thinking twice. Since launching his Cup career, sprint car racing has taken an immediate back seat for Kyle Larson, even though he has ventured into ownership. After a vicious flip outside the park at Williams Grove Speedway in 2011, Kahne walked away unharmed but his presence as anything more than a car owner at the dirt tracks has been curtailed. On the other hand, someone like Schrader has become a hero to many the last few decades for his ability to hop into a Midget one night, a dirt Modified the next night and a full-bodied stock car the next day. There has to be some sort of acceptable middle ground. After all, a driver could potentially get injured or be involved in the harm of another in any extracurricular activity that takes place, whether it involves a race car or not.
Stewart holds a lot of investment throughout the entire auto racing industry. If it wasn’t for the allowance for him to participate at what he enjoys doing, the Prelude to the Dream charity event at Eldora Speedway that ran for a few years or even his ownership of that track that eventually led to talks for the Truck Series to race there may have never existed. At the same time, he owes attention to investors with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team he co-owns, which could very well be the future of the sport given his young age compared to many of today’s owners.
Lastly, the positives from what goes on during any weekend in short track racing seem to get overshadowed by such unfortunate events. The facility I was at on Saturday night did not have any household names in attendance. A driver’s throttle hung and the stock car (interestingly enough a former Hooters Pro Cup car that was driven in the past by Brian Vickers) knocked a hole in the turn 1 wall and then came to rest in the infield. After a moment to catch his breath, the driver climbed out under his own power, acknowledged the crowd and went on to thank the track officials for coming to his aid so quickly and most importantly his HANS device for being able to walk away.
Later that evening, teams from the touring series he races in, as well as the local divisions and track staff, all assisted in getting his battered car off the flatbed and into his trailer. Similar stories happen at race tracks across the country every weekend, but many may never hear about it.
How does that tie into NASCAR? Many of today’s biggest names have most likely been in a similar situation during their incline up the ranks. Short tracks on Saturday night are where many learn about the appreciation and camaraderie that auto racing is all about, which in turn builds character and makes them relatable to the Sunday afternoon follower. It’s that enjoyment that comes out of a driver’s personality when they have the opportunity to go back to where they came from while chasing a championship for nearly 75 percent of the year that makes it so special.
If you were to ask Tony Stewart a question about Eldora, sprint cars or anything short track-related, you will see a gleam in his eyes. To completely take that away from anyone would be a huge loss for both NASCAR and short track racing.