Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: NASCAR Drivers Should Help Develop Future Stars

There are stories printed most every week about the downfall of the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the lack of talent that is being developed for the future of the Cup Series. The Cup interlopers are always harangued for taking away the seats that young drivers could be filling and accumulating experience towards running at the next level.

While it is true that there are seats being lost at the Nationwide and Truck levels, the greater problem for the future of stock car racing is the ever-shrinking quantity of seats at local short tracks in full-bodied stock cars. While dwindling sponsorship dollars have caused most Cup organizations to all but eliminate their development programs at the late-model level, the bigger void is occurring because of a lack of participation by the to- level drivers in the sport.

Five years ago most of the top teams in NASCAR were running driver development deals at the late model level around the Carolinas and, in some cases, around the country. As the economy turned south and the big money sponsorships started drying up at the Cup level, the bigger teams had to start paring down payroll, which meant the development deals were some of the first things to go.

Sadly, that saw some rather talented drivers who were getting the occasional Nationwide or Truck start lose their jobs and have to begin scrambling for money if they wanted to keep racing. Since those teams have gone away, the ranks of cars showing up at the local short tracks have continued to shrink. Interestingly enough, the people with the some of the best means, and probably the best passion to add to the car counts at the local tracks seem to be remarkably absent from the ownership ranks at local tracks.

There are some drivers at the national touring level who have race teams which employ development level drivers, although several of them are in the open-wheel ranks rather than the stock car ranks, but at least they’re still working on developing racing talent. Many of the other big names in the sport are taking their millions and running without helping the next generation of drivers to come along. In the early years of the sport the drivers barely made enough to feed their own families and didn’t have a lot of money to share with hopeful talents, but they would still help them out in any way they could.

Then, in the ’70s and ’80s, drivers began to make some better money and many of them started up race teams to help other drivers get into cars and compete at the upper levels of the sport. Drivers knew how hard they’d worked to make it in the sport and they would do whatever they could to help out their friends. Somehow, between then and now the spirit of developing the next generation took a serious hit and is now on life support, with only a dozen or so drivers fielding any kind of race teams outside of the national touring series.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson‘s younger brother Jarit Johnson runs in various races around the Southeast, but he is working his butt off to do his own deal because the more famous brother, who obviously has more money, isn’t lending him a dime. You would think that a driver who was given a chance by Jeff Gordon to run at the Cup level and realize the success that he has would be anxious to give back and afford some other drivers an opportunity similar to where he started.

Speaking of Gordon, how is one of the two most valuable drivers in the sport not putting any money into the grassroots racing series which spawned his outstanding racing career? Like Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, it would seem like Gordon could put some of his considerable wealth back into the sport which afforded him such good fortune.

Instead the only race team that he has money invested into is Johnson’s Cup team. The drivers competing in the USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown ranks are forced to come up with their own rides and spend their own money to try and follow in their hero’s footsteps instead of getting some help making it to the next level.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has his own racing organization and for several years did field late model racing teams. Unfortunately there is only one team still racing in the late model ranks under the JR Motorsports banner, but the money that is running the program is not coming out of Earnhardt’s pocket. Forbes magazine reported Earnhardt Jr. earned $29 million in 2010 and that’s not a small chunk of change.

In contrast, the cost of running a competitive late model team, not the top of the line national championship-contending team, is somewhere around $150-200,000. That’s less than 1% of the money Earnhardt pulled down last year. NASCAR’s most popular driver should be paying it forward to bring more talent into the sport that has played such a dramatic role in his family’s history.

We could go down the list and name off many of the drivers but the message should be loud and clear that the future of the sport is in their hands. Their charitable contributions and activities are fantastic endeavors and benefit all of society, but there needs to be an equal investment of time and money to ensure the long-term viability of the sport that has given them so much to be thankful for.

The elite stock car drivers of the world need to be pouring a small amount of the money they bring home by the bagful back into the sport that we all love so much and want to see prosper for years to come. It is a matter of being good stewards of what has been given to them.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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