Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Out With the Old in NASCAR

Don’t look now, but it’s a young person’s world.

Erik Jones won his first career Xfinity Series race last weekend at the ripe old age of 18. That’s how old Chase Elliott was when he won his first Xfinity title just last season.

My oldest daughter is going on 19 and the thought of her being a working, driving, college-attending adult scares the daylights out of me.

Maybe it’s because I’m just two weeks away from turning 50. That’s a milestone I’m struggling to pass. I know what they say: that “50 is the new 30” and all that kind of rot. But when I look at NASCAR and how it’s trending younger, all I see is my years in the sport creeping toward the gates of old age.

And I can’t aim the blame solely at Erik and Chase.

NASCAR’s kids’ club includes Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr. (21), Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and Brett Moffitt (22); Joey Logano and Austin Dillon (25), and Landon Cassill (26).

Even seasoned veterans in the Sprint Cup Series are younger than some of the students I teach each week. Former Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne is 24. Former NSCS champion Brad Keselowski is 31, as is Regan Smith. Danica Patrick is all of 34, as is Denny Hamlin. Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. are both 35 years of age. And Kevin Harvick, David Gilliland and Jimmie Johnson are all 39 years old, just a year younger than Dale Earnhardt Jr. who’s their senior at 40.

I laughed when news reports called Jeff Gordon NASCAR’s “elder statesman” at the ripe-old age of 43 when he announced his forthcoming retirement from driving. Thank goodness Greg Biffle is 45 and Mike Bliss is 50 – at least there are two drivers with whom I can chronologically identify!

Gone are the days when long-in-the-tooth hotshoes like Dick Trickle and Morgan Shepherd would mix it up with their youthful counterparts. Next week I’m going to write about the 1990 First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro and how April 22 will mark the 25th anniversary of pace car driver Brett Bodine’s first (and only) Sprint Cup win. Both Trickle and Shepherd were 48 years old and running up front that day. And Harry Gant was still racing (and winning) regularly at the advanced age of 50.

To be historically accurate: “Handsome Harry” only won one race during the 1990 Sprint Cup season. Gant went on to win five races in 1991 at the age of 51, and another two races in 1992 at the age of 52. Nonetheless, the point is still pretty clear: experience is the best teacher.

Or is it? How does that old chestnut explain Chase Elliott’s 2014 Xfinity title? What about Keselowski’s 2012 Sprint Cup championship when he was only 28? Or Gordon’s first Cup championship when he was 23 back in 1995?

If it’s true that experience brings success, then why are so many drivers accomplishing so much at such an early age?

Are today’s cars easier to drive? A driver can do amazing things with downforce, but what about the new rules package that lessens such a luxury? Maybe it’s that there are so many good cars scattered throughout NASCAR’s big touring series?

Is it because young drivers have better resources at their disposal? Do more parents have more money available to fund their children’s racing dreams at an earlier age? The success of a competitive division like the K&N Series speaks volumes about the development of young talent. So does the plethora of developmental programs managed by Sprint Cup race teams.

Do younger racers have access to more information? YouTube is an archive of race footage that enables drivers to view “game films” from past events. Might that be a way to study, absorb, and learn nuances necessary for running upfront?

Could it be that young drivers familiar with video games are able to use iRacing as a way to gain much-needed “seat time”? It wasn’t all that long ago when Earnhardt Jr. admitted to using a NASCAR video game to learn his way around Watkins Glen, an education that enabled him to significantly improve his results on the road course.

Is knowledge as good a teacher as experience? For young drivers, it just might be.

One thing that young drivers bring to NASCAR is the enthusiasm that comes with their ages. That was part of Gordon’s appeal when he hit the scene back in the early 1990s: seeing a good-looking young driver climb from his car in victory lane with energy and vitality to spare. Such youth played well with sponsors, and such vitality played well with the media.

It sure made better TV than having a gray-haired, craggy-faced old timer crawling through the driver’s side window and asking for a cigarette.

So if NASCAR’s audience reflects the graying of America and the abundance of baby boomers who consume sports entertainment, why is it that middle-aged fans find themselves cheering so loudly for drivers in their teens and twenties?

Maybe it’s like going to a soccer match on a Saturday morning and cheering for your grandkid who’s tearing around the pitch with a dozen other youngsters in tow. It’s the idea that we enjoy a sport vicariously through the exploits of the kids who make gutsy moves, show their skills, and nail the big wins. All while wishing that Father Time was treating us older folks with a bit more respect.

This also begs the question: if so many NASCAR stars are between the ages of 20 and 40, where’s the audience reflecting that particular demographic? If there’s one aspect of youth that’s sluggish in NASCAR, it’s the decreased number of younger fans.

One thing, however, seems certain: the future of NASCAR looks glaringly bright. And that’s great, because what are we to do with that ancient Jeff Gordon? Come on; he’s 43 years old!

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via