By Dave Rodman, NASCAR.COM
November 11, 2009
The landscape of NASCAR racing is constantly changing, with careers evolving, drivers transitioning from team to team and series to series — or totally leaving the sport.
For better or worse, since drivers are race teams’ centerpieces, their development, at least in the past 20 years has been more a subject of concern, and something that a lot more people, whether it’s race teams, owners and developing drivers and their families have paid a lot more attention to.
The elements that affect driver development and teams’ philosophies toward it in 2009 are really no different than they’ve ever been. But as usual, the specifics affect their impact.
The most profound determinant is financial: Is the backing in place to execute an effective program?
The second is having space. Auto racing doesn’t have the age-restrictive aspect of many other sports, and experience is a valuable asset. So with few drivers “retiring” in a given year and finances limiting the number of seats, space is definitely an issue.
Finally there’s the aspect of performance, producing quality numbers, in a sport where a high level of performance should be critical. That puts teams in a position of having to balance the patience of allowing young drivers to develop against the responsibility, both to team management and sponsors, to produce good results.
“Development,” in many forms and fashions, has been around as long as cars have been raced, so a periodic overview is always in order.
Developing a classic
It’s not surprising that Kevin Harvick, a guy who followed what could be considered a classic development path — littered with rookie of the year titles and series championships along the way — would consider that the ideal way to develop national series drivers.
And Harvick is now in the best position to critically look at driver development, considering his career path, to the point where now he’s both a Nationwide and Camping World Truck series team owner and the teammate to development drivers at Richard Childress Racing.
“I think the best way to develop drivers is you should do it [the way I did it],” Harvick said with a smile. “Because that’s the only way you’re going to be successful at this level, because it takes so much time to learn the characteristics of the cars, or trucks or whatever they are.
“But I was lucky that I was able to come up through go-karts, then late models and then all the West Coast ranks: Winston West and the Southwest Tour; and then went to Trucks, Nationwide and Cup. So I did it the traditional way that NASCAR designed its development program to be.
“Now, there’s so much pressure on you to go when you’re young, you gotta do this and that. When I was coming up it wasn’t about what age you were, it was about how good you were. So it was a little bit different than it is now.”
Harvick agreed the development manner that’s currently rampant might work, but the price is potentially steep. He cited a former RCR development driver as the perfect example of a flaw in the system.
“I think you see a lot of people that probably could do it get rushed into situations,” Harvick said. “I think Tim McCreadie is probably the best example of a person who, in my opinion has the talent to do it but he got rushed into a situation way too fast. He didn’t get the proper testing and didn’t get a lot of the things that he probably needed to be successful because the sponsorship dollars weren’t there, but the opportunity was.
“And when you get the opportunity now, they are so few and far between, people want to take the opportunity and hope that they succeed. But nine times out of 10 it fails because it wasn’t proper preparation to be successful.”
And success in auto racing is the bottom line. And in auto racing, way more than baseball or football, the price of failure is huge.
“When you’re developing people you’re going to crash, you’re not going to run good, you’re going to have week after week of things going wrong and there are going to be a lot of frustrating moments,” Harvick said. “But when you have success in the late model ranks — and not just with something that somebody bought, because that’s the hard part about finding talent, now, anybody can buy what they need and run good in a late model or in a touring division race.
“I feel like you want to find people who have worked on their own stuff, succeeded without having the proper funding to do the things that they were doing, but they succeeded off of talent and not dollars.”
Cale Gale, Harvick said, was the perfect example of a kid who had a solid foundation that would make him a valuable race team member no matter what role he held. Unfortunately, he’s no longer in the Kevin Harvick Inc. fold.
“Cale’s the perfect example of somebody who can do it, and we just didn’t have the cubic dollars to develop Cale to the point where he needed to be testing every week and racing every week. All he needs is seat time and he can do it.”
An association with KHI sponsor Rheem enabled Gale to run five races in NASCAR’s Canadian Tire Series, but his future is up in the air. That’s not exactly the case with some of the sport’s best development programs.
Setting the Standard
As 2009 comes to a conclusion, more than any other organizations, the leading lights of successful driver development, without a doubt, are Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.
Two of the three drivers in JGR’s Cup cars were developed through their “system.” And the accomplishments of Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano continue to be significant. And for that matter, even Gibbs’ third wheelman, Kyle Busch, is a development success story, after beginning with Roush Racing and flourishing with Hendrick Motorsports.
JGR’s vice president of Nationwide Series operations, Steve deSouza, says the Gibbs family’s driver development philosophy extends to every corner of the organization, and patience is the key.
“First, we all work with great owners,” deSouza said. “If Joe [Gibbs, owner] and J.D. [Gibbs, team president] didn’t have the patience and the willingness to invest in what we’re doing, it wouldn’t happen. They’re coaches, basically, and I think they see the value of [development], the necessity of it and they’re willing to stick with it.
“On the other side of it, it’s got to make economic sense. We can’t drive us to the poor house because we’ve got to perform in all the other divisions we’re in, for our reputation and our business to continue to grow. But they see the success we’ve had with Denny and Joey.”
DeSouza also cited Matt DiBenedetto, who made only seven starts in the 2009 Camping World East Series, but won twice and had five top-10 finishes; and Brad Coleman, who was signed as an 18-year-old and returned to the JGR fold this season.
The program’s two newest members are Darrell Wallace, a teenager who this season raced late model cars and may have a full 2010 schedule in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program while maintaining his allegiance to Gibbs; and Max Gresham, who was in a similar program but who may see more East Series action after being “a pleasant surprise to us, this season,” deSouza said.
“Matt, I think is the next one to come,” deSouza said. “Brad Coleman we think still has a great deal of potential and Darrell Wallace — the young guys we’re working with, I think we see guys that we can put our hands on and move forward within our organization and as we continue to grow it and build it, that those guys can continue to be key players. Max and his family have their own agenda, but we’re willing to help them if we can.
“And it’s the same thing with our crew chiefs, engineers and shop personnel. All those people are high quality individuals who understand how we want to operate at Joe Gibbs Racing and it makes it an easy promotion to move them up to the Cup level.”
Moving forward, three of Roush Fenway’s four drivers: Chase competitors Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards and David Ragan, are products of their development system. In addition, 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, who jumped to fourth in the Chase with his victory Sunday in Texas, is another product of Roush’s system.
Max Jones, owner Jack Roush’s former general manager in charge of the Busch and Truck series programs and now co-owner of Roush Fenway affiliate Yates Racing, said Roush has always understood the value of development.
“I think Jack probably did the best job of it, if you want to call it back in the day,” Jones said. “Though right now it’s kind of come to a halt because of the financial challenges that we face.”
The best aspect of Roush’s program was his Truck Series teams, where Biffle won rookie of the year and a championship in consecutive seasons and Busch, Edwards and current driver Colin Braun all won races. But largely due to lack of sponsorship, the Truck program is gone after this season.
Roush switches his development efforts to Nationwide, where his promising roster includes Braun, another Truck winner Erik Darnell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who’s won races and poles for Roush in the ARCA Series. RFR recently announced the signing of another prospect, Chris Buescher, to a development deal.
Hamlin, the “poster boy” for the success of Gibbs’ development program, which began in 2003 in cooperation with the late NFL star Reggie White, qualified for his fourth consecutive Chase and has won three times this season.
Logano, who’s come through a classic modern-day development program, is leading the Cup rookie of the year standings and won a race. He continues his mercurial four-year rise to Cup that began with a forecast by the veteran Mark Martin that he would be comfortable racing Cup cars with Logano when the Connecticut native was 15.
Hamlin’s introduction to the “Gibbs way” came when he set up late model cars for the JGR development program. So he has in-depth knowledge of how development programs work, and how they need to be tailored to meet an organization’s goals.
“I was definitely privileged to be part of Gibbs two to three years before I actually made it to the Nationwide Series on the development side,” Hamlin said. “I can’t say that it was a huge benefit for me, but it definitely got me involved in the Joe Gibbs Racing family a little bit more. I think that was a benefit.
“Each team, I think, uses it for different reasons. But right now I think Gibbs has one of the best ones going. I think JGR has figured out how to do it right. I think they’ve had most of their development guys actually make it to the Cup Series eventually. Aric Almirola was another one who was part of that, and myself [and] Joey. We’ve seen the success of the guys that Gibbs has brought up from the lower ranks, and it’s shown that they’ve had talent all the way up to the top.”
And deSouza said the process never stops.
“I continue to look out there on the horizon to see if there’s anybody who looks like they’re coming,” deSouza said. “We still take the time to talk with them if they call us and want to come visit us because you just never know — you don’t want to burn any bridges and you don’t know what will happen down the road in terms of what might be available, so we make the effort to talk to anybody that wants to talk to us.
“We still get involved with those we can and with those that want counsel or just to talk to us — we try to give ’em our input based on what their position is, and for the few we have in our program we try to do what we can, but running Cup and Nationwide programs doesn’t leave a lot of funding to run another division of cars.”
Gibbs is also ardent about the necessity of developing crewmen, right up to the level of car and crew chiefs.
“That is the concept we’re working in and obviously it’s played out many, many times, most recently with [crew chief] Dave Rogers moving up [from Nationwide] to the Cup side,” deSouza said. “In one sense, it’s kind of devastating to lose any of your key people, but on the other side it’s the next great adventure and you just say ‘we’re here to make young guys and women meet their career goals and aspirations.'”
Roush feels the same, and the challenging economy aside, Braun is a young man who understands just how lucky he is to be in his position.
“I think the biggest thing is the resources that a team like Roush Fenway has — they have so many resources from a marketing standpoint, from a sponsorship-finding standpoint,” Braun said. “I think Jack Roush is someone who definitely believes in promoting from within. He strongly believes in the fact that you need to have younger drivers to develop and move up through the ranks [so] for me that’s obviously a great thing.
“I certainly appreciate all the effort and things he’s put into trying to develop young drivers, people from a pit crew standpoint, mechanical standpoint, things like that.”
When it goes right
Michael Waltrip Racing wasn’t really planning on doing an extensive development program in 2009, but Ryan Truex, the younger brother of 2010 MWR Cup driver Martin Truex Jr., needed a place to race. So did Trevor Bayne, another teenage potential star in the making.
MWR vice president Ty Norris now couldn’t imagine a much better landscape stretching out in front of him and his team.
“We sort of took a chance on Ryan Truex, at 17, and he turned out to be phenomenal,” Norris said of Truex’s East Series championship. “That sort of sparked our interest in doing driver development again and we’ve now put a lot of effort into Trevor Bayne. We’re going to continue to move forward with Trevor at a high level.
“With the economic downtown, driver development seemed to be one of the first things cut out of organizations. We’ve been smart enough about how to form enough partnerships to do that again because the premise of it is still very important to your future.
“Financially it’s very difficult to get into the bidding wars for these top free agents so if you can develop within your system and bring a younger guy in and try to grow with him, it’s definitely a strategy. It’s been an expensive strategy for some, but right now I think we’ve got a couple future stars in our camp.”
Penske Racing has another of the sport’s hottest development talents, Connecticut teenager Parker Kligerman, who raced this season while finishing high school, and open-wheel graduate Dakoda Armstrong in the fold. A step higher on the ladder is a couple other budding talents, 2008 ARCA champion Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski, which puts a smile on Penske’s competition director Mike Nelson.
“At Penske Racing we have a general philosophy in that we like to promote from within,” Nelson said. “So in keeping with that strategy with our drivers, that’s not always how we come about our drivers, but we want to have a group of guys who can start out, learn our system, our ways and our philosophies and if they succeed through the lower level series, they’re a natural fit to move into our bigger series. So you’re continuously looking for the next good driver and to have him familiar with your organization.”
Penske has a develop agreement with Cunningham Racing in the ARCA Series. In those cars, Kligerman won nine of 21 races and finished second by only five points to champion Justin Lofton. He also won the pole position in his Nationwide Series debut earlier this season. Armstrong had three top-10s in seven starts.
“It’s gotten really strong,” Nelson said. “We tried to build that depth and I feel really excited that we’ve got those two or three chances in the wings who are waiting to build our program. It’s fun to watch these guys compete and learn, make mistakes and learn from them.
“It gives me the opportunity to watch both the guy who’s at the top of his game, and those who are just learning. So there’s a lot of fulfillment for all of us at Penske Racing when we see them be successful.”
Developing on your own
It’s not hard to argue that auto racing, more than most other sports, is the ultimate character builder and that personal development can be as much a part of the process as honing driving and set-up skills.
So for many aspiring race drivers, doing it their own way — or literally on their own with the help of family members and personal money — becomes a matter of necessity.
Hopeful drivers such as Paulie Harraka and Justin Lofton have made education a priority even while they’re honing their driving skills.
Harraka has been the most successful driver in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, with multiple race wins and a Whelen Series track championship; then two historic race wins and the rookie of the year title this season in the Camping World West Series.
Lofton, who has a college engineering background, used his family’s livestock business to financially enable him to hook up with Eddie Sharp‘s ARCA powerhouse and win the 2009 championship. He practiced a Roush Fenway Nationwide car recently and just announced a full-time Camping World Truck Series deal with Red Horse Racing next season.
Brian Scott is another young driver who’s used family money to good effect to raise his level of performance with Xpress Motorsports in the Truck Series. How well he ran there opened the door to compete full-time in 2010 in a fourth Nationwide Series Toyota for Braun Racing.
Antonio Perez, the 2008 Corona Series champion, with team owners Troy Williams and Sean Watts is also scrambling to find the funding to do a full Nationwide schedule in 2010, after a couple eye-opening efforts in that series, as well as a track qualifying record in the East Series.
But also in this group are a couple young ladies who are scrambling for financial backing even as they put up decent numbers. One of them, Central Florida native Alli Owens, used to be noticed in her neighborhood via the race car hauler parked in the yard.
The trailer’s still there, but Owens has graduated from her familiar local race tracks. She says she looks forward to potentially racing against Danica Patrick in Daytona’s ARCA season opener, where she’ll be in a Venturini Racing car.
“I definitely know I’ll be in the Daytona opener and right now we’re coming real close to putting a truck deal together, too,” Owens said. “But as far as where I’m coming from, nowadays with the economy being how it is and how it’s hurt the motorsports industry, driver development is pretty much turning into dollar signs: what you’re willing to pay for what kind of team. As a developing driver I felt I needed someone who was willing to coach me as well.”
But before she did that Owens, at 16, took a unique step.
“As a developing driver and an independent without a family name or background in racing and having no financial backing, my first thought was that I needed to develop as a business person, and that was my first step,” Owens said. “Why I did that, I don’t know but every day I’m thankful I developed my business skills, and understanding branding, marketing and communicating.
“I was pursuing sponsorships at 17 that would be healthy enough to carry me into the next series without having to prove I could drive, every step of the way. But my first season in ARCA  I was able to prove I could handle the cars and that’s what got me my ride with Eddie D’Hondt.”
That included a front row start at Daytona, though that race ended in an accident, and a best finish of sixth at Talladega.
And then there are racing families who, facing the same financial challenges that bigger organizations do, have struggled to keep their kids, like Tyler Green, Kyle Grissom, Brandon McReynolds and Coleman Pressley going in the sport they both love and have made careers in.
This goes all the way from Legends and Pro Challenge cars, where kids like Matt Wallace, the son of veteran NASCAR driver Mike Wallace, and Meghan and Blaise Dillner, children of Speed Channel commentator Bob Dillner, are developing as drivers.
Mike Wallace is almost akin to juggling boulders as he tries to maintain his own driving career while attempting to propel his daughter, Chrissy Wallace, 21, a promising prospect who gave up a college softball scholarship to pursue a racing dream.
Wallace’s youngest daughter began her Truck Series career with a lead lap finish at Martinsville last year and scored several top-10s in limited ARCA outings. Promised sponsorship didn’t materialize so her first outing this year was another lead-lap truck outing, 13th at Talladega where she made NASCAR history by racing against her father, the first time a father and daughter had raced in a national series event.
“There’s no gimmicks involved, it’s all hard core racing,” Wallace said of his daughter’s career path. “Just like it is for us with our Nationwide team at JD Motorsports, we’re trying to come up with the funding to compete. But for Chrissy, she needs the funding to even be able to race.
“But the one thing in which Chrissy is very much the same as I am, we’re very determined to succeed. We don’t go out to drive race cars just to say that we drive them. We want to win races and we want to be competitive. We want to be in the picture frame all day long so I’m very happy with what she’s been able to do.”
Wallace’s daughter appears to have the correct attitude to continue her on-track development.
“I do have an attitude that I’m going to go out there and I’m going to run good and I’m going to finish good,” Chrissy Wallace said. “So no matter what, I’ll have an attitude to where I’m going to just keep pushing myself harder and harder. If I get my hopes all the way down, then I know it’s going to be hard to build them back up. So I’ve had to keep some self esteem up knowing that there could always be another chance.”
The chance came at Talladega with Rick Ware Racing, who runs multiple teams between the Truck and Nationwide series. The usual suspects are in the way in determining her future schedule.
“The big thing is just sponsorship,” Chrissy Wallace said. “Rick Ware‘s team is looking for sponsorship, I’m looking for sponsorship and the thing is anybody could come on board with us and have multitudes of different teams if their name was on the car. So we’ve just got to go out there and find a sponsor, and once I’m able to do that, then I’ll be running full time.”
But it was only when RCR began to expand, starting a championship-winning Truck Series team for the inaugural 1995 season, then diversifying into the Nationwide Series, where he’s also won multiple championships, and now, with multiple teams in the Cup and Nationwide series that he really saw the impact of development.
Development has also become a bigger deal for Childress as his grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon, first exhibited an interest in racing, and then began to show real potential. So it’s obvious Childress’ program will continue in 2010.
“We’re still working on some of that right now, but we’re getting close on a couple of new guys that we’re looking at,” Childress said. “Naturally, my grandson Austin, hopefully we’re going to put him in a truck next year. We’re getting close to a few things. Ty Dillon, his brother, we’re going to run him in the NASCAR Camping World East.”
The Dillon brothers have been effective on dirt tracks throughout the Carolinas, as well as in Florida during Speedweeks, the past couple seasons, along with another RCR contract driver, Ryan Gifford.
“Racing on dirt definitely develops them to the stage where you can put them in a Camping World car,” Childress said. “Like Austin, he won his very first race in Camping World and he’s really run good [there].
“We work them through the dirt [tracks] — we have a system we put these young guys through. It’s expensive, but to get them to that point it’s not that expensive. It’s when you start getting into Nationwide and trucks and stuff, it starts getting expensive.”
Gifford made his pavement debut this season in the East Series and had a second-place finish at Dover, as well as two other top-fives in four starts. Gifford is in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.
“Ryan’s got a very good future in front of him,” Childress said. “I think of the diversity kids I’ve seen come along, he has as much talent and desire as anyone and we still have him under contract.”
But like everyone else who’s attempted development programs, Childress has run into the same snags, namely sponsorship funding and having the patience to allow the development process to run its course.
Stephen Leicht showed his potential by winning a race early in his Nationwide Series career, but lately he’s been slowed by lack of sponsorship and the sponsor- and results-driven habit of putting Cup drivers into everything owners race.
McCreadie, Brandon Miller and Peyton Sellers all spent some recent time in RCR development. Leicht, who has six top-10 finishes in the nine starts he’s made in Childress Nationwide cars this season, was bumped out of a bunch of other scheduled dates by RCR’s Cup drivers.
“We’re still working with Stephen Leicht some,” Childress said. “There’s a couple of other drivers that we’re talking to and looking at, that we think we can prepare ourselves to [move up].”
Childress said he wanted to be in the same position that Joe Gibbs Racing was earlier this season when Kyle Busch was suffering from pneumonia and had to get out of his car in the Cup and Nationwide events. He was replaced by drivers with JGR affiliations, Hamlin and David Gilliland.
“What we’re going to do is get another driver in a position to where if we had a driver to get sick or have to get out of the car like Kyle did, we have someone out of our own stable we can put in,” Childress said. “We’ll be working on a lot of the development. We have to invest in that.”
The Truck team that Austin Dillon will drive for in 2010 is entered for former sports car driver Tim George Jr., who’s trying to develop a stock car career, in this weekend’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix, a venue where RCR has six teams entered in three national series.
Developing is complex
The agony of paying for a development program, being patient enough to stay the course and then making the decision to quit on someone or continue could almost make the players develop a psychological complex.
It certainly isn’t easy. And maybe the case of Bobby Santos III illustrates it best. Santos, a third generation New England racer burst onto the national scene a couple years ago with Bill Davis Racing before, in a nutshell, economics sent BDR and with it, Santos’ development, virtually underground.
Santos has gone back to winning in open-wheel cars, but according to former BDR team manager Mike Brown, who’s now in a similar role with TRG Motorsports, he remains an un-mined gem.
“When you’re doing development programs, you look at all the lower NASCAR series, trying to find that diamond in the rough,” Brown said. “You take Bobby Santos, for example. He came to us with a program and we put him in some ARCA cars and he showed a lot of talent. He’s a natural. He ran some Nationwide races for us and ran really well.
“But part of what’s happened to Bobby is what’s going around now. Here’s a great, young kid who’s got a family background in racing, he obviously has got the talent and ability to do it. And he came at a time when the downturn in the economy has made him really one of the tragic stories, where race teams have had to take some of their money they were putting into development programs and use it to survive.”
The list of other drivers who recently have been in development is a chilling reminder of how few spots are available and how fortunate, or talented, the people in them are.
For a variety of reasons a development crop that once included Aric Almirola, Chase Austin, Chris Bristol, Landon Cassill, Erin Crocker, Marc Davis, Gabi DiCarlo, Allison Duncan, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Blake Feese, J.R. Fitzpatrick, Alex Haase, Nathan Haseleu, Joe Henderson Jr., Jesus Hernandez, Chuck Hossfeld, Woody Howard, Michel Jourdain Jr., Todd Kluever, Scott Lagasse Jr., Matt McCall, Chase Miller, Ryan Moore, Boston Reid and Billy Wease among others, now has an entirely different landscape.
DeSouza cited some of the names on the list that were once involved with Gibbs. Really, the names and locations might be interchanged though the outcome wouldn’t change.
“Every one of them has been different,” deSouza said. “In Aric’s case, we love Aric but it just got to a point where there was not much we could do with him economically, we didn’t have anything we could put him in on the Nationwide side and he had offers, so we said we’d let him do those offers.”
Almirola currently is sidelined by a lack of sponsorship at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. His fellow diversity driver, Davis, has attempted in recent months to run his own cars in the Nationwide and Truck series, even with aspirations of doing some Cup races.
“On Marc’s deal, they had aspirations of wanting to own their own team and going their own direction,” deSouza said. “And we also look at it, when you’re running late models or the East Series; it should be about a two-year program. Marc had run through the two-year program, we didn’t have anything for him and they had other directions they wanted to pursue, so they did.
“Woody [Howard] was another one that maybe we didn’t give him the total support because we had Denny [Hamlin] in there and we had Aric, so there really wasn’t room in there. But there was some potential there, so some of those were lessons learned. We learned we can’t just grab them all and say we’re going to do great things with all of them.
“So what we’re trying to do is keep our eyes open for the next, great phenom driver and try and invest the time and resources behind that particular driver to give him his full opportunity. But if it does come to the point where the timing isn’t right, economically or they get another opportunity — that’s the great thing about Gibbs and I think our organization.
“We say ‘we’d love to keep going with you but it’s just not working and we’ll let you go do what you want to do.’ And we try to do it in a way that we don’t burn bridges, so if there is an opportunity and they want to come back and go full circle, we can bring them in if we feel they’re the right candidate.”
But sometimes pure ability isn’t all that it takes.
“I’m sure [talent] definitely helps,” Braun said. “I feel like as long as you’re within the organization, doing the things they ask you to do, you show you’re growing, improving, learning, you show that you can be molded into the kind of driver that they want you to be, I think that’s just as big of a part of it.”
But just how brutal the development dynamic can be was displayed by a couple Roush Fenway prospects. Danny O’Quinn Jr. was the 2006 Nationwide Series rookie of the year while Canadian Peter Shepherd came out of Roush’s “gong show” driver audition but never really got going as a development driver.
“I don’t work in the marketing office every day, but I know that both Danny and Peter, both of those guys are guys that got thrust into positions with fairly new teams and new personnel,” their former teammate Edwards once said, but his perspective is still valid.
“And they have to perform and be able to compete with guys like Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth and all of the other Cup drivers who come in and race every weekend, plus all of the guys that are regular [Nationwide] guys. It’s very difficult.”
Edwards has a close personal perspective on driver development as well, given his own trip up the development ladder. A couple years ago he talked about his sibling concerns.
“My little brother [Kenny] is a good dirt racer,” Edwards said. “He races really well up there in Omaha [Neb.], and he’s real fast. We went and tested a truck. He was pretty good and somebody called him and was talking about some [Nationwide] stuff. I told him, ‘Look, you don’t want to run any [Nationwide] races. It’s almost like running Cup.’
“And I think sometimes, and I’m not saying this is the case with Peter or Danny, I’m just think that they get put into some positions where it’s like, ‘go perform at almost the highest level of the sport or you don’t get to perform at all.’ That’s a tough position to be in.
“I was fortunate that I got to race in the Truck Series for almost three years before I had to run a Cup Series race. In those three years I sure learned a lot. If I would have been forced to do that, six months in that would have been extremely difficult.”
High cost of development
Auto racing has always been a relatively expensive sport to participate in, and when it gets to NASCAR’s national level the cost increases exponentially. Development programs aren’t immune, and even a powerhouse like Gibbs is feeling the sting.
“Obviously, with the economic downturn it’s really hurt the development side because typically the people who have been involved and were supporting it by spending the dollars on it, have had to retract that,” deSouza said. “It’s really, really difficult because for a lot of years the Cup side was able to support a lot of that, including Nationwide. And now Cup and Nationwide pretty much have to stand on their own because of the economy. And short term I don’t see that changing.
“I think that’s just the nature of the time we’re in right now from an economic standpoint. But we’re still trying to maintain a presence in [development] and still drive forward, because we think it’s very important to do that.
“But on the same token we can only do so much with the dollars we have when it comes to putting the cars on the race track. We’ve got some young guys right now we’ve been working with, and we’re going to continue to work with them and we’ll just see, with the sponsorship and dollars available, what we can do with them on the race track.”
“You have to develop drivers and you just have to come up with a way to [financially] do it,” Childress said. “We have two or three we want to invest in, and you’re really investing in your future when you’re working with these development drivers.”
Childress has traded off his lengthy relationships in the sport, such as the Realtree backing on one of the Dillon’s dirt cars, or Gifford’s dirt modified, which is a spitting image of Harvick’s Shell-Pennzoil Cup car.
“You do have to get creative in developing ways to fund it, and hopefully at points you can find sponsorship,” Childress said. “We’ve been able to get sponsorship, and that’s helped us a lot. Even if it’s small sponsorships, it gives a sponsor good return on their money, because they’re not having to pay full value and they’re still getting a lot out of it.
“Especially if a kid goes out there and does good, like Ryan Gifford did [at Dover].”
“Our [Camping World] East team, we’re looking for sponsorship on that so we can keep a young guy going,” deSouza said. “And there are sponsors that have an interest because they’d like to get a young driver and grow with that driver just like GameStop did with Joey [Logano].”
RCR’s vice president of competition Mike Dillon, Childress’ son-in-law and a former driver himself, has to balance his professional roles with that of being a father to two budding racers, so he recognizes a lot of perspectives.
“Funding is the key, and the hardest part is getting the funding and the patience — if you see something, you see talent — to work with it,” Dillon said. “Funding is the hardest part for all these parents that are trying to do it.
“And then you’ve got all these teams. It’s hard to find ’em [good drivers]. There’s only 43 that start these races every week and I think there’s a lot of talent out there that’s not getting the chance. So it’s a tough one to say ‘we’re going to invest in this one. Let’s go see what happens.’ And when do you make that call on whether he can or he can’t [make it].
“There’s still a need, but it’s going to take a while because you could find the best kid in the world right now, and developing him and you might have a hard time selling him,” Jones said. “It’ll come back, and there’s always gonna be a need for drivers. Some of these guys are going to retire, so you’re going to constantly need to be doing that. It’s like everything else. You can’t stop doing it just because the economy’s tight.
“Like everything in this sport right now, it’s all delicate and you’ve got to manage it to the best of your abilities. These challenges that we’re facing are making it tough in every area, not only from a sales, marketing and sponsorship standpoint, but also on the personnel side and the driver development side, so nothing’s immune from it.”
Rusty Wallace, who has his son Steve’s development program in the Nationwide Series funded for next season, but only is about 40 percent to funding teammate Brendan Gaughan‘s car, has seen both sides of the development coin when it came to Austin, once a promising Midwest dirt racer that he had under contract.
“I really think that driver development programs are definitely crucial, we’ve got to get these drivers from somewhere, although I will tell you NASCAR has got a pretty good amount of pretty good drivers right now,” Wallace said. “Chase Austin is a fantastic little driver [and he] would have definitely been in one of my Nationwide cars if we had the funding. Unfortunately what we thought we could put together for him just went away.”
No one said it’s easy
Childress once said he saw all he needed to know about the inaugural Truck Series champion, Mike Skinner, by watching him race for 30th at Rockingham in owner Thee Dixon’s under-funded Cup car. Dillon said measuring both the tangible as well as intangible aspects is critical when making development judgments.
“There are all kinds of things, like being able to pass, but you’ve got to have somebody’s that’s able to go fast,” Dillon said. “They’ve got to be able to race and to finish. There’s a lot of guys that can go fast, but they can’t race — they end crashing all the time.
“But then there’s a lot of guys that aren’t fast, but they can race. But if you’re not fast, you’re not going to be there. You’re not going to get to race. So there’s just a lot of stuff you need to look at, and it’s tough. Like I said, it’s an investment, because you’re hoping you’re going to develop somebody into someone that’s one of your next guys [in a Cup seat].”
If it proves anything, driver development simply proves that nothing in racing is easy. For better or worse, even though no prospective driver wants to hear this, sometimes timing is everything according to Tony Stewart, who has championships in both Indy cars and twice in the Cup Series.
“I think there’s probably thousands of drivers that can be in the same situation I’m in, and I think what happened with me is I’ve been very, very fortunate my whole career to be surrounded by great people,” Stewart said. “Everything that happened in my career seemed to be I was in the right place at the right time. But trust me, I don’t feel like we’re in an elite group of people. I think there’s thousands of drivers across the country that have the talent, they just — there’s always only going to be 43 guys that make the race on Sunday.
“You know, there’s increasing numbers of race car drivers that get into auto racing each year, but there’s only going to be so many opportunities available. So it’s getting harder and harder each year to get those opportunities. You look at how tough it is and how car owners are like any other professional sport, they’re looking at kids before they graduate high school now to drive the race cars.
“So it’s getting increasingly harder and harder. And guys that are established and are 25, 30, 35 years old, probably aren’t even going to get opportunities because they’re now too old to be considered for new rides. So this day and age it’s just getting harder and harder to get those opportunities.”
And that timing might involve more patience than is available, as Rusty Wallace noted.
“There’s a lot of great young drivers out there and I tell people, ‘yeah, we need to get these guys going,'” Wallace said. “But I’ve got something in my head that tells me in order for one of these guys to be real successful, to get in the sport, to get a good firm foundation, a good footing it takes three years.
“I’ve watched many times, and it’s not one, it’s not two, it’s three. And if it’s two, you’re an extra special driver to be able to catch on that quick. I think Stephen Leicht, he’s got a lot of talent and if Richard Childress Racing can keep developing him, he’ll be a good one. My own son, Steve, has just really been doing good this year, another three-time story.”
Former champion crew chief and team owner Ray Evernham has the unique perspectives of having worked with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon when he was developing in the Nationwide Series, then going with him as a package deal to Hendrick Motorsports. Evernham then attempted to do driver development with his own team, the current Richard Petty Motorsports.
“I do feel like driver development is incredibly important, no different than if you look at all the major league sports,” Evernham said. “They’ve got leagues — you can start playing football, Pop Warner, baseball, Little League on up through high school, college — different things you can do and racing is not really like that.
“I think that’s why from the grass roots side of things that’s some things I’m working on, some spec series that we can keep these kids in cars without having to spend a lot of money and have some crazy engineering knowledge so they can get up [to the national level].
“And NASCAR has done a good job of that with the Camping World Series with the spec motor and spec tire and the amount of people to keep those costs down. As Rusty said, the biggest thing that stops driver development is the funding that it takes to run a guy or a girl in a Cup or Truck or [Nationwide]; even ARCA. It’s very, very expensive.”
In the end, there might be one positive to the economics of development, one insider said.
“It also goes back to the money,” Dillon said. “Because if you get that young one in there, at least for a little while, he’s not going to cost you as much, so there’s some [positive] stuff there, too.
“You’re going to get what you pay for if you get the good one, but it’s a tough deal.”