Driver development costs big bucks — and it's the drivers themselves who are asked to bring it
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Article originally published in 2010 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Tom Bowles
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize NASCAR’s marketing plan for next year. Hint: She’ll be decked out in day-glow green.
But stock car’s obsession with an IndyCar convert runs far deeper than pure advertising of her status as the most accomplished female driver in America. Indeed, Danica Patrick’s recent commitment to a part-time Nationwide Series schedule presents the perfect cover-up for a sport with a dark and dirty secret when it comes to its 2010 rookie class … There’s no one else.
Looking at the Cup Series this year, that’s the unpleasant reality. At the start of the calendar year, the Raybestos Rookie of the Year competition appears destined to be won by some lucky fan on eBay, with no drivers eligible to participate in the program for the first time since 1992. After a decade during which men like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick burst onto the scene to set a new standard for freshmen, NASCAR starts the 2010s with no one even remotely positioned to challenge them.
How has a driver pipeline once rich with talent suddenly frozen up? On the surface, the answer comes down to cold, hard cash. Without it, you can’t so much as sign up for an entry fee within NASCAR’s top three series, and the sport’s unproven talent has been forced to adapt to the worst national recession since the 1930s.
“Certainly, it’s a cause for concern when you don’t have anybody signed up for Rookie of the Year,” says veteran Jeff Burton. “But the larger problem is the economic issue. I think if the economy was going strong, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Or would we? For as desperate times call for desperate measures, others claim a new method of survival has popped up, capable of weathering the sport’s tough times and keeping talented drivers on their feet for some time to come. It’s a strategy that comes complete with the beauty of a sponsorship pitch and the slickness of an off-track persona — erasing the meaning of on-track success in the form of pure dollars and cents.
“We are a marketing tool,” says up-and-coming NASCAR star Paulie Harraka, the 2009 Camping World West Rookie of the Year who claims a need to hawk products over performance. “At the end of the day, if people didn’t think they could build brand awareness and potentially bring business through sponsoring our race team, they wouldn’t sponsor us. And you can never lose sight of that, because that’s what we’re all about.”
So as the sport evolves, a whole group of drivers has come equipped with the knowledge that a fifth-place finish proves nothing for your owner — if they don’t have a smiling face in the boardroom to back it up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Joe Gibbs — whose Nationwide driver Brad Coleman brought a $150,000-per-race sponsor for eight races, according to sources — or a small team like Rensi-Hamilton Racing, whose driver Eric McClure went without a top-10 finish last season but remains in the seat through the support of handpicked sponsor Hefty Trash Bags. These days, to be on the grid, a treasure chest of dollar bills is worth as much, if not more, than a place in Victory Lane.
“It’s just all about money,” says Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements. “It sucks. It’s just not like football or basketball, where if you’re good enough you’re going to make it.
“Unless you bring a big sponsor, you’re not going to get a good ride anymore.”
Yet this much we know: Even during an era of declining ratings and fan attendance, racing across America still exists. Every Saturday night, hundreds of drivers at local short tracks across the country start their engines, still praying maximum effort is all that’s needed to accomplish their dreams. So with talent still readily available, how can the sport squeeze out some new blood, bringing us a new wave of talent back from the sidelines and into our living rooms? Three major hurdles need to be cleared: fixing the Nationwide Series, changing the cost of doing business, and taking the sport’s diversity program to the next level.
Nationwide’s lack of developing “major leaguers”
Back in 2005, NASCAR’s second-tier division — then known as the Busch Series — was in its heyday. Martin Truex Jr. won the championship, his second straight, leading to an exodus of four of the top five drivers in the series standings as they graduated to Cup. That fab foursome — also composed of Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson and Denny Hamlin — has since combined for seven Chase appearances, nearly a dozen race wins and over $50 million in earnings. It seemed like the sport’s “AAA” level was alive and well as the “go-to” division to grab future talent.
But perhaps the most important note from that year is the driver who quietly snuck inside the Fab Four juggernaut. Carl Edwards, by then a full-time Cup competitor, finished third in Busch points despite missing a race, able to conquer the logistics of running both series without a problem. Suddenly, sponsors now paying $15 million to support top-level superstars were forced to stop and take notice. For one-third of the price, they could back a man like Edwards in a lower series, maximizing the value of their investment in a trip to Victory Lane and a shot at a season championship.
In a sport that loves to copycat, it didn’t take long for the movement to catch fire. The next year, Kevin Harvick led an onslaught of Cup veterans attempting a full season schedule, winning the title while his brethren combined for 33 wins in 35 races. It’s been that way ever since, the last three championships won by Cup regulars in landslide fashion while upwards of 20 “Cupwhackers” can be found inside the 43-car field on any given Saturday.
That leaves plenty of up-and-comers watching their spot on the grid go by the wayside. ARCA veteran Clements is one of those struggling talents. Filling in on occasion for Nationwide driver Kyle Busch the last two years, he’d qualify the car during standalone events while Busch practiced in Cup out-of-state. But Gibbs never picked him up for a full-time ride, leaving the 25-year-old driver running an independent team on a shoestring budget. Buying four sets of scuffed tires per race, he posted his best Nationwide result in 2009 at California, finishing 12th at a race in which he’d have wound up in the top 5 if seven of the Cup regulars finishing in front of him weren’t allowed to run.
“I’ve never had an opportunity to get in a good car, race the whole weekend,” he says, struggling to compete against drivers with more experience and millions more at their disposal. “I’m always stuck just racing an alright style car, in one of those ‘don’t crash in qualifying, but don’t run 100 percent because I don’t want you to tear it up’ type deals.
“It’s not the same.”
Nineteen-year-old Marc Davis is another teenage sensation who’s been on both sides of the fence. While Joe Gibbs Racing — which parted ways with him as a development driver at the end of 2008 — has won 34 of the last 70 Nationwide races, Davis himself is left as an independent driver/owner trying simply to run a limited schedule with a handful of dedicated sponsors. But even when he has the cash, father Harry says it’s difficult for drivers like his son to establish themselves when Cup drivers get busy stealing the spotlight.
“Kyle Busch has every right to run that series,” he says of the 2009 Nationwide Series champion. “But is a developing driver going to make a name for himself if at every level, you got Cup drivers running the race?”
As you’d expect, not everyone agrees with that perspective. Others remind us that Cup drivers interloping in other divisions are nothing new — it’s just that now, their presence makes sponsorship for others nearly impossible in the current economic climate. Richard Childress Racing is a classic example, using a combination of young talent to fill their Nationwide rides in the past — successfully training drivers like Bowyer and Harvick to move up in-house to Cup. But this year, the best they could do was a part-time schedule for 22-year-old Stephen Leicht, with no sponsors willing to bite on him for 2010 despite six top-10 finishes in nine starts.
“The thing is, even if Leicht would have gone out and won a race, I’m not sure he would have been in any different a situation,” says Burton, who shared the ride with him and Bowyer. “The dollars just aren’t there for everybody.”
Well … not everybody. Facing a lack of sponsorship on the Nationwide side, RCR was forced to pair up with one of those “marketing opportunists”; next year, they’ll run sophomore John Wes Townley, who went without a top-15 finish in his rookie season — but does have the permanent backing of his family’s company, Zaxby’s fast food restaurants.
“In today’s economy, the sponsors are in control. You’ve got your premier drivers, and then the rest of the guys,” admits vice president of competition Mike Dillon. “And I’m not saying the (young guys) aren’t talented … it’s just a harder sell (to potential sponsors).”
It’s notable the series has still churned out a smaller trickle of success stories, with Brad Keselowski picked up by Penske Racing in 2010 after challenging for the title against Bowyer, Edwards and Busch the past two seasons. Joey Logano was also mildly successful in half-a-season driving only Nationwide, undergoing an accelerated learning curve before being tabbed to replace Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Home Depot Cup car for 2009. Logano went on to win Rookie of the Year in Cup one season after winning a race — Kentucky — against a handful of Cup-level competitors in Nationwide.
“It’s just a matter of getting a chance,” adds Hendrick development driver Landon Cassill, noting both drivers had solid financial sponsorship in place. “Having a team have faith in you. Logano developed well, and he kind of set a standard. I hope for some of these teams that there’s young drivers that can do it.”
Yet Cassill, only 20, is the brightest star in a long list of drivers who went the other direction. The 2008 Nationwide Rookie of the Year, he made only one start in 2009, leading a crop of five sophomores who went from promising futures to lacking a full-time ride in any of NASCAR’s top three series. Instead, he’s spent the year testing and diligently courting funding through his “partner,” Hendrick Motorsports, while their money goes to already proven stars.
“You can sit and pout all you want about there being no money, no sponsors (for the young guys),” he says. “But when it comes down to it, if you really want to do this, you just gotta work hard. And that’s what I’ve tried to do this year. Hopefully, that all pays off so I can race.”
That’s easier said than done, considering the price tag for a top-tier ride in what’s supposed to be a minor league division.
“The No. 11 car, CJM Racing, said they need $6 million to run next year,” claims an anonymous source of a team that was one of the few Nationwide-only teams that competed with Cup regulars in 2009. “Obviously, if I had $6 million, I can go to that team. It’s that easy … you just need money.”
Is there a quick fix to increase the young talent competing in the series? Some of the Cup car owners, like Jack Roush, have made a recent commitment to running new drivers with or without sponsorship, like rookies Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Their success may prove crucial in turning the tide; if sponsors recognize Cup drivers can be beaten, then they’ll head to whoever’s sitting in Victory Lane. Another way is to prevent Cup regulars from running for the Nationwide championship, a topic hotly debated for years.
“I don’t think making drivers ineligible to win a championship helps drivers in any form or fashion,” argues Burton. “I think the ability to compete is what helps, and the opportunity to show that you can compete with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch is what puts you in Cup.”
“NASCAR could have said, ‘Let’s limit the number of Cup racers that can run in the Nationwide Series,’ but they didn’t do that,” says Davis. “I guess they’re happy with the status quo, because (what they have now) is a free-market system where any driver who’s eligible to drive in any series he wants to drive in.
“But it’s like sending Michael Jordan to play in a high school basketball game. How are you going to recruit somebody if those guys in the All-Star Classic are competing against Olympic athletes?”
Car owners, where are you?
Adding to the problem for young drivers is how current economic conditions have ravaged the ownership ranks in NASCAR’s top three series. In the past, smaller teams like Junie Donlavey’s No. 90 were crucial in developing new drivers on the Cup circuit. Young rookies could utilize the seat time to score a top 15, or perhaps an occasional top 10 to get them noticed by a high-profile owner. On occasion, a miracle still happens. Brad Keselowski was the latest example, his shocking Talladega upset with the single-car No. 09 of Phoenix Racing helping secure his future.
But Keselowski came armed with Hendrick support. Without help from the multi-car giants the underdogs are all going under. Owners like Donlavey are long gone; as in Sprint Cup alone, the top 30 drivers in 2009 points fielded equipment built from only nine race shops. Now, the poor single-car teams aren’t just competing against two cars; in some cases it’s six or seven, as mergers and equipment alliances have blurred the lines between friend and enemy. Most important, pooled resources mean extra cash that leave those outside the “inner circle” incapable of challenging the sport’s elite.
Insiders point to motor packages as a large part of the problem, with multi-car teams in top series leasing to underdogs for as much as $100,000 a full race — in Nationwide. Considering last place in those races can pay as little as $13,000, it’s easy to see why the “have-nots” are forced to make difficult business decisions.
“Because you’ve designed a racing program that accommodates four or five owners to whatever level they want to be accommodated at, everybody’s forced to play at that level,” says Davis. “So they’ve eliminated most of the competition by just outpricing them and just out-technology-ing those guys.”
That forces some teams to make difficult business decisions to survive, as start-and-parking, the practice of pulling the car in the garage before the first pit stop to save cash, became the norm and not the exception for the back of the garage this year. In some instances, nearly a third of Truck Series fields would do it, while even six one-car teams on the Cup level scored DNFs in over 50 percent of their starts.
It’s a hotly debated practice, with the hope that as the economy picks up, drivers will be rewarded for their loyalty to teams trying to build a foundation for the future. Right now, that’s their only shot, as most multi-car teams are backed up against NASCAR’s new “four-team” limit. And since most drivers in those situations are signed to long-term deals, openings for replacements aren’t exactly a dime a dozen.
“If you look at what Tommy Baldwin is trying to do,” Burton claims, taking a look at one of the single-car teams who start-and-parked in 2009, “he’s going to turn eyes (by making races). So the fact that we have a real upper-tier team, and then we have a pretty large step, in some cases that presents an opportunity to turn some heads.”
But will the drivers eventually reap the rewards? In the very situation Burton mentions, Michael McDowell spent half the season starting and parking for Baldwin’s No. 36. The sophomore driver made races and did what he was asked for 2010, but when permanent sponsorship was secured, he found himself on the outside looking in while veteran Mike Bliss got the ride.
Diversifying the driver lineup
As the sport recognizes the struggles for young talent within the top three series, they haven’t just sat on their hands. NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program, which selects successful women and minority drivers based on talent and places them with teams capable of launching their success, is undergoing changes designed to make success more consistent in an era when it’s increasingly elusive.
While it’s taken time for the program to take root, success is now coming for D4D with several drivers in the lower ranks of Camping World East and West. With Harraka winning rookie honors in CWW, the program is likely to welcome RCR development driver Ryan Gifford, who earned three top-5 finishes in just four starts in CWE, into its ranks for 2010.
In the past, that’s where the success would stop, a long list of drivers unable to take the next step into one of the sport’s top three series. But according to managing director of public affairs Marcus Jadotte, new initiatives should push drivers in the program over the hump sooner than you’d think.
“We are transitioning from a model that effectively outsourced individual driver development programs to an academy-style program,” he says. “A training program. All the drivers are going to be working together for both on- and off-track development.”
That’s a major change pushed forward with the hiring of former DEI exec Max Siegel, NASCAR’s newest diversity player who realized outsourcing left drivers unbalanced. Instead, he’s formed Revolution Racing with the former assets of Andy Santerre Motorsports, giving drivers and teams a central hub for equipment and funding while leveling the playing field for each driver to have an equal chance at success.
Siegel, who spent years marketing for Dale Earnhardt Jr., understands a modern need to tap every potential market for financial support. That’s why his future direction includes a reality show on BET for 2010 chronicling each driver’s struggles to reach the top — another avenue for sponsors to buy into the value of each driver as everyone tries to balance talent with that all-important marketability.
“As a kid from just outside New York City, I am unique,” says Harraka, whose D4D resume doesn’t just include 13 race wins at NASCAR’s lower levels — he’s also a sophomore at Duke University majoring in organizational behavior. “That provides a unique set of assets for a sponsor to leverage. And it works out well.”
For Gifford, it’s all about the off-track training, with the help he gets through both RCR and his expected assistance through the diversity program making his on-track success attractive to potential sponsors.
“For those 43 spots, they’re just looking for somebody that a company can be really well represented,” says the 20-year-old, who’s looking to be the first African-American to win at NASCAR’s top three levels since Wendell Scott in 1964. “$20-$30 million dollars to pay for some racing, they want somebody that’s going to be able to say their name every interview, and look good, and do the right things.”
“What we’re trying to do is create an environment where the driver’s talent will take them as far as their talent will take them,” Siegel says, stressing the importance of a well-rounded athlete. “Revolution Racing would like to play a major role in growing the fan base, developing drivers and contributing to the NASCAR ownership community.”
Yet with so many obstacles to overcome for young talent, the future remains somewhat uncertain. The key going forward, it seems, is for capping spending to be matched with patience from both car owners and the sponsors that support them — something that’s been lost in an era of “win at all costs.”
“I feel like some kids were kind of rushed into it and not really ready,” Gifford says, giving himself a timetable of three to five years before he thinks he could be successful on the Cup level. “It’s tough when you don’t have the seat time.”
But can the current crop of leaders remember that both frugality and patience are virtues? For in NASCAR’s current system, a complex web of private contractors and clouded leadership makes it difficult to pinpoint a catalyst for major change.
“It comes down to who’s going to take the lead,” says Davis. “Is it going to be the owners, is it going to be the drivers, or is it going to be NASCAR?
“The teams don’t want to take the lead because it’s pay as you go. NASCAR (hasn’t) taken the lead because I guess they’re happy with the status quo. Until you fix the business model where independent businesspeople want to come to your product and invest in the racing, you can’t really bring in new blood to the sport because the business model just isn’t there. It just isn’t.”
So while debate over a solution continues, we’re left with Danica as a short-term fix. She’ll enter 2010 an exception to the rule, her slate of marketing dollars and new breed of fans crucial to injecting new life into the sport. Yet with a grand total of zero stock car starts on her résumé, isn’t her success or failure more of a crapshoot than a development driver with a solid track record in a lower series?
We’re about to find out, as she joins the ranks of several other open-wheelers pulled in the face of weakening development from within the NASCAR ranks. Meanwhile, for hundreds more who won’t get to take that step, they watch in vain while another opportunity slips away.
“I’d like to race full-time, and I know I can do it,” says Clements, a familiar echo of so many sitting on the sidelines come Speedweeks. “I just have to be given a shot.”
But will he ever get it?