Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Doors Once Closed To Young Drivers Now Wide Open

We all realize there’s a youth movement going on in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. Guys who are not far removed from adolescence are steadily replacing guys who retire in their early 40s.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Drivers who hung around long enough to become veterans didn’t retire. They were recycled.

If their tenure with one team came to an end, they simply moved on to another. Sometimes the vets merely swapped rides and kept going.

Only a handful of drivers remained with a single team much longer than three years. In fact, a three-year contract was routine.

Among the regulars, only Richard Petty didn’t move – for decades. The reason was simple. Petty Enterprises was a family-owned business passed along to Richard by father Lee, the team’s founder and three-time champion.

But even Petty moved on for a couple of seasons, 1984-85, when he raced for owner Mike Curb.

For the majority of drivers it was a matter of finding employment and hope that it might last for more than a few seasons. It seldom did.

This “one team to the next” environment included some of NASCAR’s top competitors. I daresay Bobby Allison, the late Benny Parsons and the late Buddy Baker drove for 10 teams or more during their careers.

They were recycled and sometimes not by choice. If they did not produce they were gone. And if they were at odds with their team – specifically their team owner – they either left by choice or were terminated.

But they kept racing with another organization.

For decades team owners weren’t willing to sign eager, young talent. They relied on experience and it was always available.

To be hired, a young driver had to be noticed. In the majority of cases he was not recruited. He had to catch someone’s eye.

Terry Labonte did so when he finished fourth at Darlington in 1978 and won the Southern 500 two years later.

Rusty Wallace was a hot shoe in the Midwest who startled everyone with a 1980 runner-up finish in Atlanta driving for Roger Penske – his future employer.

Ken Schrader was also a top Midwest talent. Ricky Rudd was a very successful competitor in Virginia. Both of them started modestly in NASCAR but progressed to bigger and better things. There were several like them – as we know from the often-told story of Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps the most notable was Jeff Gordon. He was a racing star almost from the time he could walk. He was well on his way to Indianapolis when a stint at the Buck Baker Driving School led him to NASCAR.

As most others Gordon started out modestly with owner Bill Davis. His all-attack driving style drew the attention of Rick Hendrick who quickly broke the mold and signed Gordon.

That was in 1992 and, as you know, Gordon went on to become a superstar – and he spent his entire career with Hendrick.

It was Gordon that changed owners’ minds. They saw for themselves how a team could benefit with the employment of young talent that would only become better with experience.

Owners searched for the next Gordon. They signed young drivers and either put them in NASCAR’s minor leagues or lent them out to other Cup organizations for development.

NASCAR increased the scope of its diversity program. And I trust you remember Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” method of discovering young talent.

The NASCAR world has changed. It is no longer soaking in money. Sponsorship, once relatively easy to find because of the sport’s popularity, is now scarce. Where a team could race with a tidy sum from a single financial backer, it now requires dollars from multiple sources.

The theory is that in order to save money, owners hire the less-expensive younger drivers, several of whom are barely in their 20s.

In my opinion it’s paying off.

You are doubtless already aware of the strong presence, and in some cases success, of the likes of Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher – and now, Erik Jones.

Others already signed by major teams wait in the wings.

Yes it is a different NASCAR. Where doors were virtually closed to young drivers they are now wide open.

And that is a good thing.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

By Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, MotorsportsUnplugged.com and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.