Add More Real Racers like Preece to Cup
and More Fans Just Might Follow
There seems to be considerably more buzz in the Northeast these days about NASCAR’s premier circuits, but it’s not because of the new rules package. Rather, it’s because there’s a new challenger on the Monster/Cup block that many, many more regional fans identify with: Ryan Preece.
Northeastern Modified star Ryan Preece fired up grassroots racing fans at Daytona
I guarantee you that there were lots of sports bars and local taverns in Modified Country where the crowds were stompin’ and shoutin’ over Preece coming to the end of the Daytona 500 with a shot at victory. Two days earlier, lots of those same establishments had been filled with fans cheering for Stewart Friesen during the Gander Outdoors Truck race.
For whatever reason, NASCAR collectively still doesn’t seem to have figured this one out. Teams still promote “developmental drivers” whose thin resumes include a couple of years in Legends, maybe a season in a late model, and some ARCA or K&N Series racing before a well-financed ride in front of fans who have no idea who these new guys are.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: If you run a race with drivers the fans don’t care about, the rules don’t make that much difference. Also, drivers need time to build a loyal following, and you almost never have that with somebody who gets to the “big time” at age 20.
Forty or 50 years ago, a hardcore racing fan could have told you something about the backgrounds of three-quarters of the drivers in the field at Daytona. Today, that number surely is much lower. The more you know about a racer, the more you care about how that driver does.
Even when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was struggling to get his Cup career going in Will Cronkrite’s low-buck Ford, fans knew who he was, because he had been winning regularly in weekly late model racing.
Here’s the deal with Preece: He’s 28, and he’s been a top name in regional weekly racing for more than a decade. He won a Modified race at Martinsville when he was 16 and was the Whelan Modified Tour Champion two years later, the first of two titles in that series. He’s won races all across New England and down the Mid-Atlantic states.
There are lots of pre-Cup Ryan Preece fans because there have been lots of scenes like this in Modified racing in New England and the mid-Atlantic
After struggling with some low-buck opportunities on the premier circuits, Preece finally got a chance to drive a Joe Gibbs Xfinity car in a couple of events in 2017. He finished second to Kyle Busch his first time out, then won his next outing. Still, the open Cup rides went to the kids with sponsors, until JTG Dougherty hired him for this year. That team doesn’t have a great record, but so far things look promising; Preece thinks the rules changes can level the playing field in his team’s favor.
If we had three or four more drivers like Preece in the Cup fields, crowds and ratings might show a little growth. I’ve mentioned Bubba Pollard before as a Southern version of Preece, and I’m sure Midwestern and Western fans could give me candidates from their areas as well.
Here's an idea: Add to the prizes for winning this or another major regional race a two-race deal for a competitive Gander Outdoors Truck Series ride, or even one in Xfinity? Start giving local stars more exposure, and they might end up getting sponsors and longer-term rides.
There are a couple of things going on here. First, Ryan Preece is a proven winner in weekly racing at a high level, but second and equally important, he’s been on a traveling circuit that has exposed him to more potential fans. That separates him from Ross Chastain, who has his folksy watermelon farmer thing going for him, but whose early racing career was almost solely in Florida. Christopher Bell has a great resume as an open wheel racer and has covered lots of territory, but at age 24, he maybe needs a couple more years to make his name more familiar to more people.
Preece is almost there – as is Friesen in the truck series – and we should be cheering for both, because uniquely among the current crop of up-and-comers, they have the ability to bring NASCAR along with them as their careers keep advancing.
One important additional note – Ryan Preece’s ability to travel with the Whelan Modified Series and expose his talent to more fans isn’t available to many other racers, anymore, because NASCAR doesn’t actively encourage major, regional races for local divisions as it did decades ago (and as non-NASCAR dirt track late model racing and open wheel racing in general do today). Sadly, it’s also harder to spread the word about new and exciting racers from that weekly world because of the demise of most racing newspapers. A lot of what I knew about the field of a NASCAR race 30, 40 or 50 years ago was because I’d read about the drivers in Southern Motorsports Journal, Southern Motoracing, Area Auto Racing News, New England Speedway Scene, Tri-State Speed Press, Southern Auto Racing News and others, plus the “big kahuna,” National Speed Sport News.
With a national circulation, National Speed Sport News covered ALL of racing, not just Cup and Indy, and hot new drivers were noticed here by fans near and far
We’re finally starting to see some websites that provide that kind of coverage, but the model for their financial stability doesn’t seem to be set in stone, yet. It would be great to have three or four sites to visit weekly (or more frequently) and be able to keep up with everything of interest beyond NASCAR’s weekly tour stops, and that in turn would help build some local racers’ reputations and make them competitive for sponsor dollars.
There aren’t many regional racing papers left, but as a long-time subscriber, I’m glad that Area Auto Racing News is one of them
Speaking of Area Auto Racing News, to which I have subscribed for decades, it was in the paper’s current issue that I got the idea for this article. A promotional blurb for stories about Preece and Friesen referred to them having “rejuvenated regional interest” in Cup and Truck racing, and the story about Preece included this sentence:
“Preece looks to give the local racers and grass roots fans something to cheer about, and that’s something that has been missing from NASCAR for a long time.”
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
When I was young, I played in a sandbox. Now I play in “the Cloud.” This week’s play was a look at the first winners at each track currently on the Monster/Cub circuit (along with the driver’s age). For the record, here they are (along with a few odd notes for the first three races, after which I decided to get a bit more serious.”
DAYTONA (Beach/Road Course, 1949) – Red Byron (34)
DAYTONA (current track, 1959) - Bob Welborn (30) This 100-mile race officially was a “qualifier” for the 500, but it awarded championship points and is included among official 1959 Grand National/Cup races, so it was the first on the two-and-a-half-mile track.
Bob Welborn, right, alongside Joe Weatherly on pit road prior to the start at Daytona
DAYTONA (current track, 1959) – Lee Petty (44) This was the first Daytona 500.
ATLANTA (Lakewood Speedway, 1951) – Tim Flock (27)
ATLANTA (superspeedway, 1960) – Fireball Roberts (32) This was a special 300-mile summer race; Bobby Johns (28) won first 500-miler later in 1960.
LAS VEGAS (Speedway Park, 1955) – Norm Nelson (32) This was the only GN race held on the ill-fated Speedway Park track.
LAS VEGAS (current superspeedway, 1998) – Mark Martin (39)
(At this point, I’m making the decision NOT to address any more of the tracks that preceded those now racing. That gets kind of crazy in Charlotte, and there would just be too many judgment calls. It’ll have to be another project.)
PHOENIX (1988) – Alan Kulwicki (33)
FONTANA (1997) – Jeff Gordon (25)
MARTINSVILLE (1949) – Red Byron (34)
Red Byron (black car) on his way to victory in the first Strictly Stock/GN/Cup race at Martinsville. Held on September 25, 1949, this is the earliest race run in the series on a still-existing track.
FORT WORTH (1997) – Jeff Burton (29)
BRISTOL (1961) – Jack Smith (37)
RICHMOND (1953) – Lee Petty (39)
TALLADEGA (1969) – Richard Brickhouse (29)
DOVER (1969) – Richard Petty (32)
KANSAS (2001) – Jeff Gordon (30)
CHARLOTTE (1960) – Joe Lee Johnson (30)
POCONO (1974 – Richard Petty (36)
MICHIGAN (1969) – Cale Yarborough (30)
SONOMA (1989) – Ricky Rudd (32)
CHICAGO (2001) – Kevin Harvick (25)
KENTUCKY (2011) – Kyle Busch (26)
LOUDON (1993) – Rusty Wallace (36)
WATKINS GLEN (1957) – Buck Baker (38)
DARLINGTON (1950) – Johnny Mantz (31)
INDIANAPOLIS (1994) – Jeff Gordon (23)
HOMESTEAD (1999) – Tony Stewart (28)
Here’s a summary from all of those (excluding the extra races I reported from Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas):
Average age of winners: 31.5
Median average: 30
Most wins: Jeff Gordon (3); Richard Petty (2) is the only other multiple winner
Jeff Gordon, shown winning the first Brickyard 400 at Indy, has the most victories in series’ first visits to current Cup tracks
Still active in Cup racing: Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch
I tried really hard to come up with something meaningful from all this, but it wasn’t easy. The best I could do was see if those two average age figures could point you to in May (right after Austin Dillon), but the closest Top 25 driver to my range is 31-year-old Ricky Stenhouse. Take that to the gambling window with you.
I’ll be back in my sandbox.