Driver Development Programs Need to Get the Gong
I once said it was all Jack Roush’s fault, but I was wrong. Sorry, Jack.
You’ve read it here before, but I’ll repeat: The proliferation of “driver development programs” is right up there with the charter system and NASCAR-designed race cars as the major causes of what once was a thriving and ascending national sport falling like a stone and in danger of becoming irrelevant, if not non-existent.
They should be banned. Today.
But back to Jack. Roush gets credit for starting what we now know as driver development programs – WAY back in 1999 – but his first efforts… fondly called the “Gong Show” after the late Chuck Barris’ sorta-funny-but-awful TV show… were nothing like what goes on today. Initially, they were just tryouts of racers about whom good things had been seen/heard.
Given what’s on TV today, maybe the Gong Show wasn’t so bad, just ahead of its time./center>
When the first winner, Kurt Busch, turned out pretty good (obviously, the tryout didn’t include test-of-temperament-under-stressful-situations), the program got some visibility and kind of took off, even though second-year winners Chuck Hossfeld and Nathan Haseleu weren’t immediate “hits” and were “gonged” before their golden opportunity could bear fruit. But then came Carl Edwards, and by 2005, the Gong Show had become “Roush Racing: Driver X”, a cable television reality program.
Kurt and Carl were successful enough to validate driver development programs for all
Unfortunately, that was the high point. Sponsorships dried up – remember the crash of 2008 – and all of a sudden, Jack Roush’s Gong Show went away, and its ghost was victimized by the bait-and-switch that created today’s driver development programs.
Remember the important difference: Roush didn’t ask his winners to pony up millions of dollars for their drivers’ seats. Today, it’s pay-to-play.
Yeah, I know, teams are picky; they wouldn’t let me get behind the wheel even if I could pledge Donald Trump’s savings account as my dowry. Yes, they do look for a level of talent, but if you ain’t got the cash, no amount of ability will make up for it.
I’ve been yelling all year about Stewart Friesen, the Canadian Modified standout who is trying to break into the Camping World Truck Series with an outside-the-network team. I could just as easily have talked about Ryan Preece, the New Englander who is kind of Friesen’s counterpart in pavement modified racing. Preece got a chance to drive one of Joe Gibbs’ Xfinity cars in two races and guess what? He finished second and FIRST. This after Friesen, back on dirt, nearly won the Truck Series race at Eldora in his own ride, the dirt being a pretty good equalizer.
Ryan Preece after his Xfinity win at Iowa. He finished second at Loudon.
Preece ran a year in Xfinity with a low-buck team and had performance to reflect that reality, but the Gibbs ride was his first with a realistic chance to do well, and I don’t think a newcomer has pulled off something like his two finishes since Kyle Busch (although you might argue for Chase Elliott or maybe Eric Jones).
And here’s what stinks: First, Preece had to PAY for those two rides. OK, I’m glad Gibbs gave him the shot, but can you cite another example that proves this sport has just gotten too #$&!%!@ expensive? Second, Preece will turn 27 before the season’s end, so most sponsors probably think he’s too old. Friesen’s 34, which puts him on Social Security in the topsy-turvy world of racers-and-money.
If these guys get dumped because of their age, I’m not sure this sport is worth saving.
Back to Roush one more time. Back during that year when they had the TV show, a whole slew of racers were in the running for the Gong/Driver X seat, and most of them had pretty good resumes, as evidenced by their name recognition 12 years later. Folks, the non-winners included Justin Allgaier and David Ragan, as well as current high-visibility crew chief Matt McCall. David Gilliland, Timothy Peters and Regan Smith were among the previous year’s also-rans, and other drivers from both groups remain successful in other forms of racing. Most of them had more than some Legends and K&N Series wins to speak for their skills.
Some may even have had access to millions of dollars, but I’m pretty sure most didn’t.
For that matter, I don’t know if Kurt Busch or Carl Edwards would have gotten a shot under today’s driver development programs. And Dale Earnhardt Sr., Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and a bunch of others would have been too old.
This is Indy from 2016, but while not this bad, Loudon still needs to fill more seats this weekend.
Today we have that long list of “Who-the-heck-is-he?” names that occupy Monster/Cup teams’ Xfinity and Truck cars most weeks. Nice guys, no doubt, and maybe really good drivers, but how many track championships? How many fans? I don’t want to pick on anybody, so I won’t mention names, but I’ll pose this:
If one of the developmental program drivers entered in this weekend’s Xfinity or Camping World Truck races were to be given a competitive Monster/Cup ride at Loudon, how many extra tickets would that sell? If Ryan Preece were to get that ride, you’d notice his fans showing up. Unfortunately, NASCAR probably wouldn’t.
Not everybody on the Gong Show got gonged. Here’s a guest with talent: Prince.
Frank’s Loose Lugnuts
It’s really just coincidence that both drivers I’ve used to make points in this story are from the Northeast. I know several in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast who – at various times – could have had their names filled in here. Some got to run a handful of NASCAR traveling circuit races or had a brief ride with a bottom-feeder team, but the big opportunities went to somebody else with better connections and maybe a smoother voice to use while holding the sponsor’s product. Once upon a time, these local racers had a chance, but big money and the charter system have killed that . . . and NASCAR shows it.
BTW, Ryan Preece gets another shot this weekend at Kentucky’s Xfinity race. Cheer for him.
I’ve been doing research for various projects lately, during which I spent time looking at old race results from all over the place, and one familiar name pops up as much as about any other: Geather “Runt” Harris of Richmond. Harris, who died 17 years ago this summer at the far-too-young age of 63, was one of Southside Speedway’s “4-H Boys” when I was a young fan. If you weren’t a fan of one of those four: Ray Hendrick, Sonny Hutchins, Ted Hairfield and Harris, you had little chance of seeing your favorite in victory lane.
Harris was one of the drivers who seamlessly went from being a top modified jockey to winning in late model sportsman competition when those cars became the weekly short track standard in the late 1960s, but his mark had been made many years earlier, so much earlier that, when Dave Fulton found a song written and recorded about Richmond’s Royall Speedway (now Southside) in the ‘50s, Runt Harris is one of the drivers mentioned in the lyrics.
My research took me to Lanham (Md.) Speedway in the 1950s, and there was Runt. Ditto for Marlboro (Md.) Raceway. He made occasional Grand National starts (some for Junie Donlavey), including one of the first races at Martinsville. Then I found an AAA stock car race run at Richmond in 1951, two years before the inaugural NASCAR event there. Runt Harris was in that lineup, too.
That’s how racers used to race, and it’s how they built fans.
Speaking of which… Mr. Fulton alerted me to MRN having a “throwback” broadcast of the 1974 Old Dominion 500 Winston Cup race, when Sonny Hutchins put an Emanuel Zervakis Chevy on the outside pole and beat Richard into the lead for the race’s early laps. Great race.
What also got my attention though, was announcer Ken Squier reciting the major short track races also being run that weekend, races where our local heroes made their reputations and built their fan bases. That’s not glamorous or lucrative enough for today’s NASCAR to pay any attention, but it might be when the current house of cards finally crashes because fans don’t give a crap about the developmental drivers filling the starting field.
We need more future NASCAR stars to come out of scenes like this one (updated, of course), with driver Herb Thomas (r) and car owner Smokey Yunick (l). The races leading up to these victory lane celebrations tend to create less sanitized personalities and more fans.