They May Be Tomorrow's NASCAR Stars, But Are They Anybody's Heroes?
Unless you’re a first-time reader of my articles that address NASCAR’s problems today (rather than my history pieces), you know that I fault the “driver development system” for depriving the Monster (?)/Cup Series of new drivers who bring fans to the table along with (or instead) of money, and that situation is hurting the sport as much as anything other than the dreaded “charter system.”
(You can buy a “system app remover” for your computer’s ills, but, unfortunately, nobody seems to have come up with software or hardware to remove systems that cripple an entire sport.)
If NASCAR rules-makers were tasked with regulating our dining habits.
I’m going to look at that situation a bit more here, but before I do, let me say that I have absolutely nothing personal against any of the individuals I’ll use as negative examples - they took advantage of opportunities the same way we probably would. Unfortunately, those opportunities are doing NASCAR as much harm as they’re doing the drivers good.
I’ll use two “next-big-star” candidate drivers for illustration purposes, and with one of them, we’ll get off onto a side discussion of another problem the sport faces today.
My examples are William Byron, 20, and Christopher Bell, 23, the newly crowned champs of the Xfinity and Camping World Series. Next year Bell goes to Xfinity, while Byron goes to Cup, carrying the car number identified with Jeff Gordon.
William Byron, above, and Christopher Bell, below, could be a big part of NASCAR’s future - is that for better or worse?
Any way you look at it, a big piece of NASCAR’s future depends on whether these guys succeed, both on the track and in the fan-building/seat-filling/ t-shirt-selling worlds. There are challenges in the latter categories.
Let’s compare them to some of the legends. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was in his mid-20s with nearly a decade of increasingly visible short-track experience when he began racing Cup, and he spend a couple of years struggling in low-buck rides before becoming a star. That gave him plenty of time to attract fans.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. helped build his fan base by racing at many tracks rather than sticking with one every week, and every time he ended up in victory lane, more people were drawn to this talented young racer.
Bill Elliott began his Cup career earlier and with less of a short-track record, but he toiled for more years in the lower echelon of the series, building his fan base as a charismatic underdog while the sport could still depend on older stars to boost attendance. Darrell Waltrip was an established short-track star with several seasons under his belt when he began a briefer underdog period in Cup, but his total in years of experience - and his outsized personality - brought fans (and those who loved to hate him) in numbers.
Even Jeff Gordon, whose prominence as a Cup driver began earlier, brought name recognition with him because of his tremendous success as a teenager in USAC’s open wheel divisions, and he raced a couple of years in Xfinity/Busch to further draw attention and fans before he moved into the top tier of Cup racers.
Jeff Gordon began building fans as a top open wheel driver in USAC, and as the bottom photo shows, he began the process REALLY early.
So compare that with William Byron: a couple of years in Legends, a year in late models at Hickory Speedway, and a year each in K&N East, Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series (plus ARCA starts), all in top-notch equipment. He has clearly shown he can handle that equipment, but he hasn’t stayed anywhere long enough to build much of a following, so his presence in the #24 isn’t suddenly going to fill a lot of those empty seats at Cup tracks.
William Byron has never had any trouble finding victory lane, but fans have more trouble finding - and becoming fans - of Legends drivers.
Bell comes with a little heavier resume, especially in terms of having raced where you could build some name recognition. He was winning big micro sprint races before he was old enough to drive legally, and when he first moved into a top USAC midget ride, he replaced the departing Kyle Larson. Instead of putting all of his eggs in the USAC basket as Gordon had done, Bell branched out, obtaining a World of Outlaws sprint car ride and super late model rides for both dirt and asphalt tracks. He quickly became a winner in all venues.
His path for 2015 and 2016 closely paralleled Byron’s, but he remained in trucks for 2017 while his rival moved to Xfinity. He also continued to race away from NASCAR, building support among diehard fans by winning the 2017 Chili Bowl (one of the two biggest midget races in the country; he’d already won the other one, the Belleville Nationals).
Winning a big midget race certainly has its advantages, but those ladies might be about to ask for your I.D., Christopher.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t get Bell quite as far ahead as it might have 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, being a race fan almost required that you subscribe to one or more racing newspapers, and while Southern Motorsports Journal, Southern MotorRacing, Southern Auto Racing News, New England Speedway News, Gator Racing News, Area Auto Racing News, Hawkeye Racing News - and especially National Speed Sport News - told you about last week’s Cup race, they also filled you in on weekly racing and special races in their regions and across the country. That way you started hearing about some of these “local” names before they popped up nationally. I remember that with Waltrip.
Notice that the top headlines in this edition of National Speed Sport News are for two major local races, while the NASCAR event only gets third billing. That kind of attention to grassroots racing was what gave drivers name recognition and brought fans with them when they made it to big-time NASCAR.
Then NASCAR had its brief stop on top of the world, and one thing it didn’t mind at all was that just about every other kind of racing nearly disappeared from public view. If you tried to promote the view that there was more to U.S. racing than NASCAR - as Pat Patterson did with his fantastic ESPN show - you got buried. It was NASCAR, NASCAR and more NASCAR.
On the heels of that negative change came the steep decline in the newspaper/magazine business, with many small racing papers closing up shop and many general-circulation newspapers reducing or eliminating their racing coverage, especially of local tracks. The internet - including web successors to some of the old racing papers - provided lots of new outlets for NASCAR coverage but relatively little for weekly/small-time racing - at least not in a way that draws attention like the racing papers once did. As a result, most of us learned less and less about what was happening at the grassroots level outside of our home territory, and Eric Jones or Christopher Bell didn’t build the name recognition that Earnhardt Sr., Gordon or Waltrip did earlier.
So Christopher Bell’s achievements won’t bring as many fans along with him when he makes the jump to Cup as was the case for Gordon, Earnhardt Sr. and others of decades past, and William Byron won’t have had much of an opportunity to build a fan base at all, which brings up the question of how many of the seats vacated by departing Earnhardt Jr. fans will be filled by theirs.
Hey, Daytona, you might want to spend some time studying that question instead of playing God with race-car design, coming up with more arcane rules-of-the-week, or creating points systems that the Mensa Society can’t even figure out.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
As I was researching this article, I was dismayed to see bio after bio of Dale Earnhardt Sr. completely ignore his weekly short-track racing (lasting a decade) prior to his early Cup and Busch/Xfinity starts in the mid-1970s. Some even made it sound like his “professional career” began with his ride in Ed Negre’s Dodge at Charlotte in 1975.
I first saw Earnhardt race in this Nova at weekly tracks in North Carolina and was impressed that he’d win both with his right foot and with his brain. It didn’t surprise me at all when he exploded onto the Winston Cup scene.
Speaking of omissions from history, I read an article recently that implied that, after Curtis Turner won a Grand National race on the old Charlotte dirt track in a Nash in 1951, the cars of what later became American Motors disappeared until Bobby Allison showed up in his famous AMC Matador nearly 25 years later.
I beg to differ.
For starters, Nash cars continued to run Grand National races into the mid-’50s, although Turner got the brand’s only GN win. But a good word needs to be said as well about one of the noblest lost causes in NASCAR history, the effort by “independent” driver Larry Hess to compete in a Rambler Ambassador in 1966.
Below you can see the true progression/succession of Nash/Rambler/AMC in NASCAR racing.
Curtis Turner with his Nash in 1951.
Larry Hess with his ‘66 Rambler Ambassador.
Bobby Allison’s AMC Matador, the last NASCAR effort of a proud-if-not-entirely-successful American auto manufacturer.
Happy 2018, everybody. Let’s all hope that, somehow, the Good Ship NASCAR stops taking on water this year and becomes a little more seaworthy. I know it would take away much of what we grouches have to talk about, but I’d rather sit and watch than sit and complain any day, so join me in hopes and prayers that we’ll see changes to make what we watch exciting enough to take up that habit again.