Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Monday April 5, 2010
The racing is perfect. The schedule is great, and the tracks on the schedule are varied and exciting. There are haves and have nots, but money doesn’t always guarantee success. The sanctioning body is fair and consistent most of the time. Teams can be competitive on a modest budget.
This may sound like a fantasy world to many NASCAR fans, where the complaints about the sport run the gamut from “boring racing” to “bad calls” to “big budget teams winning all the time.” A racing series where racing rules the day, the officials make good decisions, and they don’t race on cookie-cutter tracks? “Sign me up,” most would say in an instant. “Where can I find this too-good-to-be true racing? Is it ARCA, ASA, USAC, a new series from a galaxy far, far away?”
No. It’s NASCAR.
Believe it or not, this brand of competition does exist within stock car circles now. But you won’t find it in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, or even Camping World Truck Series. Instead, the K&N Pro divisions is where the old school racing lies. It has gone through several incarnations, especially the East Series (which transitioned from the old, mostly regional Busch North division to a series with teams and drivers from across the country.) Its West Series counterpart is also a similar story in terms of great racing at great tracks.
In terms of driver development, the K&N Pro Series is also just the right mix of veterans and up-and-comers. The younger drivers can learn from the experience of the veterans, but aren’t overwhelmed by them every week. Joey Logano is one of many graduates from the East Series program, the poster child for using these divisions for bringing a driver along.
Yet despite the series’ obvious attractions, NASCAR fails to market it to the fans on a regular basis. The sport simply lumps K&N in with the weekly racing on its official website, and you almost never see any kind of advertising supporting it. That’s a mistake, because the sanctioning body should be promoting the heck out of the series at every chance it gets. In a nutshell, here’s why they should – and what lessons they can take from the K&N Pro divisions for the Big Three:
It’s what the Nationwide Series used to be. Once upon a time, the Nationwide series blended together the perfect mix of veterans, drivers looking to earn a place in the Cup Series as well as several who were perfectly content to avoid those pressures in exchange for making a more modest living – while still having fun in the process. A Cup star might make an appearance in a race or two, but they didn’t win every time; in fact, they often didn’t win at all. Certainly, they didn’t run for championships, not needing to prove anything in a lower series while leaving the “young guns” to compete against the battle-tested older veterans that already raced there full-time.
That type of balance has long disappeared in the Nationwide division … but it’s alive and well at K&N. These days, drivers like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano make an occasional appearance there, but they don’t stink up the show every week. That leaves the championship up for grabs among the actual series regulars, with “young guns” and veterans alike having an equal chance at the season title. Compare that to Nationwide, where it’s a foregone conclusion that a Cup driver (without a championship in the Cup Series) will win instead.
The schedule doesn’t include a single cookie-cutter track. Coupled with the perfect environment for drivers, the series races at some great locations. The East division schedule features Greenville-Pickens Speedway (SC), South Boston Speedway (VA), Iowa Speedway, Martinsville, New Hampshire, Lime Rock Park (CT), LeeUSA Speedway (NH), Gresham Motorsports Park (GA), and Dover. The West Series counters with its own “A” list of racing facilities, with All-American Speedway (CA), Iowa, Phoenix, Douglas County Speedway (OR), Infineon, Irwindale (CA), Portland (OR), Colorado National, and Miller Motorsports Park (UT) on their slate. Notice there’s no cookie-cutters listed, with this diversity of short tracks and road courses showing what a better track schedule can do for a series. White-knuckle finishes are virtually guaranteed, with the setups as varied as the speedway as the series jumps from one track to the next. How crazy can the racing get? At Dover in the Fall, there were 11 lead changes in 150 laps, compared to just six in the Cup Series two days later (over a 400-lap event).
The rules make sense. In the K&N East season-opener at Greenville-Pickens, the second place car, the No. 37 driven by Andrew Smith, violated the rules for front shock absorbers. But once this discovery was made, NASCAR didn’t consider outlandish fines, wrist slaps, or double-secret probation. They simply stripped Smith of his finishing position and the points that came with it, placing him in 30th (last) place for the event. That penalty cost Smith 97 points and $4,500, an instant punishment by simply taking away that runner-up finish from his resume. The money might not seem like much, but consider new second-place finisher Jody Lavender took home $5,500… while Smith netted $1,000.
Considering the level of competition (K&N is equivalent to NASCAR’s single “A” baseball) $4,500 probably a large part of the budget for the next race for many of the drivers in the series. Plus, a fine and points are all well and good, but remember, racers also compete for pride… and stripping a top finish has to be a huge blow to their ego.
This situation couldn’t have been handled better by NASCAR officials. Practice or qualifying? Sure, take the money and the points and let it be over with. But stripping a finish is exactly what a driver deserves if he races an illegal car… it’s just something we never see at the Cup level. NASCAR should learn a lesson here, treating racing illegally in all series like they do with K&N – by demonstrating exactly how cheaters never prosper.
The series isn’t ruled by money. Sure, there are a few teams with more money than others in K&N: just look at the garage area, where car transporters run from top-of-the-line (albeit used) Cup or Nationwide Series rigs to 37’ enclosed trailers pulled by a pickup truck. But that’s often where the disparity ends. $10,000 can build a top 10 K&N race car, while even the lowliest Cup and Nationwide teams spend that much on tires alone for a race weekend.
That makes it easy to maintain a team in K&N. And with handling, not horsepower, always at a premium, the series relies on preparation and driver talent to separate the best from the rest. Sure, there are a few development teams for the larger organizations – 2009 K&N Pro Series East champion Ryan Truex among them under the Michael Waltrip Racing banner, along with RCR driver Ty Dillon and a rotation of Joe Gibbs Racing youngsters – but that’s not the guarantee of success that the big-team cash gets you in the Cup or Nationwide Series. After two races, Truex, who is likely one of the top-funded drivers in the series, sits fourth in the standings behind two rookies (point leader Cole Whitt and second-place Ryan Gifford) and a longtime series veteran in Jody Lavender. It just goes to show there are no givens that money will buy wins, and the big teams understand more cash doesn’t mean an automatic trip to Victory Lane… so even they restrict their spending to a certain degree.
That’s a good thing for the sport.
Because of the other reasons, the racing is great. The K&N Pro Series is still more about winning than branding, more about pride than dollar signs. With the pretense stripped away, the racing is all that matters – and the drivers race like it every single lap. Winning races is still valued more than points racing by most teams, with the season championship simply looked at as icing on the cake. Add to that some teams only compete on a part-time schedule, racing to win when they do show up, and you have a brand of competition that has been largely (and sadly) lost in NASCAR’s upper echelons.
And if you’re looking for a playoff system … you won’t find one here. The K&N Chase is the whole season: the East Series runs just ten races, the West an even dozen. The races are generally around 100 miles. There is no time for stroking, for experimenting, for adjusting on cars all day long. There is only time to go as hard as you can, gaining every position possible with what you have before the checkered flag waves. So with it all on the line every lap of every race, a brand of racing ensues that’s been lost in the top three series for years.
There’s no question NASCAR has two gems in the K&N Pro Series. In a time where interest in the top series has declined, it is alive and well in these races, every single time out. There are no boring races, no cookie-cutter tracks, no boring drivers. There’s just good, hard-nosed competition. It’s a shame that there isn’t a better TV package for this series, but if you can catch one (SPEED shows them on Thursday afternoons sometimes), it’s well worth your time.
And as we look towards the future, with the sport as a whole suffering, the sanctioning body has the responsibility to the fans to promote these divisions, to put together a better broadcast package and spotlight the best racing it has under this package. In the process, it could take a few lessons from this small development series that could vastly improve the sport from the bottom up. For when you strip away the NASCAR hype, there’s only one thing left on which they’re judged: the racing.
Shouldn’t it be great?
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