On Monday (Mar. 26), Nationwide Series regular Kenny Wallace revealed a troubling truth to his fans on Facebook. Though the 48-year-old, who finished seventh in 2011’s points standings, does have some sponsorship to run other races in 2012 for RAB Racing’s No. 09, it is not nearly enough to support a full-time effort in the series.
“We need money to keep paying our employees at RAB Racing,” wrote Wallace in a status update. “If another driver comes along and HAS MONEY to drive MY CAR i will support that because we need to keep our employees.”
His post stands as a sad commentary on the current state of NASCAR racing. Over the past few seasons, an increasing amount of drivers are obtaining rides in the sport’s top three series not necessarily by their achievements in lower series, but as part of the money they can bring to a team.
But that’s not necessarily too detrimental to the sport, right?
One must imagine Wallace to be disappointed at the possibility of losing his full-time ride to another driver or drivers who have supplied funding, but his post also reflects that he acknowledges the reality of NASCAR today. Teams need employees, and employees need to be paid. Occasionally, a team can do quite a lot with very little (see: Inception Motorsports’ eight-man effort at Daytona earlier this year), but in order to run competitively each week, more employees and more money are imperative.
So emerges the practice of ride buying. A team needs a driver for an event in order to be able to run the full race, and a licensed racer has a sponsor or monetary backing for a race or more. They meet, and the team is able to continue on for another week.
In the case of smaller-budget Nationwide or Truck series teams, this is seemingly a necessarily evil. Sometimes drivers can pull together sponsorship for an entire season, but in the case that a team can’t find such a competitor, said team has four options: hire a Cup ringer with sponsorship, find a non-full-time driver with some sort of financial backing, start-and-park, or fold completely.
In 2011 alone, the Nationwide Series’ Go Green Racing used 14 different drivers in its cars. Wallace’s RAB Racing team also fielded rides for 14 competitors in 2010 — with Brian Scott, who drove seven races for the team’s No. 09, the most frequent competitor. RAB Racing is also known for hiring arguably NASCAR’s most prominent ride buyer in recent memory — John Wes Townley, who has a connection to the Zaxby’s restaurant franchise. Townley returns to the sport this season, driving for RAB Racing’s truck team.
Financially, the art of ride buying makes sense. But there is a side effect, one that has been bubbling under for the last few seasons.
NASCAR’s second- and third-tier series used to be a breeding ground for future talent. In the past, teams might throw in a young, unproven driver on a whim, simply because of their previous merits. These drivers would progress through the ranks, eventually emerging in the Cup Series.
Alas, it has been years since a new driver has burst onto the scene in NASCAR’s premiere division. Joey Logano, who won the Rookie of the Year title in 2009, has been solid if not spectacular in his Cup ride. Kevin Conway and Andy Lally were the two subsequent winners of the award (both uncontested), and neither have a full-time ride in the sport as of now.
Opportunities for young drivers to prove themselves are slowly disappearing, and the racers who are able to make it into the Nationwide or Truck series often find themselves unable to progress further in the ranks, often due to sponsorship woes. It doesn’t help that few young guns in the lower series have been too memorable. The concept of Cup drivers racing on an almost-weekly basis in Nationwide is troubling, but it’s seeming more and more necessary. Sponsorship, again, is key.
So what is there to do? Is there anything that should even be done?
It can be argued that ride buyers are taking rides from more deserving drivers. That’s not always the case. Not all drivers bringing money are poor wheelmen (look at the progression Paul Menard has made), even though few have had breakout careers. Plus, the overwhelming majority of proven drivers have been able to keep their seats with little issue, because they have had minor — if any — sponsorship woes.
Of course, there are exceptions. Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth has not yet obtained full-season backing, and the same goes for Kenseth’s Nationwide teammates Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Trevor Bayne. That said, it seems unlikely, at least in Kenseth and Stenhouse’s cases, that they would be pulled from their rides.
So, the top drivers are remaining in the series. There’s just no one to replace them once they bow out, unless sponsors become willing to take chances on less-proven competitors.
It’s unfortunate to see Wallace, who enjoyed a 2011 season that saw him rejuvenated and in contention to run well most weeks, having to sit on the sidelines if sponsorship can’t be found. But, as Wallace seems to understand, teams need money to continue on, and if other drivers have said money… well, it’s better than another folded race operation.
And in my opinion, as long as we’ve still got teams to race and employees that are paid, I’m happy. If the state of affairs turns around to the point where we can see fewer sponsorship issues with proven drivers, I’m all for it. But for now, it’s a ride buyer’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
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