NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Too Steep a Learning Curve Makes Too Wild a Ride

There has been discussion lately about rushing young drivers too quickly to the top in NASCAR, because at one time, in the not-too-distant past, it was considered out of the ordinary for drivers younger than their mid- to late-20s to join the elite class of race drivers that is now NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. It has become more and more common in recent years to see younger drivers reaching the top, along with many question as to whether it is detrimental to them or their careers. Certainly, one has to wonder if this is so. But there is another thing to consider as well.

What about its effect on the sport?

Looking at some of the most successful drivers in NASCAR, there was a common thread for many years. Drivers started in late models on local tracks in their teens, usually in a stock car but occasionally in a different type of machine. They were lucky to make ends meet on the car, because they often owned it, and if they didn’t, the owner was usually a local guy, trying to make it in a game he loved. They didn’t become overnight sensations; some barely got by.

If they were lucky, they might get a ride in a bigger series, like the American Speed Association-many top Cup racers got their start there, including current Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and championship contender Mark Martin. From there, it was a long slow climb to Cup. Many didn’t arrive long before the age of 30. Drivers like Dale Earnhardt toiled on lower circuits for years before embarking on Cup careers-and that experience showed in their racing skills.

Rushing 18 and 20-year-olds into the series might be tempting for a number of reasons. They’re marketable and look good on TV and in print. They still have that sense of invincibility that makes them fearless in a racecar. They have a very long career in front of them.

But the bottom line is, nothing can replace experience. Experience is how you learn to feel the car. It’s how you avoid wrecks and learn to control your emotions. It can’t be bought by any sponsor. While it is true that many of today’s racers have raced since they were five years old or even younger, much of that experience is not in a full-bodied vehicle with the power of a stock car, IRL car, or even an off-road truck. The extra weight and power of these cars is significantly different from a go-kart or sprint car.

It seems like most of today’s top drivers, as well as those of the past, came up the old-fashioned way-the right way. Tony Stewart, the current point leader, raced everything on wheels before coming to NASCAR and still took a season in the Nationwide Series to learn stock cars and NASCAR. Johnson drove off-road trucks in his teens and spent time in ASA as well, winning a couple of races before spending two full years in the Nationwide Series in the best equipment available to him, which was nowhere near the caliber of the Nationwide teams fielded by Cup owners. Martin toiled in ASA, failed at an attempt as a Cup owner-driver, and went back to ASA again before landing in a Cup ride with Jack Roush. Jeff Gordon’s path was similar to Stewart’s. All but Gordon entered the sport in their mid-20s or later, and Gordon was considered the exception, not the rule.

But what of the driver who has been rushed into the system? Certainly it hasn’t done Reed Sorenson any favors. While Joey Logano has had some success, he has also been humbled quite a bit, because he’s a very small fish in the ocean here. A third youngster, Kyle Busch, has immense talent behind the wheel, but his immaturity and inability to manage his emotions like an adult – a skill that he obviously learned on his way to the top – have actually hampered his season to date and leave him in jeopardy of falling out of the Chase altogether.

And what of the sport itself? The recent trend has done what is fast becoming irreparable harm to the Nationwide Series. With owners putting their Cup stars in those cars, it ensures that the real series teams are priced out of the market with their high-dollar sponsors that pull support from those teams to join in the greed. It also leaves NASCAR without a true development series, something that will cause harm down the road when teams are forced to put more inexperienced drivers behind the wheel of Cup cars.

Additionally, the learning curve for these young drivers often comes at the expense of a veteran or any other driver when the inexperience means they can’t avoid what should be an avoidable situation. Sure, those mistakes are part of the game, but they should be happening on a local track somewhere.

NASCAR floated the idea of raising the age limit for Cup racing to 21. I’m all for that, but I’d like to add that a driver has to have at least one complete, consecutive season in a Nationwide car before being eligible for a Cup license, as a safety issue if nothing else. Then go back to the way licensing was done – short-track races first, and when those were good enough, intermediates and road courses, and finally, restrictor-plate tracks. That would mean that most drivers would enter on a full-time basis at the age of around 23 or 24 by the time they competed the process. Put less emphasis on the Rookie of the Year award and more on season points as a measure of a young driver’s success (Johnson was never Rookie of the Year, but finished fifth in points his rookie year, his lowest career number), probably, in the long run, a better and more accurate measure of his success than the rookie award.

Young, talented drivers are an asset to the sport-when they take the time to learn all of the sport, not just the top series. Experience is something that can only come from racing, and it needs to start long before a driver’s first Daytona 500. There is a lot to be said for coming up the right way. Shortcuts don’t really benefit anyone, and they have to potential to hurt everyone.

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