NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Hiring a Driver Isn’t Just About Talent Anymore

Admit it, you’ve done it: you’ve scratched your head in bewilderment at a team’s choice of driver. After all, there were several available to choose from, and they went with… that guy? Don’t they want to put the talented veteran, up-and-coming young gun, or solid journeyman who doesn’t tear up equipment in the car? Don’t they care where they finish?

If you have, you’re not alone. It’s an age-old debate among fans and media when a team hires a new driver who some think is too inexperienced, too past his prime, too wreck-prone, or too forgiving on the track. It comes up often when there are popular veteran drivers left without a ride, someone like a Kenny Wallace or Bobby Labonte. It also comes up when a seemingly prime youngster gets overlooked, like a Jeb Burton or a Drew Herring. But the truth is, it doesn’t always have to do with talent behind the wheel or even how many fans the driver has (though whether it should or not is a whole other debate.)

In this week’s Mirror Driving, this was a point of discussion — whether a team should have chosen a veteran like David Reutimann over a relatively inexperienced Timmy Hill. On the surface, it looks as though Circle Sport made a questionable choice; Reutimann, who was available for the 2014 season, has a Cup win, while Hill has yet to crack the top 20 in a Cup race. Seems like a no-brainer.

So why wasn’t it? Because there’s usually more to the story. In some cases, the sponsor determines who they want driving the car, or who they don’t.

Once upon a time, a team owner would pitch his driver to a sponsor, and if the sponsor thought that driver could get them exposure by winning, they’d sign on. Now, winning isn’t the only thing the sponsors look for for their return on investment. They’re looking at marketability overall — does the driver have a known last name, for example? That can be a handy commodity, because if the family name is known to fans in some way, the fans will at least look to see who this new person is and how he’s related. Name recognition has no doubt helped drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Casey Mears earlier in their careers, and now it’s helping Jeb Burton, Ty Dillon, and Chase Elliott, among others.

Sponsors also might look for a driver who will appeal to a certain demographic. If they’re marketing to younger people, for example, a sponsor might look at Timmy Hill over David Reutimann because he is young and Reutimann, well, isn’t. Attractiveness is also a bonus here — they want a driver who will look good in advertising campaigns. Kasey Kahne is a sponsor favorite because he’s popular with a lot of young female fans, and they can use that to bring business from that group.

Tmmy Hill’s incident at Bristol, in which he slammed into the rear of Matt Kenseth’s car, raised questions about the experience of drivers in NASCAR’s top series.
Tmmy Hill’s incident at Bristol, in which he slammed into the rear of Matt Kenseth’s car, raised questions about the experience of drivers in NASCAR’s top series.

The list goes on. Some sponsors and team owners want a driver whose personal beliefs and values fit their own. Others want someone who’s female, or a minority. Some drivers are simply more believable when it comes to hawking a product — think Bass Pro Shops here. Tony Stewart and Ty Dillon seem like a better fit than Jamie McMurray was, because they seem more like the type of person who would use what the sponsor is selling. In advertising, it’s all about perception.

From a racing standpoint, it could be about performance. If you watch racing enough in person, you learn to recognize who’s got talent and how much. Even in poor equipment, a driver with good car control, or a good eye for a line, or who can take a chance and make it stick stands out. Car owners and crew chiefs can recognize these things, and it’s an intriguing prospect to develop this talent in a young driver, to see how much he can improve, and how much he can improve a team. Also important to an owner of a small, underfunded team is a driver who doesn’t tear up equipment, while an upper-tier owner might not care about sacrificing a few race cars if the driver is fast enough and shows enough promise.

One more factor is money. A veteran driver with a proven record isn’t going to come at a cost far below his market value in most cases. A youngster hungry to prove himself might take a small salary and/or a smaller cut of the winnings than a bigger name. For a smaller team, this is a valid concern. Circle Sport, for example, may not have had the funds to interest Reutimann or Bobby Labonte, but Hill just wants to race. That could put him in a different price bracket.

It’s not really accurate to say it’s not about talent anymore, because drivers don’t make it to NASCAR’s national touring series without any of it (though a family name helps in that), but it’s definitely not just about talent. It’s about marketability, which may or may not make sense to someone on the outside of a deal. Can a team market this driver to a potential sponsor? Can a sponsor market him to their target audience? These have to happen for a deal to make sense, even if it doesn’t appear to make sense from a purely racing standpoint.

Would the racing be better if every driver was picked solely on his ability behind the wheel? Probably. But fans also want drivers they can get behind, who they can relate to on a personal level. Sometimes they choose to throw their support behind a driver who’s not necessarily a superstar because they just like that driver’s personality (or looks, or a family member, or his religious values — the list goes on). That’s what car owners and sponsors are up against. As much as everyone would like it to be only about talent, it’s not. And in the end, that’s not the end of the world.

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