Picture this: Young driver breaks into a top-level racing series with a smaller team after working his way through the ranks, winning along the way, taking a title or two in other divisions. He runs well enough with those teams to grab a couple of wins, beating all comers, including the big powerhouse teams. That grabs enough attention that one of those big powerhouse teams, a team that wins races and contends for titles every single year, dials the driver up for a fateful phone call…
…and the rest is history.
That in a nutshell is a racer’s American Dream, and that’s how IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden referred to his signing with Team Penske, one of that series’ most storied teams, earlier this week.
“It’s a huge honor to get this type of opportunity and be a small piece of it,” Newgarden said during an IndyCar conference call. “I think this place is the American dream and it’s one of the best teams in the world.”
And when it comes right down to it, that’s exactly how it should work.
But while Newgarden found his piece of the dream this week, there’s not much room for any dream in NASCAR.
It happens; Erik Jones is a prime example of how things should work out. Discovered by Kyle Busch while racing late models, Jones landed a ride with Busch’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team, which led to an XFINITY Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing and a Cup ride with JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing next year.
The problem is, stories like Newgarden’s and Jones’ aren’t very plentiful. For every Erik Jones, there’s a Landon Cassill. So often, it’s not about talent or success, but about money. Young drivers can land rides… that is, if they bring enough sponsor money to the team.
The problem is, of course, that a young, unproven driver isn’t what most sponsors want in this day and age of instant gratification. They want star power, they want drivers who are already successful or popular, and so they insist on a Sprint Cup driver in the seat of a lower series ride, and the team is forced to bend to the sponsor’s wishes and split the ride or to take a driver who can bring the money, perhaps from a family business, perhaps from a long-running deal.
That kind of deal is often a detriment to a team in the long run. There are a few very good drivers who race on family dollars, but there are also those who are taking up seats and running mid-pack when another driver might get better results in the car.
There was a time that a team owner would select a young, talented driver and pitch that driver to sponsors until they got the desired result. In some instances it’s still a practice, but is becoming less and less common. Teams are unwilling to settle on smaller sponsors, and a driver with money will eventually come along.
There have always been talented drivers who have never gotten a shot at the big time. After all, there are only so many seats, and the drivers in them are talented. But it’s hard to deny that a lot of seats rotate among the same group of drivers while others, who could probably be competitive with them in equal equipment, toil in inferior cars and lower divisions and never get the chance to prove it.
The danger in that model, which has become all too prevalent, is that it’s not compelling for fans. The perception that the sport has changed radically from a blue-collar group that fans could relate to to an elitist organization filled with stars with whom they have little in common. There’s a fine balance between having enough money to be competitive and becoming just another corporate entity with little left onto which to hang for those who follow the sport.
There should be a place for the American Dream in racing. There should be hope for drivers who have done everything right moving up the ranks only to hit a wall at the top because they don’t have unlimited budgets on which to race. Racing became the success it did today because of the blue-collar aspect—the biggest stars came from humble roots and were genuinely grateful, and available, to the fans. Fans could see a piece of themselves in Richard Petty or Darrell Waltrip or Dale Earnhardt. It’s harder to find that reflection in many of today’s stars, and that gives the illusion that many of them didn’t work hard to get where they did (and some worked harder than others as well), and that the drivers would rather give their time to corporations than to fans. It’s not necessarily a case of “rather” than “have to,” but that’s still a little hard to swallow for a fan who saved every spare dime to come to the track.
Is there a solution, a way to assure that the most talented drivers find a place and that the big stars worked their way through the ranks rather than being handed the reins of the best horse in the stable (or, rather, to assure fans that they did)? Probably not. It all comes back to money, and the cost of speed has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. The only real solution is to contain costs in a meaningful way, something NASCAR isn’t likely to instigate any time soon.
Yet it’s hard to deny that the sport was something really special when it was fueled by dreams as well as dollars and the dreams of drivers and fans were sometimes one and the same. The sport needs the American dream, and fans need a sport where it still exists.
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