Unlike many members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which showcases the best of NASCAR’s yesterday, the racers of today receive years of experience before they touch a NASCAR national series.
Most of these racers roll in a lavish amount of short track racing series on a local level, but none other seems to nurture NASCAR talent more than the U.S. Legend Cars International.
The USLCI, which began in 1992, has continued to live up to its motto of being an affordable division for young drivers to start their racing careers. And though there are hard lessons learned on the track and off in the series, the most difficult factor in the series is the racecar itself.
Though small in stature – the typical car sits 46 inches above the pavement – these 5/8th-scale, full-fendered demons pack a punch with 140 horsepower in just a 73.00 wheelbase. The power-to-weight ratio alone separates a Legend Car from most racing divisions, says 2016 Camping World Truck Series rookie of the year William Byron.
“The cars have a good amount of horsepower compared to how small the wheelbase is,” he says. “It’s definitely a lot to handle.”
Byron, who jumped to the XFINITY Series full-time for JR Motorsports in 2017, is freshly removed from the Legend Car cockpit. Despite being known for gaining his racing taste buds through the online racing simulator iRacing, Byron made his racecar debut in a Legend Car at the Charlotte Motor Speedway fifth-mile at 15 years old, later becoming a champion.
“The best memory was running for the national championship,” he says. “We missed qualifying so we had to start in the back of the biggest race of the year. We had to basically win or beat the guy who we were racing for the championship.
“I think we had 26 wins and it took 25 to get the championship. There were two of us who had 25 wins. I had to start 32nd, and in 40 laps, we finished second and passed the guy for the championship. That was the most stressful time, but also the most rewarding, just knowing I could do that.”
With an engine too strong for the 1,300-pound Legend Car, Byron believes containing the beast is a crucial part in learning to drive a racecar.
“It teaches you the fundamentals,” he says. “Legend Cars were the first thing I had driven. I had done, like, one go-kart race. Legends is what started it all. I didn’t know any different so I thought it was normal. It was really cool. It was really efficient for my learning curve to figure those things out and I learned some of the techniques of racing that helped me improve even more. It just took off.”
Speaking of taking off, it was a huge step forward for XFINITY Series driver Garrett Smithley, who turned his first laps in a Bandolero car, the second-tier version of a Legend Car with 30 HP, before making the switch to Legends.
“I’m partial to Legend Cars because that’s where I started,” Smithley says. “I really do think… Bandoleros, it’s kind of like a go-kart with a body, but it’s oval asphalt. If you want to make it to the premier NASCAR series, you are going to run most of your races on ovals and asphalt.
“I think it gives a really good base. Everybody who said they drove Legend Cars or anybody who is in Legend Cars says that if you can drive a Legend Car, you can drive anything. It’s definitely worked out for me so far getting into the XFINITY Series.”
Smithley is far from the only XFINITY youngster who garnered his know-how from Legends. Darrell Wallace, Jr., who has four career wins in the Truck Series and earned an XFINITY Chase berth in 2016, burst onto the Legend Car scene in 2006, winning 11 of 38 races.
Wallace hasn’t forgotten his past over the last 10 years.
“I still have my Legend Car, actually,” he says. “They were a big part [of the learning curve]. It was a lot about throttle control and it taught you a lot about how to manage your car. I’d say more than any other car.”
Along with Wallace, Harrison Rhodes turned some Legend Car laps in his early years while having quarter midget experience already in his back pocket.
“Man, Legend Cars are cool,” he says. “They’re such a quick car for the wheelbase. They teach you a lot about driving on the edge.”
Though Legend Cars are far different than an XFINITY machine, the 23-year-old points out the inner erudition that comes along with challenging racecars and how it resonates in the steps up the racing ladder.
“It’s essential,” he says. “Being able to drive on the edge and handle a loose car, that’s really what the Legend Cars teach you. Then, it helps you drive the late models, move up to K&N and then here [in the XFINITY Series]. It’s a lot different tire and a lot different car than big cars but it’s definitely a good way to come up through the ranks.”
Matt DiBenedetto, who has reached the top level of NASCAR racing after driving for BK Racing in 2016, credits Legends for giving him that knack for car management in the early going.
“I raced dirt outlaw karts out in California, so I ran dirt for a long time,” he says. “I moved to Legend Cars and they were great. They taught you a lot about the car and throttle control because they slid around a lot.”
Some of the most well-known winners and champions of the sport are USLCI alumni, including Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. For these men, however, Legend Cars are what they used to drive. The lessons have already been passed on, and it all ended up working out pretty well in the years that followed.
Jordan Stillwell, meanwhile, is learning those lessons in real time, as the 21-year-old currently serves as a driving instructor in the Legend Car Driving School while also racing in Legend Car events like the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Winter Heat.
“I’ve always had a passion for racing from an early age,” Stillwell says. “My mom never held me back from racing, but she did have one request: the racecar had to have a roll cage, so that meant no go-karts.”
Now, with years of Legend Car experience behind him, Stillwell believes the high-level competition in the division is due to the toughness of the car’s handling – something with which many of NASCAR’s best would agree.
“It has a 10:1 horsepower-to-weight ratio,” he says. “They also have an extremely short wheelbase and they run on radial tires. When you combine all of that, it makes it difficult for any driver.
“It takes the average driver around a year to really figure out one of these cars. Every driver is different and they do learn at different paces, but it normally takes a year to start being a contender to win races.”
“It makes my drive to complete my dream of driving in NASCAR even more obtainable,” he says. “I watch what Daniel Hemric, William Byron and others have accomplished, and now I am even more confident in myself that I too can make it to NASCAR one day.”
Whether it be heat races in North Carolina or 32-car races for the championship on the west coast, Legend Cars have delivered the level of grit needed to succeed in stock car racing. For nearly 25 years, the division has moved with the times without disrupting its mission statement from the start: “to provide a fun and affordable racing opportunity in which anyone (experienced and inexperienced) can compete.”
“The results speak for itself,” Stillwell says. “Over a third of the NASCAR Premier Series drivers came from Legend Cars. More than half of all of NASCAR’s rising stars are former Legend Car drivers. Even outside of NASCAR, Legend Car drivers are showing off their talent in IndyCar, Daytona Prototypes, Mazda Cup, World of Outlaws, Crate Late Models, etc.
“The diversity of the series, as far as what it teaches young drivers, is above and beyond any other series or sim racing game.”