There was once a young driver with a reputation for winning. He built a name for himself at the local bullrings, racing — and sometimes winning — against drivers twice his age and who had been racing before he was born.
He scraped together what sponsorship he could, and put more than he could probably afford into the car to make it better, faster, a winner. His work ethic and talent resonated with fans, his popularity grew locally. Fans knew his name, and they liked him.
This is where it should read that the driver earned a chance in a larger series — a NASCAR regional series, perhaps, or ARCA, and then maybe a one-off opportunity in a Truck Series or even an Xfinity ride. This is where fans should be watching his progress and rooting for him, and sponsors talking with owners about how to snatch him up before their rivals do.
But this isn’t a fairy tale, and it doesn’t work like that. At least not any more.
There was a time it did — the above could describe any number of drivers who went on to have not only successful, but spectacular careers. To be fair, there are still drivers making it to the top level this way, but that number is dwindling. And the reason is ugly.
It all boils down to money and who has it. Where teams once competed for the top prospects, now they look for youngsters who bring funding to the table. And it’s hard to fault them; they have to.
There are still drivers finding sponsorship the old-fashioned way, where they land a ride and the owner shops them to backers with promises of glory. But even the most talented or most popular driver is a gamble, and team owners need deep pockets to go this route because they may find themselves covering expenses out of their own pocket.
Many of the drivers who came in this way have been successful enough to forge long-term relationships with sponsors. But even those are increasingly rare. For the first time in veteran Denny Hamlin’s career, FedEx isn’t footing every race, and sponsors like that who cover an entire season are increasingly rare, with the remaining dinosaurs easily counted on one hand. Even seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson lost Lowe’s late in his Hall of Fame career.
But new drivers? That’s an even harder road. And the cold truth is that as NASCAR’s popularity wave has dwindled, nobody’s going to foot a bill of over $20 million for questionable return on that investment.
That’s opened the door to drivers who can bring backing to a team. If a driver can offer sponsors for the majority of the season, what choice does a team have but to latch on to a sure thing?
The big teams aren’t going to spend less. Sure, that would be a logical solution, but it won’t happen unless NASCAR drops the hammer on spending. So sometimes teams have to follow the money.
Aric Almirola brings Smithfield to Stewart-Haas Racing for 25 races a year. Without that, would an aging driver with a lackluster career record have a seat in the Cup Series? And on the flip side, how many drivers will never get a chance in a good ride, no matter how talented they might be, because they don’t bring money to the table?
While the trend has been moving more and more toward a buy-a-ride model, we’re not there yet. There are plenty of drivers who have gotten to the top levels on talent, but it’s hard to dispute that it’s harder for new talent to enter the sport without money behind them.
And because perception is, to a degree, reality, that’s what many fans are seeing, and many aren’t happy about it.
Part of the problem is that drivers, especially up-and-comers, get noticed if they drive for a recognizable team or have a big-name sponsor. Money does buy speed, but it also buys hype.
And while it’s not rampant yet, the perception that it is rampant is based in the reality of fans seeing talented drivers being passed over, or replaced in their rides, for money, or nepotism, or both.
There needs to be a path forward for young drivers with talent. That’s not to say that drivers with money aren’t talented — certainly some of them are deserving of top rides, but the sport can do better.
It’s not the team owners’ fault, at least not all of it. Some can afford to gamble on a driver’s talent and that it will pay off with sponsorship down the road. They can put their own businesses on the hood for unsold races and call it a day. But that’s not a sustainable model for many teams. So, when faced with a popular, marketable driver who has scratched his way through the ranks or one who can provide money to pay for racecars and crew, they have to take the sure thing.
What is the teams’ fault, to a degree, is the skyrocketing costs — they spent whatever it took when sponsors were knocking on their doors, and when they weren’t knocking anymore, nobody really cut back spending.
But fans, to a large degree, want to see the young driver above get the chance he has earned. Part of the pull of nostalgia is an era where drivers were blue-collar sorts who started at the bottom and clawed their way up. That’s the American Dream in a nutshell, after all. That’s Junior Johnson and Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt and countless others who drove all the way to the top.
Today, there are still drivers like that — Matt DiBenedetto comes to mind. And he’s widely speculated to be losing his ride after 2021 despite doing just about everything right from the start of his career. If Austin Cindric takes over, as good as he is, many fans see him as being in position to have that ride because of his father. Cindric is very talented, but will fans see past the silver spoon they see?
Is NASCAR becoming a pay-to-play sport? There are plenty of drivers who have rides because they bring money and hype, possibly more than ever. And there are still plenty who got noticed for their winning ways, too. But do fans see it that way, or do they see money being the driving factor in too many instances?
If perception is reality, don’t look for too many fairy-tale endings.