Recently here at TNI, you’ve seen us profile a few young drivers and some driver development programs. It seems that because of some of the topics dominating the current headlines that the young, upstart drivers often have their stories pushed to the back burner. And it’s these younger guys that need the exposure as they are suffering the most because of the economic downturn. Sponsorship dollars are becoming increasingly tougher to come by for all teams, but it’s especially bad for unproven and untested drivers.
After the 2008 season, many opportunities for young drivers went away. Nationwide and Truck seats either dissolved or were taken up by Cup drivers and the few funded drivers that were looking. That left many unfunded guys wondering what the future held.
This season, guys have employed varying strategies to try and remain sharp and keep their names floating around in hopes that when the economy does turn around, that owners remember who they are and know where to find them.
Some drivers have taken the opportunity to return to their roots and add to their resumes. Hendrick Motorsports driver Landon Cassill can be found most weekends on short tracks throughout the Midwest and Southeast running ASA Late Models and IMCA Dirt Modifieds. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Bryan Clauson and Michael Waltrip Racing’s Josh Wise have returned to open wheel competition and are running USAC Midgets, Sprint cars, and Silver Crown cars. Each of these three have picked up wins this season.
A few other drivers have chosen to remain in the NASCAR garage areas taking whatever opportunities come their way.
While it may be hated by some, start-and-park rides have been one way for drivers to be at the track and earn some income. Kelly Bires, Willie Allen, Kevin Hamlin, Chase Miller, and Chad Blount are a few of the young drivers doing this. It might not be glamorous, and it might not actually be racing, but it allows them to keep their names on the results sheet and put food on their tables.
Another option has been to turn in firesuits and helmets for wrenches. Shane Huffman and Cale Gale are examples of drivers who have turned to working in the shop. Huffman is currently the car chief for the #62 NNS car for Rusty Wallace and Cale Gale builds shocks for Kevin Harvick’s teams in between his chances to race.
Hopefully for these guys, and the sport in general, the economy will start to turn around soon. When it does, owners will need young, talented drivers to maintain their programs for the future. But until that happens, survival is the name of the game. And for their sake and the sake of the sport, hope they make it work. It would be a shame to lose so much young talent.