Friday, July 10, 2009

Newman, Stewart, Gordon all started before age of 10

Getting young kids behind the wheel not that crazy

One shudders to think of a 5-year-old driving a car at 50 miles per hour, it's absurd and something you only hear about on the news.

But it's not unheard of. In fact it's encouraged and celebrated, if said 5 year-old is behind the wheel of a quarter midget at the North Carolina Quarter Midget Association speedway or a Bandolero at Lowes Motor Speedway's Summer Shootout.

So what do you do if you're young son or daughter wants to go fast? If they want to trade their cleats for a fire suit?
NASCAR racing is in the midst of a period where future talents looking to succeed on the national level are encouraged to begin racing as soon as they can reach a pedal or fill a driver seat. Cup Series driver Joey Logano, who began racing quarter midgets at six years old, is certainly an example that comes to mind but Ryan Newman began sooner that that.
"I started driving when I was four and a half and I started driving quarter midgets, racing them when I was five," Newman said.

Sanctioning bodies have standards and procedures young racers must go through and qualifications they must meet -- they have to know where the brake and gas pedals are of course -- but they also go through novice testing before they are able to compete and enjoy a lot of the same safety equipment the Cup stars use.

Still, is it enough?

Tony Stewart, a young beginner as well, said, "You don't want a 12-year-old kid out there trying to race at Daytona. I think at some of these bigger race tracks -- you're seeing it now, even the United States Auto Club -- is talking about bumping up the age of some of the race tracks so that they go to up to 18 years old."

"It's not that you don't want a 12-year-old kid out there because there are 12-year-old kids that are just as good as we are, but it isn't every 12-year-old kid that is capable of doing that," Newman added. "When one family sees the opportunity for a 12-year-old kid to do it and he thinks his kid can do it, but the kid can't, that's when we get in trouble, and we have to monitor that."

So how young is too young? Will these future stars face burnout before they reach the Cup Series and is starting early advantageous or crucial for them to succeed?

Jeff Gordon seems to believe so.

"I started when I was very young so the first thing you say is to get started very young," Gordon said.

Kurt Busch said it's a tough and ongoing debate.

"It's up to the family to decide if they want to go and pursue the racing. You know, it's not like a ball-and-stick sport where you just pick up a baseball glove and go out and play T-ball with another group of teammates," Busch said. "A racing family really has to have that commitment from mom and dad and everybody. That's why it's tough to get involved at the entry level in racing."  Busch said his start in racing didn't begin until he was 15.

"It just took my dad 15 years to explain to my mom that I'd be OK," Busch said with a laugh. "So it's having that relationship between the parents and the child and knowing that the child is ready for racing. Legend car racing is where I started. Maybe if I did get a chance to start sooner, maybe it would have helped my career develop quicker, but I couldn't imagine going any quicker than what I did, starting at 15 and making it to Cup by 22."

If you have a young racer with proven talent, then you're likely well on your way. Still, the economics of racing is difficult and creates hard decisions for families to make.
Gordon recalls his young career being quite costly.

"I wish there were more ways out there to get kids started that was more like soccer, football and baseball that was in school and free," he said. "That's not the case and so to get started young -- the parents have to recognize that there's a talent there and then do everything they can to try to hone those skills. Make sure that they're racing something that is organized, safe and at a budget level that they can handle."

Busch said Bandoleros, Thunder Roadsters, Legend Cars and INEX have done a good job creating programs readily available for youngsters and families to join.

But at the end of the day, like in the big leagues, it still comes down to sponsorship.
"And how much money the parents want to throw in towards the racing," Gordon said. "But if you look around everywhere, there's grass-roots levels starting up here, there and everywhere to get kids involved in racing. With our sport so prominent on TV these days, it's real easy for kids to want to try to get involved."

Stewart, who is a supporter of young midget racers throughout Indiana, said a way to curb costs would be helpful.

"It would be nice to find a little better way at some of these beginner levels to control the cost to where it is more attractive for families to get involved. And I think that can happen pretty easily, just the sanctioning bodies like USAC has taken over some of the quarter midget stuff, and if they can get involved and find a way to not necessarily spec everything but to control the boundaries enough where they can control the costs, that would definitely make it better and you're going to attract more people that may not have the finances to do it like some of these teams do it now."

The will for young racers to forsake their baseball bats for racing tires is out there, some just need help finding the way.

By Raygan Swan, NASCAR.COM