NASCAR is being reborn in the age of video games, the revival of scouting dirt track talent, and the possibility of NASCAR rides for drivers without a blank checkbook.
Almost every “keep your eye on” driver under the age of 25 in NASCAR today has had an interesting path of getting there. If you just look at iRacing alone, you could quickly reference William Byron, who truly got his start racing virtually, and that was only six years ago.
If only NASCAR ’98 by EA Sports or World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars 2002 by Ratbag Games on PS2 would’ve done the same thing for so many of us (of course, if you haven’t tried it – iRacing is way more advanced and challenging – a true simulation of the actual thing). It’s amazing to find what a whole generation raised on racing video games creates for the future of top tier sport.
However, the few generations-old NASCAR way of getting there can still be found in someone like Ryan Blaney. A son of a NASCAR driver. A common way into the sport that has shared many father and son lineages; and Blaney plays it well. Styling himself in the Winston Cup days of the 70’s and 80’s. He gets how to be the thrift store hipster of NASCAR today. The 20-something who wears vintage Dale Earnhardt garb found from the local Goodwill. He gets it. He fits into the future that we want in NASCAR. He understand the past hokeyness, the old country charm, yet the greatness and challenge of the sport that exists. But he’s also an old school story into the elite nature of the sport – “connections.”
The future is in the new way of how to get there…
There will always be the Ryan Blaney’s, the family legacy guys with deep connections. The Austin Dillon’s or Joey Logano’s – silver spooned, deep pocketed country boys with a blank check earning them a spot. That’s racing, and it’s always had the fast tracked rich kids – whether at the local track or national stage. And William Byron might be one of those wealthy kids, but his ticket into NASCAR, started in earnest with video games, which brought on racing “IRL.”
Alex Bowman as well has been a simulation driver for Hendrick Motorsports before strapping into the real thing, (talk about cutting edge!) A NASCAR team with a driver committed to simulations – replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. no less – however that’s fitting, since Dale Jr. was an early advocate for racing simulation.
Simulation training sounds like F1 revolutionary… but it’s here and now in American motorsports. And if you’re not up on it, you’re lost at sea.
Kyle Larson, also heavily involved in iRacing and racing simulations since he was a teenager, is monetarily invested in dirt track racing since he began making money with his own World of Outlaws Sprint Car team at the mere age of 23. That also includes an eventual dream of retiring from NASCAR to run solely with that series and its 100-race a year schedule (something he mentioned on the #OpenRed Podcast earlier this year).
If he decides to do that, it would be revolutionary. Even beyond Tony Stewart’s recent moves to redefine NASCAR retirement in the local dirt track scene racing cars, owning teams, a series, and even a legendary dirt track with Eldora. For Larson to commit to chasing a championship in a series that many would have considered a stepping stone to where he is today shows where his heart really is, and more importantly, the mindset of a millennial entering the NASCAR ranks.
Kyle Larson had many teams scouting him while driving a midget in USAC for Keith Kunz Motorsports back in the early 2010’s. In the ilk of Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, Larson was winning everything under the sun on dirt tracks, and every one wanted him… but for a price.
Larson has publicly thanked Chip Ganassi for giving him a ride “without any funding because [he] had no funding, and [Ganassi] moved [him] up the ladder quick.” [source]
Larson’s story sounds like one from the past. A dirt track star from a young age who won the hearts of every local track goer. He’s put in the miles on the highway racing for no money, then hundreds of dollars, then thousands, and so on. He didn’t come with a blank check, he didn’t pay for a ride like so many have and continue to do so. Larson is no stranger to the hobbyist racer competing alongside him, and he has built a deep brand equity through the incessant amount of racing he has done on the local level, and continues to do so as time allows.
The problem with the 2000’s NASCAR is drivers didn’t build up a grass roots following of fans through the local scene. There wasn’t anyone in a NASCAR grandstand saying, “I remember him back when…”
But that’s changing… and it’s happening fast with this new crop of drivers who have built up their fan-base through local dirt tracks, local asphalt races, or even the digital space with iRacing, YouTube, Twitch, and the convergence of the digital and physical world.
Let’s talk Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., a guy who I obviously feel is the biggest future star in the sport for a variety of reasons. A success story from the Drive for Diversity program to attract minorities and women to the sport. However, Bubba Wallace is no Danica Patrick story. He isn’t some super PR pumped star that really doesn’t have what it takes to be at this level, and is only there to help the ratings. Danica was here because she was a brilliant marketer, Bubba is here because he’s a great racer. That’s the difference.
He’s really good. Wallace was NASCAR’s first African American to win Rookie of the Year honors in any NASCAR series. That’s actually not even that impressive. What’s remarkable is he won his very first NASCAR race ever starting in a K&N Pro Series race. At the youngest age a driver has won in the series since 1987. Wallace also just finished second in the his first ever Daytona 500.
Bubba Wallace, Jr. is black, but more importantly, he’s a driver with a strong personality that the sport hasn’t seen in awhile, a story of perseverance (another story not told often in the last 20 years) with a skill set to back it up. He’s a winner, and it has been earned.
Oh, did I mention he’s big into iRacing for testing and goofing off?
To keep with the redundancy of iRacing, it includes of course, Christopher Bell who has become a major development driver in the dirt tracks for the service.
Bell is driving in his first full season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year, and cut from the same cloth as Larson, as far as to say Bell was Larson’s replacement in the Keith Kunz midget in USAC after Larson left for NASCAR. Kunz was literally looking for his “next Kyle Larson” when he settled on Bell.
Christopher Bell has truly built his reputation in the same way as Larson. He has raced at tracks all across the country for a handful of years, and has run with hobbyist racers as recently as last month at the Chili Bowl. Bell is in AJ Foyt’s terms – a true racer. Down to race anything, anytime, anywhere (a common theme with all these guys). He also entered the old fashioned way, getting a start at a local track in a micro-sprint, but the digital landscape has followed alongside him.
These young drivers share the similarity of a dynamic life shown to the fan-base, a measured meteoric rise, but with no exact future in sight.
At the end of the day, they’re way more progressive than previous drivers – it’s just a sign of the times. The currency is pride over paycheck. Whether racing each other or the community online, at Daytona, or the Chili Bowl – a race Kyle Larson said was bigger to him than the Daytona 500 (Chili Bowl is $10,000 to win, Daytona 500 is $1.5M)… it isn’t about money for this new crop, it’s way more visceral.
It appears to be about the moment for these guys. The experience. The lifestyle. They’re redefining racing in the modern world, and they want to. There’s plenty more coming…