Drivers in NASCAR's Elite divisions may find a home in the ASA Late Model Series. Bob Miln
Justin Diercks was hoping his success in NASCAR's Midwest Elite Division Touring Series would attract the attention of a Jack Roush or a Ray Evernham and launch him on a career in NASCAR's top ranks.Diercks won three of nine races in the series last year to earn the Midwest championship for the second straight season.Then, in December, NASCAR announced it is pulling the plug on its four Elite Division Touring Series at the end of this season, bringing an end to the regional series in the Midwest, Southwest, Southeast, and Northwest, and creating a dilemma for racers like Diercks."I really don't know where we can fit in," he says.NASCAR's move has many asking that very same question, and it has critics wondering how killing off its touring divisions fits in with NASCAR's pledge a year ago to do whatever it could to support the nation's short tracks.The bottom line for NASCAR is, well, the bottom line."The cost of competing at this level has escalated significantly over the years and participation has continuously declined in every region," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president of communications and regional touring, when he announced the change. "It has also become extremely difficult for our member tracks to successfully host these events. Support for the Elite divisions has been [on the] downswing for a number of years.""These tours were originated to offer NASCAR's weekly member tracks special events once or twice a year and to give the best local racers an opportunity to race periodically at an advanced regional level," said Hunter.The Elite Division has fallen on hard times all around the country, with fewer tracks willing to front the cost of the touring series and fewer drivers able to compete for the championship. NASCAR says the schedule and car count for the Elite divisions are down about a third from 2001, with the total number of competing teams declining from 342 in 2001 to 232 last year.Among the teams that are racing in one of the series, only a few have the backing to contest for a championship.Last year, the Midwest Elite Series consisted of only nine races. Of the 42 drivers who raced in it, only a dozen began all nine races, and only 16 raced in more than half the events. This year's schedule consists of only eight races.Jeff Jefferson won his third Northwest Elite Division title in a row in 2005, with three victories in a nine-race series. Only a third of the 45 drivers who raced against him made every race, and just 26 made even half the events. The 2006 Northwest Division schedule calls for 11 races, two more than last year.Southeast Division winner Jeff Fultz won four times in 12 races in 2005. Ten of the 46 drivers who raced in the series started all 12 races, and only 16 started more than half the races. NASCAR released a 2006 schedule for the series with only six race dates.With 105 starters, the Southwest Tour had the largest number of drivers to take the green flag in 2005. But only 11 of them started all 14 races, and just 21 entered more than half. There are only eight races on the Southwest schedule in 2006.Last year's figures for NASCAR's Grand National divisions aren't much better.The Busch East Series saw only 13 of its 65 drivers make all 13 races, and only 22 showed up at more than half the events. The West Grand National Division had similar numbers, with 13 of 70 drivers making all 13 races and only 16 of them hitting more than half the schedule.NASCAR plans to reduce the cost of racing in the Grand National divisions by going to a spec engine and composite bodies. It hopes some of the Elite Division drivers will migrate to the ranks of the Grand National and bolster that division.The cost and sophistication of the Elite Division cars are about midway between a short-track Late Model and the more expensive cars built for one of NASCAR's two Grand National divisions.Diercks, 25, is concerned about how NASCAR's decision will affect his dream for a career in racing."We're not a huge budget team," he says. "It's mostly my family. But we spend our money wisely. We don't have any to waste. I was hoping someone would see what we have done with what we have, and give me a shot at moving up."I'm not sure what we are going to do next year. We are going to have to look around to see what is available."Elite Division drivers race for love, not money.