Is NASCAR the goal for your...
Is NASCAR the goal for your young racer? There are steps that'll helphim or her reach the top. - photo by Nigel Kinrade
So you have a young son or daughter you want to develop into the nextTony Stewart. What's that? You aren't quite sure how to go about it, yousay. In fact, you've harbored this dream of conquered Victory Lanes forso long that you have cold feet and can't quite take that first step.But your young Tony--or Toni as the case may be--is getting older by theday, and you need to get started. Hey, don't fret--3 years old isn't toolate.
Given the template established by today's top Nextel Cupdrivers--Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and others--age 3 mightbe the perfect time to begin molding a driving star. Now, don't panicand go rushing out to buy your budding star a Go-Kart and think you haveto start turning laps right away. There's more to the development of ayoung driver than that. Indeed, the process actually begins away fromthe racetrack, so those early years can be dedicated to things otherthan turning left. Your child may be developing some skills that youaren't even aware of just yet.
What follows is a 16-step plan for driver development created by thecontributors and staff of Stock Car Racing. We aren't pretending thatthis is the only way to develop a youngster into a race driver. It is,however, a guideline built on years of racing experience andobservation. Collectively, our staff has raced, built cars from theground up, built and raced Go-Karts, built engines, turned laps at over145 mph, served as car owners and crewchiefs, and, of course, we eachhave written about all aspects of the sport.
We set out to have some fun with this project. We hope you'll do thesame, whether you choose to apply it or merely read it for the insightwe've attempted to provide.
We've also provided our picks for the drivers we believe will qualifyfor the Chase during the 2006 Nextel Cup season.
Develop A Sense Of Balance
Getting into a kart is a good...
Getting into a kart is a good step for an aspiring driver. photo by SCR Archives
Stewart's dad has told the story of when Tony was a tike riding circleson his pedal-powered three-wheeler one day. When the elder Stewart, whowas occupied with something else, heard the sound of the plastic wheelschange as they were grinding the floor, he turned and saw Tony ridingthe three-wheeler up on two wheels. Dad knew then that Tony's sense ofbalance was extraordinary and that he just might have a race car driveron his hands. That sense of balance lends itself to developing a feelfor turning a wheel and a keen awareness of what's around a driver onthe track. Without a sharp sense of balance, it would be difficult tofine-tune the other attributes that make a driver, particularly thosethat call for finesse and an ability to dial in a chassis. Get youryoungster on a bicycle early. A move to a mini-bike at a young agewouldn't be a bad idea either. Remember, though, adult supervision iskey here. You must observe and help a child when he or she is learningto ride anything with two wheels.
Coordination Practically all athletic pursuits require strong eye-handcoordination, and racing is no different. This is an area where thevideo games that are so wildly popular offer great benefit. There are amultitude of video games available that help develop this skill, but besmart about it and choose games with a racing theme. Many of the NASCARgames are popular with Cup drivers, especially young ones who sometimesuse them to get familiar with tracks on which they've never raced. Thereare many ways outside of video games to develop eye-hand coordination.Try ping-pong, for example, or simply play catch with a ball soft enoughnot to inflict injury--or break Mom's lamps.
Get 'Em Used To Turning Left
Scale racers such as these,...
Scale racers such as these, sanctioned by the MMRA, are logical steps ona career path in racing. -photo by Jeff Huneycutt
When the Labonte brothers, Terry and Bobby, were young, their dad oftentook them to a parking lot near their Texas home, set up cones, and letthem get used to turning a wheel. This is something a youngster can doin the simplest of settings, even with a pedal car. Also, there areseveral small cars on the market, with electric power and plasticbodies, that offer inexpensive ways for a child to develop a sense ofwhat it's like to step on the gas pedal and turn the wheel. This can bea fun-filled family activity. Remember to be patient and offer justenough guidance to keep little Tony, or Toni, headed in the rightdirection.
If your driver is under 8 years old, the only real four-wheel racingoption is Quarter Midgets. A youngster can start racing Quarter Midgetsat age 5. This gives you three full years of driver experience prior toentering into kart racing.
Quarter Midgets give your driver a real education in wheel-to-wheelracing. They have seatbelts and rollcages, so there is a greater levelof driver containment. Remember, these are still open-wheel cars andthey come with all of the associated risks that come with this genre ofcars, but they are excellent tools to develop driver skills. The speedsare not as great as those found in karts, so the drivers learn theimportance of car control and throttle control in the higher-poweredQuarter Midgets. The young driver will also develop passing skills andan understanding of how to follow closely without generating contact.
Another skill that will start in this class is communication. Youngdrivers will develop the ability to communicate what the car is doingand how they would like the car to drive. Being able to communicate howthe car is working and just exactly what it is doing will be a criticalskill in later years as he or she progresses through a variety of cars.
Bandoleros have become popular...
Bandoleros have become popular destinations for young racers. -photo by KevinThorne
Once your driver reaches 8, he or she will be old enough to start inGo-Karts. Karting will reinforce the lessons on car control learned inQuarter Midgets. The lessons in driving will continue with anunderstanding of vehicle dynamics (although they will not call it thatyet). The responsiveness and the instant feedback a Kart gives thedriver is unlike any other racing vehicle, and nothing short of an F1car will give the driver the kind of responsiveness and adjustability aKart offers.
New lessons in speed conversation through smooth driving and chassistuning will be required. Karting will also teach them how to adapt tochanging track conditions, either by the driver making changes throughdriving technique or through chassis tuning. Karting also requires thedriver to look ahead on the racetrack, a skill that will pay hugedividends in the future.
Karting gives a driver the ability to take many laps in a very shorttime. It is this kind of spaced repetition, over a compressed timeperiod, that builds driving skills quickly. Racing a Kart forces thedriver to change to a continually changing racing environment. Kartingwill further reinforce race-craft, how to work traffic, and how toexecute a clean pass. On a Kart, no matter how good you get, there isalways traffic, and learning to work through traffic is a skill that youwill need in the future. Remember, this is all about progression. If thegoal is to elevate the driver, do not stay in one type of car too long.Keep moving and learning, whether the next step is a Bandolero or somesimilar small racer.
Everybody points to the benefits to be derived from starting aprofessional racing career in Quarter Midgets and Karts.
Certainly, that's a true statement, but you really need to go just alittle further. When those two types of racing vehicles and others arementioned, most just assume that all of the racing will be done onpavement. Well, if you are really interested in developing skills forthe next level, and the level beyond that, you should certainly considerdoing a lot of that racing on good old Mother Earth (i.e., dirt).
That dusty, and often slick, racing surface is one of the greatest oflearning tools available to the up-and-coming driver. Just ask about athird of the top Cup drivers who came from that arena, and they willcertainly agree.
Possibly the most important dirt aspect is car control, that of beingable to recover control of a sliding race car. That acquired skill willenable you to instinctively address a loose pavement race car later inyour career.
The ability to safely run wheel-to-wheel in close quarters is imperativein open-wheel dirt racing. Touch another guy's wheel with yours, andyou're likely to find yourself flying through the air.
Dirt racing also teaches the young driver to be smooth on the throttleto prevent spinning the tires. You can't always run wide open around thetrack. Learning to feather the gas pedal, which is so important in dirtracing, can pay big dividends in the future.
With dirt races being short in duration, it's a wide-open deal for thewhole race. You have to be aggressive behind the wheel, constantlylooking to move to the front.
It's a super plus to have dirt racing as a part of your resume. It couldpay big dividends for you in your future racing career. Just lookaround!