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!
Get Into a Scale Race Car
A four-cylinder class offers...
A four-cylinder class offers experience in a full-bodied car and a goodstep up from scale racers. -photo by Jeff Huneycutt
There is a lot you can learn in a Kart, Quarter Midget, or Bandolero,but make no mistake, they are still a long way from a full-scale racecar. To help a young driver learn more about the way a race car with asuspension at all four corners feels at speed, you may want to considerthe next step up to a small-scale racer.
These cars come in many different variations, but the most popular areLegends, Dwarfs, Mini-Cups, Baby Grands, and Allison Legacy cars.Usually powered by either a Briggs & Stratton-style single- cylinderengine or a four-cylinder motorcycle powerplant, scale cars have atube-frame chassis and rollcage that's basically a simplified,scaled-down version of a fullsize car. Many feature a fully adjustablefront suspension along with additional chassis-tuning adjustments at therear.
The strength of scale cars is they are good tools for teaching youngdrivers how chassis adjustments affect a race car while still remainingsignificantly cheaper to race than a fullsize car. All the chassisadjustments you learn at this level will work, no matter if you areracing Late Model Stock or Nextel Cup, so the more testing andexperimentation you can do at this level the better.
Get Into a FullSize Race Car
Street Stocks are popular...
Street Stocks are popular for hobbyists, but they can be used for careerdevelopment. -photo by Jeff Huneycutt
If your goal is to race competitively at the highest levels, you willeventually want to move to fullsize race cars on
1/2-mile and larger racetracks. Just remember that you don't have tojump directly to some professional touring series, where the top teamscan have budgets exceeding $100,000 a year.
Instead, decide whether you want to race asphalt or dirt. Find a tracknear you to make your base of operations, and find a class of race carsthat fits your level of experience and budget. When it comes to fullsizerace cars, your options are nearly unlimited. At one end of the spectrumare the Street Stocks and Mini Stocks, classes where the rules aredesigned to keep the cars as stock as possible to minimize costs whilemaximizing competition. Race cars such as these are a great steppingstone because they not only teach you a lot about racing a fullsize car,they are also simple and inexpensive enough to allow you to experimentand make changes to the car to see what works and what doesn't. Becominga successful race car driver is more than just holding the throttle downlonger than the next guy. It's also critical to have a fundamentalknowledge of how a car's suspension works so that you can work with yourcrewchief on finding the right setup. An entry-level fullsize car is agreat way to learn those skills.
Look for opportunities to learn
A self-taught driver is limited by his own experience. If you want torace better and move to the next level, you will need to tap theknowledge of others. It can come from driving schools, coaches, or justtalking to someone who hustles a car around the track a bit faster thanyou do.
"I think almost everyone can benefit from going back to school," saysJoe Oddo, who operates Performance Race Training Center at IrwindaleSpeedway.
Oddo says the best time to take a driving course is early in yourcareer, when a driver is most willing to ask questions and learn.
"Probably the best time is just before the second season," he says. "Atthat point a driver has been in a car long enough that he knows how todrive and has some idea what he needs to work on to get faster." TheIrwindale school is a full-day program. For about $1,500, it includesclassroom instruction, individualized coaching, in-car video for review,and about 90 laps on the half-mile speedway.
"A lot of the drivers who take the school come back to it after anotherseason or two. The more they learn, the better they get, and the morethey realize the benefit of working with someone who can coach them."
Schools aren't the only way. Some drivers hire instructors to come to atrack and coach them for a night or two, or simply ask one of the pastchampions for advice.
Perhaps the greatest amount of knowledge can be gained by simply comingto a track early and well prepared. If you don't have to spend Saturdaynights in the pits working on the car, you'll have time to stand next tothe track and watch other drivers' lines, watch where to turn in, andwhere to pick up the throttle and brake.
--Jerry F. Boone
Learning to build a car can...
Learning to build a car can often be a key to success. Knowledge of howa chassis works is invaluable to a productive career.
If you are going to race, you should know how to build a car. You aregoing to be a driver. Drivers are pilots, right? They just gas, brake,and go. If you want to be successful in finding a ride, you need to knowthat the ride provider is not going to look only at your right foot.
Knowing more about building a car means being familiar with each andevery part. As a driver, you will be better able to communicate withyour crewchief and the crew in the shop. Communication in this teamsport is vital. The driver who has more knowledge and skills has abetter chance to land and keep a good ride. Knowing how to build a car,not necessarily building it, is a good first step.
There is no doubt that the engine is the most intensely developed partof NASCAR's top series race vehicles. It lies at the heart of a team'ssuccesses or failures. Because it is developed by dedicated specialists,this probably makes it the least important aspect the driver needs tounderstand, but that doesn't eliminate it from the list. Drivers need tohave a tuned ear and a working knowledge to the extent that they make areasonable diagnostic tool for the crewchief in the event of a problem.A driver also needs to separate what might be chassis/driver problemsfrom engine tuning problems to be able to evaluate what the car'sperformance shortfall might be, relative to the competition. Knowing howmuch work goes into an engine build and having to occasionally build anengine will go a long way toward having a more engine-sympatheticdriver. This is a positive asset when it comes to making equipmentlast--especially on NASCAR's road courses.
If the engine is the heart of a race car, then it could be said that thechassis is the arms, legs, and feet of the car. Even if the heart is bigand strong, all it can do is feed power to the chassis. The chassis mustbe able to take the power and use it properly. The more you can learnabout how to utilize the abilities of the chassis, the faster you willbe able to go. Chassis setup is all about grip. It is the grip the carhas on the track. The race car chassis is a study in physics. The studyand application of physical principles to every moving part in thechassis area will yield big results in performance.
The benefits of touring are...
The benefits of touring are tremendous, whether you run a regular seriesor choose to tour different tracks on your own. -photo by Kevin Thorne
No one becomes a concert pianist by learning to play only "Chopsticks."And no one becomes a Nextel Cup driver by being successful at only onetrack. Experience at a variety of tracks is among the keys to openingthe door to something like Jack Roush's winner-take-all "Gong Show."
"One of the things we look at is how many races they've won and if theyhave been involved in a touring series," says Roush Racing's LoriHalbeisen. "If a driver can win at a number of different tracks, we knowhe can adapt to different conditions. It means a lot more than if he hasall his wins at one track."
Ask a driver or crewchief in a Nextel Cup garage for their secret ofsuccess, and the most common word is "communication." It is a driver'sability to tell the crew what the car is doing and what it needs toperform better. That doesn't happen when the crew has an almost staticsetting at the same track week after week.
A touring series is simply more expensive than racing at the same trackweek after week. In addition to the cost of just hauling to the track,touring will require more hardware, such as springs and shocks.
Last November's Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale Speedway waswatched by a number of team owners and talent scouts, each looking for adriver who demonstrated the ability to master a track somewhere otherthan his backyard. One of them was a finalist in Roush's "Gong Show,"and at least one other is moving up into NASCAR's professional ranks in2006.
Learn to deal with the public and the media
The more successful you are in racing, the more the public will want toknow about you, and the less control you'll have over what they findout.
Do you think anyone would have cared about Kurt Busch's confrontationwith police in Arizona if he were still running in the Southwest Tour?Or who cared if Kasey Kahne wore boxers or briefs when he was racing anopen-wheel car on dirt tracks around Seattle? Thousands of young womendo now.
There are two ways to deal with the media. Tony Stewart is well versedin both. You can look at them as unnecessary adversaries, or considerthem allies who can reach hundreds of thousands of fans with a fewkeystrokes on a laptop or with 20 seconds of video on Sunday night.
If you make it to the professional ranks, you'll probably make the newsone way or the other. But as a driver, you have some influence on howthe story reads.
Play it straight with the media. They'll be in Victory Circle when youwin, but when you have a bad night and your car comes in on a hook witha blown engine and a twisted cage, be prepared to tell them whathappened and how you feel about it.
If you are uneasy dealing with the media, hire someone to help you getcomfortable. If you can't afford that, find a member of the press corpsyou can trust and have him or her explain what we need and why we needit. If we show up at a bad time, ask us to come back later . . . butthen be sure to be available when you say you will be.
Not getting enough ink or air time? Take a reporter out for coffee or abeer. Most local reporters know very little about auto racing and areintimidated by it. They don't ask questions because they don't know whatto ask.
If you have a sponsor that wants you to interact with the public, spendsome time during the off-season in a community college speech class or agroup such as Toastmasters. It will help you feel more comfortable withthe media and fans, which is really what a sponsor pays for.
Develop a program for physical conditioning
People who race for a living generally don't have a problem keeping inshape. Between racing on weekends and testing during the week, mostdrivers get all the exercise they need. The muscles they are developingare exactly the ones they need to use inside the car.
"Given equal cars, I'll put my money on the driver who is in shape overthe one who is 30 pounds overweight," says Russ Salerno, a former NFLkicker who works with Nextel Cup teams on driver and crew conditioning.
Sure, he says, an out-of-shape driver can win from time to time, but atthe end of the season, you can bet the guy who is in the best shape hasthe best shot at the title.
Salerno's advice: Cut out the junk food, lift weights to get in shape(lift less weight but do more repetitions), and build up stamina. Gofrom weight to weight without taking a break, and run or use a treadmillto get your heart rate up.
Developing stamina is important. It doesn't mean much in the first fewlaps when everyone is fresh, but it will when the laps begin to winddown and a driver needs all the skill he can muster. If a driver beginsto turn erratic lap times or make mistakes near the end of the race, hehas lost his ability to concentrate. It can mean his judgement isn't ascrisp as it should be, his ability to adjust to changing conditions iscompromised, and he won't be able to capitalize on opportunities to dobetter in the closing laps.
Learn how to stay at the top
If you do everything on this list, will you make it to Daytona? Only ifyou are talented, dedicated, single-minded, and you create your ownopportunities to succeed. And even then there is no guarantee.
Luck? You make your own luck.
You knock on doors, sweep floors, and do the work no one else wants todo. And you don't give up. If it doesn't work out, it won't be becauseyou didn't try your best.
But if you do make it to the professional ranks, then what? Simple.Don't forget how you got there. Remember the basics. Remember the fans.Remember the media, your sponsors, and your family. Remember to behumble in victory and gracious in defeat.
And remember when you were on the outside of the chain-link fence,looking in.
Our Nextel Cup Picks for 2006
Here are the 10 drivers selected by the staff and contributors of StockCar Racing as likely candidates to qualify for the NASCAR Chase thisseason.
OK, so we weren't too imaginative or prone to risk-taking with thispick. Simply put, we expect Stewart to repeat this scene several timesduring his career, starting this year. What more can you say whenever adriver is at the top of his sport and the top of his game in the mannerof Stewart, the defending Nextel Cup champion? In terms of pure talent,he's the best stock car driver out there today. After returning home toIndiana last year, he also appears to have his personal life (read:personality) back in order. And he's a pure racer, respectful of hisroots (he bought famed dirt track Eldora Speedway a while back) and hiselders (he hangs with Red Farmer). Also, he and Jeff Gordon representthe prototypical modern driver, developed at a young age to reach thetop.
Two of our committee members selected Biffle to be the Nextel Cup champthis season, and there's a good chance he'll claim the title. He'sbecome one of the most savvy drivers in NASCAR over the past twoseasons, and he has titles in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series and itsBusch Series, so he knows how to chase a championship. With RoushRacing's status as one of the top two teams in NASCAR, there's littlewonder that many expect Biffle to be in the hunt. When it involvesunderstanding equipment, perhaps no driver today is as knowledgeable asthis former car builder.
Gordon dropped out of the Top 10 last season for the first time since1993, but don't expect that to become a pattern. Coming off a pointsfinish of Eleventh, armed with a new crewchief who took the reins latelast season, and supported by one of the top teams in racing, Gordonwill regain some of his old magic. The dominant seasons of double-digitwins are behind him, but a championship- contending campaign will proveGordon and Hendrick Motorsports are still stout. Like Stewart, Gordon'searly career is a study in how to mold a young driver.
Edwards burst onto the scene with a stellar '05 campaign, complete withfour wins, two poles, and a finish of Third in points. Backed by RoushRacing, expect more of the same in 2006. And is there a moreenthusiastic, enter- taining driver in the sport today? Edwards provesthat good guys do win, and the former dirt track ace has demonstratedremarkable car control.
Johnson and crewchief Chad Knaus have been close for the past fourseasons, with title-contending campaigns of Fifth, Second, Second, andFifth, but they can't seem to be able to cross the threshold into a Cupchampionship. They'll still be strong in 2006, but another finish ofFifth may be in the works. The former motocross racer developed skillsearly in life that have served him well in stock car racing.
Although he won eight poles and one race, Newman endured a relativelyquiet campaign last season. His Sixth-Place finish in points was histhird finish of Sixth in his four seasons on the circuit, though, andlook for more of the same in 2006. The guy can flat-foot it like noother driver today, as evidenced by his 35 poles over the past fiveseasons. Look for more wins--and poles--from the No. 12 team thisseason. He learned car control during a stellar open-wheel career,including a successful run in Quarter Midgets.
OK, so he was a non-factor as the '05 season came to a close, with afinish of Nineteenth in points and just one win. But with formercrewchief Tony Eury Jr. back atop the pit box, is there any reason toexpect Junior to suffer through another lackluster season in 2006? Hedeveloped his talents on the short tracks of the two Carolinas, learningabout cars and adapting to new situations.
After a much ballyhooed rookie season, Kahne and his EvernhamMotorsports team failed to turn in a superstar performance last year,although some expected one. His finish of Twenty-Third in points, withone win and two poles, offered enough hope that one of our committeepicked this team as high as Third in 2006. Evernham will get things ontrack--eventually--but we're being generous with our selection of Eighthin points. Nonetheless, the former open-wheel star has adapted quicklyto stock cars.
OK, so Busch finished the '05 season amid controversy (is that reallyany surprise?) and he is with a new team this season, but nobody candispute his talent. Rusty Wallace finished his career with a pointsfinish of Eighth with Busch's new team, so is there any reason to doubtthat Busch can keep the Roger-Penske-owned No. 02 in contention thisseason? The former Legends Car driver learned from his father, ashort-track racer who molded his sons into Cup stars.
This 2003 Cup champion goes about his business with laser focus. He'sunassuming off the track, but a top talent behind the wheel. He finishedSeventh last season, just 181 points out of First, so look for anothersolid performance this time around. He and crewchief Robbie Reiser havegiven Roush Racing one of the top combinations in the sport in recentseasons. Kenseth developed his driving skill on the short tracks ofWisconsin.
Others who received votes are Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Casey Mears,Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Brian Vickers, Elliott Sadler, and DennyHamlin.