Series changes should help develop young drivers

NASCAR apparently will announce soon that drivers must declare to run for the championship in only one series in 2011 in an attempt to give up-and-coming drivers a clearer shot at making a name for themselves in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

That’s good because we all want to develop young drivers and give them a chance to develop into tomorrow’s Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon.

Time will tell if this is the way to accomplish the development of young drivers. The downside is it will unquestionably diminish the value of some events on the NASCAR Nationwide Series and could result in some speedways struggling financially or completely going out of business. Certainly speedways are not immune from the pressure of the economy, as evidenced by the recent shuttering of St. Louis’ Gateway International Raceway, Memphis Motorsports Park, The Milwaukee Mile and others. Some speedways will struggle with more financial pressure as a result of this decision.

The change won’t affect the April 6th O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, the first-ever nighttime NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Texas Motor Speedway, or the O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge on Saturday, Nov. 5, here at “The Great American Speedway.” Big name Cup drivers like Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and others will continue to run most NASCAR Nationwide Series events. The reasons: 1. They make lots of money in these events, 2. They learn a great deal about how race track conditions will change for the NASCAR Sprint Cup events typically held the next day, and 3. They love to drive race cars.

But they won’t be awarded NASCAR Nationwide Series points.

ESPN.com’s Terry Blount has long championed an elimination of Cup drivers from the Nationwide races. He applauds the looming NASCAR announcement in his Jan. 11 column. While I typically agree with Blount’s thoughtful columns on the sport, he continues to crash and burn on this item. Fortunately, NASCAR wisely understands this point.

If Cup drivers were completely eliminated from Nationwide Series races, as they essentially will be for certain stand-alone Nationwide races (such as Iowa, Road America or Montreal), then the Nationwide events would have a tremendously lesser value to everyone involved -- fans, sponsors, television networks, promoters and more.

Those that long for yesteryear in the series fail to recall that race purses “back in the day” were typically below $100,000. Many of the races were run at South Boston (Va.) Speedway, Myrtle Beach Speedway, etc. -- facilities that often didn’t have the capacity to hold more than 5-6,000 people. Due to the lack of big name drivers in the field races weren’t televised, so teams could not land big sponsors looking for TV exposure.

If you want to be on ESPN, if you want purses in the $1.5 million range (as they were here in Texas in 2010), if you want to run in front of 100,000 people or so and if you want to be in the nation’s fourth-largest market (Dallas-Fort Worth), then you have to have big names in the field. People won’t tune into ESPN, they won’t buy tickets, promoters won’t be able to pay huge purses and you’ll be back in South Boston, Va. -- where they offer some of the best concessions in racing –- but you won’t be in the nation’s major markets. It’s that simple.

Folks like Blount argue that young drivers won’t be able to break through, gain experience and climb the ladder to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. I suppose, then, we will just run out of drivers one day. I don’t know how in the world drivers like Brian Vickers, Joey Logano or Paul Menard ever made it to the big leagues. They had to attract somebody’s attention, whether it was the lowly, struggling Nationwide team owner or a Rick Hendrick-owned team.

So time will tell if this move benefits young drivers. I certainly hope so. I guarantee that it will hurt some of the smaller events on the NASCAR Nationwide Series circuit. Hopefully, though, it results in a net gain for the series.

But I do know this. A young Dale Earnhardt Sr. used to say he welcomed the Cup superstars to race in these type of events when he was climbing the ladder. He said he loved to see if he could race against the best.

Young drivers would do well to emulate the Intimidator.