Monday, February 21, 2011 01:00
Several years ago motorsports guru Humpy Wheeler predicted that racing stars of the future would be younger. I said he had a crystal ball in a then Speedvision story. Since then, it’s spooky how prophetic he was. Just look at the progress Joey “Sliced Bread” Logano has made.
Enter 19 year-old Trevor Bayne. He raised many eyebrows during the Gatorade qualifying race a couple days before his 20th birthday. While rookies at NASCAR plate races are worse than”bad luck” peanuts, Bayne’s dance card was full because of his steadiness. He even earned the trust of veteran Jeff Gordon who came up and said: “I’ll run with you.” Then, on race day, the kid won it all for the legendary Wood Brothers Number 21 He also became the youngest Daytona 500 winner in history. When he pulled off the track, the breathless winner keyed the radio: “I don’t even know where to go.”
Most of the big teams have dedicated driver development programs. NASCAR broadcaster Mike Joy said Rick Hendrick has signed 15 year-old Chase Elliott, son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott.
Steve Desouza is in charge of driver development at Joe Gibbs Racing. He has spent the last six years looking for the next NASCAR star. He has followed “coach” Gibbs method that served him well in the National Football League.
“Some of it is word of mouth,” Desouza says, “but you pick up on people as they surface. The phenoms rise to the top. We look for the ones that stay there. They have a bit of swagger and a little bit of confidence. Trevor was always fast in the Nationwide series last year. He is very mature for a young guy and is very gifted, well spoken and way ahead of the curve. He also hangs out with a good group of up-and-coming drivers like Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse, Parker Klingerman and Justin Alguier.” Desouza says they don’t sign the really young drivers anymore because sponsorship money is very limited these days.
So, if your five year-old is hot stuff on his Hot Wheels, you might have to wait another dozen years before he or she gets a shot at a big time racing career.