Wednesday August 31st, 2016

There’s so much more to being a top-level racing driver than donning an astronaut’s kit, slipping into a rocket ship and screaming into perpetual orbit. He must sign autographs, suffer interviews, suck up to sponsors. He must be human, be a business, be a brand. He must be exceptional, or risk being replaced. He must produce, or find another line of work.

It’s a big job. A big boy job. Or so it seemed during the halcyon days of American motor sport. Back then, in the dusk of the 20th century, when money was no object to the liquor and tobacco companies that were cutting all the checks, conventional wisdom held that anyone who wasn’t old enough to rent a car probably couldn’t be trusted to keep a six-figure lease on course—let alone guide it into Victory Lane. “Nobody,” says Keith Kunz, a gimlet-eyed talent scout, “started a career until they were well into their 20s or 30s.”

Why? Because he had laps underneath him and life experience, too. Because he knew from the value of a dollar and the hard graft required in exchange. Because he could be trusted. So he was tossed the keys. With determination and heaps of luck, he held on until his voice was gravelly, his hair turned silver and his body could take no more. Into his 50s, perhaps.

That was then. Now, drivers are different—some non-white; others women, even—and, seemingly, more impatient than ever. They want their racing careers while they’re young. And they’re getting them.

They’re transforming the NASCAR scene into a Disney Channel production. On Aug. 28, Kyle Larson (photo above), a 24-year-old half-Japanese Californian whose parents were nagging him about household chores not that long ago (forget that Larson is a father himself), grabbed his first Sprint Cup checkers on Michigan’s two-miler. A month earlier, Chris Buescher, a Texan three months Larson’s junior, emerged as the top man in a fog-shortened feature at Pocono. If Buescher, and another pair of fresh-faced Cup drivers, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon, can keep pace with Larson and Joey Logano (a playoff frontrunner) and maintain their positions in the points standings through to NASCAR’s playoffs, the Chase (which is about two weeks away), we could see five new millennials (aged 26 years or less)—or nearly a third of the postseason field—vying for the championship.

Buescher’s result, easily the most surprising development in this youth movement, was the cherry on a weekend that saw rosy-cheeked rookies sweep all three national races for the first time in NASCAR history. The other two winners, truck driver William Bryon (18) and the Xfinity series’ Erik Jones (20), have already parlayed their triumphs into commitments at the next level in 2017—Jones in Sprint Cup with an ascendant and expanding Denver-based shop called Furniture Row Racing, and Bryon in Xfinity with Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s Rockefellers. “I mean, there’s just a ton of young drivers,” Larson says, “almost too many for how many rides are available.”

The fact that many of these drivers are or, in Larson’s case, were once powered by Toyota—currently, the hottest manufacturer in the game—is no coincidence. “The success that we’re enjoying right now,” says Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, “is a function of the work and investment that we made years before.”

Toss in 24-year-old Alexander Rossi (an Indianapolis 500 winner on his first go), 25-year-old Josef Newgarden (a three-time IndyCar winner destined to be the series’ hottest free agent come the fall), and Formula One’s Max Verstappen (who, at May’s Australian Grand Prix became the youngest ever victor, at 17 years 166 days, in Formula One history), and you might say—as Team Penske president Tim Cindric put it to me—that “the moons are starting to align for the next generation of drivers, I think.”

That’s not an insignificant phenomenon in a sport where building momentum can take, well, ages. “It’s a tough thing when you’ve got talent coming into any series,” says James Hinchcliffe, an age-appropriate IndyCar ace and SI.com’s guest columnist for the season. “We can’t be Sidney Crosby or LeBron James. We don’t have the opportunity as rookies to step into the arena and perform right away.”

There’s almost too much for a rookie driver to learn: about the car, about the team, about the circuit, about the competition. The slightest lapse on the path to enlightenment can prove costly in terms of lucre and life. Under these harsh labor conditions, it’s the later bloomers—think A.J Foyt, or Dale Earnhardt—who set the pace.

Or at least they did until a barely street legal Jeff Gordon descended upon the Cup series in the early-90s with a teenage mustache and his parents in tow and dominated to the point of sparking a bull market on young pilots. Suddenly, the manufacturers who patronized American motorsports—your Chevrolets, your Dodges—were inspired to groom their own aces—just like they do in European series like F1. Just like Ford did with Gordon.

With enough money, a young driver could go far, fast. “When sponsorship dollars were flowing like wine,” says Hinchcliffe, “you had things like unlimited testing. You could get a young driver with a bunch of talent a ton of experience before he ever got into his first race. You could have him do 100 pit stops, 100 out-laps, 100 in-laps—things that you normally only get to do during a race.”

To further illustrate the yawning difference between then and now, Hinchcliffe submits an open-wheel idol from his native Canada—Paul Tracy, who was barely 20 when he crashed the Indy car scene in the ’90s. “I think Paul had, like, 20,000 miles of testing before his first race,” he says. “I had about 600 kilometers (roughly 373 miles). My first time driving full tank was in warm-up at my first race. My first time trying to save fuel was during that warm-up.”

At the turn of the century, as NASCAR outgrew a civil war-torn IndyCar circuit, Cup franchises were not only buying experience for young drivers, but also for blooming open-wheel refugees like Tony Stewart. “You had some successful transitions,” says Cindric, who offered another in Ryan Newman—a former Penske ace who’s now the standard bearer for Richard Childress Racing.

What changed? Well, the vice money dried up, for a start. Then the economy slid down the sewer. Manufacturers were compelled to leave the job of talent cultivation to team owners, who were too preoccupied with the business of keeping their teams afloat to budget for more than the odd talent show. Fundraising in general went from an exercise in personal check writing to something akin to dating in the Internet age. (Everyone wants to be wooed, yet no one’s promising exclusivity; it’s complicated.)

Unlimited testing went the way of the moonshine tank. And so phenoms—BK Racing’s David Ragan, Stewart-Haas’s Danica Patrick—could only look the part. While NASCAR became the personal playground of Jimmie Johnson (who embarked on his run of six Cup championships and counting at age 25), the rest of the grid settled into a familiar power struggle between assertive 30-somethings like former Roush teammates Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth and stubborn old heads like Mark Martin and Jeff Burton.

And then Toyota came along.

Upon joining NASCAR in 2007, over howls from the conservative wing of the fan base, which took exception with presence of a Japanese carmaker (gasp!) in an all-American sport, Toyota Racing Development (or TRD for short) was quite traditional in its operation. It partnered with teams—with Joe Gibbs Racing, most notably—and left it up to them to pick the steady hands that should fill their seats. It seemed like a fine tack to take with Stewart, until he grew disgruntled with Toyota equipment and left Gibbs following the 2008 season to build his own racing team with support from Chevrolet.

Stewart’s replacement was Joey Logano, a Gibbs prospect on the fast track. Logano was only 17 at the time but possessing of a driving knack beyond his years. This was in no small measure because he had begun climbing the stock car ladder as a six-year-old. His early and intensive experiences racing late models (a critical proving ground that has become the equivalent of high school football) and in the ARCA series (more akin to college ball), and his out-of-the-box successes in the grand national series would move Toyota to build out its own farm system. “To be fair, we were walking the fairgrounds of racetracks 10, 12 years ago,” Wilson says. “We started racing in the USAC midget series at the same time we came into [NASCAR]. We didn’t have a name. We didn’t have a reputation.” Eventually, he added, TRD got both by “building relationships with people like Keith Kunz.”

Kunz, the talent scout, operates a team, Keith Kunz Motorsports, in the grassroots—Sprint car racing, another farm that’s absolutely bursting with talent. “Twenty years ago,” says Kunz, “they would’ve gone Indy car, but there’s just not that many opportunities there no more.” The setting was too ripe for TRD. Gradually, over the last five years, the company has parceled out equipment, technical expertise and sponsorship help to Kunz. Slowly, Toyota passes Kunz’s finds on to its other strongly backed affiliates in late models (with David Gilliland Racing), in ARCA (with Venturini Motorsports)—into cameo spots on a truck series team run by the company’s best NASCAR driver, Kyle Busch; and onto Gibbs’s own Xfinity team. In between, adds Wilson, “we have some of our associates, our team members, spend their weekends traveling to the grassroots motorsports across the country watching these kids and talking to the people that do this for a living.” It’s full court press approach to talent grooming ripped right from the Sonny Vacarro playbook.

TRD’s Prospect Zero was Larson—a dirt-based open wheeler from the Bay Area who yearned, deeply, to be like Gordon. And with Toyota’s support, Larson was not only able to run down that dream after spending a gap year, in 2011, racing sprints for Kunz but do so without plunging his parents to the brink of financial ruin—an inexorable fate for many racing families. “When Kyle was coming up in the dirt track stuff,” his father, Mike, told me at one such event—the 2015 Chili Bowl, where I visited with Larson and his family for a Sports Illustrated feature, “there was a lot of Internet chatter that his mom and dad were funding everything. That we were millionaires.”

Before retiring, the Larsons couldn’t have been more blue collar. Mike worked for an electric company; his wife, Janet, was a clerk for the state of California. “One time,” Mike said, “I told her, ‘God, all I’d like to do is post a copy of our check stubs! And they would realize!

“Most of the guys that are making it, it’s like a family type deal. Or they’ve got a patron that’s nurtured them all the way along the way. Kyle has not had that at all. We haven’t spent a dime since go-karts. His talent got him to NASCAR.”

Still, there was a downside to Larson’s big-league breakthrough. While Wilson & Co. were supportive, “I know they feel like they kinda dropped the ball on me that year,” says Larson. “They had a lots of opportunities to put me in stuff, but they just didn’t want to spend the money to do it.” This left him open to a chance meeting later that season with Chip Ganassi, a blue blood team owner with a Chevy powered Cup franchise. “He offered me a deal within five minutes.”

That moment changed Wilson and, by extension, Toyota. They vowed to never let another homegrown ace slip outside of the company umbrella again. Never mind that they’re already backsliding. It’s getting crowded under that umbrella. Like, really crowded.

Racing
Promising Xfinity driver Matt Tifft on way back from brain tumor

Toyota only has itself to blame. Its historic talent yield has come in at a time when its equipment has never been more dominant in NASCAR. The immersive racing simulators the company has tucked away on the coasts—which not only offer a feel for different cars, tracks, and conditions, but spit out data that can be compared against the pros’ real-world results—provide the kind of intense hothousing for the current generation of development drivers that was once only thought possible through unlimited testing. That and the selective audition opportunities in the trucks and Xfinity series, where actual Cup stars pose a mighty challenge, have made for a strong (ahem) bumper crop.

Behind Erik Jones and William Byron—the drivers-in-waiting for Furniture Row and Hendrick, respectively—are Christopher Bell (a 21-year-old who hasn’t finished worse than 10th in 21 truck starts), Rico Abreu (a 24-year-old Sprint racing star who’s also lapping well in trucks), and Matt Tifft, a rising 20-year-old on the mend from brain surgery. Behind them is a pair of teens racing sprints for Kunz, Tanner Thorson (of Minden, Nev.) and Holly Shelton (of Stockton, Ca.).

The push they all get from Toyota staggers even Prospect Zero himself. “I think Christopher Bell is really benefiting from them not taking advantage of me,” says Larson, who isn’t the least bit bitter about his lot. “It’s cool to see his career taking off. It’s really, really cool to see all the stuff that they’re putting into him and Rico and Tanner, even. It just feels like that’s kinda how it could’ve went with me. But I’m glad it kinda didn’t and those guys are now getting opportunities.”

But will there be enough opportunities to go around? Could this glut of young talent, once they’ve pushed today’s stars out to pasture, wind up having to share their Cup rides down the road? (NASCAR is on a perennial quest to keep costs down and drivers clear-headed, after all.) Could today’s NASCAR phenom, if not an outright bust, be tomorrow’s reserve driver? Might a solid career, in the near future, last a hair under a decade? “That’s an interesting question,” says Wilson. “I guess my position on that is that the level of competition will ultimately dictate that.”

Of course as Kunz, the sprints owner, noted earlier, a lot of this talent overflow would’ve undoubtedly spilled into open-wheel back in the halcyon days. But in IndyCar, which is still grasping for patrons and barely a year clear of its last competition-born fatality, the risks remain too great for teams to feel comfortable gambling on youth. Meanwhile, F1 doesn’t lack for resources to spend on talent warehousing. It’s just that its teams would prefer to spend it on prodigies like Verstappen (a second-generation pilot whose big-league call-up arrived around his 16th birthday) than Americans like Rossi (who drifted to IndyCar only after his F1 dreams hit a wall).

“Our high expectations make it difficult to bring a kid up,” says Cindric, the Penske chief. By way of example he submits the most junior ace on his IndyCar roster—Simon Pagenaud, a 32-year-old on the cusp of completing his second season. “He’s leading the championship now. Gil de Ferran came to us back in 2008 and told us about this French kid. You have to let 'em go get a few years under their belt before they’re ready to win on a consistent basis. But you still see it happen in IndyCar. You still see Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal and some of these younger guys make it.”

Poaching plays no small role in that. Rarely does a young driver break through with the team or manufacturer that paved their way forward. (Ford’s initial investment in Gordon has been Chevy’s gain for decades.) TRD, alas, is no less immune to this trend. Granted, the company successfully converted Furniture Row into a proxy this season. And the team’s forthcoming addition of a second Cup car provided a soft landing spot for Jones, a driver Wilson believes could be the first to win championships in all three national series. (He’s already nabbed last year’s truck title and is well positioned for this year’s Xfinity crown.)

Still, Wilson could only watch as Byron, a pilot who opened the truck season with moderate expectations only to become the runaway victories leader (with five), sign with Hendrick—a four-Chevy outfit with two 40-year-old drivers (Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and a middle-aged pilot (36-year-old Kasey Kahne) who was overhyped. Therein lies that essential racing truth again: Money’ll make anybody faster. “That happens,” says Wilson. “It’s gonna happen. But the unselfish perspective is the sport still benefits. And here’s the other thing: through our relationship, which we hope will end in a championship this year, he’s gotten to know us and how we do things. He’s 18 years old. Who’s to say that in 10 or 15 years, our paths won’t cross again? It’s a long-term investment.”

The hope is that as the paddock gets younger, racing fans will too and the sport can be born again as a vibrant pastime. As for who will rule racing's next halcyon age, Larson, for his part, is just happy to have a head start. “It’s satisfying knowing that I got here before all them,” he says. “That I don’t have to fight for rides with all those kids.”

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