Next youth movement isn't coming -- it's here
October 09, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- The rolling hills of southern Virginia, where the leaves are beginning to show more and more signs of their fall color, provided the perfect backdrop for an even larger change.
You could see it at Martinsville Speedway, the oldest track on NASCAR's premier circuit, a cantankerous old place that's frayed nerves and shortened tempers for longer than even its sanctioning body has been around. There was 21-year-old Kyle Larson, testing in preparation for one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts that will precede his jump to the sport's major league next season. There was 19-year-old Ryan Blaney, shaking down his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series entry, but already drawing interest from the sport's highest level. There was a Richard Childress Racing contingent that will look very different when Austin Dillon, 23, steps up next year.
They are but the vanguards of a larger movement you can feel coming, just like that first bit of iciness in the autumn air. A sport first reshaped by the breakout success of a nascent Jeff Gordon in the middle 1990s, and then defined for a time by the young guns that took it by storm in the 2000s, is in the first stages of perhaps an even larger and more transformational shift.
The kids are coming. All those youngsters who started racing go-karts as soon as they could walk, who flooded the sport's lower levels only to be stymied by older drivers who wouldn't budge or sponsors who were too cash-strapped or hesitant -- they're starting to knock down the barrier, brick by brick by brick. Chip Ganassi's choice of Larson to succeed the outgoing Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 car may have raised some eyebrows in NASCAR circles, but it was also emblematic of the sea change just beginning to swell.
"I think we went a long time with no change, and the economy had a lot to do with that. When corporations aren't readily spending money, young drivers aren't getting shots," said veteran Jeff Burton, one of 11 Sprint Cup drivers testing at Martinsville this week in advance of the track's Oct. 27 event. "Well, we went a long time with no change. Now we're going to see a flood of it."
This from a 46-year-old who's been around long enough to remember hearing Martinsville founder H. Clay Earles announce the track's first late model event over Motor Racing Network, and officials needing to shoo away geese before they could drop the green flag. As a driver who hasn't won since 2008, he's also somewhat vulnerable -- and indeed his No. 31 car will go to Ryan Newman next year, although Burton said Tuesday he's close to a deal that will keep him in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014.
But he's also a clear-eyed observer of the sport who realizes that his son Harrison -- just now beginning to reach his teenage years -- probably has already done as much racing as his old man. "Bizarre," the elder Burton called it. But it's also an indisputable sign of the times.
"That’s just how it’s changed. There are so many more opportunities for young drivers today than there's ever been, and that’s a good thing. We need youth involved in our sport, not only as spectators but also as participants. When we have more youth as participants, we have more youth as spectators. So there's a whole new young group behind this young group already, that will supersede them someday. And that’s a great thing," Burton said.
"We have great, healthy feeder systems today to provide the talent. And honestly, four or five years ago, if you asked me -- who's the up-and-coming driver? I didn't see him. I really didn't see him. Over the last two years, they’ve emerged. … Now there are young drivers who have separated themselves, and they’ve started to emerge, and they're going to come in packs."
They've been there ready to pounce, symbolized by a driver like Trevor Bayne, who has a Daytona 500 title to his name, but due to a shortage of available rides is still trying to break into the Sprint Cup ranks full-time. Last year, two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moved up. Next come Larson and Dillon. Truck Series drivers like Blaney, Ty Dillon and Burton's nephew Jeb Burton are waiting in the wings. As importantly, teams like EGR, Furniture Row Racing, Phoenix Racing and Swan Racing seem open to putting young drivers behind the wheel.
In fairness, we've seen something like this before. "All it takes is one young driver to do well, and then every car owner wants a young driver," Burton said, and that was certainly the case after Gordon's success left every team scrambling to find someone just like him -- paving the way for the likes of Newman, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, and eventually Jimmie Johnson. Now that wave is collectively growing a little gray at the temples, and the cycle is beginning to repeat itself once again.
"Since I've been in the sport, I view this as the third time we’ve had this youth explosion," Burton said. "… Go back and look at the picture of my Rookie of the Year class. There were about 12 of us in that picture. Compare that to the Rookie of the Year classes we've had the last several years. Then we had another time when a lot of young drivers came in, and (brother) Ward got caught up in that one. Ward got caught up in the 'Oh, you’ve got to be 20, or you don’t want to do it anymore.' And then he was part of the group that got moved out. And now it's happening again. … It's just part of it. it’s part of it, it's necessary, it brings new excitement. It just happens."
Granted, the next generation has to perform, and the differences between the Nationwide and Sprint Cup cars can make that difficult -- as evidenced by Stenhouse's uneven first season at the sport's highest level.
"If you get too confident in this sport, you can get knocked down pretty easy, and it's hard to get back up," Larson said. But the odds are many of these up-and-coming drivers will make it, just as so many of their predecessors did, and again alter the face of NASCAR in the process.
There's a trade-off here, of course. Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte, both veteran drivers highly regarded by traditional fans, have uncertain plans for next season. Burton's years are certainly numbered, and even someone still as competitive as Gordon is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning -- a fact that can make anyone who's been around this sport suddenly feel the age in their bones. Change is hard, and NASCAR fans cling fast to their favorites, often desperate to prevent them from walking off into the sunset.
But that same change is also inevitable, like the leaves in southern Virginia turning from green to gold. And as is the case when the winter wind blows down from the Blue Ridge, the transformation will eventually be complete.