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Opportunity knocks for D4D hopefuls

October 22, 2013, Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com

Twenty young racing prospects show off their skills on track at Drive for Diversity combine

HAMPTON, Va. – Twenty of North America’s top young racing prospects got to show their abilities on track during the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine at Langley Speedway on Tuesday.

Ten laps in the morning, another 15 circuits in the afternoon in front of a team of NASCAR series officials and talent scouts from Rev Racing, provided the opportunity  of a lifetime: a chance to be selected to participate in the full 2013 NASCAR Drive for Diversity program.

But for some, the magnitude of the opportunity registered before they took to the track. It resonated Monday night, when NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kyle Larson, a graduate of the D4D program, stopped by after the group dinner in Hampton, Va.

“That’s the first time I really got to sit down and really hang out with him,” said Sam Wright, an 18-year-old D4D hopeful from Vancouver, Wash., who had previously met Larson in passing. “It was really cool to see him.  He’s easy to talk to and I’ve enjoyed watching him come up through the years. He’s just got an incredible amount of talent --  extremely level-headed and definitely someone to look up to.”

Larson (the first D4D driver to capture a touring series title in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and currently racing full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (running fulltime in the Camping World Truck Series) have become standard bearers for the 10-year-old Drive for Diversity program, which drew a record 90 applicants (64 percent female) this year. 

The program is designed to identify and train talented young female and minority drivers who have demonstrated promise at the grassroots level. The combine takes into account a combination of driving skills, physical fitness and off-track intangibles.

“I think it was incredibly important that Kyle came by last night and hung out with the drivers,” says Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR vice president of public affairs and multicultural development. “It highlights the possible and really does speak to the quality of the development. Certainly, that’s true of Darrell Wallace, too. 

“We’re seeing, very consistently, that drivers from this program are competing for the (K&N) East championship and competing for Rookie of the Year, and those who have been elevated have an opportunity to advance up the national ladder. Four years ago, Sergio Pena and Darrell Wallace Jr. won half of the events in the K&N East Series. So, the combine continues to attract the very best young talent in the sport. That’s what was envisioned when NASCAR launched this initiative and it’s delivering on the promise NASCAR made 10 years ago." 

The combine can be the all-important first rung of the ladder. But even for those not moving on, just getting the chance to be evaluated with their peers can pay dividends.

“Most important,” Jadotte says, “is that all of the young people who attend and participate in the combine are going to walk away from here better-prepared to succeed in the sport – not only with the benefit of seat time, but from competing in the off-track evaluation and having a better understanding of what it takes to be a professional athlete – to be a professional driver in this sport.”

For some, it’s a matter of persistence.

Dylan Smith, 21, of Randolph, Vt., is participating in his fifth combine. In some ways, it’s already paid off when he was hired by Rev Racing and had the chance to work closely with Larson.

“I was more or less his interior guy in the K&N Series when he won his championship, moving his seats, making sure his belts and pedals were right,” said Smith, who was Rookie of the Year in Late Models at Thunder Bowl (Vt.) Speedway in 2009. “So, we have a pretty good relationship.” 

That led to Smith landing a job with Stewart-Haas Racing, working in the shop, performing post-race teardowns of cars for Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman.

Still, it’s the dream of getting back behind the wheel, full-time, that drives Smith. 

“It’s been gut-wrenching for my family and me to think we put everything together that we need and know it just didn’t work out,” Smith said. “Hopefully, this will be the year I break in as a driver. The last couple of years we’ve been at the top of the speeds, on average. I feel like I’ve done everything I’m supposed to have done, but there are a lot of aspects that go into being selected.” 

One is simply the matter of the competition. It’s that tough and getting tougher every year, according to Max Siegel, owner and CEO of Rev Racing.

“The depth of the talent pool continues to get better every single year,” Siegel says. “The drivers who are here are all very accomplished – winning races from various areas of the country. And, I think we get better at the evaluation criteria in selecting participants every year. 

“You definitely have to have the ability to get it done on the track. But frankly, we’re looking for the maximum potential to grow into a national series race car driver. It’s not just about age or speed on the track but really having our group of people upstairs (in the press box) assess whether someone is going to have the ability to grow beyond their ability that we see in them now.” 

Each driver brought his or her own credentials to Langley, a recently resurfaced and primarily flat .4-mile track. 

Jay Beasley, 21, recorded his eighth win of the season last weekend and wrapped up the Super Late Model championship at his home track, the high-banked Bull Ring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He welcomed the attention from the NASCAR and Rev Racing scouts.

“I really like being in that position – kind of having the pressure on me,” says Beasley, who began racing motorcycles at age 7 and also got his feet wet in the K&N Series this year. “I dig it. I really like being tested and compared to everyone on the same playing field. 

“I’ve learned a lot this year. I’m choosing to go through this particular door because it gets my name out there and I won’t have to (pay to) support the racing. The cars, the technology – that’s a ready-made opportunity in Late Models.” 

Ruben Garcia Jr., 17, from Mexico City, is being accompanied in Hampton by his grandfather and his father, Ruben Garcia, who made nine Sprint Cup starts and won two K&N races. The younger Garcia is making his own mark, currently sitting 19 points out of the lead with two races to go in the NASCAR Mexico Series.  Some say he’s following the progression of Daniel Suarez, a D4D graduate making his mark in the K&N East Series. 

“As a Mexican, getting sponsors for a career in the U.S. is a bit difficult,” says the younger Garcia. “Working in this program and having this big chance would make it easier to start in a NASCAR series.” 

The same holds true for the Decker family from Eagle River, Wisconsin.  Paige, 20, a junior at UWisconsin-Stout, her sister, Claire, a freshman at UWisconsin-Oshkosh, and cousin Natalie, 16, a high school sophomore in Eagle River, got their start racing snowmobiles.  

“Everyone knows that funding is a huge aspect of it,” said Paige, the first female winner in the Tundra Late Model Series at Golden Sands (Wis.) Speedway this year. “That’s what the three of us are lacking right now. We’re trying to run on just the family and that’s putting a struggle on us. We know this is an avenue that can take us to the top because (Rev) has the resources.  We’re hoping  we can impress them - - get them (thinking) ‘maybe these girls can do something.’ 

“But just to be able to say, ‘I attended the Drive for Diversity (Combine)' is huge. I’ve already had a lot of people texting me, saying ‘that’s so cool.’ I just know that we came here, did our best and got our name out there.” 

Others participating in the combine include: 

Devon Amos, 22, Rio Rancho, N.M., Annabeth Barnes, 18, Mooresville, N.C., Nicole Behar, 15, Otis Orchards, Wash., Ryan Bernal, 19, Hollister, Calif., Collin Cabre, 19, Thonotosassa, Fla., Meagan Creech, 20, Ashland, Va., Blake Kisner, 18, Chanute, Kan., Katlynn Leer, 14, St. Moulton, Iowa, Jack Madrid, 18, San Clemente, Calif., Hannah Newhouse, 16, Twin Falls, Idaho, Sergio Pena, 20, Catharpin, Va., Kenny Stewart II, 16, Carson, Calif., Cody Thompson, 20, Fremont, Calif.

On Wednesday, eight more young drivers, including 7-year-old Jaiden Reyna of Newport News, Va., will compete for the opportunity to drive for Rev Racing during the 2014 Summer Shootout Series in INEX Legends and Bandoleros cars.

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