BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Kevin Harvick didn’t need a crystal ball to see the future; it was right there in front of him in the expansive infield at Kern County Raceway.
Harvick had returned to his home town of Bakersfield last Thursday to put his money — and his time, effort and energy — where his mouth had been four days earlier.
At Kern County, the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was racing against teenagers in the NASCAR K&N Pro West Series season opener, not to flex his muscles with a step down in class but to draw attention to an issue he had raised after winning his third straight Cup race at ISM Raceway in Arizona.
“My goal is to draw enough attention to get kids’ dads and competitors excited about racing in the K&N Series,” said Harvick, who grew up competing at Bakersfield’s Mesa Marin Raceway, which closed in 2005. “We have some good racetracks on the schedule. It’s important to keep that type of racing healthy for our sport, because I believe the grassroots, hardcore fans live at those racetracks. Those are the hardcore fans that we talk about losing.
“In order to do that, in order to keep them enthused, we have to build it from the bottom up, from the late models, K&N, to get them to come out. The guys and gals that go watch the races in Tucson, we need to get them to come here and watch the races in Phoenix. The folks in Bakersfield, we need to get them to go to (Auto Club Speedway in) California. We need to re-energize that short-track system to get it to the point it needs to be.”
It was impossible not to know that Harvick had come home. Billboards on the approaches to the speedway were plastered with his likeness. A large mural on the side of a concession building proclaimed his presence. Before competing in the K&N event, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver presided as grand marshal for the Happy Harvick 50, a Late Model race that included 15-year-old Jagger Jones, son of P.J. Jones and grandson of racing legend Parnelli Jones.
The K&N race was primed with young talent. Sixteen-year-olds Derek Kraus and Hailie Deegan, along with 20-year-old Cole Rouse, drove for Bill McAnally Racing. Will Rodgers, who thrust himself into the spotlight with a second-place finish to Harvick at Sonoma Raceway last June, was a Harvick teammate at Kern County.
Fifteen-year-old Austin Herzog, who has already evoked comparisons to a young Kyle Busch in some quarters, was driving for Jefferson Pitts Racing, as the series raced for the first time on radial tires (having used bias-ply tires in previous years).
Through it all, Harvick was the undisputed center of attention. When he won his third straight race at Phoenix, his soap box became a bully pulpit, and he used it to highlight the importance of the connection of the highest level of NASCAR racing to the short tracks that were instrumental to its enormous growth.
Those who race at the grassroots level were effusive in expressing their gratitude.
“We will stand up as an army behind Kevin Harvick,” proclaimed team owner Tim Huddleston, part of a group that recently saved half-mile Irwindale Speedway from extinction.
The respect shown to Harvick in the garage didn’t necessarily extend to the race track. Harvick led the 175-lap race until the final restart, when Kraus slid up into the NASCAR champion in Turn 3 and dropped him from first to ninth in the running order.
Harvick charged forward, first tattooing the rear bumper of Deegan’s Toyota, then gradually working his way to fourth before the race ended. Kraus went on to win the race.
For Deegan, a rookie, it was an eye-opener to race against a driver of Harvick’s stature.
“I knew he was coming,” Deegan said. “I was almost expecting him to hit me. He was probably a little bit mad that he had been hit out of the way out of first. I knew he was on the move, but I was able to hold him off for quite a few laps. So I was pretty proud of that.
“When there’s someone behind you with his experience, you know they’re not going to put you into the wall. But after seven laps of him hitting me, I figured I should probably let him by. It would probably be faster for me to follow him to the front, and I got by two people just by following him, so it ended up working out for me.”
After getting run over on the final restart, a younger Harvick might have climbed from the car with blood in his eyes. But the 42-year-old Harvick had his gaze firmly set on the bigger picture — strengthening racing’s equivalent of the umbilical cord that connects the grass roots to the bigtime.
For Harvick, the trip to Kern County — opulent by short-track standards — wasn’t as much a return to the roots of his past as it was an affirmation of his vision of a thriving future.
“You almost feel spoiled pulling into a facility like this because it’s so nice,” Harvick said after the second practice for the K&N race. “To me, that’s really what tonight is about is bringing an awareness to how good of a racing facility this place actually is and how lucky the people in this town actually are to have this. And remind people that racing is alive and well after Mesa Marin closed.
“It closed in 2005 and this place reopened in 2013, so you had an eight-year gap of everybody thinking it was just dead and gone. A lot of people that will show up tonight, haven’t been to a race since Mesa Marin closed. You’re going to reintroduce them to weekly racing and the K&N Series and the Late Model Series and that’s really, really important, because this is a huge racing town. The only way it survives is through the support of the fans, the competitors and the car count.”
You can count Harvick among those dedicated to the survival of grassroots racing by practicing exactly what he preaches from the bully pulpit of a Monster Energy Cup Series star.