In 2014, Jack McNelly was faced with a choice.
McNelly at the time owned the Pro Cup Series, a once-thriving short-track stock car series that had fallen on hard times. Car counts were down, and fan attendance had dwindled, leaving McNelly in an unenviable position.
He either had to shut the series down or use the Pro Cup Series as a foundation for something new.
McNelly, a passionate member of the short-track racing community, didn’t like the idea of giving up. So he founded the Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour, which sanctions events for late model stock cars and pro late models across the Southeast.
In the years that followed, a number of drivers who would go on to careers in NASCAR have found success with the CARS Tour. They include drivers like Josh Berry, Zane Smith, Myatt Snider, Christian Eckes, Corey Heim and Sammy Smith, to name a few.
Fast-forward to Monday, when McNelly’s passion for short-track racing and drive to succeed paid off with the announcement that Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Justin Marks had partnered to purchase the series.
“I just feel so lucky and so blessed to get to this point,” McNelly said Monday afternoon during a teleconference with members of the motorsports media.
McNelly’s passion is shared by the new ownership group. Earnhardt, who competed in the CARS Tour race last year at North Wilkesboro Speedway, has been apart of the series for several seasons as a car owner.
It was through his role as a car owner that allowed Earnhardt to get to know McNelly and, ultimately, that led to the opportunity to become one of the new co-owners of the series.
“I was at Wilkesboro last year, and Jack mentioned to me that he was interested in having some people become involved in the series,” Earnhardt said. “Jack was going to continue to manage, with Keeley (Dubensky, series director) the day-to-day. None of that is going to change. He wanted some assurance that the series would be in good hands. That started the conversation with me and the rest of the group.
“My passion is just to help short-track racing and help things continue. The identity of the series won’t change. We just want to give it an opportunity to continue to grow and be successful. I think we’ve got an incredible team put together.”
Much like Earnhardt, Burton grew up racing late models in the Southeast before going on to enjoy a successful career in the NASCAR Cup Series. He became familiar with McNelly and the CARS Tour when his son, current NASCAR Cup Series driver Harrison Burton, competed with the series from 2015-17.
He sees the CARS Tour as a proving ground for young racers and crew members as well as a home for passionate, veteran members of the short-track community.
“[McNelly and Dubensky] built this great foundation, and we hope to be able to make them proud and improve where we can,” Burton said. “People in short-track racing are there because it’s their passion, not their job. We have to give them an opportunity to have a place to do that passion and exercise on it.
“It’s just the very beginning of development of drivers, crew members, officials, all that stuff. This is the very beginning of that. Having a solid structure only makes that better for everybody.”
Harvick has been a vocal supporter of short-track racing through the years after growing up racing late models on the West Coast. He wants learn about the challenges faced by competitors and what he can do to help make the CARS Tour and short-track racing in general thrive.
“Short-track racing is really the root of the thing that feeds everything we do,” Harvick said. “For me, growing up and racing late models on the West Coast and being a part of my career and path to the ladder system of how things work is something that I have a passion for. When Dale and I kind of accidentally sat down and had the first conversation about this particular project, it really sparked an interest in me.
“This is going to be fun because of the fact that I want to be in the car. I want to be in the pits. I want to be in the grandstands. I want to know what these competitors are struggling with and really be a part of this group and try to make it better.”
Marks is the lone member of the new ownership group who didn’t grow up racing late models, but that doesn’t mean he lacks passion for the discipline. The co-owner of Trackhouse Racing is a firm believer that local short-track racing is a vital part of motorsports in North America.
“It’s going to be a huge learning experience for me just understanding how this series operates and how short-track racing operates,” Marks said. “It’s something that is exciting for me, because while I didn’t really come up short-track racing, I did come up grassroots racing like everybody did. I understand how important that is and how much that serves the foundation, because it’s where the passion for racing really started for me.
“I look at our sport as a marketer, as a brand manager and as a story-teller. There are so many amazing things happening in short-track racing. Great teams and drivers, passionate fans, historic race tracks. The work that we can do to amplify those stories and to show those to the world and to do all the work to put the CARS Tour on a stage that creates a valuable series and one where the economics work for all the competitors and the team is really of the utmost importance.”
Earnhardt believes the acquisition of the CARS Tour is just another in a recent string of positive things to happen for asphalt short-track racing.
Now comes the biggest challenge: keeping that momentum going.
“There is good, positive momentum across the board for short-track racing right now,” Earnhardt said. “And I think everybody from the top down recognizes how important that is and that momentum and keeping that going.”