NASCAR's Driver Development Programs: Low Tide or Total Wash Out?

Mary Jo BuchananSenior Writer IJuly 20, 2009

PORTLAND, OR - JULY 19: Jim Inglebright leads some cars through the Chicane during the NASCAR Camping World Series West BI-MART Salute to the Troops 125 at Portland International Raceway on July 19, 2009 in Portland, Oregon. Inglebright won the race. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images for NASCAR)

There is no doubt that NASCAR's driver development programs have been through waves of high tides and low tides over the years. 

Driver development programs are defined as programs used by race teams to develop new, up and coming young drivers for their teams.

In NASCAR, the usual course of a driver development program is for a team to sign a young gun to a multi-year contract so that particular driver will be committed to growing within a specific race team.

In the typical driver development program, the race team develops a program for the driver to participate in various "minor" leagues, or series. 

Many developmental drivers participate in ARCA or some of the other regional racing series, such as the Camping World Series East and West.

In the high tide of developmental programming, many young race car drivers set up shop in the Truck series or even the Nationwide series.

These drivers were set on a steady progression, starting in Truck, progressing to Nationwide and then graduating to their final Cup ride.

Roush Racing (now Roush Fenway Racing) was one of the primary proponents of the driver development concept.  They embraced it early and many current Roush Fenway drivers benefited from their support of the program.

In fact, one success story of the Roush development program has been Greg Biffle.  Roush started him in the Truck series, progressed him to a Nationwide ride, and then put him in a successful Cup ride.

Biffle is just one example of the best-case scenario for a driver development program.  There are many other drivers now in the Cup series that credit their success to their start in a driver development program.

The highest point in the cycle of development driving programs in fact occurred just a few years ago. 

At that time, there was a rush to sign young drivers, some of them very young indeed, to replace some of the retiring greats, such as Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace.

The retirements, in addition to a robust economy, opened up many opportunities for young, up and coming drivers who had contracts with many of the major race teams.

Recent times, however, have not been so kind to these same driver development programs.  The tanking of the economy has led to most major teams severely ratcheting back their programs, if not eliminating them completely.

Bill Elliott, one of NASCAR's greats, started a driver development program after his retirement.  He has nurtured many young, talented, and hungry drivers in his program, including his own son Chase.

Elliott admits, however, that his driver development program is "struggling like everyone else's with the economy like it is." 

Elliott shares that he has been fortunate to have his son Chase's development efforts backed by Aaron's, a company based in Atlanta who has sponsored the team for the past three years.

Elliott and his team are hoping that Aaron's will weather the economy with them as a development driver partner and stay on board for another three years.  At that time, Chase will be 16 years old and will be eligible for NASCAR-sanctioned events.

The economy has not been the only factor contributing to the almost total wash out of NASCAR's driver development programs.  The change in the car itself has also led to some confusion in the career ladders of driver development.

With the advent of the COT, the now Car of Today, there is no longer that perfect progression "up the ranks" of NASCAR racing. 

Skills that development drivers learned in some of the lower levels of racing may no longer translate as easily to the new COT race car at the Cup level.

Driver development programs have also been impacted by the lack of openings at the highest level of the sport. 

With the difficulty in securing sponsorship, many Cup teams have contracted themselves and the drivers that do have current rides are staying put as much as they can.

This lack of movement creates even fewer vacancies for up and coming drivers.  One prime example is Brad Keselowski, who is searching for a way to move from Nationwide to Cup at a time where open seats are few and far between.

In spite of this apparent low tide in NASCAR's driver development initiatives, there are a few bright spots.

NASCAR's Drive for Diversity (DfD) program is still going strong and has not experienced those high and low tides experienced by some of the other series.  DfD is now under the leadership of the 909 Group, run by Max Siegel and several other former DEI executives.

One development driver, Paul Harraka, who is currently driving for Bill McAnnally Racing in the Camping World Series West, notes that his participation in the Drive for Diversity program has been extremely positive, even in these tough times.

Harraka readily advises that "the face of the driver development programs has changed over time."  Harraka also notes that the programs, including the Drive for Diversity, are "cyclical, sometimes bulking up and at other times contracting and weeding out drivers."

Harraka likened the driver development series in NASCAR to other sports, such as football and baseball. 

Just like in the other sports, not all players smoothly progress through the ranks and get called up from the "minor leagues," in spite their developmental driving resume.

In spite of these challenges and the difficult economic times, Harraka shares that his developmental team has managed to keep their heads above the water.

He also advises that the car counts in the West series have remained strong, a good indication that the developmental series itself is strong.

So, what is the future for NASCAR's driver development programs?  At present, the prospects look somewhat dim, especially with the state of the economy and its impact on the sport.

But according to drivers in the developmental ranks, there is still reason to hope that the tide will turn. 

So many drivers are hoping that the cycle will move to an upswing and they will be able to once again use the driver development programs as their stepping stones to their futures in NASCAR's highest levels.