During television coverage of NASCAR Nationwide Series qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday, former driver-turned TV analyst Kyle Petty, in a converation about driver development programs, said that “driver development turned into financial planning.”
He went on to say that car owners have changed what they are looking for in young drivers, stating that gone are the days in which car owners look for the most talented drivers; instead, they now go after drivers who come complete with sponsorship backing.
I agree that the development program concept of old has become, somewhat, a thing of the past, but I’m not sure that it’s because owners who previously had or played a part in a driver development program are now going after drivers who already have sponsors lined up.
Sure, that kind of thing — and by kind of thing, I mean drivers getting sponsors first and then presenting their cases to team owners — goes on, and that is how some drivers get their rides. But in the cases of young drivers looking for a break, I don’t think it’s gotten to the point that the sponsor first move is always the case.
With maybe a few exceptions here and there, it seems like most of the drivers and teams with the strategy of the driver working out a sponsorship deal and then getting hired by a team looking for a driver with ready-made backing are the underfunded teams that weren’t really part of a driver development program, anyway.
When driver development deals were prominent in the sport, it was mostly big teams that were forces to be reckoned with at the Sprint Cup level and had a Nationwide Series team on the side that were doing the driver development thing, with the Nationwide team being the development level. Of course, there were some Cup deams that also worked out a development deal with an independent Nationwide team, but those deals were generally worked out with more competitive independents — sort of like the Turner Motorsports of today.
Those teams don’t seem to be looking so much for whatever drivers they can find with either a sponsorship deal or deep pockets. Those drivers, for the most part, seem to end up with the underfunded teams that are just trying to stay afloat.
I think the death of the driver development program does have something to do with the economy, but not because of the recent phenomenon of drivers with sponsors before rides. I think it has more to do with the decrease in rides available, especially at the Sprint Cup level.
With teams folding and merging in recent years, there just aren’t as many Sprint Cup rides as there used to be. But there’s not a parallel decrease in drivers. There are already more drivers with significant Sprint Cup experience out there than there are available Sprint Cup rides.
Some of those who got pushed out of Cup end up in the Nationwide Series, because they want to race somewhere. That, then, takes away rides at that level for a potential developmental driver.
So, yeah, I agree the state of today’s economy played a role in the death of the NASCAR developmental deal, but I don’t exactly think it was the sponsor first, ride later way of doing things. Let those drivers keep going to the struggling, underfunded teams. The more talented ones belong witht he better teams, anyway.
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