It’s been almost one year since Kevin Harvick sat behind a microphone at ISM Raceway and delivered powerful words about the growing disconnect between NASCAR and racing at the grassroots level. The words from the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion sparked discussions all over the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, they didn’t result in as much action as some would have hoped for.
As you read this column, 360 days after Harvick’s comments, NASCAR stars could still do more to promote grassroots racing.
During the last year, only a handful of NASCAR Cup Series drivers have branched out in one way or another to connect with the grassroots level.
Harvick himself competed in a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Kern County Raceway Park (CA) just a few days after making his comments. Whether or not Harvick was paid to make the appearance that day is unclear.
In addition to racing at his hometown track in 2018, Harvick, through his company KHI Management, offered contingency support at short tracks such as Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut and All-American Speedway in California.
While we can all agree that something is better than nothing, is it unrealistic to think that Harvick and others at the top level of the sport could still do more?
Before we dive into this deeper, it is important to recognize drivers such as Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson who have supported short track racing on a more consistent basis.
Over the last year, Busch has competed in a handful of Super Late Model events including the Winter Showdown at Kern County Raceway Park (CA), Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown at Langley Speedway (VA), Money in the Bank 150 at Berlin Raceway (MI) and CRA SpeedFest at Crisp Motorsports Park (GA).
Additionally, Busch has also fielded Kyle Busch Motorsports Super Late Models for our sport’s future stars at premier short track events throughout the country.
While Busch connected with grassroots fans in the asphalt world, Larson kept busy within the dirt racing ranks. By our calculations, he competed in at least 32 different short track racing events at dirt tracks during the 2018 season. With approval from his boss Chip Ganassi, he continues to stay very intertwined with the dirt racing community.
Other current NASCAR Cup Series drivers who competed in short track racing events over the last year include: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Chili Bowl), Alex Bowman (Chili Bowl), Denny Hamlin (Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown), Ryan Newman (NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour at New Hampshire) and Ryan Preece (World Series at New Smyrna and more).
Now that we’ve taken care of some housekeeping, that leads us to another question: why can’t NASCAR Cup Series drivers do more at the grassroots level?
For some of them, sources say, their contract doesn’t allow them to. When drivers get their shot at the big league, they sign with a team and that team often expects them to drive exclusively for them. In addition to their boss only wanting the employee (driver) to drive (work) for them, this also eliminates the chance of injury while competing outside of the NASCAR Cup Series.
While this can be understood from a business perspective, it certainly doesn’t help drivers connect with grassroots racing fans. Ultimately, that disconnect can hurt the team owner as well when it comes to merchandise sales and other ways that rely on fans to generate revenue.
Want to know another reason why more NASCAR Cup Series stars won’t show up to short track racing events? Short track promoters can’t pay them enough.
This is a reality when it comes to getting the sport’s biggest names to visit a facility near you. As full-time race car drivers, many of these drivers rightfully expect to be paid when they go to work. They also know that the promoter of the event has the potential to profit off their name, so they want a piece of the pie, again, rightfully so.
The problem comes when the asking price is too high and/or when a driver shows no interest in connecting with people at the short track level. They would rather go on a vacation, collect money for an appearance at a nearby mall or just sit out a short track race if it doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint.
When Kevin Harvick jumped up on his soapbox at ISM Raceway, he didn’t talk about any of this. Although it was great to have him bring attention to the grassroots level, he didn’t mention any of these underlying factors that often keep NASCAR racers away from short tracks.
If we’re truly going to tackle the disconnect between NASCAR and the grassroots level, these factors need to be discussed.
Why are some of the top drivers, former NASCAR Cup Series champions in face, like Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. seemingly distant from the grassroots level?
Let’s use the reasoning that their contract doesn’t allow them to compete in events outside of the NASCAR Cup Series or NASCAR Xfinity Series. If that’s the case, how about making appearances at local short tracks when they’re in the area for a NASCAR Cup Series event?
Having one of those stars on hand at a track like Berlin Raceway during the Cup weekend at Michigan International Speedway could do wonders for a weekly grassroots show. The same goes for Lee USA Speedway while they’re at New Hampshire, Mahoning Valley Speedway when they’re visiting Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania… the list goes on.
Nearly every NASCAR Cup Series event has a short track racing event being held within an hour drive during the race weekend. There’s very few reasons, outside of money, that a single Cup driver couldn’t make the trip to a local short track to connect with grassroots fans.
Let’s expand on this thought even further. Pretty much every NASCAR Cup Series driver is active on social media, whether they’re controlling the account or they have a PR rep running the show. Either way, why don’t we see more Tweets from these drivers about grassroots racing?
Drivers at the top level of our sport have a huge voice that could lead people to the nearest short track, even if they can’t attend themselves.
Again, what does this likely come down to? Could it be money? They know that their name is worth something.
It’s part of the business of the sport. I understand that. However, it’s tough to hear someone like Harvick say what he did and not see anyone tackling the underlying issue.
Everyone that straps in behind the wheel of a race car on Sunday has an opportunity to have a positive impact and connect with the grassroots level. Right now, they’re not doing a great job at doing that. They could and should do more.
-Story by Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images