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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Open-Wheel Open-Door

The Southern Nascar sky is falling! Open wheel drivers are taking over! There is no room left for the good 'ol Late Model racer! People panic and think it's the end of the world because drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya, AJ Allmendinger and Sam Hornish Jr are coming to Nascar.

Of course it's all ridiculous and overhyped.

Would baseball be better off without Japanese players? Has the NBA self-destructed with the influx of European players?

Some of the world's best drivers want a part of stock car racing. This is a good thing; it only makes the talent pool greater. It brings more respect and credibility (and yes, dollars) to the sport. Where's the fire?

"But what about our roots in Late Models? The sport is ignoring them!", cries the guy who still wants to race back to the line on cautions, wants to abolish the Chase and thinks Rockingham will be on the '07 schedule.

Plenty of teams still use Late Models as a good proving ground. DEI, Gibbs, and Roush have all found drivers in Late Models. Chevrolet just had an high-level driver development tryout with Late Models drivers like Joey Lagano, Marc Davis and Jeffrey Earnhardt. Lagano is considered one of the premiere prospects in the pipeline.

It is still a legitimate feeder for future drivers. One difference now, is more drivers have Nascar as their goal rather than IRL or Champcar. The talent pool is greater, and as a result, so are the variety of paths to make it to Nascar.

With more owners with open-wheel connections, it only makes sense that more open-wheel drivers feel comfortable making the leap to stock cars. Ganassi, Penske and Red Bull all have strong ties to open-wheel racing. These owners have a history with certain drivers. They have a better idea of how they interact with sponsors, their talents and weaknesses, and likewise the drivers know what kind of operations the respective owners have. That history erases many of the unknowns about prospective drivers. Like other sports, Nascar is much more than pure talent.
Let's say Roger Penske needs a new driver. He could scout the Late Model ranks, even hold a Gong Show, and probably be able to find a good young prospect. Or he can look at his open-wheel connections and find a driver that he has an established repoire and history with like Sam Hornish. Both paths could reap a top notch Cup driver, but Penske would probably be more comfortable with the IRL route.
Dale Earnhardt Jr or Kevin Harvick may take the opposite route to field a driver for their Busch teams. Neither method is wrong. They are both looking for a driver that can go fast.
It doesn't stop at open-wheel drivers either. Ginn Motorsports(formerly MB2, formerly Valvoline, but no relation to OSU WR Ted Ginn) recently signed motocross starRicky Carmichael to a development deal.

There is no guarantee that a driver from any background will succeed. Look at Adrian Fernandez, Paul Tracy, AJ Foy IV, or Michel Jourdain. However, in an age where sponsor money rules, an established star from another series is more attractive.

I have not seen any drivers complain about the "open-wheel invasion". Many drivers have reached out to Montoya and are excited that a Formula 1 driver wants to take part in their series. Increased talent only enhances Nascar's worldwide credibility as a premiere racing series. Why wouldn't current drivers embrace that?

Further, why shouldn't fans embrace that?