Young Racers Plentiful Opportunities Arent

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CLERMONT, Ind. -- So where will the next Jeff Gordon be discovered or perhaps the next Tony Stewart?

There are quite a few talented drivers racing on short tracks across America that have the potential to compete in the upper echelons of motorsports if only given the chance. For most racers an "opportunity" would consist of the proper equipment and monetary funding to underwrite a Winston Cup, Busch Series or truck ride in NASCAR or an open-wheel ride in the IRNLS or Indy Lights.

Team owners such as Cal Wells and Chip Ganassi are scrambling to find competitive racers to drive for them next year, but the pickings are slim. Kurt Busch has been selected from the truck series to drive the No. 97 John Deere Ford for Roush Racing next year, but where will the replacements of the future be found?

It's raining and the temperature is slowly dropping, but the legions of Silver Crown fans still muddle around the infield at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Forty-seven of 50 teams have attempted first round qualifying and J.J. Yeley has won the pole with Winston Cup regular Tony Stewart on the outside of the front row. Ryan Newman, who has already signed a contract to race for Roger Penske, is on the inside of the second row with Joe Gibbs' Busch Series driver, Jason Leffler, beside him.

Stewart feels that the best potential drivers have already been cherry-picked from the USAC ranks.

Others disagree.

Like with any feeder series for a major-league sport, there are scouts abounding, some more obvious than others.

John Bickford knows what it is like to be scouted and he knows what to look for when scouting for new talent. If you're not familiar with the name, Bickford is the stepfather of three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon.

Bickford admits that he was not single-handedly responsible for elevating Gordon to this level, but the family had a business plan and knew how to package its program.

"If you can find young drivers like Kasey Kahne, a lot of time you can help those drivers not to make certain mistakes," Bickford said. "At the beginning of the year, I went to the Silver Crown race in Phoenix -- the Copper World Classic. I took a list of all the qualifiers and I rated all the guys based on age and youth and experience. I coupled it up and went to visit them over the next three days, gave them a card, shook their hand and said, 'If you need help, or if your parents need help -- because some of the real young ones that are having the most difficulty -- have your mom or dad call me. I can help them through this period of time that is in question.’"

Bickford receives calls each week from families with questions regarding what steps to take to build a successful program, most of which are financially related: how to spend the money, where to spend the money and when to spend the money. He also receives calls from teams actively looking to recruit drivers.

However, Bickford doesn't receive compensation for his services, it's purely philanthropic.

"It's my way of giving back to the sport," Bickford said. "Kids like to be scouted. Think of baseball. Think of the kids on the field and there is a scout from the New York Yankees or the St. Louis Cardinals watching them. It's like when I'm at a track and walk up to a driver and say 'Hey, it looks like you're doing a pretty good job out there,' then the kids have this look on their face like 'Oh my god, someone is actually looking at me.'"

One driver hoping to be recognized is Tracy Hines. The 28-year-old Indiana native started in quarter midgets when he was 5 and worked his way up to the Silver Crown series. He is handsome, well-spoken and has proven he can win. He has been scouted by Cicci & Welliver, Bill Davis and Jimmy Spencer and attempted to qualify Spencer's Busch car at Bristol. Hines says it is possible to make a living running Silver Crown cars, but he is hoping one day to have the opportunity to race against the best.

"With racing 80 races like I do, it's hard to get out and meet people," Hines said. "I have had some help from Chevrolet and last year I felt like I was finally ready to move on. I wanted to make sure that if I did get a shot I could handle it. Now if I did get a call to move South, I feel like I could handle both the responsibility of driving as well as be a competent spokesperson for a sponsor.

"There's probably about 200 guys across the country with as much talent as Tony Stewart and we just don't know about it. Situations happen. The biggest obstacle is finding a sponsor who is willing to take a chance on a rookie. That's a big problem right now. That's why drivers go out and find sponsors, because if they have it, then a team is more apt to take a look at a rookie.

"Hopefully I can find a team that is willing to take a risk for a couple of races and maybe invest their own money in order to achieve greater success."

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