Missing Steps

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I love short track racing. And not just when the Winston Cup Series visits places like Richmond this weekend or Bristol or Martinsville. I love Saturday night, small track shows with side-by-side racing and full fields of local heroes trying to make their mark on the racing world.

The bullrings of the country are where the future stars of Winston Cup or the Busch Series or even the Craftsman Truck circuit are born. Take a look through the starting line-up of any of NASCAR's big three divisions and you'll find name after name of drivers who began their career on the local short tracks.

A quick scan of this weekend's Winston Cup and Busch Series entry lists at Richmond and the Craftsman Truck roster at Gateway proves the point beautifully. How's this for a rundown of former short track stars who have made it big: Steve Park, Rusty Wallace, Mike Skinner, Mark Martin, Casey Atwood, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Johnny Benson, Stacy Compton, Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Scot Wimmer, Jamie McMurray, Ted Musgrave and Scott Riggs. And that's just a sample.

For years, NASCAR has provided a place for weekly short track drivers to gain experience on a touring series with its regional racing circuits. These tours give aspiring drivers an opportunity to take the next step up from competing weekly at their local track and learn to hone their skills on a traveling series.

Circuits like the All-Pro Series, Southwest Tour, Busch North, Winston West, Northwest Tour and the RE/MAX Challenge Series have all served as launching pads for a variety of future Truck, Busch and Cup competitors.

But this season has seen a sharp decline in not only the amount of circuits within NASCAR's system but the number of races in each. Up until 2002, there were nine NASCAR regional touring series. But the sanctioning body decided to drop the Midwest-based All-Star Tour for dirt late models at the end of last season. NASCAR's only non-asphalt tour, the All-Stars had been around since 1985.

When the remaining eight touring series schedules were released for the 2002 season, the number of events were down significantly. In most years each series included between 16-22 races a season. But several 2002 slates are alarmingly short of that level.

The southeastern flavored All-Pro late model tour will only compete 13 times this season, down from last year's 16 race schedule. The midwestern RE/MAX Challenge Series shows only 12 events, a big drop from the 2001 slate of 18.

Why the reduction? Several track operators have declined to host a touring series citing large NASCAR sanction fees as being to pricey to make a profit. Longtime tour tracks such as Missouri's I-70 Speedway, Georgia's Lanier Raceway and Illinois' Grundy County Speedway bailed out because of the fees.

Then there's the woeful Winston West Series, which boasts a whopping nine races in 2002. Only a couple of years ago there was talk of reviving the West Coast circuit, which runs cars virtually identical to Winston Cup machines, with larger purses and better venues. But today its on life support with only 22 cars showing up for last weekend's showcase event at California Speedway and the next race not until June 1st.

The loss of races has resulted in the loss of cars and drivers. It's hard to justify a late model team spending the money to build a car capable of running only a handful of races. Although the rules for All-Pro, the Northwest and Southwest tours are the same, a team would need to be willing to travel coast-to-coast in order to compete.

NASCAR needs the touring series system just like it needs the Weekly Racing Series program. The inclusion of several tour events on SPEEDChannel's expanded coverage is great, but more needs to be done to help these circuits thrive.

More races and better purses would be a step in the right direction.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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