April 7, 2009 | 2:23 P.M. EST
Growing up in the Midwest, I got into racing by going to a short track in 1981. I will admit that I got scared every time I saw an accident, but then you get to know the name of the drivers and going into the pits afterwards was an awesome thing. The goal was get at least one side of your checkered flag full of driver autographs. I knew the names of local racers before I knew the name of NASCAR stars.
Those drivers at the local track appreciate the opportunity to sign an autograph, for them walking through the stands in their driver suits would be a thing of pride and honor. It would also draw attention to the little kids looking for that autograph. I would then get the racing newspapers and learn the names of greats like Dick Trickle, Joe Shear, Mark Martin, Bob Senneker, Mike Eddy, Alan Kulwicki, Rusty Wallace and more. I still remember the first time I went and saw a race with Dick Trickle in it. I was in awe as I would see his SuperAmerica #99 come on the track and then I got to meet him afterwards and he was a genuine star and still is today.
Local heroes became the stars by their performance on the track and their name being featured in local advertising. The ARTGO series would send flyers in the mail and you got use to hearing the phrase “the Stars and Cars.” They would feature their top drivers and once in a while will drop in a photo of Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip or another NASCAR star that could come up and race.
In the mid-1990’s, NASCAR racing was really starting to become popular and then for special events you saw an event poster with a mix of local heroes with NASCAR stars. As NASCAR continued to grow, those posters would only feature their stars and not mention anything about the local heroes.
The growth of NASCAR was a great thing for auto racing in the United States; it made this sport a more visible sport. Short tracks were hoping to ride the coattails of this success, but it got left out in the dust. It was like an animal that was got lost from the pack and is now finding its own way to survive.
Last month, Tom Curley said that short tracks lost a generation of fans with this growth. I would go further than that by saying we lost a generation of future local heroes.
The generation we lost from the mid 1990’s to today was not because of short tracks shutting down, but by ego and dreams. With the popularity growth, NASCAR team owners started to think of not what is happening now, but looking at the long term. Part of that was securing drivers to race for them for a long period of time, get them young and have them grow in the image you want to project.
We saw a transition where someone like Trickle would race around the Midwest, win over 1,000 feature races and would become NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year in his 50’s. Today, Trickle would not even be looked at by a team owner. Instead the owners went to the local tracks and regional series and grabbed a pool of young drivers to come down south and try to live the dream. Short track racing started to lose the next generation of local heroes.
The young drivers would go down with their chest pumped out, dollar signs in their eyes, and dreams they couldn’t even imagine. While some have become successful, a majority have failed. And for some, the failure is too emotional that you rarely hear from them ever again.
But there are some who have gone down, made the attempt, failed, and came back home and are today, on the threshold of being the next local hero. Series like the Big 8 Series and the ASA Midwest Tour are putting posters out with the names and photos of their “stars and cars.” The realization is starting to come back that we need the local heroes.
Local tracks should not hide their heroes, they need to advertise them, and they need to make them accessible to the fans. Drivers shouldn’t be in a hurry to leave after the races, but rather hang around and meet the fans, give that youngster an autograph, a smile and a “Thank You!”
While most young drivers have a goal of reaching NASCAR, much need to remember that while they think they need NASCAR to be a hero, they will gain more popularity staying close to home and being a local hero.
In the Midwest, the names like Trickle, Shear, Reffner, Detjens, Marzofka, Sauter and more are etched into the memories of race fans from multiple generations. These driver names are talked more than many past NASCAR stars. Unique insights and stories are shared by many. A local hero has a better shot at leaving a legacy by staying close to home then trying to grab a brass ring at a chance for success that comes with a low percentage.
We are seeing a swing in racing where we need to get young drivers behind the wheel of a high powered late model at the age of 13-years-old. The idea is to mold them into the next great NASCAR superstar. I think its time that we open our eyes and realize that this is not helping racing but hurting it. They say money doesn’t buy happiness, and I know some drivers who have gone down and tried it and have came back and are having fun.
While everyone has the goal of being a NASCAR driver, there are only so many seats to fill and you need to do more to fill them. I think its time for today’s young drivers along with their parents to really start thinking realistically about the future. Only so many can grab that brass ring, that you may have a better chance of staying close to home and be a local hero. They need someone like you. You may not see the monetary success but you will have success in ways you would never imagine. Don’t believe me; ask fans about