It’s been about a year since Kyle Larson preached the gospel of grassroots racing. During a media availability during last year’s spring Martinsville race, Larson shared some passionate comments about the state of short track racing.
The former midget and sprint car standout, who still spends as much time as his busy NASCAR lifestyle will allow running short-track races around the country, is a stout supporter of grassroots racing.
“But I feel like everybody needs to encourage me and others to go race at your local short track and all that because I feel like we’ve lost touch with our grassroots race fans,” Larson said. “And, I really think with me going back and doing that stuff and Kyle Busch running Late Model races throughout the year, it really kind of gets the local fans back excited about NASCAR.
“I feel like the last decade or so they’ve kind of lost touch with it. Yeah, I feel like everybody should instead of making (team owners) Chip (Ganassi) and Felix (Sabates) feel like they have to shut me down, should encourage them because it helps our fan base out.”
Fast forward about 12 months and the same idea is being hammered home this time by a veteran driver in Kevin Harvick. The former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion is currently enjoying a hot streak of a three-race winning streak.
But when Harvick came into the ISM Raceway Media Center in Phoenix last Sunday after his third consecutive Cup win, short track racing was clearly on his mind. The Bakersfield, California native cut his teeth on the bullrings of the west coast before finding the promised land of NASCAR’s premiere series. However he hasn’t forgotten where he came from even though he thinks to some degree the sport has.
“I think that needs to be a part of our initiative,” Harvick said of getting more established Cup stars back out to short tracks. “A guy like Chase Elliott would love to go run Late Model races at any track in the country, instead of going to do an appearance. That’s what pushes his buttons.”
Harvick practices what he preaches as well. He takes time to run a handful of K&N Pro Series West races, winning at Sonoma last year. He’ll do it again Thursday night when he competes near his home base of Bakersfield at Kern County Raceway.
Harvick also brings up an important point when comparing the state of today’s short track world to that of a decade or more ago – available sponsorship. During the R.J. Reynolds years of funding NASCAR racing, that sponsorship included a healthy investment in grass roots racing through the Winston Weekly Racing Series.
Hundreds of tracks competed under that banner buoyed by a significant point and prize money structure as well as a substantial marketing initiative.
While the NASCAR Home Track program and Whelen All-American Series provide the structure and support to today’s short track racers, Harvick longs for the days when budgets allowed for even more reinforcement.
“When I look at our hardcore fans, they’re all sitting at those short tracks and they’re mad,” Harvick said. “They’re absolutely mad because you don’t have a Winston who is supporting these short tracks like they used to.”
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West have evolved into competitive and popular series with schedules that take both divisions to a solid variety of tracks. The Whelen Modified Tour has enjoyed a resurgence and NASCAR’s Pinty’s Series in Canada is also experiencing a successful run.
Weekly racing under the NASCAR banner also includes some of the most iconic short tracks in the country such as Stafford Motor Speedway, Rockford Speedway, Bowman-Gray Stadium, Berlin Raceway, Hickory Motor Speedway and Madison International Speedway.
But there are other regional tours and weekly tracks that continue to struggle for car counts, spectators and funding. Shining a spotlight on that area of the sport is critical. Guys like Harvick, Larson, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and others trying to eliminate the disconnect between the top tier and the grassroots should be applauded and supported in those efforts. Hopefully others will join.
Any sport is only as strong as its roots. Auto racing is no different.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.