Twenty young drivers competing at Langley Speedway.
It wasn’t long ago that Darrell Wallace Jr. (in photo) was in this place, a teenager with Late Model experience looking to make a positive impression that would make him stand out in a crowded field of young, talented drivers.
Now 21 and a three-time race winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Wallace knows what the 20 drivers at Langley Speedway are going through as they competed in the 2014 NASCAR Drive For Diversity Combine on Tuesday.
On the line: A spot driving for Rev Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. And an opportunity to follow in the tracks of Wallace, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie standout Kyle Larson and rising star Daniel Suarez.
“I can sense the butterflies from some of the drivers and I was the same way,” said Wallace, who earned his spot on Rev Racing in the fall of 2009 with his performance at Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway. “You want to go out there and prove yourself. At the same time you just have to treat it as another day in the office. And that’s tough. It’s a lot of pressure on them.”
Media, fitness, driving
After spending Monday in media sessions and fitness evaluations, they climbed into Late Model Stock Cars and turned laps around the .4-mile asphalt oval. Wallace, who will drive this weekend in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, spent time Tuesday at Langley speaking with the drivers and sharing his knowledge of the process.
“It seems like a great group of drivers. I’m glad I’m not part of the selection process,” said Wallace, who added that his biggest advice was to try to stay relaxed. “You get tense and things happen. You get sidetracked and not focused.”
“You just have to go out and act like nobody’s out there. It’s just like another day testing with the family or with the team. Out here trying to learn stuff and make a name for yourself. And just have fun.”
This is the 11th year of the NASCAR Drive For Diversity Combine, and the sixth year with Rev Racing, which executes the academy-style, year-round racing program out of Concord, North Carolina.
The program is designed to identify and train young female and diverse drivers at the grass roots level who demonstrate necessary talent to climb the ranks within the racing industry.
Three slots open
With three graduates slated to drive in one of NASCAR’s three national series next year, the program has made big strides in recent years.
“What the program has done is continued to improve the caliber of candidates for our class,” said Rev Racing CEO Max Siegel of the attention garnered by its alumni. “It's getting harder to pick the class every year because we're seeing more and more consistent, high-level performances, and not a lot of separation at this point in the evaluation.”
The 20 drivers on hand are a mix of candidates with prior experience at previous NASCAR Drive For Diversity Combines and drivers making their first trip. For Siegel, it’s extremely positive to see the improvement of those who are returning.
“The program is designed to encourage driver development and I can't say enough about the drivers who’ve come to the Combine, who didn't make the class, got the feedback, went back and got experience,” Siegel said. “It's showing in their performance. It's something if you're passionate about and committed to, it's a process. And the results are what we're seeing on the track today.”
In addition, the drivers come from a variety of racing backgrounds. For example, Collin Cabre has experience primarily in sprint cars on dirt in the southeast, while Emily Packard runs a regional late model touring series in New England. Ruben Garcia, Jr. and Abraham Calderon compete in the NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series, while Amber Balcaen runs sprints and kart in Manitoba, Canada.
“What I've seen today is a natural progression of what I've seen over the last 11 years -- a level of talent that continues to get better and better, year after year,” said Jim Cassidy, senior vice president of NASCAR racing operations. “It's incredible to see the drivers that are for the first time driving on asphalt and gauging them against others.
“We're happy with the results we're seeing. We also understand there are a lot of good years ahead as we continue to grow the program.”