Open-wheel drivers in NASCAR

Open-wheel Drivers in NASCAR By: Bill King During Media Tour discussion Tuesday with Mark Martin about driver development (see Martin and Waltrip on the racing ladder), Darrell Waltrip made the comment that drivers with open-wheel short ...

Open-wheel Drivers in NASCAR
By: Bill King

During Media Tour discussion Tuesday with Mark Martin about driver development (see Martin and Waltrip on the racing ladder), Darrell Waltrip made the comment that drivers with open-wheel short track backgrounds were adapting well to NASCAR stock car racing. Since so many of those drivers who have made that successful transition were on the Media Tour schedule, we decided to follow up on DW's premise.

Ray Evernham, owner of Evernham Motorsports, had considerable success with 2000 USAC Midget Car Champion Kasey Kahne, who won the 2004 Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year in the team's No. 9 Dodge. Evernham, who cut his teeth driving Modifieds at Wall Stadium in New Jersey, expressed his opinion on the subject: "I think it's about car control, not so much with the wings. I think the Silver Crown Series is a good way. The cars are overpowered and they don't handle real well. With the hard tires and less aerodynamics these cars are moving all over the place. They're able to go fast.

"If you look at the people that have come out of open wheel, they're fast. Kurt Busch is a late model guy, but he drove a Legends car on dirt. Jimmie Johnson drove in the desert - car control. I just believe that these kids are coming here with lots of car control."

As part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, Evernham is running Erin Crocker, the only woman to ever win a feature race on the World of Outlaws circuit, in this year's USAC Silver Crown series.

Kasey Kahne described the open-wheel experience: "I think USAC is a great series. I actually did it a little different from some of the others. I ran a lot more World of Outlaws winged sprint car races on dirt and then did the USAC pavement and dirt in Midgets and Silver Crown.

"You race so close to cars and you have to change your style every track you go to - dirt to pavement and back. It's totally something you have to learn as you go. I think, if you can learn those transitions and you get into a Cup car or Busch car or ARCA car, you've already learned a lot.

"Early on, in my first year in Busch, I didn't know what you wanted a stock car to feel like. I didn't know how to get it feeling the way that I'm getting my Busch cars or Cup cars to feel these days. It's tough to learn, but now that I'm being able to work with so many great people, it makes it a lot easier to pick up."

Tony Stewart (No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Home Depot Chevrolet) is a four-time USAC champion and was the first driver to capture the Triple Crown, winning the Silver Crown, Sprint Car and Midget Car titles in 1995. Stewart, who owns a successful USAC team and recently purchased the iconic Eldora Speedway, remains firmly attached to his roots. Here's the 2002 Cup Champion's take on that early open-wheel experience: "I'm not sure that anything really does translate directly from driving an open-wheel car to driving a stock car, other than the fact that in USAC you learn how to make transitions.

"You might be in a dirt midget one night; you might be in a sprint car on pavement the next night; you might be on a dirt mile the next night in a Silver Crown car. So you run on two surfaces with three different sizes and weights and horsepower cars. You're always in a constant mode of learning to adapt.

"For guys that haven't had much of heavy stockcar background, late models are definitely a different deal than coming down here and running a Busch car or a Truck or a Cup car. So if anything, it's for those guys to learn to adapt."

Asked who he thought was the next wunderkind in USAC, Stewart admitted: "I don't know. You kind of look at it like a pond. If there's eight-pound bass in the pond and you catch all the eight-pounders, all that's left is four- pound and two-pound bass. The four-pounders look pretty good, but they're still not eight-pound bass. So I think we're restocking the pond back there with USAC right now. I think there're some guys that have some potential, but I think they've picked all the big fish out of that pond right now."

Ryan Newman (No. 12 Penske Racing ALLTEL Dodge) has been a revelation since migrating south from the USAC ranks in 2001. The three-time USAC rookie of the year (Midgets in 1995; Silver Crown, '96; and Sprint Cars in '99) and Silver Crown champion in '99, has won 11 races and 27 pole positions in just 116 Cup starts.

Newman said this about the USAC experience: "It's all about power to weight ratio in the Silver Crown cars, the Midget and the Sprint Cars in USAC. There's hardly anything out there besides a Top Fuel dragster that beats it. To be able to control that, hold it right on the edge sideways, saving your tires and doing it for 30 laps as hard as you can, it just breeds good racecar drivers. I think that's definitely true.

"A lot of people forget that the drivers that end up racing in USAC grew up racing quarter-midgets, starting at a very young age. [Ed.: Newman began racing quarter-midgets before his fifth birthday and is in the Quarter- Midget Hall of Fame.] That's a very big contributing factor."

The 1993 USAC Silver Crown champion and 2002 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Mike Bliss (No. 0 Haas CNC Racing NetZero/Best Buy Chevrolet) described his open-wheel experience: "We ran pavement, dirt - one night dirt, next night pavement - 800 horsepower sprint car then a 400 horsepower midget. We did a lot of different types of driving. We had to change driving styles for each car we got into. Big horsepower to the rear wheels required a lot of throttle control, lot of car control.

"I think it just teaches a lot about driving a racecar that's not working very good with the throttle pedal or just changing your line around the racetrack. You're always looking for the faster part of the racetrack. I think we're just versatile. We adapt - I won't say quicker; we're all great racecar drivers here, but we had to use a lot of different styles of driving."

J.J. Yeley (No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Vigoro/Home Depot Chevrolet and winner of five USAC championships including the 2003 Triple Crown) had this to say about the open-wheel experience: "I think it's just the wildness of open- wheel racing that me and Tony (Stewart) and some of the guys are used to doing in USAC. Those cars - anytime they're on pavement - are sliding around with all that horsepower. You're always driving the beast. And you can take that experience and bring it over to stockcars where the freer you keep these cars the faster they are.

"The more that I've learned, the guys that have always been in stock car racing need to feel the car being tight where the USAC guy is used to the back of the car sliding around anyway. So if you get that ability to run the car so much looser, then once you find that point where you can get away without crashing - which some guys have figured out and some guys are still working on - you're just that much further ahead of the game.

"It doesn't always show in the first 10 or 15 laps, but the end of a run - especially long green-flag runs - guys normally get real, real tight where a guy like myself who's used to handling that loose racecar, then the car's just going to be that much faster for him to run.

"We're used to racing wheel-to-wheel where one a mistake and somebody's going to go flipping out of the ballpark, and we're comfortable running side-by-side with all these guys. Being in NASCAR, you're racing against the best, so you don't have too much to worry about. But I think the biggest thing is just to be able to drive an ill-handling racecar."

Jason Leffler (No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing FedEx Chevrolet) won four USAC titles including three consecutive Midget Car championships, one of only three drivers to accomplish that feat. Leffler discussed the transition from open-wheel racing to stockcars: "You know it's hard. Some guys can pinpoint one thing. We get asked that question a lot. USAC's a great series. At a young age, I think you learn to race three or four times a weekend and you're racing for guys who make their living fielding racecars. For 500 dollars if they win, it's a good night and they can put food on the table. As opposed to some of the series where they're kind of weekend warriors, the intensity level is way up on the USAC circuit.

"The racecars are very ill-handling, so you learn to control those. I think dirt racing has a lot to do with it. People don't realize when you get into a 100-lap run with a Nextel Cup car, it starts to feel like dirt. You're always searching for traction, which on dirt is your constant job. You're always searching for moisture, which equals traction. That's my take on it. Everybody has an opinion. But USAC's a great training series."

Dave Blaney (No. 07 Richard Childress Racing Jack Daniel's Chevrolet) won championships both with wings (1995 World of Outlaws) and without (1984 USAC Silver Crown). Blaney owns an Outlaws team and the Outlaws Driving Experience school at the family-owned Sharon Speedway in his hometown of Hartford, Ohio.

Like Stewart, Blaney doesn't think there's much of a direct translation from open wheel to stockcars, but he says, "I think they teach you a lot of good things as far as adapting to an overpowered car and changing track conditions. You know a dirt track is always changing. The track might slow down two, three, four seconds a lap. You might have to move from the top to the bottom. Whatever. Mainly driving overpowered cars is what helps more than anything."

Sarah Fisher, a veteran open-wheel racer at 24, is entering her first season of stock car racing. As part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, Fisher will drive a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet for Bill McAnally Racing in the NASCAR Grand National West series. After running winged sprint cars and midget cars in her teens, Fisher graduated to the Indy Racing League at 19 and became the first woman to win a pole position in a major-league open-wheel race. The three-time IRL most popular driver said, "I have done a little testing here lately and I've found that with stock cars, you can move around. You can bend a little bit. In an Indy Car, you're just hanging on. If you've got a bad car, it's going to be a long day. It's really neat taking a stock car in there and letting it breathe - just driving it.

"It's been five years since I've driven an open-wheel car on dirt. But driving a stock car is like going back to my roots, because it takes that special bending ability of a stock car to get it to go where you want it to go. You're sort of manipulating it and you do the same thing with a midget car and a sprint car."

Boston Reid, a member of the Hendrick Motorsports driver development program, was the 2002 USAC Sprint Car rookie of the year and ran a full season in the 2004 Silver Crown series. "When I look at guys like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, the thing that I see that we all have in common from (the USAC short track experience) is if your car's a little off, you start searching around to find a better line, which is what we learn at a young age on dirt.

"Also those cars react so fast that you don't have a lot of time to think about what the car is actually doing. In a sense, you're just storing it in your memory when you're out there for an eight-lap heat or a four-lap hot lap session or a 12-lap B-Main. When you come in, you have to recall all that information, because there was no time to think about it when you were out there. So I think it helps with the feedback to the crew chief.

"Also things happen so fast in a sprint car and you have to react so quickly that when you get in a stock car it all seems much calmer. I read a quote from Rick Mears describing the difference that I thought was very fitting: 'A sprint car screams at you what it needs and what it's doing. A stock car just whispers.' When I read it, a light bulb went off and what I'm trying to figure out right now, I don't hear that scream; I'm just hearing that whisper. When I get that whisper down, I think we'll be fast."

Reid, 22, has been a friend of four-time Cup Champion Jeff Gordon since 1990. He figures that connection may have helped in his getting the call from Hendrick.

Gordon (No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports DuPont Chevrolet) stressed the importance of the "scouting" that feeds new talent into a team's driver development programs. "I think it's attributable to looking at the future of the sport and trying to stay ahead of the competition.

"You can never have enough depth, be it personnel that work on the teams or drivers. You're always looking to find the most talented guy out there, and a driver is a key aspect of how a team is formed and what its abilities are going to be. So I'm really in favor of watching the short tracks and series like USAC, because I know that there's just so much talent out there that we don't ever tap into.

"If we don't have a program that brings young guys up and we don't test that talent, then we're never going to find the next Jimmie Johnson. One problem that arises is when you think you need those guys before you really need them and then you have no place for them. I just hope we can build a nice future for these guys and see them winning races and championships."

As usual, Gordon had an interesting take on the transitional aspects of open-wheel racing. Although acknowledging the car control and adaptability lessons learned, Gordon felt that media exposure remains a major factor in drivers being recognized so much earlier by teams looking for that next superstar.

Blake Feese, 22, came to the Hendrick driver development program from the World of Outlaws and the All Stars winged sprint car series. "In 2003, I won my first Outlaw race here at the Lowe's Dirt Track, which was huge coming here in Charlotte and helped springboard me to this ride." Feese later won high profile races at Eldora and Knoxville.

"A perfect example of getting the right kind of exposure is me," said Gordon. "I was on live television every single week. My focus in 1989, 1990 was to do every single TV show. Now I ran a lot of other races, but I focussed on the TV races and won a lot of them. And that's the first time my phone ever really started ringing."

According to Gordon, "Ken Schrader really opened it up for me. Here's a guy coming back from down South and running open-wheel cars with me and telling me how great NASCAR was.

"The talent of a racecar driver doesn't mean that you have to be talented behind the wheel of a stockcar. I think that if you get into a stockcar early enough in your career, it really doesn't matter what your background is as long as you have the ability to handle the car and win races.

"Personality means a lot as well, because that will dictate how you're going to fit in and build chemistry with the team - how you're going to take a team to a level that's not above just the norm. You can be a talented racecar driver and not have the personal skills that it takes to really get a team behind you."

We give Mark Martin (No. 6 Roush Racing Viagra Ford), who got this thread started Tuesday, the final word: "Those USAC cars look really, really hard to drive. They look like they're an incredibly challenging vehicle and I think that makes tremendous drivers out of these guys."

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About this article
Series NASCAR
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Darrell Waltrip , Tony Stewart , Jason Leffler , Ken Schrader , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Sarah Fisher , Jimmie Johnson , Rick Mears , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Blake Feese , Mike Bliss , Ray Evernham , Bill King , Boston Reid , Dave Blaney , Mark Martin
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Team Penske , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing