Murto: Making it big

It seems the “youth movement” is everywhere in racing, and nearly every local track or regional series has a “development driver” or two among the competitors.

In fact, the closer you get to the Charlotte area it seems the younger and younger the starting field gets, especially on pavement. Some pavement tracks in North Carolina have almost an entire field of 15-year-old racers, all spending their parents’ money in hopes that they will get discovered and be the next Jeff Gordon.

The fact of the matter is that each of these kids has about as much chance of making it big as a race car driver as I have of becoming a rock star or an Oscar-winning actor. Luck is one factor nobody can quantify, but to make it as a driver you have to have it in abundance.

And most racers won’t even get a glimpse of the top level without a pocketful of cash.

Then, of course, there’s talent. Money can buy you rides, but without talent your money will usually run out before you make it big, though some appear to have an endless amount of cash to keep trying.

Attitude is necessary; one must have a passion for the sport. I recently spoke with a racing dad whose son had just won his first major pavement Late Model race. The father told me he spent a lot of money to get his son the best ride with the crew chief he found available. He also told me that he was a third-generation owner of the family business.

At some point in our conversation I expressed hope that should the 16-year-old not make it big, we’d at least see him continue to race locally somewhere.

“This isn’t a hobby for us,” the father said. “This is a business venture. If he hasn’t made any appreciable progress in a couple years we’ll get him into the family business.”

My prediction is you won’t hear another thing from this kid once he turns 18. There was no passion for the sport. Racing can be tough, grueling, challenging, and not for the faint of heart; those with no passion for the sport normally don’t last.

This new dynamic of wealthy racing dads buying their kids rides is changing the sport. It may be more noticeable the closer you get to Charlotte, but there isn’t a racing series or local track anywhere in the country that doesn’t have at least one or two young drivers seemingly on the fast track to stardom, riding Dad’s open wallet.

There’s nothing wrong with the new dynamic per se — it’s just the way it is. The real shame of it is that we don’t often see these kids return to the local level of racing if the big time doesn’t work out. Either racing costs too much or there was no passion there to begin with, but once they realize they won’t get rich and become a star they abandon the sport.

But some racers find a way to stay in the sport, even stay in the big time, when they no longer have the funds to drive.

Langley Speedway in Hampton hosted NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East on Saturday night. In the pits was Mardy Lindley, a former Hooters Pro Cup and Late Model racer and son of the late legendary Butch Lindley. Mardy was crew chief for Cameron Hayley, who finished second.

Shane Huffman was in the pits, working for Turner-Scott Motorsports. Shane raced Late Models and Pro Cup, and had a brief run of Nationwide races.

Also helping teams were C.E. Falk, a top Late Model racer in the region, and Frank Deiny Jr., another name well known to those in regional pavement Late Model circles.

But the most interesting of all was Winchester’s own Mark McFarland. A former NASCAR Nationwide driver, Truck Series competitor and Weekly Racing Series National Champion, McFarland now works as crew chief for Ben Rhodes.

Members of the crew told me McFarland has become a great crew chief, and that he really knows how to work well with his driver. Rhodes won at Langley, something he’s done a lot this year as he extends his lead in the championship standings.

McFarland has a passion for the sport. He spent some time in the top levels as a driver, but has found that he can make it big in racing as a crew chief, helping members of the youth movement find their way. Look for Rhodes and McFarland both to find more success in the sport.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.