How do you become a NASCAR driver? The paths to a Sprint Cup ride are as varied as the driver’s personalities. Recent champions Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon each took different routes to success. There is no “one way.” But there is a well-worn path for drivers to follow.
The racing world starts in go-karts between the ages of 5 and 10. Parental involvement at this juncture is crucial. From karts the driving choices expand to a mix of bandoleros, legends, and quarter midgets. Each is the smallest version of the actual car and provides a good driving education. Families choose to compete in whichever division is most efficient. Factors include cost, regional age rules and geographical convenience.
Those divisions keep drivers busy into their teens until they move into “big cars.” That is the slang term for stock cars being raced by young drivers who just competed in the aforementioned smaller vehicles. Quarter midget drivers can move on to midget or sprint cars before trying the stock car route.
Some form of a late model stock car is next. ARCA, NASCAR’s East Series, modifieds, or a grassroots late-model provide good experience with heavier cars for longer-distance races on paved speedways. A team can provide its own car, but a common route is to pay an existing team for a ride. Race-by-race or season-long deals are struck. Someone bringing money to a team on behalf of a driver often produces driver development signings.
After that is where the jump to a NASCAR national touring series takes place. The Truck or Nationwide Series is targeted if the late model or modified stock car driver has been successful. When success is had in either series, a future in the Sprint Cup might be next.
Each step along the way funnels down the eligible drivers. Most are fortunate to be successful on a weekly short track. It is no different than Little League players who want to make the major leagues. The biggest difference is baseball is judged entirely on talent. Auto racing requires someone to spend a lot of money on someone else with only a slim chance of that investment returning a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver.
For every single one of the 43 drivers who take the green flag at each Sprint Cup race, there are literally thousands of drivers who wish they had the chance. Are these 43 the absolute best the stock car world has to offer? Honestly, no. But they are 43 of the most talented – and best-connected – in the world.
(Patrick Reynolds is a professional racing mechanic who has worked for several NASCAR teams.)