NASCAR’s newly renamed Pro Series held their second race of the season over the Easter weekend.  The title change is new but the tour is not. In fact the roots go back a few decades and include some of the biggest short track driving stars of New England and Canada. The flavor of what fans get to see has evolved also.

The original formation goes back to 1979 when successful promoter Tom Curley organized the northern New England late model sportsman teams into a regional touring series. The cars were counterparts to the popular class in the southeast that eventually became the current Nationwide Series. The common thread between the north and south was the machines were getting too expensive to continue running as a weekly track division. Curly took them on the road as a group called simply NASCAR North.

Local winners became regional celebrities. Their fields were comprised of Novas, Venturas, and Chevelles. And some of the names included Robbie Crouch, Dick McCabe, and Stub Fadden.  Veteran drivers that are now considered some of the best NASCAR short track racing has ever seen. Even southern greats like Butch Lindley and Bob Pressley were known to tow north and make an occasional start.

The tour’s final year under this configuration was 1985. Curley was a man of his own strong convictions and beliefs about how a series should be run. He butted heads with NASCAR management more than once. This brought the formation of two series, Curley’s new American Canadian Tour and NASCAR’s Grand National North.

The ACT was a cost conscious late model program while the Grand Nationals continued to mirror their southern counterparts car-wise, only on a more regional scale. Today ACT is still drawing healthy fields and fan counts.

Several north-south Grand National combination races were staged over the years. The southern advantage increased with that series’ accelerated growth. Eventually this practice was eliminated and each tour was developed into its own identity.

Southern sponsorship was reflected in the northeast with a Busch North label for many years. The veteran stars had built a long and loyal fan following. Canada’s Jean Paul Cabana, Vermont’s Bobby Dragon and New Hampshire’s Dave Dion were heroes bigger than life to northeastern race fans. But as time marches on, change is inevitable.

Drivers grew older and stepped back into the shadows of retirement. The tour evolved from a 30-race schedule in New England and north of the border, to a dozen races reaching into the southeast, and Mid-America. The North Tour became the East Series and now goes by the Pro Series in 2010 with a new marketing platform.

The regional star names slowly were reduced. And an increased involvement from NASCAR Cup teams with driver development programs has become commonplace. Gone are the cars with characteristic designs from the 1970s. Replaced by the similar looking bodies of Nationwide and ARCA.

A walk through the pit area at Virginia’s South Boston Speedway found entries fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Red Bull Racing, and Germain Racing. All of them have an eye on a young driver whom they hope is their next franchise.

Longtime northeast based teams with Matt Kobyluck, Eddie MacDonald, and Joey Polewarczyk are still up to the plate and swinging despite all the changes to the series they once started with.

Race winner Max Gresham is just 16 years old and under the Gibbs wing. Cole Whitt and Ryan Truex rounded out the podium with Red Bull and MWR teams. The grizzled veteran from Maine has become an endangered species to the kids trying to use the tour as just a stepping stone.

With a constant rotating cast only sticking around for a few seasons, a devoted fan base may be hard to come by. In its former incarnations, the Pro Series was respected and something to aspire to, not simply a springboard to further a career. We will see how NASCAR handles the evolution in years to come.

(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who co-hosts the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com.)

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