2002 99 Schedule
Thursday, August 22
Short tracks part of NASCAR foundation
By Jack Arute
It's easy to come up with an assortment of reasons for NASCAR's increased popularity. The suits in Daytona Beach, Fla., will rightfully point out that the success comes from a cohesive, all-encompassing marketing approach that leaves their competition consumed with envy.
That may be the case, but another element is NASCAR's support system.
No other sanctioning body in the world can claim the brand reach of NASCAR. Sure, an almost weekly diet of Winston Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck racing keeps NASCAR's brand on fans' front burner, but the network of regional touring series and weekly-operated short tracks also helps to provide reinforcement as well as an excellent pool of talent for the future.
The bottom rung of NASCAR's success ladder is its Weekly Racing Series. Week in and week out, crowds from 2,000 to 10,000 frequent small tracks dotted across America to watch their local heroes.
The country is divided into eight regions. Depending upon the locale, the featured class of car may be different, but the bottom line is the NASCAR name is out front. The brand gets grassroots exposure.
Stroll through any of these tracks and almost every driver and team will tell you that their goal is to move up NASCAR's ladder. They embrace their affiliation with Winston Cup. Their NASCAR membership card won't get them into the coveted Cup garage, but the connection exists nonetheless.
"There's no question about it," says Ben Dodge, a long-time weekly track operator and current consultant to Thompson Speedway in Connecticut. "Weekly drivers think that they are just a sponsor away from the big time. All of them think they have the talent. They just need the right break."
My father, Jack Arute Sr., has been part of NASCAR's weekly track network for more than 30 years. Some of NASCAR's current crop of Winston Cup regulars started at his Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut.
"Jimmy Spencer got the name Mr. Excitement right here at Stafford," he said. "The Bodine brothers all cut their racing teeth here. Steve Park started here. Even Wally Dallenbach raced here before he moved up and now out of a car and into the broadcast booth."
Arute says its not just drivers who start their professional careers on NASCAR's short tracks.
"Tony Stewart 's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, learned his trade at Stafford. If you walked through the race shops in North Carolina, you'd see more than 50 percent of the staff with direct ties to a weekly-operated track."
Sandwiched between the weekly tracks and NASCAR's premier circuits are eight regional series. Their schedules include some of the touring aspects seen in NASCAR's highest divisions. An eclectic mix of short tracks, superspeedways and road courses provide touring drivers with additional skill sets needed to advance.
For the smallest of the short track operations, these touring series races become their big time events. You see regional sponsors, young drivers with a lust for a ticket to the next level.
Modified racer Todd Szegedy is a perfect example. He has caught the eye of some Busch and Winston Cup teams, thanks to his performances at tracks like New Hampshire International Speedway and Richmond International Raceway.
Playing supporting roles to those track's Winston Cup weekends, Szegedy gets to audition in front of prospective future employers. It's how Park got discovered; a fact not lost on any of the touring drivers.
By keeping a network of weekly and regional touring operations, NASCAR controls its product from the wellhead to the pump. The system is often compared to the one so successfully used by Major League Baseball. The difference with NASCAR's formula is that their minor leagues pay their own way.
"That and no strikes," Arute added