The Loss of a Generation

For years the dirt, open wheel racing community shook their heads at big league racing as we watched talented racer after talented racer get over-looked by the two major American racing series; NASCAR and Indycar. We watched as drivers like Bryan Clauson and Brady Bacon were given Driver Development deals only to be cast aside. We shook our heads while Kraig Kinser missed truck race after truck race despite laying down qualification runs that regularly put him in the top half of the grid. We scoffed as NASCAR wasted talents like JJ Yeley, Dave Blaney and Jason Leffler and indycars wouldn’t give Jac Haudenschild a sniff during the Indy Racing League days. Sure we’d get the odd breakthrough with a guy like Tony Stewart or Kasey Kahne, but for every guy getting a chance we were watching 3 to 4 who should get a chance getting nowhere. We arrogantly laughed as big league racing missed out on our talents until one day a funny thing happened: They started taking our talent.

For the first time since the inception of the World of Outlaws (WoO) our most talented, young racers aren’t racing with the WoO. The youngsters who have gone the non-wing route are racing in USAC for 1-3 years and moving on. For the first time ever we aren’t keeping our talent.

For the longest time money acted as a buffer between our young stars and big league racing. The young, talented racers who got to the higher levels of sprint car racing probably had money and backing behind them, but they didn’t have NASCAR money behind them. They could generally afford to buy the best of the best at the short track level but NASCAR isn’t just one notch higher in terms of financial commitment. It’s out of this stratosphere in terms of financial commitment.

The financial gap allowed us to keep our racers. Sure we’d lose a Bryan Clauson to Indy for a month, or a guy like Steve Kinser or Sammy Swindell would do a one off in NASCAR or Indycars but it was never sustained. It never kept us from seeing our heroes week in and week out.

Sprint car racing has had very generous timing. Our first two generational talents of the modern day era; Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell came along at the same time. As a result we have had decades of incredible duels, moments, triumph and heartbreak. There was a good guy and a bad guy. They were truly rivals and for 30+ the World of Outlaws thrived on it. Since that time several incredibly talented drivers have come along. But none were Steve and Sammy. To this day at a sprint car race Steve and Sammy could still get the loudest reaction at a sprint car race (Okay, some people might boo Donny Schatz louder).

Kyle Larson and Rico Abreu goof off before the start of the A Main feature on the final night of The 2016 Knoxville Nationals. (Jeffrey Turford / TDP)
Kyle Larson and Rico Abreu goof off before the start of the A Main feature on the final night of The 2016 Knoxville Nationals. (Jeffrey Turford / TDP)

It’s killing sprint car racing right now that Donny Schatz doesn’t have a rival. A legitimate, make Donny get up in the seat rival. Brad Sweet, Daryn Pittman, Joey Saldana, David Gravel and Shane Stewart are doing an incredible job but you and I all know that Donny Schatz is not intimidated by any of them. Donny Schatz straps into his car and thinks “If I do my job I’ll win”. For the most part in all honesty, he’s right. He doesn’t have that guy that is absolutely pushing him. He isn’t even giving us the best Donny Schatz he can possibly be because he isn’t getting the challenge he got from Jason Johnson at this year’s Knoxville Nationals each and every night. He’s not being pushed by that guy who absolutely makes him strap in and drive his ass off each and every night because he knows that if he doesn’t he’ll lose.

We had the two drivers who were going to do that and we’ve lost them. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell were those drivers and we lost them. Rico Abreu is this generation’s Jac Haudenschild and while realistically you probably could never expect him to win a WoO title I think most fans would agree that he has the talent to one day put up a 20 win season with The Outlaws if he followed the tour exclusively and be an absolute favorite to win any and all of sprint car racing’s crown jewel races.

Larson and Bell are the perfect foils for Schatz. They are supremely talented and much like Schatz’s previous, but all too brief foil; Jason Meyers they don’t have any glaring weaknesses. They are both good on big and small tracks, they can both time trial and it doesn’t matter if it’s tacky or slick. They have excelled all over the country in sprint cars (Okay, maybe not Pennsylvania, but give them time and good race cars and have no doubt, they would kick some ass there too) and most impressively, they’ve done it without even racing them full-time!

Think about that. The Kings Royal this year came down to Donny Schatz, Christopher Bell and Rico Abreu. The World of Outlaws champion and then two guys who don’t even race sprint cars full-time! More impressively though, everyone knew that’s how it would play out going in. Rico had spent both nights on the podium and Christopher had been a rocket all weekend in the Tony Stewart Racing #14.

Let that sink in. The sprint car world was relying on two non-WoO regulars to beat the current dominator of the WoO. When is the last time that statement could be made at The Kings Royal or Knoxville Nationals? Yes, in the past Doug Wolfgang or Sammy could go off the tour, but they were still racing sprint cars full-time, primarily with the WoO. Sprint cars are Christopher Bell and Rico Abreu’s hobby, this is what they do for fun.

Kyle Larson showed up to Ohio Speedweek against one of sprint car racing’s toughest regions and dominated it. He then walked into the biggest sprint car race of the year; The Knoxville Nationals and drove from the B Main to 5th in the A Main. While everyone was watching the Schatz-Johnson battle up front, those who watched Larson said he had something for them. A guy who maybe ran a dozen sprint car races this year finished in the top 5 of the Knoxville Nationals.

Bell, Abreu and Larson were the next generation of sprint car racer and they’ve gone South. For the first time in sprint car racing history the best of a generation of sprint car racers have chosen a different path and it’s sprint car racing’s loss.

Not only have we lost the potential Schatz versus the kids rivalry but we’ve lost the rivalry of this trio racing against each other. Larson, Bell and Abreu bring an excitement right now to any open wheel race right now that just isn’t matched.

Don’t believe me? Watch The Chili Bowl. You can say what you want about the history of the race, the Swindells or whatever but here, right now, those 3 racers are putting asses in the stands and 100% of the eyes are on them when they’re on the race track. Even when they aren’t winning, people are watching them.

Christopher Bell, Jerry Coons Jr and Kasey Kahne infield at The 2016 Chili Bowl. (Jeffrey Turford / TDP)
Christopher Bell, Jerry Coons Jr and Kasey Kahne infield at The 2016 Chili Bowl. (Jeffrey Turford / TDP)

Another sad reality is that this trio just can’t be replaced. The Rico Abreu’s, Kyle Larson’s and Christopher Bell’s of the world just don’t come along every day. These are 3 incredible talents and that they all came along at roughly the same time is hard to believe. It’s crazy enough to think that the 2 most iconic sprint car drivers in history came along at the same time, but now, 3 decades later these 3 icons have graced us with their talents after we went through a 30 year gap filled with great drivers, but no iconic ones.

There isn’t another one of these kids just a year or two away. The Keith Kunz stable which helped produce these 3 drivers is in a transition period with their latest prospect; Tanner Thorson just now tackling pavement and despite having several up and coming talents behind the wheel, it’s far more likely that they’ll turn out to be very talented racers with successful careers than icons.

There isn’t a kid coming up as brave and seemingly wild as Rico, there are some that are close but he stands out on the top of the pile. There isn’t a young racer that runs bullrings wide open who can hit their marks lap after lap while seemingly on the edge of disaster like Bell. There is no racer on the planet that blends the talents of Rico Abreu and Christopher Bell like Kyle Larson does. All of them are masters in traffic. These talents just don’t exist right now and it’s going to be a long time before there is another talent like them.

Fortunately for Larson, Bell and yes, despite coming from money; Rico, things have changed. Despite everything in NASCAR being bought and sold the talents of these 3 just couldn’t be denied. Larson and Bell come from middle class families that were both unable to afford racing past the mini-sprint/outlaw kart level. Despite what you may have read on a message board they’ve done it on talent and winning.

They’ve won so often against such good competition with such little experience that even the money-driven world of NASCAR racing couldn’t keep these guys out. I don’t follow NASCAR well enough to know but it’s certainly a realistic possibility that when a NASCAR field rolls off the grid Kyle Larson might be the only driver in the field that didn’t get there on their name or their pocketbook.

In the past this just hasn’t happened and as hard as some drivers or fans might find this to accept, it’s because no one else has blown people away like these guys have. As a result you have companies like Target, JBL and Safelite lining up to be a part of their careers and it has completely changed the landscape of short track, dirt, open wheel racing. These drivers were given opportunities that just didn’t exist before and they’re taking advantage of it.

Rico Abreu wins the A Main on night 3 of The 2016 Knoxville Nationals. (Jeffrey Turford / TDP)
Rico Abreu wins the A Main on night 3 of The 2016 Knoxville Nationals. (Jeffrey Turford / TDP)

You the reader may get the impression that I’m painting a bleak picture for this generation of sprint car racing fan but I’m not. Short track racing across the board has never been better from The WoO to The All Star Circuit of Champions straight through to USAC to PowrI. There are full fields everywhere, plenty of loyal travelers and tons of locals waiting to knock them off.

One driver in particular who stands out to me is David Gravel. The Connecticut racer has not experienced a lot of the difficulties that young racers typically experience when they race with the WoO and really it’s raw talent that’s allowed him to bypass those troubles. He’s won several big races and has been successful in several different cars. David only hopped into a full size sprint car in 2008 and he’s already won The Williams Grove National Open and The Silver Cup. Can you imagine how good this kid is going to be when he gets into his late 30’s? If I had to pick a driver right now to take the mantle from Donny Schatz to me David is the obvious choice.

On the non-wing side of things one can always look at The Keith Kunz stable. Spencer Bayston and Ryan Robinson are very young, have shown a ton of raw ability and are in the perfect place to show off their talents over the coming years. Both have some growing to do as drivers, and the odds are against them to become iconic, but both have shown a tremendous amount of potential.

Another reason to be upbeat about the future of sprint car racing is that much like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the trio of Bell, Larson and Abreu all seem to love and appreciate their racing roots. All 3 hop into sprint cars whenever they get the chance and the reality of losing them doesn’t seem to hit quite so hard.

I think the biggest compliment sprint car racing actually gets is that almost all of it’s racers that move on to greater perceived success come back to it. What other type of racing can say that? You don’t see Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Denny Hamlin hop back in a late model every weekend that they have open. You don’t see the Busch brothers going legend car racing.

Every sprint car racing fan knows that down the road they’ll probably see Larson, Bell and Rico in a sprint car or midget again. It would surprise no one if all 3 ended up being team owners some day like Tony, Kasey and Ricky have been. Knowing that all of these drivers ache to once again drive sprint cars and midgets makes the loss of these drivers easier to take. I just hope NASCAR comes to appreciate these people as much as we all have and do.