Drivers often take to the track before graduating high school

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. The next six months are important for Reed Sorenson.

His schedule is crammed with important dates, like a full season on the American Speed Association circuit, his first career start on the ARCA Re/Max and NASCAR Busch series, and possibly a race or two on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. He also has final exams in high school.

Sorenson is the face of NASCAR's future. Not old enough to buy beer, rent cars or vote, he is already on the fast track for a ride on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. Racing's youth movement no longer is a phenomenon; it's the model for success. Twenty-year-olds are giving way to teenagers, while talent scouts seemingly expand their searches to playgrounds for the next generation of champions.

Twenty years ago, it was uncommon to sign a driver younger than 30 who didn't work his way through the local short track and then the Busch Series circuits.

The success of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman from open-wheel racing, where drivers generally start when they're in elementary school, has identified a new talent pool. Gordon, Stewart, Newman and Richard Petty are the only drivers to win at least 10 races before their 28th birthdays.

Now drivers need parental permission before signing contracts with some of the best race teams.

 

Winston Cup driver Jeff Gordon, left, talks with Busch series driver Brian Vickers, right, in the garage area at North Carolina Speedway near Rockingham, N.C., in this Feb. 21, 2003 photo. One of the deepest rookie classes ever will compete in the Nextel Cup series this season, all seated inside top-notch equipment fielded by elite teams.

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

''We're looking for guys we can groom into stars,'' said Lorin Ranier, who's in charge of special projects for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Sorenson is Ranier's current special project at Ganassi. Brian Vickers and 18-year-old Kyle Busch are in a development program at Hendrick Motorsports.

Vickers started at Hendrick Motorsports when he was 18 and a year ago at age 20 he won a NASCAR Busch Series championship.

Kasey Kahne was only 18 when he was signed by Robert Yates Racing; Adam Petty was 18 when he made his first NASCAR start for his family's operation, Petty Enterprises.

Like Sorenson, Busch was signed when he was 17.

Busch made appearances on the ARCA Series early in 2003, and when he turned 18 in May the Hendrick organization expanded his learning curve to include a handful of Busch Series starts. Now he replaces Vickers, the youngest champion of any of NASCAR's major touring series, on the Busch Series while Vickers moves up to the Nextel Cup.

Although Vickers enjoyed the benefits of the Hendrick resources, his celebration was limited. When he won the Busch Series championship during the final race, he wasn't allowed to drink or even hold the beer of the title sponsor. And when he finished his interviews and taking pictures, he needed a ride to the airport because even though he's old enough by NASCAR rules to drive at 180 mph, he's not old enough to rent a car.

''Everything has happened so quick,'' Vickers said. ''There are advantages and disadvantages to everything. Sometimes your greatest strength is your greatest weakness at the same time. Mine is being 20. It's a great strength and something I can use to my advantage a lot. And sometimes it hurts me in a lot of ways.

''I think being young has its advantages like youthful desire that we young people have. But it's a big disadvantage because sometimes we don't know when to stop.''

Ranier, whose father used to be a car owner, found Sorenson driving on the ASA circuit, where drivers are allowed to start at 16.

''You have to find these kids at the grassroots level,'' he said. ''There's no set formula out there. I remember seeing Reed in some Legends races at Charlotte, but what struck me about him was when he ran eight races in ASA when he was 16 and he had seven top 10s and three or four top-fives.''

Ranier met with Sorenson and his parents and mapped out a plan with the Ganassi organization.

After getting more seat time this year and finishing his senior year at Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga. he probably will move up to the Busch Series next year.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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