When the U.S. economy started to tank in late 2007 and into 2008, motorsports series like NASCAR, NHRA and IndyCar also suffered tremendously.
At-track attendance and TV ratings dove, teams laid off thousands of employees (with some teams folding completely), sponsors cut back their budgets – if not outright withdrawing.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, at the same time another crisis began: where was the next generation of drivers going to come from?
Face it, when the economy is terrible, opportunities for young drivers are at their worst. And that’s what the case was nearly a decade ago.
It got so bad that there were some seasons where there were only one or two candidates vying for rookie of the year honors – because there were no other young drivers to join them.
There was also considerable concern among all major series about where would the eventual replacements for the biggest stars in their respective series would come from.
In other words, who would eventually replace guys like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, John Force, Greg Anderson, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and so many more?
But a funny thing happened when those series were experiencing some of the darkest moments in their history. All of a sudden, young drivers became more plentiful and began building their own careers – just in time to take over or prepare to take over for some of the biggest names in racing that fans have followed for the last 10, 15 and even 20 years.
When I was National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo Sports, I fretted at that time about the future of not only NASCAR but the other major racing series, as well.
Who was going to replace the sport’s biggest stars?
Would we suddenly see race fields be greatly decreased in numbers primarily because there wouldn’t be enough young drivers to fill the shoes of guys like Gordon, Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., etc.?
Well, I’m happy to report that not only are NASCAR, IndyCar and NHRA in good hands for the future, they’ll also have more than enough drivers to become the next generation of superstars in their respective series.
That was most recently displayed May 29th in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, when 25-year-old Californian Alexander Rossi pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history by capturing the checkered flag.
Look at some of those “youngsters” – some who have already shown their mettle in a major way, like Kyle Busch winning the Sprint Cup championship last season:
NASCAR: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Austin and Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chris Buscher.
NHRA: Courtney and Brittany Force, Erica Enders, Leah Pritchett, Steve Torrence, Blake Alexander, Alexis DeJoria, Andrew Hines, Hector Arana Jr., L.E. Tonglet, Vincent Nobile and Drew Skillman.
Verizon IndyCar Series: Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, Carlos Munoz, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Conor Daly, Marco Andretti, Mikhail Aleshin, Max Chilton, Jack Hawksworth, Spencer Pigot, Matt Brabham, Stefan Wilson and Sage Karam.
Take a long look at that list of names. We’re talking about nearly 35 young drivers (I define “young” typically as 30 years old and under) that are well on their way to becoming tomorrow’s superstars – if they haven’t already gotten there already.
And with programs such as NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity, there are even more young drivers in the pipeline, ready to hopefully get their chance and opportunity to become the next big deal in their respective motorsport series.
Not coincidentally, and while it’s been a long, hard road, we’re also seeing all of the three major motorsport series in the U.S. drawing more fans into racetracks, in front of their TV’s and also a heightened and resurgent interest in racing.
Sure, you can still teach old dogs new tricks, but when it comes to the future of racing in the U.S., the late Whitney Houston had it right: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.”
The future is now here and those same children are all grown up and ready to indeed lead the way.
If you had any fear of where the next generation of racers would come from in drag racing, stock car racing or open-wheel racing, forget it. We’re good – for a long time to come.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski