F Features

Youth Movement

The NASCAR Canadian Tire Series Is Becoming a Destination for Young Drivers on the Way Up

NASCAR Canadian Tire Series in action at the Honda Indy Toronto.

About five years ago, the National Stock Car racing scene in Canada had a future that seemed pretty grim, especially when it came to the country’s top tour. The sport consisted of a few stars in the prime of their careers and a host of wily veterans in the twilight of theirs. As for youth, only J.R. Fitzpatrick and Pete Shepherd III were considered to be hot prospects.

Since then Peter Gibbons and David Whitlock have hung up the helmets, and while their replacements don’t yet have the star power or profile of Gibbons and Whitlock, they are on the rise.

It seems, finally, like everything has started to come full circle for the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. Full-season campaigns are being run by 24 year-old Joey McColm, 18 year-old Dexter Stacey, and incumbent 22 year-old Fitzpatrick, with 20 year-old Steven Mathews, Shepherd, Brennan Didero and Andrew Ranger (all age 24) running partial schedules.Most events this season have attracted at least 20 entries. The Series first appearance in Toronto in July saw 31 cars take the green flag.

Sitting in the thick of a championship fight this season, former CASCAR Champion Fitzpatrick spoke about the youth movement that he is leading on the tour, “This series is very competitive. I think there are a lot of talented drivers coming up in Late Models, but they might need some help to get here full-time. Brandon Watson is good, and so is Steven Mathews. There are also new teams where the driver isn’t really young, like Jason White and the #21 bunch doing the whole deal while living out West is pretty cool for the series. They just have to get here and not get in over their heads on the track.”

“We need that youth to come in, because eventually us old guys won’t be here. I’m all for it – I love the competition – the more the better. At the Indy today we had 31 cars, and we didn’t all have haulers like this the last time we raced here, so you can see how the series is progressing. People are noticing, and a lot of teams coming into the sport are new,” veteran driver and team owner Kerry Micks said.

Not that he’s ready to hang up his helmet just yet.

“I’m not done competing by any means, but when I do retire from driving I think the sport will be in good shape, especially with NASCAR running things, and the talent that keeps coming up,” he said.

Fitzpatrick’s mentor, Don Thomson Jr. had a firsthand look at bringing a young driver along during the last 10-plus years. Since Thomson first started wheeling a black #4 for Fitzpatrick Motorsports, he’s tutored the youngster and watched him develop into a champion. Thomson spoke about that dream. “Sure, even as a Canadian racer you dream about racing in NASCAR south of the border, but to be real, if you’re a Canadian kid growing up, the goal is to get into this series. Look around at a place like the Toronto Indy, this is what people dream of doing, and it’s much more of a reality than a Camping World Truck or Nationwide ride – it’s a logical goal. J.R. was able to get an early start. He began racing when he was seven, so by the time he was racing on the National tour, he had almost 10 years of experience under his belt.”

Steckly, 2008 series champion, is one of the successful, established veterans young drivers seek to emulate.Jason Hathaway, who turns 34 this year, credits NASCAR’s involvement in helping to connect young drivers to opportunities in the series. “There is a lot of young talent out there, but it all boils down to sponsorship money, and opportunity. I was offered a great opportunity to drive for someone else, because it would have been a great deal harder to do it on our own. NASCAR has done so much since they’ve taken over the series to push us in the right direction. With Gibbons and Whitlock retiring, it’s really taken some of the names away from our sport, but guys like Ranger and Anthony Simone have come on the scene to take their place. To get more of those young guys a break we need more car owners in Canadian Motorsports. You need a guy that is going to foot the bill while the team gets up and running, and while the young driver is developing,” he said.

Ranger’s influence has been phenomenal, as the Canadian road racing community is looking at the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series because of the variety of circuits that it competes on. Professional drivers from other series that have taken some laps with the Canadian Tire Series reads like a who’s–who of Canadian road racers. The Trois-Rivieres twosome, Louis-Philippe Dumoulin, and Jean-Francois Dumoulin, as well as John Farano, all three with loads of sports car and open-wheel experience. Former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve, and AMA Motorcycle champion Miguel Duhamel have both made a handful of starts in the series. Alex Tagliani found himself out of an IndyCar ride post-unification, so he brought his sponsorship to the Canadian Tire Series for about two-thirds of the 2008 season until an IndyCar seat opened up.Two of the series brightest young stars battled it out in Toronto: Ranger (left) and Fitzpatrick.

“I think the future will see more young drivers. There are just more parents pushing their kids into motorsports, and supporting them. We have some good teams coming along, guys like Joey McColm and his group – they have done everything they can to try and run the whole deal. They are a low dollar team, but they are doing whatever they can to go racing. We also have families like the Shepherds. They did everything they could to get Petey his shot in our series before, and then after the Roush deal. This year, they have done what they can, and are racing where they can, and it’s all for Petey. They Shepherds can’t afford to run this series, but they put their heart and soul into Petey,” Thomson said of the coming youth movement.

Mark Dilley was quick to point to a great deal of U.S. involvement with the series that started with Nationwide driver Cale Gale making five starts in 2009. “I think the involvement from the United States is great for everyone. We have the Triad team now, and they are based in the United States - they have Bowles from California driving the road course races. I think you’re going to see more teams using our series as a developmental program. Teams can learn a lot here, because we race on road courses and ovals, and the cars are a little different from the K&N Series. It’s also given some Canadians exposure south of the border. Andrew Ranger has won some races, J.R. Fitzpatrick has had some rides, D.J. Kennington has driven a lot in the States. Almost all of these opportunities have happened since NASCAR started the series,” he said.

Ranger, already a two-time series champion, is competing full-time in NASCAR's K&N Pro Series this season.Despite the picture being quite rosy, there were also a number of things on tour that are alarming, starting with the pure dollars it takes to compete at the top level of stock car racing in Canada. Fitzpatrick feels there is cause for some concern. “This is the one area that any young driver has to overcome. I think the series can help out though, but NASCAR has to keep their rules consistent. There have been a lot of changes to these cars since they took over the program, and it’s made teams spend a lot of money on cars. I think the rules package we have is good, but we have to freeze on any changes. They have to stay with the same rules package. They brought in the spec motor program, but they also have to look after the teams that do their own motors, like D.J. Kennington and the Beauchamps, because you don’t want to put teams out of business.”

Ultimately, with so many talent streams running parallel to the series (short track, road racing and open-wheel at both semi-professional and professional levels), the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series is turning into one big racing melting pot.

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