Who’s Next?

NASCAR's unique search for their next superstar reaches far and wide

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CHARLOTTE — The first thing to remember is: No one saw this coming. Not THIS. Stock-car racing certainly had a passionate following in America, but it was also a concentrated following. As late as 1992, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series had 29 races. Twenty of them were south of the Mason-Dixon line. Stock car racin’ was a southern thing, like sweet tea and restaurant menus where mac and cheese is listed as a vegetable.

Sure, there was ambition to grow. In the 1980s, the series expanded west to Phoenix, brought racing back to Watkins Glen in New York (State, not City — it’s 260 miles from Manhattan) and so on. The Daytona 500 had made its way onto the American sports calendar, finding its place alongside the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500. Ronald Reagan proved to be a fan as President, and he was there at the Firecracker 400 in 1984 for Richard Petty’s 200th and final victory.

In 1990, Tom Cruise — the biggest movie star in the world at the time — starred in a huge-budget movie about NASCAR, “Days of Thunder.” The movie more or less tanked (though Quentin Tarantino has called it a personal favorite), but even a Tom Cruise bomb reaches a lot of people.

So, yes, NASCAR was doing pretty well, entertaining its most intense audience, growing that audience slowly but surely. There was a sense among many inside NASCAR that the sport — loud, dangerous, intense — could play in other parts of the country. But everyone was realistic about NASCAR’s place in the big American sports landscape. In 1993, the sport added a race in New Hampshire. A year later, it added one in Indianapolis. Slow but sure.

And then … the whole thing just took off in a blindingly fast way that no one saw coming.

Multitudes of books have been written about the many reasons NASCAR exploded in popularity, though the most compelling of those reasons for me has always been one name: Jeff Gordon. He was the chemical that sparked the reaction. It would be hard to recreate now the impact Gordon had in the NASCAR world — it was overwhelming. He was this average-looking guy from California and Indiana, clean cut with a bit of a squeak in his voice, the sort of person you might talk with about getting an umbrella policy on your home. He liked hip-hop rather than country music and seemed more interested in going to New York than going hunting or fishing.

Only, he drove a car like the devil himself.

That blew people’s minds. The sport already had its archetypal hero, Dale Earnhardt, a North Carolina boy whose roots in racing trailed back to the very beginning, to his father Ralph, who worked in a cotton mill during the week and raced on the dirt on weekends. Ralph died of a heart attack in his garage, working on his car, and Dale Sr. raced with that same sensibility. He would run you off the track if you got in his way — or even if you didn’t and he was just in an ornery mood.

Now, here was the kid, no Southern racing roots, no Southern core, driving around in a Dupont car that looked liked a RAINBOW, for crying out loud. But the kid kept winning races and championships. He held his own with the Intimidator (Dale Sr.’s well-earned nickname) himself. And then he was hosting Saturday Night Live. It was all irresistible.

And it was unexpected. The sport grew so fast, it was hard to keep up. New tracks were built all over America — Texas, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami. New stars kept emerging — the fierce Tony Stewart, the All-American kid Jimmie Johnson, the son Dale Earnhardt Jr. And the television ratings kept going up, attendance kept going up, businesses lined up to be a part of the phenomenon; it was all NASCAR could do just to keep up with the demand, the excitement, the wonder of it all.

“My perception,” says Jill Gregory, the Chief Marketing Officer at NASCAR, “is that nobody was looking for that to happen. But when it did happen, it was like, ‘Wow. We needed this.’”

Here we are now, some 20 or 25 years into the NASCAR explosion, and it’s an interesting time for the sport. Jeff Gordon has retired and Tony Stewart is about to follow him. Dale Jr. intends to compete again, but he has not raced since July because of concussion symptoms, and at 42 years old, realistically, he is not likely to race much longer. Jimmie Johnson seems to be back on top of his game, but he’s 41 and has admitted that the grueling NASCAR schedule becomes tougher the older he gets. Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion, turns 41 in December.

Yes, of course, there are some drivers ready to take their place. Some veteran drivers like former champions Brad Keselowski (age 32) and Kyle Busch (31) are still in the primes of their careers. Younger drivers like Joey Logano and Austin Dillon, both 26, along with 24-year-old Kyle Larson, are showing signs of coming into their own.

Chase Elliott — who many see as the sport’s future champion — made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as a rookie this year.

But, NASCAR is in a lull. Ratings are stagnant. Attendance is down. There are as many reasons for this as there were for stock car racing’s explosion in the first place, and you can bet that people in NASCAR are at this very moment working on every single one of them. NASCAR’s like that. And one thing that everyone in and around the sport is looking for is the next big star, the driver who, like Gordon, can again capture the attention and imagination of everyone.

“The Jeff Gordon-Dale Sr. interaction and rivalry … we were in position to benefit from that,” Gregory says. She smiles and shrugs. “You can’t always rely on that.”

* * *

Alon Day is from Israel. He’s 24. He hopes to become a NASCAR driver.

“First of all,” Alon Day is saying, “there is absolutely no motorsports here. At all. We have only go karts. This is the only thing you have. It makes me laugh. We have only desert and some camels and go karts.”

Day is part of a program called “NASCAR Next” which, as the name suggests, is a company-wide effort to identify and develop future stars of the sport.

“When I was 17,” he says, “I won the Asian (Formula Renault Challenge). It was a pretty big deal for a guy from Israel to win an international championship. Everyone knew who I was here. We don’t get a lot of sports here. If someone has success, everybody in Israel knows about it. Basketball is one of the only sports we’re good at, you know, along with wars and weapons.

“So when I went into the army — you know everyone here must go to the army — I was able to enter the athlete program. So I didn’t have to live on the base. I had the privilege to go home, train in the gym, work in simulators. Every day I would go to the base, go from 8-5, then go home and train.”

“How many people were in the racing program in the Israeli army?” I ask him.

“Only me,” he says. “Now, I think there are two or three. I put racing on the map.”

NASCAR is on the lookout for young drivers with talent, of course, but they also are looking for drivers with a story, with a spark, with an ability to reach both fans and businesses. That’s the thing about NASCAR. It isn’t enough to just drive fast.

“Wait, let me tell you how I got into NASCAR,” Day says. “I was into endurance driving. In 2015, in March, I had some sponsor issues and stuff. I thought about taking a year break. I really thought about it. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, I get an email to take a test in the NASCAR Euro Series.

“Without racing, I felt like I was going to die. It was the lowest point of my career. So, yeah, of course I jumped at the opportunity. And it went perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I had never driven a stock car before, but it’s like I was born to be in one. I was vice champion in the Euro Series. I won three times. I was rookie of the year. I was the most popular driver. It was a dream.”

Now, he wants more. He was given a chance to drive in the XFINITY Series this year — sort of the Triple-A of NASCAR — and finished 13th at Mid-Ohio in his debut race. He’s looking for sponsors, hoping to get a full-time ride in the Trucks Series or XFINITY and and work his way into the big time. He’s exuberant and funny and Israeli; he certainly would be unlike anyone to ever drive in NASCAR.

“We know we have a very strong core fan base base, and they’re very invested in all of our national series on a weekly basis,” Gregory says. “But we also know that if we want to continue to grow, we have to grow that fan bases. We have to get younger. We have to get more diverse.”

“I see myself as diversity!” Day says. “I mean, come on. You have this very cool, diverse guy from Israel. You have the American-Israeli relationship. It’s very cool, right?”

* * *

NASCAR’s search for the next star is a fascinating one because, on one level, it sounds very much like the scouting and development that is done in every sport. But it’s also very different.

In baseball, let’s say you want to develop a left-handed reliever. Coaches will work with him (or her — the day’s coming) on delivery, various pitches, positioning, holding runners on, the mental approach to facing hitters, etc. It would be a baseball development with perhaps a few side lessons about how to act in public and cliches to give to the media.

In NASCAR, it’s a different journey. To become a Sprint Cup driver means being a world-class driver with supernatural hand-eye coordination, intense nerve and a near-magical sense of your surroundings. That’s first and foremost. But it isn’t enough.

No, to make it to the top also means being a conduit for your sponsors (who are spending millions on your racing career), a promoter of the sport in the press and a relatable icon to your fans. The NASCAR Next program, for instance, doesn’t spend much time at all on the track. Instead they try to help potential stars, like Day, develop their stories, help them meet potential sponsors, give them some media training and talk to them about their social media plan.

“I think that in any research we’ve done — core fan, casual fan, sports fan that might not be that interested in motorsports — performance is No. 1,” Gregory says. “You’ve got to be able to drive the race car and be competitive. After that, though, it’s a whole variety of things. What we’re doing is trying to find as much talent as we can and then pull out what some of their skill sets might be off the track. Then figure out how to showcase that.”

There are many people, of course, who think that NASCAR spends way too much time worrying about stuff off the track. Take Humpy Wheeler, one of the greatest promoters in the history of NASCAR and one of the all-time great guys. Humpy recently wrote a letter to The Charlotte Observer about the challenges within NASCAR, and it included this passage:

“The American sporting public lives on a diet of big things whether it is a 350-pound NFL lineman or a 3,400-pound stock car, high drama, exciting personalities, sudden excitement and simplicity. Unfortunately, because of the standards of the sponsors, we are missing a lot of fine drivers who run on the rough and tumble short tracks in the rural areas because they have bad teeth, talk wrong, don’t know how to hold a fork and their dress of the day is a pair of well-worn jeans and a battered T-shirt and don’t forget their tattoos.”

This, unquestionably, taps into one of the big complaints about NASCAR — that it has too eagerly moved away from its moonshine roots. There are many, many fans who like NASCAR as it was, as a Southern sport, as the sport of Richard Petty and Junior Johnson and the Allison brothers and Bill Elliott and the rest.

But that might miss the bigger point: NASCAR is more than its moonshine roots now. It was a wildly-popular-but-still-niche sport then. It is a multi-billion industry now, and it is nationwide. There is room, there must be room, for the rough-and-tumble short track driver but to persuade Fortune 500 companies to invest, to keep the interest among the fans not only at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile in Bristol, Tenn., but also along the Miracle Mile in Vegas and the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, there needs to be room for groundbreakers.

Meet Julia Landauer.

* * *

If you think Alon Day has a weird NASCAR story, how about Landauer? She grew up in New York’s Upper West Side. She is the daughter of a doctor and a lawyer. You’re picturing it, right? She went to prestigious Stuyvesant High School, whose alumni have won four Nobel prizes, two Wolf Awards for mathematics, one Fields Medal and three Academy Awards. It is the school of Mets president Saul Katz, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

After that, Landauer went to Stanford, where she got a degree in Science, Technology and Society. There’s no real point or room to list off all the famous Stanford graduates but Google developers Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, etc. are among them.

While there, she appeared on “Survivor.”

And she did all of this — all of it — with one dream in mind. Right. She wants to be a NASCAR driver.

“Yeah, it’s different,” she says. “I went go karting and just fell in love with it.”

In many ways, Landauer is the evolution of the new NASCAR. For one, NASCAR is the only major American sport where a woman — specifically, Danica Patrick — competes at the highest level directly against men. Her dream would be very different in any other sport.

But, even more, Landauer has trained to become a NASCAR driver not only by honing her driving skills but by developing her brand, by working on her writing and communication skills, by broadening and refining her story and her reach. Her website is subtitled, “Redfining the Modern Racer.” She speaks nationally. She actively seeks being a role model, especially to young girls. She works on her camera skills.

“And,” she adds, “I’m not afraid to knock on doors and start the conversation. I have a very clear sense of my messaging, my persona, my brand. I directly tie to New York City. I have the whole Silicon Valley connection with my tech degree. There are a lot of cool angles. Oh, and, yeah, I’m a woman too, and I want to become the first woman to win a race in one of NASCAR’s top three series. A lot of angles.”

You can imagine that there are a lot of old school NASCAR fans who are tearing at their hair, thinking about how this is exactly what drives them crazy about the sport and shouting, “CAN SHE DRIVE A CAR OR NOT?”

Well, a lot of people around racing say yes. She finished fourth in points as rookie in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, one of the sport’s feeder series (“highest finishing female in history!” she writes on her website). In 2015, she was the first woman to win a NASCAR track championship in the Limited Late Model division at Motor Mile Speedway. Her confidence overflows.

“I don’t have as much experience yet as some of my competitors,” she says. “But as far as being in the car and driving, no, I don’t have any doubts about my talent.”

Landauer may or may not make it; there are only a few opportunities at the very top of the NASCAR pyramid and many, many drivers who are trying to get in. But it’s clear: The explosion of NASCAR opened things up not only to a much larger audience of fans, it opened up possibilities to a whole new kind of driver. Used to be you got to NASCAR driving on the dirt and hoping to be discovered. Now, it’s different.

Of course, there is a balance for NASCAR, a tough balance, keeping the old-school fans engaged and passionate about the sport while finding and welcoming new fans, getting younger and more diverse but connecting to the past and the NASCAR base. It’s not easy.

Well, no one really saw any of this coming 25 years ago.

“We just want more and more people to connect to NASCAR,” Gregory says. “The more Danicas or Julias we have, the more young girls will connect to our sport and NASCAR driving as a possibility for them. The more Danny Suarezes (a Mexican driver who is performing well in the Xfinity Series), the more young people from Mexico — or from America with a Mexican heritage — will connect to our sport.

“And of course we need to keep developing drivers who appeal to our core audience. The journey never ends. We have to keep opening more eyes to the excitement of our sport.”