- NASCAR President Steve Phelps said the sanctioning body is reviewing the age requirements for drivers in NASCAR’s top three series.
- Currently, a driver must be 18 to participate full-time in NASCAR’s top three national touring series.
- The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series allows a person to compete as young as 16, but only on tracks one mile or less in length and on road courses.
When stock car racing began in the late 1940s, a competitor had to have a driver’s license, and NASCAR’s premier division was restricted to people 21 and older.
However, over the past two decades, many teenagers have entered the late model ranks before their 16th birthday.
It’s a trend that NASCAR championship driver and team owner Tony Stewart says is detrimental to the sport.
“I don’t like the direction motorsport as a whole is going,” says Stewart, who also has championships in Indy, Midget, Sprint and USAC Silver Crown cars. “I don’t just blame NASCAR. There are series putting children in late models at 12 and 14 (years old). It makes no sense to me.
Team co-owner and NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski agrees with Stewart.
“We did our sport and our industry a disservice when we lowered the age limits for all these different garages,” Keselowski said. “Not just for the industry itself, but probably more specifically for the kids that we’ve done this for. I think we’ve really hurt them. We’re hurting them in their ability to develop their own lives.
Keselowski says if he had the authority, he would go through “the entire industry” and raise the age in all garages.
“That’s way too low for the level of maturity you would expect from someone that age to be able to handle those challenges and tasks,” Keselowski says. “It’s unfair to them. This ends up limiting their ability to grow as a person. I think it hurts them later in life.
“That’s one (thing) that’s probably close to my heart, is letting 16-year-olds be 16-year-olds and not trying to make superstar race car drivers out of them, because that It hurts them so much in their life.It also ends up hurting our garage and our industry.
Keselowski says the temptation to lower the age level existed due to a “number of financial incentives that permeated the garages with specific people.”
“But I think it’s high time to really dive deep and look at this and go back to the patterns of years past that I think have served us well,” Keselowski says. “At some point the industry has to fend for itself and start raising age limits and fixing garage areas.”
That said, starting young has worked for many of today’s Cup stars.
Chase Elliott signed a contract with Rick Hendrick when he was 15 years old. He won his NASCAR Xfinity Series championship at age 18 and his NASCAR Cup title came 20 days before his 25th birthday.
Joey Logano made his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut with Joe Gibbs Racing a week after celebrating his 18th birthday. He made his Cup debut later that year and the following season moved full-time to NASCAR’s premier series. At 22, Logano had lost his Cup race with JGR.
Kyle Busch made his debut in NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series at the age of 16.
Ty Gibbs made his Cup debut aged 19, replacing an injured Kurt Busch. He now competes full-time in the Cup Series at age 20.
Today, the top 20 in the NASCAR Cup driver standings average 33.25 years old with Gibbs the youngest and Kevin Harvick, who is in his final season as a driver, the oldest at 47. from 35 to 45 years old. However, only seven of the top 20 belong to this age group.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps said the sanctioning body is reviewing the age requirements for drivers in NASCAR’s top three series.
Currently, a driver must be 18 to participate full-time in NASCAR’s top three national touring series.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series allows a person to compete as young as 16, but only on tracks one mile or less in length and on road courses.
In the ARCA Menards series, a driver can compete on mile-long tracks and shorter courses and on the road at 15.
Age, however, is not the only factor. NASCAR and ARCA each have a committee that reviews each driver’s resume to determine which tracks match the driver’s experience level.
A driver’s age first became an issue in 2001 when a 16-year-old Kyle Busch was barred from a Truck Series event at California Speedway. That weekend, the CART FedEx Championship Series held a race at the track sponsored by Marlboro cigarettes. An interpretation of the 1998 master settlement agreement barred Busch from racing because the agreement prohibited people under the age of 18 from participating in events sponsored by tobacco companies.
Keselowski doesn’t think a NASCAR Cup driver should be under 20. He says his father didn’t allow him to start running until he was 14 and he didn’t like it. He saw 8 year olds running and he didn’t think it was fair that he couldn’t run too.
“I hated it then, but I respect it a lot now,” Keselowski says. “Now I realize what a blessing that was. I would have been a better driver (if I had started younger) and a worse person.
“Not being able to really be a racing driver in any form until I was 14 allowed me to develop in a way that served my career and made me a better person.”
Stewart says mature riders know how to analyze a race.
“It’s just small details and that’s what this sport is. It’s all about the micro details,” says Stewart.
Stewart believes the sport started moving towards young riders around five years ago when OEMs launched development programs with “really young, young, young riders.”
“There are great race car drivers who are young,” says Stewart. “It’s not that I get carried away with this, but I appreciate a driver who understands all the things that are difficult, that make things difficult.”
Austin Dillon entered the NASCAR ranks at 18, while his younger brother Ty entered the truck series at 19. Both were accomplished track racers before turning to asphalt, a requirement imposed by their grandfather, team owner and former racer Richard Childress. They had also worked in the race shop and on wrecked race cars.
“When I look at a young driver or a driver, I want to know that he knows what a race car is rather than sitting on it and racing,” says Childress. “I had very good young drivers.”
Childress then cited Kevin Harvick at 23 and Clint Bowyer at 24. He thinks each person should be assessed individually but admits “there is a time when they can be too young”.
However, if a driver starts in Legends cars, competes on dirt, and does well in all series, Childress thinks that person should have an opportunity in an Xfinity Series race at the age of 18 or 19.