It's Thursday again. Time to dust off the old Mini Stock for a spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...
GETTING AN EARLY start to the race "weekend" today with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Blue Ox 100 at Richmond International Raceway. Seems that the series hasn't had the best luck with weather this season – twice already getting postponed through two events, and a third likely.
But while we've got some time to think here at Richmond, it's a good time to ponder a question about the racing community as it relates to development series.
I've always been a big fan of minor league sports. Heck, growing up in Maine, minor league hockey and baseball are about as close as you can get to the biggest stages. I still follow the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League closely, and with the Portland Sea Dogs a Double-A affliate of the Boston Red Sox, I keep up with the development of those players, too.
I find it interesting, though, that one of the most common complaints regarding NASCAR's K&N Pro Series is that we either "don't know who any of those guys are" or we "can't follow them because they race so far away."
Understanding that one of the key ingredients in this debate stems from the old days of the Busch North Series – where New England drivers competed exclusively on New England short tracks – it is significant to mention that NASCAR did change this series significantly not only in name but in practice. First it went through name changes (from Busch North to Busch East and then on to the current K&N label), while also going dramatic shifts in scheduling to spread itself across the entire eastern half of the country. I can certainly see where some traditional fans of the series felt a little jilted.
But there's no debating that the series is healthier now than it ever was – with more than 30 teams showing up every week. Better yet, Sprint Cup Series teams like Michael Waltrip Racing, Red Bull Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing have all been heavily involved in just the last two years alone.
Which brings us back to the "we don't know who they are" argument.
I'm amazed that Sox fans will turn out to see the Sea Dogs play with a roster of guys you may never have even heard of on the off-chance that six years from now you can say, "I saw Dustin Pedroia play in Portland once." But it's baffling that race fans won't take the same approach to following NASCAR development series.
Cole Whitt has graduated from the K&N East to run the Camping World Truck Series this season. Two-time East champion Ryan Truex is now competing in the Nationwide Series. Joey Logano won the East title and is now a regular Sprint Cup competitor in a big-time ride.
This series is about building the sport's future stars – Brett Moffitt, Matt DiBenedetto, Darrell Wallace Jr., and so on down the line. It's also about molding crew chiefs and crew members, and better yet the drivers are as accessible to fans as any series anywhere. Every race includes an autograph session with drivers where attendance isn't optional.
If you're a sports fan who likes "knowing them way back when," then how do you not pay attention to the K&N Pro Series East?
TRAVIS PASTRANA IS at Richmond for the both the K&N Pro Series East race today and the Denny Hamlin Short Track Challenge for Whelen All-American Series Late Models.
Got a chance to meet up with Pastrana – the extreme sports megastar – in January at the Toyota All-Star Showdown. He's the real deal, beyond the smoke and mirrors of people like Danica Patrick and her balleyhooed NASCAR foray.
He's personable, he's genuine and, best of all, he seems to get it.
Quick anecdote from the Showdown...
A race fan in his early 30s approached Pastrana as he and I wrapped up our video session. The man held out his hand and, in a shaky voice, told Pastrana in no uncertain terms "You are my hero." Pastrana, though he's probably heard it a thousand times over, looked the man in the eye and as sincerely as you could imagine replied. "Thank you. That means a lot to me."
Good Lord... How can you not love that? I get chills from the authenticity of it all.
ACT LATE MODELS hit Thunder Road this weekend for the Merchants Bank 150.
Some of you who know me a little better know that I don't get all wish-washy about race tracks. With two notable exceptions, to me a race track is a race track is a race track. Guys show up, they race, somebody wins.
Maybe I've been at this too long and seen too many races. I don't know...
But for me, Thunder Road is a track I make a point to visit every single season. Repeatedly. It's about how it sits in the mountains, about how intense the fan experience is there, about how the cars somehow manage to race side-by-side there, about the odd bows and bends in the time-worn banking, about the string of hanging lights over the track, about the energy in the pit area, about the frenzy of the support division events... I could go on and on.
If you've never been, go. Now. Do it. You won't be disappointed.
And, for the record, the other track on my list: Daytona International Speedway.
(Oh, and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Of course. I almost forgot my manners.)
PAGING MR. SUITCASE. Mr. Suitcase to the front desk, please. Mr. Suitcase...
HEY, P.K. SUBBAN. Enjoy your summer.
TRY THE PEPPER Jack Fiesta Burger, and don't forget to tip your waitress. The Zac Brown Band is here, so stick around.