On Tuesday nights during the summer, you can find NASCAR-type exhibition racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s just on a slightly smaller scale.
The cars are much tinier than your typical NASCAR racecar, and the drivers racing them on the speedway’s front stretch quarter-mile oval can be as young as 8 years old.
It’s part of the speedway’s Bojangles’ Summer Shootout series, a night of racing put on by U.S. Legend Cars International, a subsidiary of Concord-based Speedway Motorsports. It’s a way the company is working to garner interest in racing among younger fans, as well as to train a new generation of drivers. The last night of the season is Tuesday.
Before Legend Cars started manufacturing vehicles in 1992, many aspiring professional drivers just built their own cars, and there wasn’t a sanctioning body of exhibition races like there is now – it’s called INEX, short for “inexpensive.”
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“You had to have really deep pockets. Now, your common person can go race,” said Donald Hawk, senior vice president of business affairs at Speedway Motorsports, at a recent tour of the Legend facility in Harrisburg.
Today, analysts describe the NASCAR industry as challenged – attendance has been declining in recent years for a number of reasons, including tough economic conditions for the sports’ fans.
Legend is one of the ways SMI is working to address those challenges.
“Events that encourage younger drivers should be good for the sport as they create an interest in car racing at a younger age,” said Matthew Brooks, an analyst at Macquarie.
In its most recent quarterly earnings report, released last week, Speedway Motorsports said second-quarter revenue was down 1.9 percent since last year. Admissions fell, as did event-related revenue. The company cited poor weather and underemployment as some of the reasons for the sluggishness.
“Capturing the next generation of race fans ... is SMI’s and NASCAR’s primary marketing focus,” said the company’s executive chairman Bruton Smith, a billionaire track owner and recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, in a statement. Smith’s son Marcus currently serves as SMI’s CEO.
Speedway Motorsports owns eight NASCAR tracks including the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The tracks host 13 of NASCAR’s 38 Sprint Cup events each year.
Legend Cars says more race cars are assembled at its facility in Harrisburg than anywhere else in the world. In the 100,000 square-foot plant, about 18 miles northeast of uptown Charlotte, Legend builds the cars from the ground up.
The car grows at individual stations at the factory – from the welding of the steel skeleton frame to the addition of white car body sections to the installation of the 4.1-gallon gas tank to the application of fresh, brightly colored paint.
The company now exports about 40 percent of everything it makes to about 28 foreign countries, said Ashley Garrett, a sales manager for Legend Cars.
The recession hurt a little bit, but demand for the cars has risen as the job market has picked up and as people have more discretionary income, Legend says.
“(People are) playing a lot more now,” Garrett said. “We build toys for people.”
Two types of cars you’ll see on a Tuesday night at the speedway include Bandoleros, which cost just under $6,000 and are designed for kids as young as 8, and Legends Cars, which run for about $14,000.
NASCAR stars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, and Kyle and Kurt Busch are all former Legends Cars drivers who have reached the Sprint Cup Series.
One of the latest stars is Austin Green, 15, the son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver David Green. He started racing go-karts when he was four, and has been racing Legend cars since he was eight.
Green took drivers ed in June and just got his learner’s permit, though he says racing hasn’t exactly prepared him for driving on city streets. “I got yelled at a lot in the car for going too fast,” Green says.
A different kind of summer
One one race night this July, Daniel Wilk and his father, Dennis, of Pineville, were in the garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway, tinkering with Daniel’s silver Legends Car, adorned with orange lettering and the number 90. It’s about 95 degrees, though the car exhaust and heat rising from the asphalt make it seem even hotter.
Daniel started racing indoor go-karts when he was about 7. The 12-year-old won the eight-week series last summer, and this year he’s moved up to a different car in a more competitive division called Young Lions.
Wilk’s father estimates he and his son spend between 15 to 25 hours a week on race-related work, from practice on Mondays to races Tuesdays to time spent the rest of the week working on the car – going over every nut and bolt, sanding the grates and changing the oil.
It’s a far cry from many kids’ typical summer routine of camps, swim meets, beach trips and sports leagues.
“This is his thing. I support him and do the best I can. But he has to help,” Dennis Wilks says of his son, a rising eighth grader at Quail Hollow Middle School.