Wheeler, the legendary NASCAR promotor and former president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway was at Rockingham Speedway Monday to help a new breed of racers learn the ropes. Ten drivers, age 16 to 22 from across the Southeast have been picked to participate in the “Humpy’s Heroes” driver development program. Freeman and Grissom hail from the Concord area, and the other eight come from either Georgia and Florida.
The program is a comprehensive educational experience designed to prepare young drivers for the transition from local short track racing to NASCAR’s big three series. Through a program lasting throughout the summer, the drivers will vie for a grand prize that includes an open test session with a top Sprint Cup Series team, as well as an interview on a nationally televised program.
“Rockingham is just the right place to do it,” Wheeler said.
Not only does track owner Andy Hillenburg have the one-mile big track, he built a half-mile track next door that is a replica to what drivers face at Martinsville. It was on the smaller track that the drivers practiced Monday while the larger venue was used for pit training.
The program isn’t just about teaching young men to drive, Wheeler said. Most of them have shown that they can do that on smaller circuits.
“Between the 10 of them, they probably have 500 race victories,” he said.
Between now and August, Wheeler and his supporters plan to teach the young drivers everything they’ll need to know for a shot at NASCAR and the Sprint Series. That includes how to dress and how to be interviewed by a top T.V. crew. Today the drivers will be on the road to work on the interview part.
The drivers will be given cards and then have to react in the interview. One may say that he just finished in first place after leading the whole race. Another may have to react to a situation where he might have led the race, but was spun by another driver on the last lap.
Another phase of the race will take place this Spring at Carolina Speedway in Gastonia where the drivers will get a lesson on racing on dirt.
It all winds up back at Rockingham in August where they’ll drive again, but this time they’ll be timed. Monday’s effort was simply to let the drivers get a feel for a NASCAR-like track at “The Little Rock.”
For now there aren’t plans to put the young racers on the big Rockingham track. Wheeler said that would be like putting somebody with experience flying a Piper Cub behind the controls of an F-15 fighter plane.
“I don’t want to move them up too fast,” he said.
Yet Wheeler believes in the young drivers.
“We have two or three here that have the potential to go to the top,” he said.
When it’s all said and done, one of the 10 will get a gold trophy and the chance to work with a cup team.
One of the players behind “Humpy’s Heroes” is David Ragan, the driver of the UPS Ford. Others include drivers Kyle Petty, Kenny Wallace, Buddy Baker, former NASCAR compeition director Gary Nelson, and Hillenburg.
“This is not a ride-along program,” Wheeler said. “Each young driver’s ability has been recognized by motorsports insiders and they are being offered this opportunity because of the skill and tenacity demonstrated behind the wheel. Nowhere else in the industry will you find a program of this caliber available for serious racers that want to advance their career.”
The other heroes are Adam Gay of Dublin, Ga; Taylor Hull of Winston, Ga; Zac Kittle of Watkinsville, Ga; Will Prance of Canton, Ga; AndrewSmith of Pooler, Ga; Justin Swilling of Cohutta, Ga; Brandon Thomson of St. Cloud, Fla. and Josh Williams of Port Charlotte, Fla.