Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – NEW SMYRNA, FL – As Mark Green took the group of 12 eager young drivers up the New Smyrna Speedway banking for a track walk Tuesday morning, the connection between the veteran NASCAR racer and those dreaming of their own NASCAR opportunity was obvious.
The members of this NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine came to New Smyrna from places like Washington state and Mexico City. Some were fresh-faced high school students, and some were college-aged. They spoke a variety of languages, had diverse life backgrounds and brought impressive racing resumes.
They share another important trait. They all want to eventually make a living competing in NASCAR’s highest professional divisions. And this combine, in conjunction with REV Racing, was opportunity with a capital O.
Before the young drivers climbed into the late model cars for 15-lap morning and afternoon sessions under the keen eye of longtime NASCAR officials, Green walked the group around the half-mile, high-banked track. “Consistency” was the word of the day, the direct path to an evaluator’s nod.
“It’s not about a one quick lap, but also about how you leave pit road,’’ he cautioned. “Remember to relax, to breath and not to be nervous.
“And,’’ he said stopping on track and smiling in emphasis, “Don’t do anything crazy and don’t wreck.’’
“Si,” they all responded in unison.
“Si,” he said smiling again, the Kentucky native with a thick Southern drawl conceding he didn’t speak much other Spanish.
“Si. That’s something we can all agree upon.”
The group, which had been listening intently dropped their serious faces and shared a big laugh. The exchange assuaged the natural nervousness of such a potentially life-changing chance. The combine presents two fully-funded NASCAR K&N Series rides as well as two NASCAR Late Model Series season rides. And a productive showing on those stages will undoubtedly draw the attention of those who may ultimately hire one of these drivers in a national series one day.
Longtime Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Tony Glover – who directed Sterling Marlin to a pair of Daytona 500 victories (1994-95) at the “big track” a few minutes up State Road 44 – was on the headset with the young drivers as they ran laps. Brett Bodine, a star Cup driver in his own right and now the Cup series’ pace car driver, was among those evaluating the drivers.
The selection process alone to earn a spot in the combine was a major hurdle – with team representatives, NASCAR executives and even former Drive for Diversity drivers- turned Cup superstars Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez having input in the selection process.
In the three-day combine, the 12 drivers worked diligently both on-track and off-track. Their media interviews and fitness tests along with video of their hot laps at New Smyrna will be evaluated by the D4D committee, which will then announce this offseason who has been selected for the 2019 rides.
“With this combine being the advanced level of the Drive for Diversity program, we have a really strong class, really experienced with a lot of racing background already,’’ said Jusan Hamilton, of NASCAR’s Racing Operations and Event Management team and the administrator of the combine.
“This year having that input from a variety of backgrounds – general managers and team owners from the national level as well as alumni drivers, that has led us to a really strong class – one I think that once it’s narrowed down, can be really successful. The program’s goal is to give these drivers a platform to climb.’’
The enthusiasm for the process and the respect of the outcome was immediately obvious as the drivers went from one task to another – some more familiar with the exercises than others. The highlight, of course, was time behind the wheel.
The drivers placed their helmets – ranging from solid black to bright purple, some with logos and some plain – on a pit-side table. Those that weren’t driving or on-deck to drive, found a spot atop one of REV Racing’s team haulers to watch the others.
Ryan Vargas, a high school senior from California who turned 18 a month ago, was first up on track. This is the second consecutive D4D Combine Vargas has been invited to participate in. He is a two-time NASCAR Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award winner (2016-17) who began competing primarily in his home state at some of the same famed small tracks in Irwindale and Kern County where Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contender Kevin Harvick began his career.
This week marked the first time Vargas had driven a late model stock car on Goodyear bias ply tires and there was no practice in the combine’s cars before Tuesday’s lap sessions. How he – and the others – adapt is exactly part of the evaluation process.
“I don’t know how they decided, there might have been a drawing, but I saw that I was first out and thought, ‘okay, that’s great,’” said Vargas with a grin. “It got me out first and I feel with the lap times I laid and the consistency I showed hopefully it stacks well.
“[Being back this year] there’s a sense of confidence, I feel more relaxed, I’ve done it before. You know the people here and who you’re competing against. You go in and you just say, “I’ve done this before and I can do better.’”
It’s a familiar refrain for several of the 12 drivers participating.
As with Vargas, Brittney Zamora, 19, of Kennewick, Wa., is returning for another chance to impress the committee. She’s been recognized by legendary racer Lyn St. James and the Women’s Sports Foundation, and she is also a returning participant in the Diversity Driver Development Combine. Zamora competes in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series and is the 2017 Northwest Super Late Model Series champion after earning Rookie of the Year in the series last year. She also has been tabbed by Toyota Racing Development and done some late model races in California with them.
“I’m here for the same goal, trying to get the K&N ride with REV Racing,’’ she said smiling. “But it’s nice coming back to the combine knowing a little more what to expect. It’s nice to have a heads-up on what we’re doing and be a little more prepared.
“It’s cool to be a girl and get more girls involved. But I’m here to be the best driver and do the best I can on the track. I leave gender off the table.’’
The benefits of the combine invite? “The exposure and getting to be evaluated against the other drivers, it’s cool to see how I stack up,” Zamora said.
Joining Vargas and Zamora are Chase Cabre, Ernie Francis Jr., Rubén Garcia Jr., Juan Manuel González, Loris Hezemans, Perry Patino, Nick Sanchez, Brooke Storer, Ryu Taggart, and Gracie Trotter. About half are making their debut at the combine.
“I’m proud to be accepted into this. It’s a great opportunity for me. … I’m very fortunate,” said Storer, 20, a third-generation Florida racer who is also taking college classes at Rasmussen College while pursuing her driving career.
The Land O’ Lakes native won a race at New Smyrna just a few weeks ago in the American Auto Sportsman Series.
“It was definitely a good confidence boost coming into this,’’ she said.
Garcia, 22, is hoping this combine translates into a quick next step. The Mexico City native has been to four combines and has shown his capability racing fulltime this season in both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and NASCAR Peak Mexico. He competed for REV Racing in the K&N Series winning twice and finished third in the title chase, a point behind second place.
“It’s tough to get the funding you need, but that’s what we’re trying to do,’’ Garcia said. “We’re trying to use all the momentum we’ve built up this season and if we can accomplish one more win and get a championship [in the Mexico Series].
“I’m happy with the way the year is going and how things are coming together, but I feel it’s time to move up and take the next step.
“In my career, this [combine] has made the biggest progress for me. Without this program I never would have considered moving to the U.S. and racing. That’s what you have to do if you want to race fulltime in NASCAR. You need to be here and have the exposure in front of the people you need to, show your skills to people looking for drivers and that’s what this program gave me – the tools and opportunity to be a better driver inside and outside the race car.’’
It rained some early Tuesday, inadvertently giving the NASCAR hopefuls a lesson in rain delays too. But their enthusiasm and talent were on full display when it mattered most. They showed up with impressive resumes and high hopes and left the combine ensuring that the sport was on the right track.
“Being a part of REV Racing and all that Max [Siegel] and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program have given me is incredible,” added Garcia. “I’ve been put under a spotlight and to be honest, it starts out as a dream and goal but then when you get to this level, it’s like, ‘holy cow, this is real, it could be a difference maker.
“It’s definitely an incredible experience. ‘’