Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – NEW SMYRNA BEACH, FL – Nicholas Sanchez walked to the Rev Racing transporters in the New Smyrna Speedway infield looking for a bottle of water and a chance to take a deep breath. A huge smile on his face and maybe a little swagger in his step, Sanchez said he was just told he was quickest of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity candidates in their first on-track test session Wednesday morning.
“The car felt good and I’m really happy,’’ Sanchez said before joining the others for lunch during a break in action Wednesday afternoon.
The quick start was encouraging for the 18-year old Sanchez, originally from Miami but now living in Cornelius, North Carolina, to be closer to NASCAR’s traditional North Carolina hub. His background and his hopes are so typical of the 10 young racers invited to participate in this prestigious NASCAR combine.
There was a distinctive feeling of camaraderie among the competitors walking the track with evaluator and former NASCAR driver Mark Green before climbing in the cars for their first laps. For some of these young drivers, this combine is the first “chance of a lifetime” to show their skills on track and their personalities away from the track – both important to landing an opportunity to compete for Rev Racing in the NASCAR Late Model Stock, ARCA Menards Series East or Menards Showdown Series in 2020.
And their names are becoming familiar to those scouting the next generation of stock car talent.
Ryan Vargas, 19, a Californian who is now living in Concord, North Carolina, is back at the combine for the third time, only months removed from making his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut this summer.
He started 23rd and finished 17th in his first career national series start at the .875-mile Iowa Speedway in July. Then four weeks later showed his range of talent with an 18th-place finish on the Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, Road America road course after starting 33rd. He is a shining example of opportunity meeting promise and his achievements this year were cited and praised often by his fellow combine drivers.
At only 14-years old, Isabella Robusto, of Fort Mill, South Carolina, is the youngest candidate participating in the combine which incorporates a day of media and marketing training with a second day of on-track evaluation. For Rubusto the chance to drive in a late model stock car and absorb tips and motivations from her fellow racers was a huge reward in and of itself.
She comes from a Legends car background and – along with Rajah Caruth, 17, of Washington D.C. and Lavar Scott, 16, of Carney’s Pointe, New Jersey – was actually part of the Drive for Diversity Youth Driver Development Combine held earlier this year in Concord, North Carolina, for younger talent. She laughs explaining her start in racing – weekends with her father watching racing in the Carolinas and eventually putting together a full go-kart team before sharing the news with her mom that she was going to be competing in the sport.
Rubusto smiles telling the story of her start in the sport and said the family support has been solid and encouraging. Her whole community is beginning to realize how seriously she takes this pursuit. And that includes her school, where she is a straight-A ninth grader already taking more advanced science and math classes.
“I haven’t had a teacher that didn’t support me,’’ Rubusto said smiling.
Although she’s a “veteran” of sorts in the Drive for Diversity Youth Program, stepping up this weekend to the higher levels is a significant development for the young teen, who is approaching things with a measured approach.
“This is more of a learning weekend I’d say, to get used to the cars more,’’ Rubusto said. “I’ve been working on shifting and getting back to the gas. It’s so much different than the Legends cars.
“It’s crazy how much competition there is between the 10 of us. Most of us have raced with each other before – Gracie [Trotter], Nick [Sanchez], Chase [Cabre] , Rajah [Caruth] – we all race against each other but we’re friends at the same time.’’
That’s the definitive vibe. All these young drivers feel a mutual support system. But there is still a competitive element driving each of the racers. They are friendly at the track, but the big prize in a high-profile NASCAR series awaits and so performance and focus is key.
Many of his fellow drivers – and evaluators – already knew Caruth’s name even before he arrived in Daytona Beach. An eNASCAR Ignite Series standout, Caruth is now putting those virtual skills to use behind a real car. And earning praise.
“iRacing definitely has helped me a lot in terms of it being the first thing I started on and being able to race any race car in the world and learn different techniques, different driving styles, different crafts you wouldn’t get anywhere else,’’ Caruth said.
“It’s been pivotal and very helpful to me just to teach me the basics and especially some habits and tendencies you can carry over to real life and some you can’t – so that’s one of the things I was dealing with this summer, figuring out what translates and what doesn’t. But definitely wouldn’t be here without it.’’
For the 16-year old Scott, laps at New Smyrna’s famous half-mile in a late model couldn’t be more different than what he’s used to driving as a competitor in the 600 Micro Sprint Series around the Delaware and Pennsylvania dirt-tracks.
As with all these candidates, he has an intriguing backstory. His family actually comes from a drag racing background and Scott considers his mom to be the star of his racing family. His path to dirt track racing – and now cars – was more of an unintended series of events.
His older brother was too young to start drag racing and so the family let him race on dirt at the age of 5. Scott followed suit a couple years later. They loved the dirt racing so much, neither brother wanted to stick to the original plan of converting to drag racing. And now Scott has the opportunity of a lifetime with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Program.
In fact, Scott is optimistic that his diverse background will actually help him. As with so many of his fellow Diversity candidates this week, he raised the name of a fellow Diversity graduate as proof – Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series star Kyle Larson, who has advanced to the Round of 8 in the Cup Playoffs.
“It’s been very humbling meeting everyone here,’’ Scott said. “Ryan Vargas has already been in an Xfinity race, so it gives me hope there’s a chance I could be there too.
“When I was younger, I always looked at Kyle Larson because he came from dirt, sprint cars. He came from exactly where I’m at – now he’s in the Cup Series and if he can do it, I can do it and if I can do it, maybe some kid feels he can do it.
“It can open a lot of doors.’’
And already has.