By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by Sports Xchange
You may not know it, but there's a good chance several of the young drivers you're watching in the Summer Shootout Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- or in the July 2-3 Legends Big Money 100 at the short track on the frontstretch at CMS -- are destined for bigger things in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
More than a handful of drivers in the Cup garage -- among them Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- honed their skills at an early age in Legends Cars.
But when drivers such as Earnhardt, Joey Logano and David Ragan were competing in the series as teenagers, or pre-teens as the case may be, they weren't competing for purses of $100,000. That's what's on the line for drivers of all ages who will race at Charlotte next Monday and Tuesday.
If the purses weren't as substantial, however, the experience was invaluable.
"You can go down through the garage today and look at myself and Joey Logano, Reed Sorenson, Kyle and Kurt Busch -- even Dale Jr. drove some Legends cars when he was younger," said Ragan, who fielded the winning car for Kyle Plott in last year's Big Money race and finished second himself.
"I think in another 10 or 15 years that over half, maybe three-quarters of the garage of Sprint Cup racers are going to have some experience in Legends cars."
The Legends series was an integral part of Logano's development as a driver, even before he was technically old enough to compete. Logano moved from Connecticut to Georgia when he was 9 and drove a Bandolero. Six months later, he graduated to Legends, even though the minimum age for those cars was 12.
"We ran (the Bandolero) for about a half a year, and then we bought a Legends car when I was about nine and a half," Logano said. "I started practicing, and I had the whole fake birth certificate and everything, and I would try to go racing at certain places -- and it worked for a while."
Now a lanky 6-foot-1, Logano, 22, was undersized for his age until he was 16 and caught a growth spurt. But even at age 9, he was feisty, as he proved during a race at Albany, Ga., where all the Legends divisions competed together.
"This guy was behind me -- a big dude with a butch haircut, huge guy," Logano said. "It was me and my dad down there, south Georgia. We're a couple of people from Connecticut, so we don't fit in as it is. He moved me out of the way, so in the next corner I dumped him. I'm 9 years old, a little kid. He gets out of his car and comes over to me.
"He's huge, probably 30-some years old. He picks me up, and at this point my old man is like, 'Whoa.' He picked me right up and said, 'You go, little guy. I moved you out of the way, and you got me right back. Way to go!' And I'm like, 'Put me down, put me down.' It was pretty funny. It was pretty cool what he did."
Obviously, the early-age training did wonders for Logano, who debuted in the Legends pro division when he turned 12, won a national championship that year and was a full-time Cup driver with Joe Gibbs Racing when he turned 19.
Ragan, on the other hand, didn't drive a Legends car until he was 14, but he believes it's the ideal series for a young driver who wants to advance through the ranks.
"There's no doubt that Legends cars are THE place to start for several reasons," said Ragan, who drives the No. 34 Ford in the Sprint Cup series for Front Row Motorsports. "They're safe. They're one of the safer forms of motorsports for young kids. You're in a completely enclosed roll cage. You wear a head-and-neck restraint system. You have fire bottles on board -- just a good, good race car.
"They're fairly inexpensive to race. You don't have to buy tires every week. The engine rebuilds once a year are easy on the wallet, versus some of the other types of short-track racing, where you have to buy multiple sets of tires for the race weekend, and you have to travel a long distance.
"The best reason why the Legends series is the perfect place for a young kid is that they're hard to drive. They have a lot of horsepower, the tires don't grip as well, and the competition is very, very close. With the talent these young kids have, they can tune their skills at a very young age. It teaches them some very good habits."