T.J.’s Notebook: Gravel’s Opportunity Brings Optimism

David Gravel following his victory at the 59th annual Knoxville Nationals. (Mark Funderburk photo)

By T.J. Buffenbarger

(November 13, 2019) — The announcement David Gravel would drive select NASCAR Truck Series events for GMS Racing is interesting for the open wheel world. Having a talented driver plucked from the sprint car racing is not surprising, that’s been happening for decades. One thing that should have the entire auto racing fraternity rooting for Gravel to succeed is the fact this opportunity came to him at age 27.

Since the success of Jeff Gordon the talent scouting for the upper leagues of auto racing has become younger. While quarter midgets and karts have been around for decades divisions such as outlaw karts, micro sprints, and age limits being lowered on other divisions have seen more kids starting an extended racing career at a younger age.

This younger start has lowered the perceived shelf life of a driver for the upper echelons of racing. How often have we heard over the past 15 years that a driver has become “too old” to make the next step in their career.

The reality is some drivers develop later in their career. Not everyone possesses the natural gifts of a Kyle Larson or Christopher Bell. There are some drivers that take longer for that natural ability to come out or develop the learned skills to become a better racer. In some cases, a driver may not get a quality opportunity to showcase their skills until later in life.

Think about your own career outside of racing. To be considered washed up in your mid 20’s is almost unthinkable in many lines of work. Think about the changes in maturity and view on life most people gain in the late 20’s and early 30’s. While some of the “bravery” might vanish (I use the term loosely) user of wisdom gained through experience makes up for.

One thing working against some of the drivers is seeing them hang up their helmets a younger age. If you think about how serious some of the youth racing divisions have become these kids have raced pseudo professionally since they were early teenagers. We’re seeing more drivers leave the sport at an earlier age because of not getting that big-league opportunity, being burned out, or managing their money wisely enough to be able to do so. I can see why a larger race team would like to obtain a driver early in life and get as many years out of them as possible if they are going to leave the driver seat at middle age.

Two of the last three years Gravel has taken his sprint car career to another level. He’s shown promise for a while, but two double digit win seasons and a strong second half of the 2019 season winning the Knoxville Nationals and finishing third in the World of Outlaws points is major step forward. To have 50 World of Outlaws victories before age 30 is a testament to how much better Gravel has become the past several years.

Gravel has developed a lot of the skills needed to make it at the next level. Hopefully people will look more at his on-track result than age as he continues his progression through the ranks. If he performs well, he should continue to gain opportunities to climb the racing career ladder.

Other notes…

• November has started on a sad note with the loss of two well known people in the racing industry, Mike Streicher and Randy Sweet.

I was settling with a cup of coffee at my desk when I learned of Streicher’s passing. Shocked would not begin to describe my emotions reading the news. Our recent conversations used to revolve around his love of the VW midget car engine and its use at the Chili Bowl Nationals and his infrequent return to the driver’s seat which thankfully Bill Miller seemed to frequently be on hand to capture for us.

Streicher is on a short list of people that I could leave a conversation with information that made me better at this job. His technical knowledge and ability were only surpassed by the skills he had to teach it to others. It will be strange to not cross paths with him a couple of times this upcoming season or randomly see his name pop up in the box score at Montpelier Motor Speedway when he wants to try something.

Anyone that has been involved in racing in the Michigan area for any length of time has a good Randy Sweet story. I’ll never forget following him around for a bit in what was billed as his final start in a sprint car at Kalamazoo Speedway. Randy was always on the go looking for the next challenge as during my lifetime I saw him compete in person driving super late models, sprint cars, supermodifieds, and the radical rocket car he would take around the country to break track records.

One particular memory that stands out was Sweet putting Tony Stewart in his outlaw super late model for the first time for a Wednesday night special in the early 2000’s at Berlin Raceway was magical. Afterwards they signed every autograph in the pit area with Randy getting as much attention as Stewart back in a time where NASCAR was in its heyday.

The past several years Sweet was around the local dirt sprint car scene as his company, Sweet Manufacturing, developed new components.

Both men will be missed greatly by the entire racing community.

• While a lot of focus will be on the various USAC Sprint Car Championships up for grabs at the Western World the USAC National and Western States Midget Series start a run of major events over the next few weeks with the Western World, Hangtown 100 at Placerville, Bakersfield, and Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura. Starting with the west coast the list of guest stars lined up to run the races are impressive including World of Outlaws champion Brad Sweet and host of others.

• The news of the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway contract being terminated by the fair board is likely not good news for the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series. While I was critical of the layout it was easy to see that Nashville was a great market for the series. The location and history of the Fairgrounds track added some clout to a new event that played to large crowds both nights. Hopefully something can be worked out to keep the Outlaws in the Nashville market.

• Officials from the Lawton and Devil’s Bowl Speedway announced the World of Outlaws would return to Lawton for the 2020 season for the first time since 1985. The event at Lawton is scheduled for Friday May 1, 2020 with Devil’s Bowl the following night, taking that program down to a one-day show.

• The shift in the 2020 NASCAR schedule putting the Brickyard 400 on Saturday July 5th also shifted the BC 39 midget car race to July 1-2. Will that being a holiday week have a positive or negative impact on the event? Personally, I should be able to attend for the first time as that week is far less busy than September.