The new look Drive for Diversity Combine presented by Sunoco entered the on-track portion Monday, as all 30 drivers climbed into Late Models for individual practice sessions at the Motor Mile Speedway.
Earlier this year, The 909 Group – which manages the Drive for Diversity initiative on behalf of NASCAR – announced the formation of Revolution Racing and the introduction of an ‘academy style’ training program that will feature six NASCAR Whelen All-American Series drivers and four NASCAR Camping World Series drivers under the same roof.
“We wanted to get the best possible candidates in the program,” said Max Siegel, CEO of The 909 Group. “Once they were in the program we wanted to get consistently good equipment so we could evaluate them against each other and their progress over the year. We also wanted to get them more seat time, training, coaching, best in class operators and wanted to measure the overall progress of the program.
“What we've done is we've gotten the resources in place so all of the participants have a fair shot at seeing how far their talent will take them.”
The selection process for those 10 spots got underway with initial activities over the weekend at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, which included racing in Legends cars Sunday. Monday at Motor Mile also include driving simulation with iRacing.com.
For Mackena Bell of Carson City, Nev., who drove a Super Late Model at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale, Calif., the additions were a new – and welcome – wrinkle.
“This year, I came here kind of expecting similarities, and it’s been completely different,” Bell said. “I think everybody is on an equal playing field. Everything has been so different this year and I think the new approach to the academy style training to the D4D program will be a great success.”
For the 2010 season, the drivers will compete under the same Late Model racing program with Blair Addis. The Camping World Series cars will be under the direction of Andy Santerre. Both have been successful car owners with their own programs before joining Revolution Racing.
Drivers from a variety of backgrounds earned invitations to the Combine, which was conducted for the second time at Motor Mile, a .416-mile banked oval.
Among the drivers that earned invitations included Jorge Arteaga from the NASCAR Mexico Series; Paulie Harraka, who was 2009 NASCAR Camping World Series West Sunoco Rookie of the Year driving for D4D; Sloan Henderson and Natalie Sather, who earned NASCAR Whelen All-American Series rookie of the year honors running Late Models in Ohio and Washington, respectively; Jason Romero, who captured the Late Model championship at All American Speedway in Roseville, Calif.; and a trio of 16-year-olds, Ali Kern, Sergio Pena and Darrell Wallace Jr.
“We've had some very talented drivers over the life of the program and we're all very proud of the opportunity that NASCAR and the D4D program has produced for those drivers,” said Marcus Jadotte, managing director of public affairs for NASCAR. “There is no question in my mind that top to bottom this is the best group that we've seen.”
While some drivers are making return trips to the Combine, others like Ryan Gifford of Winchester, Tenn., are here for the first time.
“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Gifford said. “I feel very fortunate to be part of the Combine. I think it will benefit me tremendously, and I think it will benefit all the drivers that are part of the Combine. It’s given everyone a great opportunity to go out and show their talents.”
The on-track portion of the program will conclude Tuesday with a select number of drivers testing in NASCAR Camping World Series cars.
Bell was one of the many success stories for the D4D program in 2009, improving throughout the year and becoming the first female to record a podium finish in Toyota Speedway’s top division.
“I got to do so many things this year,” Bell said, “and without the Drive for Diversity program, I wouldn’t even be fortunate enough to be in a race car. I am very thankful to be back in the program this year – at the Combine – and am just hoping we can get a spot on Revolution Racing and we can excel from there.”