Great racecar drivers can make great racing teachers. We've seen that time and time again in this sport whether it has been Buddy Baker tutoring young USAC driver Ryan Newman or short track ace Freddie Query mentoring a number of young drivers, most recently Super Late Model's Johanna Long.
Kevin Cywinski, Mike Garvey and Andy Santerre have also all had to make the decision to race less, or not at all, and coach more. Now, another short track legend could be at the same crossroads of his career. Uncertain economic times and an eye to the future are leaving Gary St. Amant wondering what chapter comes next in his own racing career.
“Nothing is for certain,” admitted St. Amant to Speed51.com when asked of his plans for the 2009 season. “I'm a little nervous with the way that the economy is and being a short track racer for a number of years, you never really know where you'll end up when your [driving] career is over. I've hit that time where I have to think, 'Will I race or do something else?' I need to start making some decisions now for the future.”
Forcing St. Amant's hand somewhat is the fact that longtime supporter Jeg's is scaling back their support of him and the Tatman Motorsports team to that of an associate sponsor.
“Jeg's has been our primary sponsor for several years and with the economy the way that it is, they've cut back,” said St. Amant. “They've been a good friend of mine for years. They aren't just good people though, they have a good business as well.
“That has kind of left us in a hole as far as the funding to go racing. My owner Dwayne Tatman has all of the equipment and he is still looking at doing some Pro Cup racing or some Truck Series racing. The amount of funding available is what dictates how much we'll get to race.
“We also have our straight rail (Super Late Model) stuff and I'm definitely interested in doing more straight rail racing - with either myself driving or someone else in the car.”
St. Amant isn't bitter about the fact that he might have to step out of his racecar to let a younger and better-funded driver take his place. In fact, he'd love to try and work out a deal that would allow him to continue to do some driving, while also mentoring a young driver. He's seen some of his former competitors from the old ASA National Tour days, guys like Garvey and Cywinski, make that transition successfully and sees hope for a career after driving.
“That has a lot to do with it,” said St. Amant. “I still have a desire to race and I still love getting behind the wheel. I still love working on the racecars and everything that I've done for years. But when it comes to making a living, that is getting tougher and tougher. After seeing those guys do well using what they've learned over the years, I think that I can still offer to same types of things for up and coming stars.
“I would definitely like to do both. I feel that being hands on with the racecar and then driving it, you really know about the changes to the car and what is going on. I'd love to be involved in both ends if that is possible.”
Gone are the days though when a racer like St. Amant could use his talent and a strong work ethic to make a living a barnstorming short tracks.
“It is just the sign of the times,” said St. Amant. “When you think about where the world was back then compared to today, everything is different. It is frustrating, but the one thing that I do feel good about is that I was a part of it back then. It's good thinking about that and I know it has given me something to take on into the future.”
But, St. Amant doesn't subscribe to the theory that those days are gone forever. He predicts a resurgence for short track racing.
“You know, I think that there is a good chance of that. I kind of think that right now, short track racing is on an upswing. I know with the economy the way that it is, you would think that it wasn't. But I look and see less seats filled at the big racetracks and that means that more seats are filled at the short tracks. I think that the outlook for short track racing is great.
“I see it at our local racetrack in Columbus (Ohio). I go there a handful of times every year and definitely last year, I saw a big increase in the fans there and a slight increase in the car counts. I think that promoters know that they need to do more, but it is going in the right direction.”
In addition to being a great competitor with too many victories and championships to his name to count, Gary St. Amant is just a plain nice guy. That personality of his could be a huge asset when it comes to working with, and commuting to, a young driver.
“I go back through the years of my own racing and there were people who I helped along the way,” said St. Amant. “There was a guy named Buddy Gainey, whose father owned a big trucking company up in Michigan. His only experience was racing a Porsche is a club event and it was interesting to take someone like that and help them out. I found out what I could do with somebody who didn't have a lot of experience. I gave him some teaching and he picked right up on it.
“Over the years, I've helped out Jimmie Johnson a little bit and Landon Cassill. I wasn't like…well, I should say this…but a Mike Eddy who kept pretty much to themselves. That is a part of racing when you get an edge, you don't want to lose it…so you keep to yourself and your secrets to yourself. I didn't always do that.”
Next up for St. Amant will be a trip to Florida Speedweeks, where he will lend a hand to 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year Landon Cassill. With a ton of talent, but no firm plans to run a full season in any of NASCAR's big three divisions, Cassill is going to New Smyrna Speedway with a Crate Late Model - and St. Amant will be along to work as his spotter. In his downtime from the spotters' stand, St. Amant will be angling to get some support for himself and his race team.
“I feel the need to go down there and find some opportunities - with either a job or helping to get our team a little better funded so we can go racing. I have a great owner who has the equipment to do everything right. I want to do it and he wants to do it too. He would definitely take on a young driver and we have a lot to offer. We have the Late Models, Pro Cup cars and the Trucks. There is a lot there to work with.”