Scouting has always been a big part most sports in America. There are talent scouts at tiny baseball fields and high school gyms where basketball games are held. But the path to success in stock car racing has already been a little bit different. In fact, there are several paths. The road to NASCAR's big leagues could start out in Legends cars, open-wheeled machines or Late Models. Eventually, someone will spend enough money or turn enough heads to move up a level or two. Repeat this process a few times and you could end up in one of the “Big Three” NASCAR Series.
There is one man in the sport though that would like to see something other than check or chance pick who moves up in the sport. David Smith has been running a “motorsports scouting network” at www.DavidSmithMotorsports.com for awhile now - and his knowledge is getting the attention of some big teams and decision-makers in the sport. It may even help change how drivers are selected in the top levels of NASCAR - bringing it closer to other American sports.
“I've always been a fan of what Mel Kiper does for ESPN - I purchase his pre-NFL Draft guides every year - and I don't even have a favorite NFL team,” said Smith. “I'm really just a student of the process. The idea for ranking drivers came after reading 'Ring Magazine,' which ranks boxers by weight class. My final product is essentially a molding between those two entities.”
Ironically, Smith grew up in the shadows of NASCAR's two biggest tracks. He lived in both Talladega, Alabama and Daytona Beach, Florida but still gravitated towards the short track of both areas. That is where he began to recognize talent by watching two great American short trackers firsthand.
“Obviously, I'm partial to restrictor plate racing but those two cities had a big short track following as well,” said Smith. “Red Farmer is always a draw at Talladega Short Track and in Daytona, I lived about 10 miles from New Smyrna Speedway. I'd estimate that I've witnessed David Rogers win more races than any other driver I've ever watched. NASCAR always had a presence in my life, but to me, the World Series of Asphalt meant just as much as Speedweeks at the big track did. I basically linked the two together by taking it upon myself to research young drivers who had the ability to make the leap from Saturday night racing to Sunday afternoon racing.”
Smith never got very far away from those short tracks either. That is where you'll still find him most of the time.
“Every weekend, and sometimes there will be a Nationwide or Truck Series race mixed in but it's a weekly process. It's a physical impossibility for me to be everywhere at once so I like to mix up the venue. So far in 2009, I've been to the Chili Bowl, the World Series, two Camping World East races, the West Series race in Phoenix, and have seen ASA Southeast, UARA, Pro Cup, ARCA, and just this week the first round of the Legends/Bandoleros Summer Shootout at Lowe's Motor Speedway. I've still got some USAC races to hit up this year, some ASA Late Model races, CRA, the Slinger Nationals, the Governor's Cup at New Smyrna, and the Snowball Derby.
“I'm a fan of watching tape or loading my DVR with race broadcasts but there isn't a substitute for actually being there. Observing these drivers in real time really enhances their individuality.”
Smith uses his observations to rank young drivers. His DSM Rankings look at the top 75 prospects out there along with his blackboard feature for short track rising talent. A third list ranks drivers who are involved in one of the major NASCAR series, like Brad Keselowski and Colin Braun, on their prospects for NASCAR Cup stardom.
Whenever you rank drivers like that, there are bound to be some hurt feelings and disagreements. After all, there are certainly a few egos in the sport. But Smith hasn't had much trouble with the drivers that he ranks. Their parents though? Well, that's another story.
“Drivers are pretty grounded about things,” said Smith. “If they feel differently about what I say about them or how I rank them, they've yet to proclaim it to my face. But I think for the most part they know if they win races against stout competition, I'll reward them accordingly.
“The parents on the other hand...wow, they can be a handful sometimes. When I first started my website I was flooded with parents who politicked for their kids like a college scholarship was at stake. Last year it took a different turn because parents seemed to be putting down other drivers that their kids raced against instead of promoting their own child.
“For the most part, the parents are genuine, good people but there are some out there that don't enjoy spending some quality family time at the short track and instead question what other kids are doing or trying to get their kids to the Cup Series by the time they're 18. Racing really brings families together and for the select few drivers that make it to the NASCAR level, they understand that at that point in their careers, it's a business. The most fun a driver is going to have in racing is on the journey to NASCAR, racing at short tracks and traveling to races with their families.”
Smith has been doing his thing for quite some time now and he has seen a few drivers go on to win races at the Cup level. Who does he think has been his biggest “find” so far?
“Right now, I'd say that would be Denny Hamlin because to the NASCAR world, he came out of nowhere,” said Smith. “He really didn't. He won a ton of races on the Carolina-Virginia Late Model Stock scene and I felt that if he were to get a shot, he had the speed and the smoothness that could translate well to the Cup level. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., and Joey Logano had so much hype built around them that everyone jumped on the bandwagon but Denny, for the most part, was under the radar. I feel I got that right with Brad Keselowski too and I feel like Matt DiBenedetto is on his way to becoming the next driver to go from little publicity to overnight success.”
Smith get a small sense of satisfaction when he watches a Cup race these days and can remember certain top stars of the present who he got to watch before the rest of the racing world.
“I do, especially with a first win. I take some enjoyment when something like Denny Hamlin winning the Bud Shootout happens and the next day every national media publication pens the "Where did he come from?" article. It's not really a chest-thumping thing for me but more of a satisfaction that that particular driver just realized their potential. But that kind of thing also instills a belief for younger drivers to continue pursuing their dreams and opens up the pipeline a little bit for those drivers to possibly receive an opportunity of their own.”
But nobody is perfect and there have been a few drivers along the way who Smith might have thought were “sure things” and just haven't been.
“I was a big advocate of Ryan Moore and I also thought that Ryan Hemphill could have had a journey-man like career in NASCAR. Both actually had legitimate opportunities with DEI and Ganassi, respectively, but nothing materialized. I feel like James Civali had all the makings of being a superstar. He was hot-tempered, lights-out fast, and was the one driver who made you leave the track with your jaw dropped. Unfortunately, he came along at a time when the pipeline from Modifieds to the Big Three was primarily closed. I'm worried now that the same thing might happen with Bobby Santos because he's an excellent talent in his own right and could come into the Cup Series right now and be effective.”
Smith is in a great position to know what seems to work and what doesn't when it comes to a racing ladder to the top. He has recognized trends and see a few in the sport right now.
“As of this moment, I'd say the biggest trend would be stability behind the wheel of a big car,” said Smith. “Take the Sean Caisse deal for instance. He was signed by Richard Childress Racing - it wasn't a money deal - and the reasoning behind it was that RCR wanted someone who they believed could be a Kyle Busch-like talent that they knew could get the job done in a big car. Caisse has proven that he can lead laps and win races in a big car so it certainly wasn't a far-fetched thought. Because of the current economic climate, teams have less flexibility to gamble on young drivers but they know that there is still a need to develop homegrown talent. Justin Allgaier and Scott Lagasse Jr. got similar deals at the end of last year. Experience and a sterling record in bigger cars is the current top priority.”
But even as involved as he is in watching drivers move up, Smith knows that the biggest priority in the sport should be not even worrying about moving up. He offered the following sound advice to young drivers.
“Race because you like winning or race because you have fun doing it, but don't race because it's a means to an end. If a driver gets too consumed with landing a development deal and doesn't make the best out of what he or she is doing at the present time, that opportunity will never present itself. And I've seen it happen. The thing is, that deal is a big rarity nowadays. It's likely not going to happen. So the opportunity to make your own luck, whether it's racing a Legends car, a Late Model, or a Modified is right there in front of you. Take advantage of that first, win races, and then the recognition will come.”