THE STATE OF NASCAR’S SOUTHEAST SERIES by Matthew Dillner
Is The Series What It Once Was?
Singer, songwriter Bob Dylan once said, 'The times are a changin'. For NASCAR’s Southeast Series, it’s just as the song says.
The series, formerly known as All Pro, has been a cornerstone of Late Model style racing in the South for many years. In recent years, a decline in car counts and a shrunken schedule (the series only ran 10 races in 2003) have raised many questions as to its strength.
Is the Southeast Series in trouble? Is the series what it once was? How much talent is in the Series? These are all questions that many in the Short Track world have been asking lately.
When NASCAR took over the All American Challenge
Series in the early 90's to form the NASCAR All Pro Series, it was a hotbed for Short Track racers to compete. It was THE stepping stone to the big leagues of NASCAR. Rick Crawford, Scott Riggs, Jason Keller, Bobby Hamilton Jr., and most recently David Reutimann, have all used the Southeast Series to graduate to “big-time” racing.
Being a stepping stone to Trucks, Busch and Cup is a positive sign of good health in a series. But the Southeast Series has also lost many of its best drivers, not to the upper levels of the sport, but rather to other Short Track series.
The Southeast Series no longer has veteran powerhouses such as Mike Cope, Hal Goodson and Freddie Query on its roster. Guys like Cope, Mike Garvey and Toby Porter have gone on to have success in the ASA series. Billy Bigley Jr. and Bobby Gill are enjoying the riches of the Hooters Pro Cup Series. Wayne Anderson, although he has returned on two occasions this year, is stealing all the big bucks out of the Florida Super Late Model scene. And last seasons' SES champ Charlie Bradberry is looking to run anything he can, from Trucks to Late Models, but has chosen not to defend his title and run a full season in the Southeast Series.
Many point the finger to poor purses as the reason why the Southeast Series has lost its veteran core of drivers over time.
“There aren't as many names as there used to be,” says Southeast Series driver Dusty Williams. “You used to have Wayne Anderson, Mike Cope and Billy Bigley. It doesn't carry the weight that it did five years ago.
“The older guys are a lot wiser and they don't stay here because they know to go where the money is at. Hooter's (Pro Cup) pays over twice what this does. I don't think that, unless you have a big sponsor, you can even make a living
What is the state of the Southeast Series? We take a look here. (51 Photos)
out of racing here in the Southeast Series. That is possible in Hooters. That is what Bobby Gill does. He's all but given up on the thought of running a Busch Series or Cup race. He has found a niche where he can make a living and be in the black at the end of the year. They just don't pay enough over here and that is the bottom line.”
While some of the big names are gone, a new list of young drivers have stepped up in the Southeast Series ranks. Although a casual fan may not know their names, the series is rich with a good amount of little-known and under-exposed racing talent.
“You've got to look at it as a new crop of drivers,” says 2002 Southeast Series Rookie of the Year Jason Hogan. “A new bunch of guys that are ready to step it up. It's not all bad that the Query's, the Reutimann's, the Bigley's aren't here, they have just stepped up. They have done everything they can do here so why stick around? You've got new guys in here now that if you give them a little while, they will be just as tough.”
And veteran Jeff Fultz agrees. The 2002 Series champ claims that the talent in this series is just as potent as it was when he first entered the ranks in 1996.
“We don't have Goodson, Cope and Bigley. Those veterans have moved on to do something else and now the younger
ones are coming in,” says Fultz. “The Jason Hogan’s, the JR Norris'; they have so much talent. We just aren't looking at that because we don't have 70 cars anymore.”
The car counts have certainly been an issue of concern for many, but most Short Track Racing Series and local tracks across America are faced with the same problem. Getting a strong field of cars to race week in and week out is one of the biggest challenges a touring series faces.
The Southeast Series has averaged a little more than 23 cars per event this season, which isn't all that bad, but based on the series' history of car counts, some aren't impressed.
“You don't have 25 strong cars anymore, says Fultz. “You used to have 15 to 20 cars that could win, this year you have 12 good cars. You used to be able to pull 100 cars at Nashville back then and now you have 30.
Just a couple of years ago, Billy Bigley was a regular with the Southeast (then All Pro) Series. Now, he is a ProCup Series driver.
There are some talented young guns in SES now, like Robert Richardson (left) and JR Norris (right), but it isn't like it used to be.
“It's the economy and the way they pay. The pay is terrible. When you can't afford to come to these races, it doesn't pay to come here. When you don't win you are going to lose money. The only way to break even is to win. These transporters, these cars, motors and tire bills cost so much money. The people who are doing this are doing this because they love it. It's taking a bunch of guys with big wallets to make it work over here and that is why you have a small car count.”
“Why this series hurts is it doesn't pay as much as it should,” says Hogan. “You pay 5-to-6-thousand dollars just to race and it only pays 4-thousand to win. That's why some of the drivers have left and the numbers are down.”
SES veteran Kevin Prince thinks it's more than just the money that has affected car counts.
“In my opinion I think that is the biggest thing that hurt the car count was going to a perimeter car,” claims Prince. “The biggest thing is when you used to be able to run the offset car you would have your local regulars come out and see if they could run with us. When they went to the perimeter car, you don't have that anymore. I think going to a perimeter car was good when we are going to these big tracks like Kentucky for safety reasons, but it really hurt the car counts.”
Prince and a bunch of his fellow competitors also pointed out that a lack of television coverage has stunted the Southeast Series growth. With television being such a big part of series like ASA and Hooter's Pro Cup, the NASCAR Touring Series’ have had sporadic coverage on the tube. When NASCAR Touring racing is on TV, it has mainly focused on the NASCAR Grand National Series (18 races on Speed) or the Featherlite Modified crowd (two races on Speed), ignoring the Elite Divisions.
The veteran drivers are migrating to the series with television so they can sell that to a sponsor. The young drivers are going to where the TV is in hopes of being discovered.
Jeff Fultz is one of the remaining veterans of the series and he shows a state of concern for the fukture of the series.
“The series really needs television time,” say Prince. “Another reason the car counts are down is because how much it costs to run this deal. And there is nothing you can give a sponsor better that TV time. You go ask a company for 100-thousand dollars and they say 'How many times am I gonna be on TV?' It costs around that and a little more to run this deal.
“If you had television you would have teams coming here to run because they could get sponsors. Look at what Hooters Pro Cup has done in the seven to eight years they've had their deal. The races are televised and the teams get sponsorship.”
“What's killing the field is the purse and the TV situation,” states Hogan. “ASA and Hooters have television. We are having a hard time getting sponsors for the deal without some sort of TV. We can't give them as much because all we can say is we are going around to some of the best short tracks in the Southeast. They need to up the purses, get a TV deal and promote these races more.”
Going into the 2004 season, only two current drivers, Jeff Fultz and Steven Howard, had been to victory lane in a Southeast Series race. The stat is a true indicator to how much this series is in a transitional phase.
One thing all drivers want to see is a little TV exposure for the series.
“I would compare it to that,” says Hogan. “It's like a re-building year. You're not going to have everyone stay here forever. This is not a series where you'll have someone make a career out of it. This is designed to help us to advance our careers. So it is like a baseball or football team having a re-building year. “
While some of the old names are now just pencil sketches on an old scorecard, new names like Jason Hogan, JR Norris and Erik Darnell are sharp and bright on a new sheet of paper.
The series all-time most winning driver and two-time champ Wayne Anderson doesn't want to be erased from the record books and has returned to run a few races with the series
recently. Will more veteran drivers like Anderson return and try to give the new look SES boys a lesson?
With or without the names of the past, the series appears as though it may be on the right path, although it is obvious that it needs some TLC to assist in its growth. And with a little help from NASCAR, and some good exposure, it should remain one of the most well known Short Track Series in America.
The future Cup, Buch and/or Truck successes of guys like Jason Hogan (above), Erik Darnell, JR Norris, Chris Davidson and others might help.