The world of Motorsports is a world of business and professional aptitude that many would claim is not fit for children. On the contrary, the sport is seeing the age of the drivers dip lower and lower as the talent seems to be keyed on at younger ages. Many drivers get their start in racing before their tenth birthday, myself, starting at the age of 5. Generally at that age there is competition but the influence of politics, media, and marketing is not present yet. Fast forward around 10 years now. Drivers are starting to make their climb to stardom at a much younger age. They are placed in professional atmospheres, high-pressure situations, and given opportunities that most people three times their age wouldn’t even be able to comprehend. Personally, I feel that the position these kids are placed in is causing them to mature at a much faster rate and grow up quicker that the average kid their age. I don’t think it would be right to allow someone irresponsible or unprofessional behind the wheel of something so expensive and intricate if they are not mentally capable.
A perfect example of young drivers making their mark in the world of NASCAR can be found in the K&N East/West Pro Series. Being able to race in the series at the ripe age of 15 allows for many young drivers to prove they have what it takes. Last year, 15 year old Gray Gaulding took the marketing world by storm when he announced he would be running K&N East with the assistance of Krispy Kreme as a primary sponsor. With such a corporate sponsor, eyes were on the “child” to observe if he could handle the pressure. Outstandingly, Gaulding proved to be a marketing machine for the company at such a young age. Gaulding then went on to win the last race of the K&N West Series schedule in Phoenix, AZ. With so many eyes on him the question was if he would cave into pressures and be able to hold his own in a world ran by adults. Gaulding proved he could hang when he was also chosen as one of NASCAR’s NEXT drivers. The NEXT program is a group of young NASCAR drivers that are spotlighted by participating in multiple marketing and media events held by the program. The selected are expected to make it in the top ranks of NASCAR in the following years. What average teenager would be able to professionally handle the media attention all while keeping composure, marketing for sponsors, and acting a solid 5+ years older than their age.
Obviously, growing up in such a professional world has had its impact on these kid’s childhoods. Matt Tifft, a 17 year old K&N East driver took some time to talk to me about how racing makes young kids grow up quicker.
"It’s such a high pressure, high intensity environment. I feel if you’re not mature enough to handle the circumstances given driving at 150+ mph, you can’t be in this sport.” Matt stated when asked why these kids, such as himself, mature faster.
Since many of us young racers have grown up at the track, there are definite aspects of the “average life” that we have missed out on. Personally, I chose to be at the track instead of high school functions and chose to graduate a year early to pursue racing. Matt took a similar route.
“I’ve missed out on going to some Friday nights, going to friend’s houses and parties all the time," he stated. "But I wouldn’t say it has affected me all that much. I think the sacrifice on giving up on that is well worth it.”
Many would agree that the average aspects of life we have given up on are all worthwhile when it comes down to it. In the future, these kids will definitely have an upper hand in the “real world” considering they have been in it just as long as some of their older acquaintances. Tifft agrees as he claims the lifestyle he currently lives will help in the future.
“It will give me the use tools that I will have mastered already, such as dealing with people, relations with companies, etc., that most people take longer to develop," Matt said. "It will help me be a better business person and a more rounded person since us drivers have to deal with so many situations already.”
All in all, I feel that there are positive aspects and negative aspects to growing up in the world of Motorsports. As most would claim though, the sacrifices and negative consequences are well worth it as many chase the dream of one day becoming one of NASCAR’s elite drivers. With that opportunity comes the understanding of the world of Motorsports, business, marketing partnerships, and the liability and trust put in any young driver. I challenge you to strike a conversation with one of the notable young, up and coming racers. I guarantee you their maturity and mannerism will surprise you as their mentality doesn’t fit their physical stature.