Kevin Harvick, who has won a remarkable three consecutive races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, feels NASCAR, from the drivers to the sanctioning body, should invest more to re-energize short track racing.
During a postrace press conference at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona on Sunday, the 2014 NASCAR champion spoke about the need to improve the health of grassroots when talking about his upcoming start in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West season opener at Kern County Speedway on Thursday night.
“I feel like it’s important for our sport to keep those regional series healthy,” Harvick said in response to question about his upcoming K&N appearance from veteran reporter Chris Knight. “To have the season opener out there, have some buzz around it, and this will only help that buzz. We need those series to be healthy because, in my opinion, all those hardcore NASCAR fans that we talk about losing, a lot of that starts at the grassroots level.”
Harvick continued, saying the demise of many local short tracks is a large part of why the sport is losing fans on a national scale.
“The reason that we lose a lot of those fans is because a lot of those racetracks disappear,” Harvick continued. “I’d love to go out there and have a chance to win the race, but my goal is to draw enough attention to get kids’ dads and competitors excited about racing in the K&N Series. We have some good racetracks on the schedule.”
Harvick, who now has 40 wins in NASCAR’s elite series, started out his racing career at Mesa-Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, California, which closed in 2009. Kern County Raceway Park, also in Bakersfield was built shortly after and opened in 2013.
“It’s important to keep that type of racing healthy for our sport because I believe the grassroots, hardcore fans live at those racetracks,” Harvick elaborated. “Those are the hardcore fans that we talk about losing. In order to do that, in order to keep them enthused, we have to build it from the bottom up, from the late models, K&N, to get them to come out. The guys and gals that go watch the races in Tucson, we need to get them to come here and watch the races in Phoenix.
“The folks in Bakersfield, we need to get them to go to California. We need to re-energize that short track system to get it to the point it needs to be.”
In NASCAR racing, Harvick has been quite successful on the short tracks. He has won at all three short tracks in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Richmond Raceway). Harvick is the only active driver to have a win in all three NASCAR national touring series at Martinsville Speedway.
Later in the press conference, Harvick explained his hope that his participation in an upcoming K&N West race will encourage other competitors to run in more short track races, whether it’s in the K&N Series or in late model races.
“I don’t remember who I had this conversation with,” Harvick explained. “I think that needs to be a part of our initiative. A guy like Chase Elliott would love to go run late model races at any late model track in the country, instead of going to do an appearance. That’s what pushes his buttons. A guy like Jimmie Johnson has no real interest in running any extra races, like a guy like Jeff Gordon didn’t. If we could find that niche. I would love to build the K&N West Series back to what it needs to be, that enthusiasm, get to the right racetracks, help those kids.”
Last year, Harvick won a K&N West race at Sonoma Raceway. He reflected on that victory and how it boosted both the K&N West Series as well as the career of Will Rodgers. Rodgers ended up winning K&N East races at Watkins Glen International and New Jersey Motorsports Park last summer.
“For me it was an eye‑opener last year when I went to Sonoma and saw the impact that running that race had on the competitors, the series. The fans will sometimes say, You’re cherry picking. I would tell you, nobody would know who Will Rodgers is unless it was for us running that race, having him on the radio show, bringing him to the pit box the next day, these guys take him in. If we can shed some light on those particular series, really build them back to where they need to be. I have so many thoughts on this. That’s just for a different conversation, so… Building everything from the grassroots up, I love that part of our sport. This guy has been a part of grassroots racing from the Sprint cars and midgets.”
Harvick then expressed frustration with ISM Raceway for not hosting the K&N West Series or the Copper Classic. He also discussed the need for NASCAR to expand its investment in grassroots racing.
“I’ve been mad at Sperber here for a couple years now because he won’t have the K&N cars come race here because it doesn’t help his budget,” Harvick continued. “In the end, without those grassroots fans, those grassroots people, coming and being able to race here, whether it fits your budget or not, 10 years from now you better hope you have your ass some people that will sit in the stands up here and wanting to watch these races at your short tracks because those are your hardcore fans, those are your grassroots fans. One of the best things that happened for racing, it’s not just about NASCAR, was when we had the Copper Classic here. We had midgets, Sprint cars. Didn’t matter how many people sat in the grandstands. As competitors, those guys, this was their Daytona. On the West Coast, this is what we thought our Daytona 500 was. This is where everybody wanted to race. It’s kicking those guys low on the K&N West Series that they don’t get to come and race at this particular racetrack because of the fact there’s a little bit of a pissing contest between a budget, what is right, what is wrong from a sanctioning fee side on Trucks and Xfinity.
“So, they cut the K&N guys out,” Harvick continued. “Cutting the grassroots side of things out is not the right way to do things. Those guys, they just want to race. This is a crown jewel race for those guys. The thought process for me is broken. When I look at our hardcore fans, they’re all sitting at those short tracks and they’re mad. They’re mad because you don’t have a Winston who is supporting these short tracks like they used to. Winston used to infuse so much money into these short tracks around the country. That’s what kept it going, that is what kept people showing up to these racetracks because there was point funds. But when we had the Copper Classic, you had TV out there. Everybody could get sponsors, they’d show up to race. They’d come from all over the country. There would be, I don’t even know how many Sprint cars and midgets, but there would be 70, 80, Southwest Tour cars, you would have a Truck race. I don’t know.
“I have a lot of things that I think about. I love grassroots side of things, though.”
Shortly after Harvick commented on the importance of building up grassroots racing, his car owner, Tony Stewart, also chimed in – criticizing ISM Raceway for dropping the K&N West race from its weekend schedule and also dropping the Copper Classic.
“Bob Bahre was probably the best at that,” Stewart remarked. “You guys that follow this every week, Bob Bahre used to bring in series that I promise you he lost his butt on. He paid probably more guys tow money to race at his racetrack that he ever brought back in revenue. He realized how important it was to the region, how important was to the teams and drivers. Like Kevin mentioned, the Copper Classic, I ran second to Mike Bliss here. That one race got me a huge opportunity to drive for some really big teams.
“Now you don’t have things like that. We can afford to spend $170 million to move the frontstretch from there over to there. I still have no idea what the reason for that is. I guess we probably can’t afford to run any support races here that cost the track some money.”
Tony Stewart, who won three NASCAR Cup Series titles, currently owns and operates the historic Eldora Speedway, the only dirt track to host a NASCAR national touring series race.