Halfway through the inaugural Championship Auto Racing Series (CARS) Tour season, the division has established itself as one of the best racing products in the United States.
It’s a bold claim, especially when you consider the CARS Tour rose from the ashes of the former X-1R Pro Cup Series. Once the proud and prestigious Hooters Pro Cup tour, the division had grown stagnant in recent years, as evidenced by low car counts and the absence of coverage that bolstered it during the early 2000s.
Forced to make a change, series management made a radical one, ditching the “Pro Cup” cars for a two-for-one show. CARS promised it would bring the best Super Late Model and Late Model Stock drivers to the same track on the same night ten times in 2015, rather than committing to just one classification. It was such a grand vision, it could only be a resounding success or a dramatic failure.
Fortunately for officials, teams, and fans, the CARS Tour’s first five races have exceeded all expectations.
With close to 30 cars showing up for each division at all five events, there have been no complaints about car counts. Teams and drivers have supported the new series, creating a “crown jewel” atmosphere at every stop to date. The drivers participating have also been a kaleidoscope of the personalities and backgrounds in the sport.
There are long-time heroes of Southeastern short track racing, such as Jamey Caudill, Tommy Lemons, Jr., Clay Rogers, and Dave Mader, III. There are marquee names with NASCAR connections like Steve Wallace, Chase Elliott, Stephen Leicht, and Stacy Compton. There’s also the future of the sport, young budding stars like Brayton Haws, Todd Gilliland, Christopher Bell, and Cole Timm. Even if you aren’t a religious follower of the CARS Tour, a quick glance at an entry list or the starting grid before a fan’s first visit should be enough to help that fan find a driver they can cheer for that night at the track.
The teams have also benefited from the exposure of the retooled tour and its early success. With extensive media coverage and every race available through RACEFEEDX on pay-per-view, there is enormous buzz surrounding the division. Before Gilliland won in his ARCA debut at Toledo, many recognized him for winning the first CARS Late Model Stock Tour event at Southern National Motorsports Park.
The Late Model Stock Tour has even seen an increase in purse money as a result of that success. Gilliland’s inaugural victory was worth $4,500, but Brayton Haws received an extra $1,000 for his victory at Tri-County Motor Speedway on June 12. The payouts for CARS’ Late Model Stock division are now equal to those of their Super Late Model counterparts, a testament to the sanctioning body’s dedication to promoting both classes equally.
Due to that dedication and commitment, fans have been treated to two great races for the price of one at every stop along the way. Narrowing the first half of the season to a list of highlights would be a challenging task.
Gilliland battling with Deac McCaskill for that first victory at Southern National? Haws and Myatt Snider’s late-race duel at Orange County, or Haws’ side-by-side fight with Austin McDaniel at Hickory? Steve Wallace clawing through the field at Tri-County to finish fourth despite a penalty relegating him to the rear of the pack?
These moments, along with the typical crashes, tantrums, and close calls that are a staple of short track racing, have created endless excitement thus far for the series.
That’s not to say the CARS Tour has been perfect at every step along the way. Opportunities for fans to meet with the drivers are limited, an issue the series hopes to address in the future. Timing issues have plagued qualifying sessions nearly every weekend. Nearly all of the remaining races on the schedule were shortened after the Orange County event, which ran into the early-morning hours due to a deluge of cautions and delays.
However, those hiccups can easily be overlooked thanks to the CARS Tour’s success to date. With marquee names, large fields, incredible fan support, and a growing stature in the short track landscape, the CARS Tour promises to build on that success moving forward. Ultimately, that makes every fan of short track racing a winner.