Since first stepping in a go-kart at age 13, it's taken me exactly ten of the most nerve wracking, disorienting and exciting years of my life to reach the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Through those ten years, almost $10 million dollars of funding has been spent by sponsors, investors and owners on me.
I can’t count the number of times I was about to step into a race car and I was told by someone, “This is your ONLY shot. Make it count.”
Therefore, I thought my best (very late) holiday gift to the young and old alike, was a guide of how to achieve what just took me a better part of half my life to accomplish.
To clarify: This guide to the NASCAR Sprint Cup series is for drivers only. For aspiring mechanics, crew chiefs or engineers, please direct all questions towards Chad Knaus at 704-... Oh wait, let me get back to you all on that number later.
Some of you veteran readers might notice that this column is a little longer than normal, but a “how to” for making the NASCAR Sprint Cup series needs to be longer than a “how to” for jumping your car or plugging a leak in your inflatable girlfriend.
If you don't enjoy go-karting, you won't enjoy the rest of racing. Or anything.
First, you must start by racing an actual motor vehicle. I recommend go-karts. This seems to be where about 90% of professional drivers start racing. If you’re 34 and reading this, your chances are… slim. But put your kid in a go-kart and coach like hell.
I suggest you start anywhere from age 5 to 13 (I started at age 13, which is about as late as it gets in an era where parents are proclaiming their children to be a sporting star before they’ve left the womb).
Assuming you've got talent, you’ve now earned the title of “Best Kart Racer in (fill in your area).”
The next step involves embracing the reality known to anyone who has attempted to become a professional race car driver in any racing series: Racing takes money. By money, I mean A LOT of money. Ask my former boss, Roger Penske, how much racing or sponsorship costs and he'll ask you, "How fast do you want to go?"
There is no other business in the world where money is so directly tied to success unless there's a job that involves stacking money into piles. More money increases your chance of winning or success. How do you get said money?
Option ONE to make it to the Sprint Cup Series: Have a VERY rich family
Paul Menard, it should be noted, made it to the Sprint Cup series and won.
You may have noticed that "ride buying" has become prevalent across several of the major racing series, which I don't believe is necessarily a bad thing. Currently, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is the largest motorsport series in the United States and therefore offers a great platform for many retail companies to market their stores and products.
The potential hitch comes if your family is rich enough to afford to get you to the second tier of NASCAR, the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Many people look at this as a way of "investing" in their son, so they can prove their stuff and then someone in the Sprint Cup Series will hire them. What happens is that the stigma of a "ride buyer" becomes so great that even their success and natural ability can't overcome the idea that people will want them to pay for rides instead of getting paid.
NASCAR is a strange form of capitalism where scarcity (of seats and sponsors) is the prime motivator. If you don't have endless family funds but your dad is a fan of racing and has done well for himself, we arrive at option two.
Option TWO to make it to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Win and Networking
Arguably the most famous driver in the Sprint Cup series, works about as hard off the track as on.
This option is how most of the current crop of professional race car drivers have achieved a ride in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It's the perfect blend of talent (or winning) along with sponsor savvy, and the ability to "network" and showcase talent.
Described by many over the last 15 years as the "new-age" race car driver, the "option two driver" is as comfortable speaking in a boardroom to a prospective sponsor as he/she is going for the 190+MPH winning pass at Daytona. Picture a pie chart. Instead of 80% talent and 20% networking/sponsor savvy, the reality is that it's more like three equal parts of talent, networking and sponsor savvy.
The driver we find here knows that all his wins won't be enough to get him to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. You may ask, "If he's winning, why wont he just get opportunities because of that?" In a sport like football, a QB can set the world on fire in college and someone will notice. The difference is that in most other sports, there's one "pond" for prospective pros to be noticed, whereas in racing, the possibilities are endless (where you start racing, that path you take, what you drive, etc).
Our "new-age" driver strategizes where and what he races to make sure he is where those NASCAR Sprint Cup general managers are looking. To achieve this, he will look at three factors: financial support level, experience and (most important) being a BIG fish in a small pond, to win.
Essentially, you don't want to enter in the series that is considered "super competitive" and finish fifth every week. Honestly, no one besides your dad will notice. Instead, enter the series below it, where your financial support makes you on par with the best. Then go win, and by win, I mean dominate. Suddenly your numbers will be something worth selling.
A prospective sponsor or investor probably won't know the difference between the late model series where it's impressive that you finished fifth, and the one below. He'll be far more impressed when you say, "I race in X series and I won the most races." It's no different than the guy who holds his son back a year in school, so the son can be bigger and more mature as he rises through the ranks in his prospective sport.
This is considered being a "redshirt" freshman and all you're doing is hedging your bet. Lets face it, sports are a risk. A beautiful risk, but a risk nonetheless. If you've followed the steps so far, your dad's "boat fund" is spent but you've won a lot.
Time to publicize your success. Spread the word through public relations (even if it's your mom doing the PR work) and tell your amazing story to anyone who will listen. Then work every day to garner more funding and only take the worthwhile opportunities.
Just because Joey Joe Joe Jr. Shabadoo says he will put you in a "good" racecar for cheaper than everyone else doesn't mean it's worth wasting your money or worse, ruining your career. Turn small opportunities into big opportunities. Make sure you never spend more than a month of two out of a racecar and do whatever it takes to win. This portion of your career, all the way to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, will be described in one word: Commitment.
Being committed to your preparation will ensure you make the best of your opportunities.
Be committed to finding the money and supporters while always trying to offer more than they bargained for. Success is where preparation and opportunity meet, or at least that's what Oprah told me.
Option three to make it to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Talent and Luck
Extremely talented and a little lucky... at least up until this last season.
This is the least likely avenue for achieving the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; Making it purely on talent. The trouble is that this takes a tremendous amount of luck. Luck that someone will actually notice your talent and then decide you are worth the investment.
Getting noticed probably means you're winning a lot of Midget or Sprint car races, or that an owner has heard your name, or more likely, a management or PR service sees value in you. (Side note: Even with option three, some funding will be needed).
Racing is no exception to the old adage, "You have to spend money to make money," other than the possible caveat that plenty of people spend a lot of money on racing and never make it back.
Lastly, I'm certain you're now asking, "Well Mr. Know-it-all-racecar Driver, how did you do it?" Well, this is the fun part, as I would say my succession to the top level of NASCAR racing was a mix of option two and three.
I mean, I drive a V8-powered Camry for a living. That's pretty lucky.
Parker Kligerman is currently a professional driving racing in NASCAR's Sprint cup and a former mousketeer.
Photos: Getty Images