With NASCAR tight on funds, former prospects trying open wheel
Previously flush with cash, NASCAR would sign and groom most young drivers
But as NASCAR sponsor dollars dry up, young drivers are moving to open wheel
The exodus has reinvigorated IndyCar as a viable destination for young drivers
Bryan Clauson could have earned a decent living as a start-and-park specialist. The $6,000 to $8,000 per race he said he'd been offered for qualifying a Sprint Cup car and then relenting after a few laps would have supported he and his sprint car team well enough until something else materialized.
Instead, he finds himself back home again in Indiana, in more ways than one. His budding NASCAR career abruptly derailed in 2008, Clauson has returned to his childhood home and the local dirt tracks of the Midwest that staged his dreams. The 22-year-old former Nationwide Series driver for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates has re-assumed a new, yet old ambition: to become an open wheel champion.
Increasingly, Clauson is not alone. With NASCAR's aggressive harvest of Midwestern talent -- a search in essence for the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, former sprint car dervishes who have won a combined six Sprint Cup titles -- greatly slowed because sponsor monies have gone fallow, many stock-car prospects are returning home.
All have individual reasons and stories. Clauson and Chase Austin were left adrift when their NASCAR teams consolidated or slashed developmental budgets. Shane Hmiel moved to a small town in Indiana and embarked on a USAC career that produced an opportunity in the Izod IndyCar Series' developmental circuit because three failed drug tests had prompted a lifetime NASCAR ban. Former Formula 1 driver Scott Speed signed on with IndyCar's Dragon Racing to attempt two IndyCar races when he was terminated by Red Bull Racing's Sprint Cup operation.
Then there's Dario Franchitti, the defending IndyCar champion when he left Andretti Autosport to embark upon a NASCAR career after the 2007 season. His return to IndyCar proved there is life after an unfulfilled endeavor in North America's most popular form of racing. Franchitti, whose Sprint Cup team was shelved midseason in 2008 amid lack of financing and results, has won two consecutive titles since returning in 2009 and leads the series again with seven races remaining.
"There's been a little bit of a shift there, I think," said Clauson, who is scheduled to compete in six oval Indy Lights events with Sam Schmidt Motorsports this season. "I think people were confused that every young guy in the country wanted nothing to do with Indy. I think it was more a matter of, at the time, NASCAR teams were going out and putting resources and effort into developing drivers and giving them opportunities where the IndyCar side just wasn't doing that.
"They [NASCAR] were being proactive and going out and scouting guys, picking them up, putting them on development deals and grooming them to be the future of their companies and we saw a lot of the young guys come in. That's slowed down now."
Born in California, Clauson was transplanted to Indiana when his father chose a relocation option that could most benefit his son's burgeoning racing interest. It worked. After collecting scores of national, state and regional titles in quarter-midgets and establishing himself as a USAC standout, Clauson, then a high school senior, signed in 2007 with Ganassi to drive in the Nationwide Series.
Clauson had a win and four top-5s in six ARCA starts for Ganassi in 2007, and he made 26 Nationwide starts over two seasons, winning a pole and posting a best finish of fifth at Kentucky in 2008. Clauson spent the second half of the 2008 season splitting a car with Franchitti before his program was shuttered prior to 2009 as Ganassi merged operations with what was then known as Dale Earnhardt Inc.
After a season racing an outlaw schedule with his own equipment in USAC, he signed in 2010 with Tony Stewart Racing, with whom he won the USAC National Midget championship, a first USAC National Drivers championship and a $300,000 scholarship to drive for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in all six Indy Lights oval races this season.
Hmiel was scheduled to make his Indy Lights debut last summer until he failed a physical because of a pre-existing back injury. He returned to USAC racing, where he was involved in a horrific crash in Terre Haute, Ind. As a result, he remains confined to a wheel chair. Hmiel, who was renting a $200-a-month home and sleeping on an inflatable bed as he made his way up the open-wheel ranks, was excited about his possible role in invigorating IndyCar, saying, "I don't understand why more people don't want to go do it."
Austin, 21, has competed in two Indy Lights races for Willy T. Ribbs this season as he attempts to resurrect a career that once held so much promise. Austin admits he has migrated to open wheel simply to find work, because jobs are increasingly scarce, he said, in NASCAR.
"All the jobs are taken there and ... unless you can bring $7 million to a team, you can't even get a Nationwide ride for a year," said Austin, who has six Nationwide starts and was under contract briefly with Rusty Wallace's team.
Like Austin, who saw the Hendrick Motorsports developmental program fold months after he signed with the powerhouse team, Clauson received an early, unwanted, but ultimately enlightening lesson in the draconian business of motorsports. Clauson said although he believes "things could have been handled a little bit differently or a little bit better," he said he holds no ill will toward Ganassi and credits them with "taking a chance on a high school kid."
"It was bad timing, I guess, and obviously 18-19 years old, that's a tough situation to go through," Clauson said. "But with the merger and DEI and Ganassi and the manufacturer switch, they were trying to regroup and refocus on the Cup cars that had fallen off a little bit. Bad luck. Bad timing. Wrong-place, wrong-time sort of deal for me, and to go through something like that at 19 years old can be really tough ... There [are] bads and goods in every situation. We've been able to take some positive things from that and translate them and make our own program a little stronger and maybe make this IndyCar deal a little more successful."
Clauson said he and Schmidt have not formally discussed extending their relationship beyond this season, but both seem pleased with their progress.
"Fantastic job," Schmidt said. "Bryan brings years of experience ... in a very young package. He is involved in every aspect of his racing program, which makes him a very informed and fierce competitor. At the same time, he has never driven anything that is so aero-dependent and we have made fantastic progress. He has improved positions with each event and we have high expectations for his final three races of the season."
Clauson won the pole at Indianapolis in his first start and finished fifth, fourth and third in the first half of his schedule. This success will have him chasing race purses in Missouri and Nebraska this weekend instead of milling about the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, pining for what could have been. Then again, he said, the big race at the big track at 16th and Georgetown has always been in May. Now he gets to dream about that one again.
"It's kind of crazy how stuff happens," he said. "The time I ran in stock car racing, it wasn't really about not liking Indy cars or this or that. The opportunity just presented itself to go drive a stock car. And growing up around Indiana, there's nothing greater than the month of May and the Indy 500. It's the pinnacle of motorsports, really. Growing up around that, I always dreamed of running in it one day and now it seems like it's not too far off. For 22-years-old, I've gotten to do a lot of things and be in a lot of situations a lot of people dream of."