MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Making it in NASCAR ought to be all about having the ability and the courage to go fast. Fire them up, let 'em run and let the best driver win.
It's hard to argue with that statement. It's also impossible for it to be reality.
The idea that anyone with talent and the will to work hard will automatically make it to top is, at best, a nice fantasy and, at worst, a lame excuse for not doing more to try to help people who have ability find opportunities to display that talent.
The NASCAR economy is contracting right along with everything else. Long gone is the day when it was reasonable to expect a sponsor to write a check to support every team or every program someone wanted to start.
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But some programs are too important to be allowed to die on the economic vine.
Jesus Hernandez is a 27-year-old driver with a Hispanic heritage and a strong desire to make his living driving race cars. He has put in more than a decade's worth of effort chasing that dream.
"We've been competitive," said Hernandez, who finished third in this year's final Camping World East Series standings while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s driver development program. "We've demonstrated that we can do this. It's time to move on to the next step. ...I believe that I have something to prove and something to show."
These days, however, DEI finds itself on the front lines of the battle for racng sponsorships. It has four cars entered in Sunday's Tums 500 at Martinsville Speedway, but only one of those has sponsorship set for the 2009 season.
But DEI, and many other teams with similar programs, could soon find itself having to balance its commitment to providing opportunities for young drivers against more immediate issues regarding the financial future.
Hernandez is doing what he can. He's looking for a sponsor that might be willing to partner with him on a Truck or Nationwide series deal.
"You just keep contacting people and trying to show them your determination," Hernandez said. "You just try to meet people and put on your marketing hat. Sure, it can be discouraging. But on the bright side it has allowed me to get a better handle on that side of the sport."
Hernandez was part of the Drive for Diversity program and signed as a developmental driver with MB2 Motorsports, which became Ginn Racing and then merged into DEI. He has tried to take advantage of those opportunities, but he also knows that at age 27 he's coming up on his "now or never" crossroads if he wants to move forward.
The sport is at a crossroads, too. The next couple of years, at least, are going to be challenging for NASCAR and for many of the companies whose sponsorships have been the foundation of financial support on which NASCAR stands.
All of that, though, means it's more important than ever to identify and develop drivers who might have the talent to be the stars in racing's next generation. Bringing more diversity to the sport must be a piece of that, but the overall job is to find good drivers, no matter the age, color or gender, and help provide points of entry as well as a logical pathway for the very best to get from there to where they want to be.
How can that be done, given these challenging times? There's only one way.
It's time for NASCAR itself to pony up.
Driver development is the most important development NASCAR can make in its own future, and simply acting as the conduit through which sponsor dollars pass to such programs as the Drive for Diversity is not enough.
NASCAR needs to put some of its own skin in this game. NASCAR needs to spend its own dollars - and it's got plenty of them, by the way - on establishing and operating a comprehensive driver development program that not only identifies tomorrow's potential stars but puts more of them in a situation where talent and not the ability to find money is a more determinant factor in who makes it or who doesn't.
"I have accomplished a lot, I think," Hernandez said. "I've been able to make a living and put food on my table. I've come a long way, but I am not done yet. I am always looking ahead."
His sport should be, too.