By: Isaac Donsky, Columnist
Welp, I never thought it would happen at age 22. But it did. I officially felt old for the first time. And it’s all NASCAR’s fault.
On Sept. 17, I sat down after a long day of classes to watch a NASCAR Truck Series race from Bristol Motor Speedway. At the end of the hour-and-a-half race, I was feeling more tired than I ever had before because a 17-year-old had just won a major NASCAR event.
NASCAR’s Truck Series, which races modified pickup trucks, is one of the three major touring series sanctioned by NASCAR, alongside the Cup Series and the Xfinity Series. The Trucks feature a completely different cast of characters than NASCAR’s other series, and many of the drivers are just starting their careers. As is the case with 17-year-old Sam Mayer, who won Thursday’s race. Mayer, who was making just his seventh career start when he won, isn’t even old enough to run full time in NASCAR yet. Let that sink in.
The NASCAR Truck Series isn’t unfamiliar with extremely young winners. Because the series is used as a developmental league, many youngsters spend their early careers proving themselves in the series. And many of them reach victory lane sooner than expected. Back in 2014, current Cup Series driver Cole Custer won at New Hampshire at the tender age of 16, making him the youngest winner in NASCAR history. Custer’s win came in a part-time ride, as NASCAR does not allow drivers younger than 18 to compete full-time in their top divisions.
But while young drivers winning in NASCAR isn’t a foreign concept, it’s still shocking to see a 17-year-old winning in the sport, let alone at Bristol, one of the most challenging tracks on the calendar.
Sam Mayer’s success on that Thursday night is a sign of the times. NASCAR’s future is getting younger and younger. Many drivers are entering the sport before they even reach their mid-teens. While in the past, drivers often waited until their mid-20s to attempt a career in stock car racing, the attitude today seems to be to get in early.
Three drivers in particular seem to be leading this new youth movement. They are Mayer, Ty Gibbs, and Chandler Smith. All are within 17 to 18 years old. All began their NASCAR careers at the age of 15 and 16. And all three have dominated NASCAR’s lower divisions during the last three seasons.
To see just how dominant these three have been, let’s look at their individual stats across NASCAR’s four developmental series: The Truck Series, ARCA (NASCAR’s fourth-tier championship), the ARCA West Regional Series, and the ARCA East Regional Series.
Trucks: 2 Seasons, 7 Starts, 1 Win, 2 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s
ARCA: 3 Seasons, 22 Starts, 5 Wins, 18 Top 5s, 20 Top 10s, 1 Pole
ARCA East Series: 3 Seasons, 23 Starts, 8 Wins, 18 Top 5s, 19 Top 10s, 5 Poles
ARCA West Series: 3 Seasons, 3 Starts, 1 Win, 2 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s, 2 Poles
ARCA: 2 Seasons, 24 Starts, 7 Wins, 18 Top 5s, 21 Top 10s, 5 Poles
ARCA East Series: 2 Seasons, 11 Starts, 2 Wins, 10 Top 5s, 10 Top 10s, 1 Pole
ARCA West Series: 1 Season, 1 Start, 1 Win, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10
Trucks: 2 Seasons, 11 Starts, 4 Top 5s, 5 Top 10s, 0 Poles
ARCA: 3 Seasons, 31 Starts, 9 Wins, 21 Top 5s, 28 Top 10s, 10 Poles
ARCA East Series: 1 Season, 1 Start, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10
These three drivers all began their NASCAR careers around the age of 15 or 16 years old. None of them are old enough to compete full time in the sport. And yet they have been destroying the field on a week by week basis. Chandler Smith started on pole in his first 4 starts. Ty Gibbs has only finished outside the top 5 once in his Eastern regional series career. Mayer has finished inside the top-10 in all but two starts in ARCA.
What really stands out though is that these drivers are accomplishing these feats all while being too young to vote, drink alcohol, or drive a road car. At the end of the day, they’re just kids. Which explains why I felt so tired watching Mayer spank the competition to win at Bristol. He’s just a kid. Winning a major NASCAR event. While I, a 22-year-old college student, watched from home.
Damn. I’m getting old.