NASCAR Cup Series stars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have been spending a busy offseason in New Zealand competing in the United Truck Parts International Midget Series. Despite going in aiming for success, however, both American drivers have seen their efforts end early. On the opening night of the event, Larson violently rolled his midget and was carried away on a stretcher. On Boxing Day, Bell suffered a similar fate but was able to walk away unhurt.
Despite walking away unharmed, however, Bell’s management team informed him not to compete in the remaining events, despite having won the event a year ago. The decision looks to be based on circumstance, according to Bell’s midget team owner Brian Theobald per Velocity News, as Bell and the team are looking at future opportunities to race again in New Zealand.
It’s easy to understand the decision to bring Bell back to the US following such an incident. Not only does he have a fourth Chili Bowl title to chase in just a few weeks time, but he also happens to be at the front of a promising class of NASCAR Cup rookies for the 2020 season. There’s a lot riding on Bell in terms of investments, and on the business side of things it makes sense to protect that investment.
But like Larson, Bell is from a dirt discipline, and made his bones slinging Sprint Cars at I-44 Speedway in Oklahoma. Both Larson and Bell are rarely far from a dirt track or the Sprint Car business, as both identify dirt racing as a way of life. Larson has made it clear that being able to race on dirt when he can will play a key role in contract negotiations when his contract is up.
That puts owners into the position of having to jostle a happy driver and a safe driver. Some team owners, such as Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing, understand how important it is to let their drivers race as much as possible wherever they can; Stewart is spending most of his racing time behind the wheel of a Sprint Car, which is where he also spent a lot of time during his driving career when he wasn’t in a stock car. Not to mention, Kurt Busch was also an SHR driver when he attempted the Memorial Day double in 2014, when he raced in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.
What about Matt Crafton? The 2019 Gander Outdoor Truck Series champion went from testing modifieds in order to better himself at dirt racing since Eldora’s inclusion on the Truck Series tour, to regularly competing in his No. 88 open-wheel modified painted up to look like his ThorSport Racing F-150. He’s won at Eldora since (2017), and is a regular contender on the dirt.
But it all goes back to the investments that the backing organizations make and the management teams make. Many team owners aren’t keen on letting their drivers race elsewhere for fear of that driver getting hurt. It’s a reasonable affair, as that driver is supposed to be piloting their car for their team. It’s doubtful Bob Leavine would want to see Bell harmed in a crash before he took to Daytona’s high banks in his flagship No. 95 Toyota.
But racing is a dangerous sport. This goes without saying. Despite the major advances in safety over the last 60, 70 years, drivers still get hurt, and in many tragic instances, they are killed. Saying that a driver can race in discipline A but not discipline B is neglecting the fact that anything can happen at any moment, anywhere. Just because the 2010s’ didn’t see a single driver perish in NASCAR’s top touring divisions does not mean it couldn’t happen again in 2020.
So where is the line drawn? Where does a driver’s team and investors relax the reigns a bit and let them tear up a track elsewhere? Where do they tighten their reigns and tell their drivers “No more?” Does driver quality play a factor? Larson was able to convince Ganassi to turn him loose on dirt, and considering Larson is Ganassi’s best NASCAR driver since Sterling Marlin in the early 00s’, did Ganassi want to risk hindering his star driver’s on-track product? More importantly, what does it matter? Ganassi also owns an IndyCar team and an IMSA team. How is the risk any different across the disciplines?
Racers that are true at heart will race anything, anytime, anywhere, because they are at their happiest and best when they are behind the wheel. It doesn’t matter if it’s IndyCar, NASCAR, World of Outlaws, Formula One (See: Fernando Alonso’s foray from F1 into the Indianapolis 500), or even NHRA (See: NASCAR’s John Andretti and Kurt Busch). A happy driver translates into better results in some cases.
However, in others cases it’s a matter of getting too distracted (See: Kyle Busch’s 2012 results the same year he ventured into Nationwide Series ownership). It’s all a matter of balance, and while some drivers may prefer focusing on just one venue of racing, other drivers would rather be racing when they aren’t racing. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be limits, but drivers should be allowed a degree of freedom to race in other disciplines of motorsport. In the end, it’s all about the variables at play and what the team and investors are willing to concede.