Young, Fast, and Ready to Race

Next October, Chase Austin will finally be old enough to drive to the grocery store by himself.

By then, though, he'll also have a full season of stock car racing under his belt.

When Hendrick Motorsports (search) signed the 15-year-old high school freshman from Eudora, Kan., to a developmental contract last week, it raised the question: How young is too young?

"All I know, when I think back, is that I wasn't ready to be signed even at 18," said 22-year-old Blake Feese, another of Hendrick's developmental drivers. "So much has changed over the years in terms of how I've progressed."

Austin doesn't seem intimidated, although he acknowledges his is an unusual situation.

"I can see where people are coming from," he said. "Sometimes I've thought I'm too young, because there's so much involved with this. But if I saw some other 15-year-old have this chance, I'd want it, too."

J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing (search), also doesn't have a problem with Austin's age.

"I don't think it's a big deal," said Gibbs, whose team's developmental drivers are both in their early 20s. "I don't think everyone's going to rush out and sign a 15-year-old unless he's pretty darn good."

And if Austin proves himself on the track, Gibbs said, his age won't matter to anyone. The exception would be NASCAR, which won't let a driver race on its top three circuits — Nextel Cup, the Busch Series and the Craftsman Truck — until age 18.

"If you go out there and show you're competent, there shouldn't be a problem," Gibbs said. "If you go out there and cause a bunch of issues, that's one thing. But that has nothing to do with age. There's 40-year-old guys who cause issues."

Austin does have an impressive racing resume that invites comparisons to the early years of Jeff Gordon's career.

Austin started racing go-karts when he was 8 — and by 13, just like Gordon, was competing in full-size sprint cars. He has run modifieds and late models on dirt tracks, has experience on paved tracks in the late model division — and in his first year of Topless Outlaw Racing Association competition finished 11th in points and was the top rookie.

And he's a sports marketer's dream. He's good-looking, personable, talented — and biracial, the son of a black father and a white mother.

For auto racing, still searching for a way to bring more minorities into its fan base, that makes Austin an appealing combination of Gordon and Tiger Woods.

"I do think he's got a lot of natural outstanding talent," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway. "He's the best black American I've seen in a race car. I'm glad Rick (Hendrick) has done this, because Rick will be able to put the kind of equipment under him that he needs to reach his potential.

"We can do all advertising we can do reaching out to African American fans," Wheeler said. "But when we have one that starts winning, that's what's going to break it wide open."

Players have been going straight from high school to the NBA (search) for years. The courts, not a lack of talent, kept Maurice Clarett from jumping to the NFL after his freshman year at Ohio State. And earlier this year, Freddy Adu made his highly anticipated Major League Soccer debut — at 14.

Then again, they don't climb into high-horsepower machines and tear around tracks at almost 100 mph. That's how high qualifying speeds can run in the American Speed Association's Late Model Series, where Austin will compete next year for SS Racing.

But there's precedent for other young drivers doing well not only on short tracks, but on superspeedways.

There's Gordon, of course, who broke into Cup competition at 21 and won his first championship at 24.

"The theory prior to Jeff Gordon is that nobody started winning major long- distance races in the U.S., whether that was in Winston Cup or the IRL, until they were about 28," Wheeler said. "Jeff Gordon came along and shot that theory down.

"That perpetuated what I call Pop Warner Racing. Now a few years after him, you've got all these kids racing."

Shelby Howard became ARCA's youngest race winner at age 16 in 2002. Last year, at 17, he became the youngest driver to win on a big track in any circuit.

"Ultimately, the great thing about sports racing is that either you're good or you're not," Gibbs said. "I think Rick saw a good opportunity to partner up with a good talent for the future."

Austin's mother, Marianne, made light of the debate over her son's age.

"Pretty soon, we'll see kids in diapers and it'll be, 'He waddles well. Let's get him,"' she said.