DW: Sprint Cup Series Should Consider Driver Coaches

As we’ve seen with the holiday season, there are a lot of college bowl games plus now the NFL playoffs have started. My point is there have been a lot of football games on TV lately. It dawned on me watching a game the other day about how many coaches a football team has versus what we do in NASCAR.

These days, a football team has a specialty coach for almost every position. There’s a quarterbacks coach, offensive line coach, running backs coach, linebackers coach, defensive backs coach and on and on. What do we have in NASCAR? Only thing that comes to mind is a pit crew coach.

There are lots of coaches in football, plus you’ll find it the same way in the other sports. I had a coach tell me one time their main job is to observe and correct mistakes. Whether it’s a pitching coach in baseball or maybe it’s a golf or tennis coach that observes and corrects your swing, the coach’s primary function is to observe and make you a better athlete.

What we do over here in NASCAR is completely different. Back in the day, we didn’t have specialized pit crews that only worked on Sunday pitting the car. Back in the day, your front tire changer might be your fabricator back at the shop or your gasman drove the transporter. It hasn’t been that way in our sport for quite a number of years. Race teams now have pit crew coaches to identify areas in which the pit crew can pick up speed during a pit stop. In addition, back at the shop teams have strength and conditioning coaches to finely tune these guys for peak performance on Sundays.

As I have said many times, our sport goes in cycles. It used to be every 10 years or so there was a changing of the guard as the veterans moved out or reduced the number of races they participate in and the crop of hungry up-and-comers came in who wanted to make their mark in the sport. Now, the window of the changing of the guard is roughly 10-to-15 years.

I think our sport is at a crossroads and at one of those periods in which we evolve. So what is there for these older drivers who are going to quit driving completely to do? Many times, you will hear them say they want to go into radio or television. Unfortunately, some leave the sport all together and you very rarely hear from them again unless it’s a special NASCAR occasion.

It just seems to me that our sport might be missing the boat in not finding other ways to keep these older drivers involved in our sport. I’ve seen Roger Penske do it with his IndyCar teams, and the one who comes to mind is Rick Mears who continues to be involved there. Maybe teams need to be doing that more in our sport.

Whenever the time comes for a Jeff Burton or a Jeff Gordon or a Bobby Labonte to finally climb from behind the wheel, why wouldn’t a car owner want to utilize them as a driver coach. I just think it’s something we all may be missing in the sport and that we should consider.

Oh, trust me, I am not talking about one driver telling another driver how to drive. Drivers have their own style of driving, and it’s not in their DNA to want to listen to a former driver tell them how to drive. There are just so many aspects an older driver can help a younger driver with.

The first thing that comes to mind is how to handle the media. I can’t tell you how many times I get asked by young drivers in the Nationwide, Trucks or even the weekly racing series who ask me to critique their interviews and how they handled the media. I get a lot of questions about how to handle the sponsors or the best way to bond with their race team.

And older drivers know all these things. They’ve lived it. It really is a classic example of “been there, done that.” The really good ones are the ones who don’t focus on the success, but focus on the mistakes. “Here’s a mistake I made” or “here’s something you definitely don’t want to do” is very valuable to someone who has never been in that position.

Again, no driver is going to listen to another driver tell him how to drive. It doesn’t matter how many races or championships you’ve won, it’s just not going to happen. I am talking about an older driver, whose career behind the wheel has ended, sharing his wisdom and knowledge to help a young driver maybe avoid the pitfalls that come along in our sport.

I don’t care if it is financial issues, nutrition, workout regimes, dealing with NASCAR, dealing with the fans or even dealing with a new crew chief, an older driver has lived it. He can answer what might look like the silliest question and help instill confidence in a young driver that he is handling it properly. I also think he can go a long way in steering that young driver around and away from the pitfalls and temptations that come along with our sport.

I think it is a great opportunity that team owners should take a look at. The ancillary benefit is to the sport itself. When that older driver stays in NASCAR, so do his fans. They begin to adopt the younger driver as their fan favorite. Look at it this way: An older driver is a walking, talking bridge to the past. Simply sharing all of his stories goes a long way to educating all these new fans in our sport.

NASCAR history can’t be simply found in a book or in old race broadcasts. Our sport is so unique in the access we give to the fans. We’re the best there has ever been at it. When you can walk up to a Richard Petty or a David Pearson or yes, a Darrell Waltrip and say, “Hey tell me about that race in 1977 at Riverside or Bristol or Daytona or wherever,” you learn it, grasp it and absorb it so much better than reading about it in a book.

That’s why I see a driver coach to be a valuable, valuable asset to not only a race team but our sport in general. So I see the other major sports with coaches and, quite honestly, a lot of coaches. Maybe it’s time for our sport to expand and do the same. If an older retired driver can make the transition easier for a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or a Chase Elliott or a Corey Lajoie or a Brandon McReynolds, then why wouldn’t a team want to take advantage of speeding up the learning curve for our sport’s future stars? I just see it as a valuable commodity that our sport hasn’t fully grasped yet.