The Trend of Young People Getting Into Racing Early On

By Jack Shaw, Contributor

The youth movement in NASCAR is real. The average age of full-time drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series has been below 32 years since 2017. At least half of full-timers since 2019 have been under 30.

The youngest field was in 2021 at 30.7 years. Fourteen years before that, the average age of the NASCAR driver field dipped significantly as old-timers — such as Mark Martin, Sterling Marlin, Dale Jarrett and Ken Schrader — decided not to drive full-time that year. In 2014, there was a changing of the guard as Jeff Burton and Dave Blaney handed over their keys to up-and-comers Cole Whitt, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman.

The motorsport organization has experienced a wave of younger wheels three times since 1980, peaking in 1985, 2007 and 2020 — the most recent being the most pronounced. The gaps between them shrunk. Since drivers today enter the Cup younger and retire earlier than before, expect the next wave to come sooner.

Drivers have been getting younger because NASCAR has reduced the minimum age limit for regional competitions. It went from 18 to 16 years old in 2007 to 15 in 2022.

Such a policy has opened new doors for racing academies nationwide. More accredited schools mushroomed to serve the higher number of younger drivers and meet their unique needs. Motorsports beginners enjoy more choices to advance their knowledge and gain professional-level experience to prepare them for the big leagues. Education costs have also dropped because of the competition among racing schools.

How about the fans? Is the younger generation ready to take the place of older die-hards? It’s a bit complicated.

The average fans of the motor are in their late 50s — more than a generation older than their Formula 1 counterparts. However, this doesn’t mean those who watch NASCAR races are practically retirees. A segment of senior fans drives up the average age, so stock car racing is still more popular among younger audiences than the statistic suggests.

The American stock racing series has been successful in establishing a millennial base. The dilemma is that younger fans check in during the race online or on social media instead of watching the whole action.

Moreover, the American motorsport appeal among the millennials hasn’t translated into higher TV viewership. From 2020 to 2022, the pairs of eyeballs that tuned in to the NASCAR Cup Series rose from 3.06 million to 3.7 million. It’s a decent, steady increase, but it’s still 0.03 million less than the pre-pandemic viewership.

Live attendance has also been in decline, which is why NASCAR doesn’t publicize its attendance figures. Its tracks still fetch tens of thousands of spectators. Some events reportedly drew larger crowds in 2023 than in previous years. Circuit attendance records have dipped since the mid-2000s and have stagnated in recent memory.

NASCAR is still bigger than IndyCar. However, the 2023 Indy 500 attracted more than 257,000 racing fans, whereas only 175,000 attended the Daytona 500 in the same year.

Like other motorsport organizations in the States, NASCAR has made various changes to appeal to the sensibilities and interests of younger age groups to improve its live attendance and viewership numbers. It has updated its cars, altered race timing and modified its tracks.

In its bid to win over millennials and Gen Z, IndyCar has jumped on the sustainability trend and adopted 100% renewable race fuel.

Such marketing efforts can improve the current product, but the key to growing their fan bases in the long run is getting children hooked on motorsports early. Organizations can think of promotions to entice younger viewers, but it’s ultimately up to the parents to expose their kids to racing.

Compared to other sports they can play at home or school, young ones need help accessing racing vehicles. Generally, NASCAR, Formula 1, IndyCar and MotoGP are household names like the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. Motorsport drivers have smaller followings than basketball and football players, so most kids don’t know the names and faces of the most popular racing pros.

If you want your kids to consider a motorsports career, get them interested early without pressuring them. Tour tracks with them, watch races live, let them experience the culture and see if they have a blast.

Children are naturally curious, so answer any questions they may have to help them learn about racing and the drivers. Buy them merch or motorsport-themed toys, like remote-controlled cars, so they can stay immersed in the sport at home.

Video gaming has become a safe way for youth to have their first taste of racing. Your children can familiarize themselves with basic driving and racing mechanics — like how Andre Castro started.

Moreover, introduce them to fantasy motorsports. If you use fantasy leagues, choose race car drivers with them. Doing it as a team is a memorable bonding experience that can help develop their analytical skills.

Many kids fall in love with racing through go-karting — Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen got their start in karting before moving on to Formula 1 success. Souped-up gas-powered go-karts can go as fast as 150 mph, but most have limited speeds for safety reasons. Still, they allow for a controlled environment for young people to experience racing for the first time. Aspiring racer Ryder Wells found out about karting on YouTube, and he went out and made it to the national stage. Now, after successful runs in micro sprints and pro-trucks, he is looking for a ride in the ARCA Menards Series or the CARS Tour.

If you have a local go-kart park, you can let your child sit behind the wheel as early as 3 years old and feel the thrill of navigating indoor or outdoor tracks with others. Karting is fun, but, more importantly, it builds character, an essential quality of every successful racer. Winning isn’t about having the fastest car but refusing to lose — just like Dale Earnhardt said.

Have your children expressed interest in becoming racecar drivers? If your budget permits, consider getting them involved with an entry-level series or help them find options for lessons. Whether it’s karting, micro-sprints, quarter-midgets or stock bombers, lots of local tracks have divisions permitting younger drivers. As they progress, so does the cost, so look at sponsors and other options to help them move through the ranks if they have a talent for racing. It takes time to train and hone their race craft but improvement comes through experience. In time, they might be ready to join a series and compete at higher levels.

Another option is to look at sim racing, like the iRacing platform, which has brought an influx of young drivers into racing, including Cup Series winner, William Byron.

Growing their fanbases is a neverending pursuit of motorsport organizations like NASCAR. Ultimately, it’s up to the current generation whether they want to raise racing fans and inspire their children to go pro someday.

Author Bio

With a passion for all things automotive, Jack Shaw is a respected writer in the racing and off-roading scenes. As a sought-after contributor for Engine Labs, Ford Muscle, NASCAR Chronicle and more, his expertise and attention to detail bring articles to life, keeping readers informed and entertained.

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