There are close to seven billion people in this world currently. Of that seven billion, roughly two thousand are full time professional racecar drivers, and even that may be an overestimation. This means one person in every 3.5 million races for F1, NASCAR, IndyCar or any other racing tour. To put this in perspective, you are five times more likely to win an Olympic medal than being a full time professional racecar driver. Despite these long odds, a lucky few rise through the ranks to the top. What makes them special? How did they do it? This is a look at four of the most well-known NASCAR drivers and their paths to the title series of NASCAR.
Jeff Gordon- Open Wheel Racer
Now a veteran of the Cup series, Jeff Gordon started his career early. At age five he rode BMX bikes and drove quarter midgets. By age six he already had 35 main event wins on his resume and held five track records. At the shockingly young age of thirteen Gordon jumped into a full sprint car, a beast that full grown men struggle to tame. Due to his age, insurance companies refused to cover him. Forced to practice at a few lenient tracks, Gordon had to wait until he was 16 before he was legally able to compete. He is the youngest driver to hold a United States Auto Club (USAC) license. He hit the ground running. Before his twentieth birthday he was crowned the USAC rookie of the year, won the prestigious Night Before the 500 race, was flown to Australia and New Zealand to race and held a midget car national title. The goal was IndyCar, the obvious continuation up the open wheel ladder. But, he had the chance to try his hand in a stock car. Almost immediately Gordon fell in love with the fender racing life. In 1990 he debuted in the NASCAR secondary series and two years later graduated to the Winston Cup. To date Gordon has four NASCAR championship titles and almost 100 NASCAR feature wins. What makes Jeff Gordon stand out? His young start made people take notice, then he backed up the hype with results. He was consistent in his career and relied on an immense amount of experience. At 5' 8", this 150 lb Californian made a lasting impression.
Danica Patrick- Driving School Graduate
The most well-known driver to walk the worlds of IndyCar and NASCAR by far is Danica Patrick. Not only are the odds slim for anyone to become a successful racecar driver but the odds of becoming a female professional racecar driver are next to none. Like many of her male counterparts, Patrick was racing at a young age. She started go-karting at age ten then attended a racing school in England to sharpen her skills at the age sixteen. While overseas she tested Formula Ford cars and captured the attention of the Rahal Letterman racing team. They put her in a Toyota Atlantic car where she was very successful, winning the championship. In 2005 she became the Indy 500 rookie of the year and the fourth woman to race in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." She became a staple on the IRL circuit and a household name over the following years. In 2012 Patrick made the jump to NASCAR, a controversial career choice that was criticized and argued ad nauseum in the following years. Frankly Danica doesn’t care what others say about her. She built her reputation on toughness and sheer willpower to overcome adversity.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The Legacy
The Earnhardt name is synonymous with NASCAR. Before Dale Jr. came onto the scene, two Earnhardts had already been involved with stock car racing for many years. Hailing from North Carolina, Dale Jr. started his racing career in a late model racer at age seventeen. Junior went to a driving school for extra expertise on the track and graduated from Mitchell Community College with an Associates Degree in Automotive Technology. At the time his father was a huge success in the title series of NASCAR and helped Junior pull together a stock car deal in 2002. The stipulation was that twenty one year old Junior had to do the work on the car and help manage his team. This was Junior’s leg up to the big leagues. He has been racing NASCAR ever since. Though his career hasn’t been as intimidating as his father's, Junior has recorded 24 wins to date and is still going strong. Though being part of a racing lineage helped Earnhardt sign sponsors, he had to prove his talent and commitment by learning as much as he could about the inner workings of his cars and the industry.
Jimmie Johnson- The Jack of All Trades
Another prominent Californian, Jimmie Johnson started racing at four years old. His first wheels were motorcycles of various engine sizes. From 1993 through 1998 he graduated to a handful of different racing styles and series such as the Mickey Thompson Stadium Racing Series, the Short-Course Off Road Drivers Association (SODA), and the Off Road Truck Series. Johnson broke into the Busch series and the American Speed Association simultaneously between 1998 and 2002. He became part of the big NASCAR show in 2002. To date Johnson is one of the most successful NASCAR drivers of all time with an eyebrow raising six championships. This year he might have a shot at his seventh. Johnson is known for his quiet and humble demeanor around the garages and presence of mind in interviews.
What do all of these successful NASCAR drivers have in common? They are all six feet tall or smaller, extremely fit and all have burning ambition and focus. None of them could have made it to this level of racing without tenacity, strength and the ability to prove themselves under pressure. Most professional racers start at a very young age so that they can be groomed and refined at the highest levels of driving by the time they're in their mid-twenties. Most of these drivers don't have a college education. Many did not finish high school due to the extensive travel involved in their young racing careers. This is not recommended. Having a degree provides extensive knowledge outside the car that is equally important and provides more opportunities during and after a racing career. Many young people don’t realize all that is involved in becoming the best of the best. Not only do you have to be the best driver on the track, you need to be able to woo benefactors and interview well. A driver that can't communicate is a driver that doesn't hold on to sponsors. Be positive, be respectful and be humble. Think about who might be watching at any given time. You never know who will give you that big break. Above all, be a positive role model to the next generation. Not only do sponsors look for that special driving someone, they look for positive role models to represent them and make the sport better for years to come. A good driver can come from anywhere. With enough talent and a marketable personality maybe even a Weekend Warrior can become the next NASCAR champion.