“That was my big break,” says Kurt Busch and he’s taking about the “Gong Show,” a system used by NASCAR team owner Jack Roush to identify potential talent for his Truck Series program.
The year was 1999 and Roush was one of a handful of NASCAR owners who fielded teams in all three of NASCAR’s national series – today known as Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
Such a system wasn’t new to Roush – he’d used something similar to help identify candidates for his Trans-Am team as far back as the mid-1980s.
The process was one of many routes taken by teams and drivers through the years as owners looked for the next contender while drivers attempted to break out of the local level and make the jump into NASCAR.
Those routes have been as different as the personalities of the drivers themselves.
There has never been a “how-to” manual.
In 1958, Richard Petty was a second-generation racer who only went racing after turning 21 and getting the blessing of his father to follow in his footsteps. The younger Petty went from crewman to driver overnight.
Years later, Ernie Irvan moved east from California, raced Late Models in the Carolinas and worked as a welder to support himself while trying to break into NASCAR.
Midwestern short-track standouts such as Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Alan Kulwicki moved South with little money and no guarantees. Some made it, but only after toiling away with lesser teams in lesser equipment.
Some returned home only to eventually try again. Some went home and simply never returned.
Today, Busch drivers the No. 1 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s a former series champion and has won races at Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing.
In the late ‘90s, Busch was extremely competitive in the Southwest Series and his success caught the eye of Roush officials.
But to earn a spot driving one of the organization’s Fords in the Truck Series, Busch had to beat out other competitors in two rounds of a driver combine at two different tracks.
The first stop was Toledo (Ohio) Speedway, a half-mile asphalt oval.
“When I got there and looked around, it was ‘This guy’s the top Northwest (Series) guy; I’m the top Southwest Series guy; Robert Huffman, the Goody’s Dash series champion …,” Busch said. There were others as well, most from the west coast, at least one from the Modified ranks.
Each driver got a set of tires for a one-hour practice session, followed by a fresh set of tires and a 50-lap solo run.
“It was random pill draw for who went first; then they would put the truck back to their baseline setup for each person,” Busch said. “In the interim there were interviews, how you interacted with the crew, how you jumped in and just fit in with all of it. They watched every move.
“That day at Toledo, I almost wrecked the truck on lap 1; I didn’t know Trucks had that much horsepower.
“At the end of my 50 laps, I had the fastest lap, but I burned off the tires the quickest. I was lucky to get a second invite back. They had almost drawn a line through my name.”
At Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., for stop No. 2, Busch found himself competing with a new group of drivers.
“They told us that day, ‘One of you is getting the ride after today,’” he said.
“I went into this one way looser, way calmer, comfortable. I wasn’t confident but I was comfortable.”
Busch said his slowest lap “was everyone else’s fastest in a 20-lap run. I knew hands-down that I smoked it. I called my dad and said “I nailed it. If I don’t get the job it’s because I’m too young, I don’t quite know all the media stuff ….’”
But when he spoke with team president Geoff Smith a few days later, Busch said Smith asked, “How do you like Detroit weather?”
“I moved to Detroit and ran with the truck team.”
Roush continued the Gong Show program for several years. At one point it was filmed and packaged by the Discovery Channel as “Roush Racing: Driver X.”
Other teams had driver development programs as well, although not nearly as formal as Roush’s effort.
Hendrick Motorsports used its No. 5 Xfinity Series entry to develop drivers – Kyle Busch split seat time with Boston Reid and Blake Feese while also running Cup at HMS in 2005. The endeavor was short-lived – it quickly turned expensive after Reid and Feese were involved in multiple accidents that season.
In addition to his Cup operation, Ray Evernham fielded a developmental entry in the Xfinity Series for three years (2005-07), using a variety of drivers.
Today it’s the automakers – Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota – that have moved into the driver development arena.
NASCAR is involved in the developmental process as well – its Drive for Diversity program is run through Rev Racing and helps develop female and minority drivers in the K&N Pro Series and Whelen All-American Series. Current Cup drivers Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace came up through the D4D program.
But for the most part, few individual teams have “tryouts” similar to Roush’s Gong Show, where drivers go head-to-head with one another in hopes of landing a ride.
In what some say happens far too often today, if a driver can bring funding to the table, regardless of his experience, he can find a team that will put him behind the wheel.
“Now what we have are owners looking around for money. ‘Which kid has the most money, I want him to come and drive for me,’” Busch said. “That’s the unfortunate part about where our sport is right now.”