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Harvick, Stewart dish on disconnect between NASCAR, grassroots

Matt Weaver | STS

Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart believes there is a growing disconnect between NASCAR and the average grassroots racing fan.

The topic came up on Sunday after Harvick won the Ticket Guardian 500 at Phoenix (ISM) Raceway. After taking questions about his third consecutive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory, the 2014 champion was asked about his upcoming K&N Pro Series West start on Thursday at Kern County Raceway Park.

Harvick responded with an impassioned plea for his fellow Cup Series drivers to participate in short track events whenever their schedule allows.

“I think that needs to be a part of our initiative,” Harvick said. “A guy like Chase Elliott would love to go run Late Model races at any track in the country, instead of going to do an appearance.  That’s what pushes his buttons.”

Harvick is a graduate of the old Winston West Series, now K&N West, and admits that racing in the Sonoma event last season was an eye-opening experience. In that race, he out-dueled series regular Will Rodgers but used that platform to thrust the youngster into the national spotlight.

Even though some fans were upset that Harvick, in their eyes, dropped down and took a win away from a top prospect, he believes it actually did more in the long run to make fans care about who Rodgers is.

“The fans will sometimes say, ‘You’re cherry picking’ and I would tell you that nobody would know who Will Rodgers was unless it was for us running that race, having him on the radio show and bringing him to the pit box the next day,” Harvick said. “These guys took him in. If we can shed some light on these particular series, really build them back to where they need to be. I have so many thoughts on this.  That’s just for a different conversation, so …”

Except, Harvick didn’t stop.

He said that so many stars have been cultivated from Late Models, Sprint Cars and Midgets. He took a shot at Phoenix Raceway for discontinuing its K&N West Series race after the 2016 season and didn’t hold back in doing so.

“I’ve been mad at (track president Bryan) Sperber here for a couple years now because he won’t have the K&N cars come back here because it doesn’t help his budget,” Harvick said. “In the end, without those grassroots fans, those grassroots people, coming to race here, whether it fits your budget or not, 10 years from now you better hope you have your ass that some people will sit in the stands up here and wanting to watch these races … because those are your hardcore fans, those are your grassroots fans.”

Harvick also missed the old Copper Classic for Late Models, Sprint Cars and Midgets that used to be held at the speedway.

“One of the best things that happened for racing, it’s not just about NASCAR, was when we had the Copper Classic here,” Harvick said. “We had midgets, Sprint Cars. It didn’t matter how many people sat in the grandstands. As competitors, those guys, this was their Daytona.

“On the West Coast, this is what we thought our Daytona 500 was. This is where everybody wanted to race. It’s kicking those guys in K&N down by not letting them race here because of the fact there’s a little bit of a pissing contest between a budget, what is right, what is wrong from a sanctioning fee standpoint for Trucks and Xfinity.

“So they cut the K&N guys out,” Harvick said. “Cutting the grassroots side of things out is not the right way to do things. Those guys, they just want to race.  This is a crown jewel race for those guys.”

His team owner, Tony Stewart, has long been a champion of grassroots racing. Since retirement, Stewart has bought a Sprint Car series, owns a team and still races weekly at dirt tracks across America. He took a swipe at Phoenix too, which is currently undergoing a $173 million dollar renovation, but cited money as the reason to discontinue the K&N West race.

“Like Kevin mentioned, the Copper Classic, I ran second to Mike Bliss here,” Stewart said. “That one race got me a huge opportunity to drive for some really big teams. Now you don’t have things like that.

“Apparently, we can afford to spend $170 million to move the frontstretch from there over to there. I still have no idea what the reason for that is. I guess we probably can’t afford to run any support races here that cost the track some money.”

Harvick says the system is broken, and that a gap is forming between racing fans, and NASCAR.

“When I look at our hardcore fans, they’re all sitting at those short tracks and they’re mad,” Harvick said. “They’re absolutely mad because you don’t have a Winston who is supporting these short tracks like they used to.”

When RJ Reynolds Tobacco sponsored the Cup Series, it also funded the NASCAR Winston Weekly Racing Series, the predecessor to the modern Whelen All-American Series.

“Winston used to infuse so much money into these short tracks around the country,” Harvick said. “That’s what kept it going. That is what kept people showing up to these racetracks because there was point funds. But when we had the Copper Classic, you had TV out there.

“Everybody could get sponsors, they’d show up to race. They’d come from all over the country. There would be, I don’t even know how many Sprint cars and midgets, but there would be 70, 80, Southwest Tour cars, you would have a Truck race. I don’t know. I have a lot of things that I think about. I love grassroots racing though.”

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Matt Weaver is the owner and founder of Short Track Scene. Weaver grew up in the sport, having raced himself before becoming a reporter in college at the University of South Alabama. He is also the associate motorsports editor of Autoweek Magazine and its website, which allows him to cover the highest levels of the sport.

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