After a 14-year stint with NASCAR, Kip Childress has past six months at CARS Tour where he serves as Executive Director overseeing … well a lot of things.
In fact, the 52-year-old is still trying to figure out where to best apply his experience while delegating the other responsibilities across the room. That’s what the end of the 2023 season was about anyway.
“My background up until this point has been more about managing a garage area or managing a series from a competition standpoint so learning the business aspect of what we do has been a huge part of this,” Childress told CARS Tour during its media day at NASCAR Productions on Thursday. “We have a big group between Dale (Earnhardt) Jr.’s group, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Justin Marks’ groups.
“There are a lot of components to CARS Tour and everyone has been really helpful in getting me up to speed and that’s been the biggest thing so far is just learning what it takes to get us to the race track.”
CARS Tour founder Jack McNelly is still involved in the day to day operations of the series but the true foundational effort is spearheaded by Childress, operations director Keeley Dubensky and technical director Gary Ifft. Childress says this year is about better managing time and resources between them.
“We have a small group from a full-time standpoint, there is myself and Keeley and we’re working dividing up better what the duties are. I want her to be able to focus on the operations side of what we do.
“Like today, this media day, this is her element, she is in her zone. That and operational things with track relationships. That’s Keeley.
“That’s going to allow me to focus more on the competition side of what we do, working with our officials in the infield, the inspection line and making sure those aspects run smoothly. I think the opportunity she and I have to work together and divide those processes will make for smooth weekends.”
New for this season is the disillusion of the Touring 12 loyalty program. It has served CARS Tour well for the better part of a decade. It provided the tour stability in terms of at least 12 drivers every year that a ticket would guarantee a fan to see. Those teams were given tire discounts, merchandise to sell and other marketing related incentives.
Now, Childress says, with no shortage of full-time teams, CARS Tour is looking to provide incentives based on performance and attendance.
“We’re still working through the finer details but we are going to reallocate those funds,” Childress said. “There will still be some incentive programs but making it to where it’s not required you be part of a program. We want to make it performance based.
“We want to make it to where if you’re running frequently and having a great season, that you can benefit from that. Whether that is putting it back into the purse, we still don’t know yet. We still have a program to keep teams coming back on consecutive weekends and we’re looking to beef up our post-season awards too in terms of dollars to help our race teams.”
One of the major projects from the summer into the fall and winter was an effort from Childress to his counterpart at NASCAR Weekly Racing, Les Westerfield to see if there could be a better alignment between their respective Late Model Stock Car rule books.
Childress said their number one goal was to make sure that chassis builders continue build cars that meet both NASCAR and CARS Tour standards. Childress says he feels like that’s been the case over the past decade and will continue to be the case.
“The one thing that we did not want to have happen as we continued to talk about this was, when I came on board in July, is that we didn’t want the weekly teams that run at South Boston and Langley or Florence to feel like they had to go out and spend money to race with us over rule changes NASCAR might implement.
“And we certainly didn’t want our guys to think that they were throwing away money they’ve already spent if we implemented NASCAR rules.
“We understand there are going to be some differences and everybody is okay with that.”
The biggest example has been shocks. NASCAR shocks are not approved in CARS Tour and CARS Tour shocks are not approved in NASCAR Weekly.
“The teams that had those problems in tech last year will tell you now that they were self-induced,” Childress said. “To that point, the other big thing we’re working with NASCAR on is to make sure we’re inspecting cars very similar to the way cars are inspected at the weekly tracks.
“Which, they have a challenge there because every member track has their own program but we both want to make sure the process is similar, and fair. Like, if we spot something early in a weekend or a few weeks prior, we don’t want to be finding things once a race is over.”
The other big topic surrounding CARS Tour is growth and the double-edged sword it represents.
On one hand, a CARS Tour that features JR Motorsports, Kevin Harvick Inc., a Lee Pulliam Performance with Toyota support and Chad Bryant Racing is a really impressive roster but that potentially comes at the expense of weekly racers who represent the backbone of the discipline.
How does CARS Tour continue to grow its series responsibly and without leaving behind the weekly racer?
“The very first thing everyone asked me when I joined, by both fans and the teams, was how much are we going to grow,” Childres said. “Are we going to go to more states, regions and will there be more travel?
“My initial response was, we love the footprint that we’re in and we need to be careful that we don’t extend the teams that run with us. We love the markets we’re in and we don’t want them to spend more money to travel to tracks outside the Virginias and Carolinas area.”
CARS Tour is exploring an event at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway but that’s the same distance as traveling to Dominion so it tracks too.
“That possibility is real,” Childress said, “because it still fits our geographic standpoint.”
There are also other Cup Series teams that are interested in fielding CARS Tour entries and Childress recognizes that is both an opportunity to grow the series but also push out the legacy racer
“We have to manage that within the scope of our rules to make sure that no one has a leg up on the other,” Childress said. “Having teams like JRM and KHI that are part of our garage area, you can look at those teams and realize they aren’t throwing a ton of money at it.
“They have a budget to work within and it’s not exorbitant, you know? They are examples of being able to be competitive in our series without having to throw a ton of dough at it.
“They see this series as a chance to teach racers how to race, and if you just come here and spin a ton of money, and lap the field, what are you really teaching anyone?”
All told, Childress believes CARS Tour has a very valuable, relatively cost-efficient model compared to national tour racing where young drivers can gain experience on their way to Cup while also being a home for veteran mainstays to make a name for themselves for years to come.
“With a lot of our drivers being true development drivers, you want them to be able to test,” Childress said. “So with how many tracks you have to race a Late Model Stock at, I don’t think a testing policy is really feasible.
“You want to keep young drivers in the race car but I also think our weekend schedule has a good balance of testing time without wearing our guys out.”