Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The new ownership group of the CARS Late Model Stock and Pro Late Model Tour is being referred to as a dream team. And while it’s true on a superficial level, the group of NASCAR notables aren’t out to reinvent the wheel, but instead bring a spotlight to a form of racing they love as much as any other fan.
That’s ultimately what this group is setting out to do in 2023.
But first, where did this story begin? Nine years into the existence of the CARS Tour following its rebranding from the Pro Cup Series, founder Jack McNelly began to explore a succession plan. At 75-years-old and with no obvious successor, McNelly wanted to ensure that CARS Tour had a pathway to grow well into the future.
The initial conversations began with Virginia car dealer and Late Model Stock team owner Barry Nelson, who would have been a worth successor if not for a conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr. during Racetrack Revival at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Earnhardt has competed in the series as a team owner from Day One and won the 2015 championship with Josh Berry.
“We’ve been a team owner in the Series for a long time and really love what Jack (McNelly) is doing and Keeley (Dubensky) has been a part of it for several years now,” Earnhardt said. “They’ve done a great job with the Series. Jack talked to me about the future of the Series and wanting it to continue. I wanted to make sure that he can feel confident in the future of the Series and that it is in good hands going forward, long term. I told him that I would be interested in supporting it and becoming an investor and that started the conversation initially.”
From there, Earnhardt reached out to Burton for advice, who expressed interest in becoming part of the group. It was Burton who advocated for his friend and ex-teammate Harvick, who in turn advocated for Marks.
“When Dale asked, it didn’t take long,” Harvick said. “I was basically asking to be part of this by the time we got to that part of the conversation. The first thing I want to say is how excited I am to be part of this group. It really is going to be fun because we all sort of look at things from a little bit different perspective.
“The thing that we all share is, the fact that short-track racing is really the root that feeds everything that we do. For me, growing up racing Late Models on the West Coast and being a part of my career path to the ladder system is something that I have a passion for.”
It was a world that Harvick was already planning to rejoin having built a Late Model Stock with crew chief Rodney Childers with the expectation of racing this coming summer. Harvick just wanted to be in this space more and more approaching the end of his Cup Series tenure.
“I want to be in the car, the pits, the grandstands and want to know what these competitors are struggling with and what they need and to make it better,” Harvick said. “I can’t wait to be part of it and I’m looking forward to every minute of it.”
Marks is an especially intriguing addition to the group.
He doesn’t have the same short track background as the other three, but did come up through the ranks in his own form of grassroots with club road course racing, while also having experience as a team owner in both the NASCAR K&N Series and World of Outlaws with Harry Scott and Kyle Larson respectively.
Marks views CARS Tour as an extremely compelling platform from a storytelling and entertainment standpoint — the bedrock of Trackhouse Entertainment Group.
“From the Trackhouse side, one of the things we’re spending a lot of time on now is growing a brand that can truly amplify the incredible stories and storylines of the people in this sport,” Marks said. “We have made and continue to make big investments in a brand development and content division. There are so many great opportunities that are undiscovered. There are fans of short-track racing that don’t even know they are fans yet because they haven’t been exposed to it.
“I look forward to personally working with this group to learn about the competitors, the stories, the history…try to amplify the CARS Tour to grow the fan base and get people emotionally invested in it. If we can do that, it’s going to be the rising tide that lifts all ships. I look forward to being a part of that.”
DAY TO OPERATIONS REMAIN THE SAME
Even though the new ownership group has officially taken over the stewardship of CARS Tour, Earnhardt says the day-to-day operations will continue to be run by McNelly and director of operations Keeley Dubensky.
They will report directly to Kelley Earnhardt Miller as their direct line of communication to the ownership group.
“Jack is going to continue to manage, with Keeley, the day-to-day going forward,” Earnhardt said. “None of that is going to change, but he wanted some assurance that the Series would be in good hands and that started the conversation with me and the rest of the group.”
With the sale, McNelly can just focus on the operational and competition side and less of the business side, a major sigh of relief for racing people who just want to deliver the best show possible.
“Hopefully when they open up the tool box, there’s more tools in there to work with in the future,” Earnhardt said. “Jack’s done an amazing job to create an incredible series that we all want to be a part of. Keeley is doing an amazing job understanding the way the team works and how to manage it.
“She’s a rock star and getting to know her more and more has been a lot of fun for me and my sister Kelley.”
GOALS OF THE NEW OWNERS
Again, the Dream Team don’t want to immediately change the way CARS Tour operates. It’s one of the best programs going in the discipline and the four just want to bring a brighter spotlight to the current existing racing program.
“I think that having followed the Series closely for the last decade or more and watching Josh (Berry) grow as a driver and watching the way Jack and Keeley have managed the Series, manage the conduct of the drivers,” Earnhardt said. “My biggest anxiety over the whole thing is to not disturb the momentum they already have and not change the course of the Series or alter anything about the identity of the Series and what it is capable of doing going forward.
“We obviously want to shine as big of a light as we can and I think we can do that going forward.”
BUILDING A SHORT TRACK MAJOR LEAGUE
One of the biggest challenges for short track racing to overcome in modern times is a perception that it’s just a minor league for teenagers en route to NASCAR national touring careers.
At the height of the discipline’s popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, the discipline was home to veteran racers capable of making a living racing Late Models, while providing an education for the younger drivers en route to ARCA, Trucks, Xfinity and Cup.
Jeff Burton says that’s an important goal for CARS Tour with veterans like Bobby McCarty, Deac McCaskill, Connor Hall and Chad McCumbee.
That’s an area where dirt racing has had so much success in recent decades. It feels like a major league discipline.
“I think there is a lot we can learn from the successes of dirt track racing,” Burton said. “They’ve done a great job of having shows and programs that are somewhat affordable or sellable to sponsorship – there is something we can learn from that.
“When I grew up, I raced against grown men and they didn’t take any crap from me. They taught me that we’re going to race this way. If you went to move Wayne Patterson, you had your hands full – he was going to make your life miserable and that’s how I learned to race.
“We’ve seen this even in the Xfinity and Truck Series that we don’t have the Jack Ingrams. There aren’t a whole lot of those guys that have been racing for 30 years that are in those series and teaching these young drivers how you do it. Jack Ingram picked me up one night because I called him an old man and I deserved to get my ass whipped. We need some of that mentoring in short-track racing.”
Harvick also wants to build a platform for veteran racers to make a living on short tracks.
“When I started, you could always measure yourself when you went to a different track and raced against the guy who had raced there for 15-20 years,” Harvick said. “That was the measuring stick. All of us want to see the Josh Berrys of the world get as much recognition as possible and giving good feedback on who is coming up through the ranks. That’s important. You need to have a healthy series with veterans who want to teach the young kids how to race.
“That story is going to be told as much as anything, what’s right and wrong from the short track side of things. Being able to be part of that process is something that is needed.”
STREAMING PLATFORM UPDATE
Since the beginning of the tour, CARS races have aired on its own platform, operated by Tony Stevens at PitRow.TV. Earnhardt wants to see that relationship and quality continue but doesn’t have a timeline for a streaming agreement announcement yet.
“I really have enjoyed the streaming service and what Tony Stevens and everybody has done on pit row to be able to provide an opportunity and a way to see the CARS Tour races as they happen live from the comfort of your own home,” Earnhardt said. “We kind of take that for granted now. That invention of being able to watch a short-track race on your tablet has not been around that long. That is something I’m even amazed at today, how convenient that is for us and we want to be able to continue to provide what people expect for the CARS Tour fans.
“We want to provide them with a great broadcast and those conversations are ongoing. Hopefully we will have something to announce soon on who our partner will be for this season and going forward.”
IS NASCAR INTERESTED IN BEING INVOLVED?
NASCAR tweeted out a congratulations to Earnhardt and Co. on Monday morning. Could that portend a future working relationship between the two sanctioning bodies?
“We haven’t really discussed any long-term plans or how we could come together in any sense,” Earnhardt said. “There is communication with NASCAR, for sure, about our plans and our involvement in the CARS Tour and why we would want to become involved.
“NASCAR has been extremely supportive to what we are doing. They understand how important grassroots racing is. I think they too have a new focus on the health of grassroots racing and short-track racing in general – I’m thankful for that. Everyone that I’ve talked to at NASCAR, I am thankful for their excitement and their support on what we are doing. The CARS Tour would love to work with NASCAR in any way, shape or form going forward. There is positive momentum across the board for short-track racing right now and I think everyone from the top down recognizes how important that is and keeping that momentum going.”