Even at a track as large as Rockingham Speedway, it’s easy to find CARS Tour president Jack McNelly if you know where to look.
Overlooking the restart zone is where he spends most races on Saturday nights throughout the summer, assisting his race control team with jumped restarts and having easier access to pit road should he inevitably need to solve any problems for his seventh-year short track series.
During the three-team test in December at Rockingham, McNelly was working through tire wear concerns, the first obstacle placed in the way of his efforts to take Late Model Stocks back to Richmond County, North Carolina.
If history is any indication, McNelly will find a way and turn it into something special, too.
McNelly was part of the five-person group that founded the Interstate Investment Group that purchased the legendary Pro Cup Series from Hooters of America in 2009. Despite their best intentions and ambition, McNelly and his partners just couldn’t resuscitate Pro Cup into what it had been during its heyday.
How could anyone, really?
“Bob Brooks’ program was awfully hard to follow,” McNelly said. “I mean, he pumped so many resources into that series. There were years where the series champion would receive $250,000 at the end of the year. That’s a pretty hard gig to follow.”
McNelly believes the decision in 2008 from Hooters of America to declare 2009 the final Pro Cup season, before the assets had even been sold encouraged teams to pursue other avenues. Car counts began to plummet and McNelly found himself with fewer partners, too.
The 2014 season was dreadful.
With fewer than 10 cars showing up to Memphis and Motor Mile, McNelly opened up the rule book to allow Late Model Stocks to compete alongside the Pro Cup cars just to get starting lineups over a dozen throughout the summer.
“I hung in there the best I could in 2011, ‘12, ‘13 and ‘14, but we just couldn’t get it back up,” McNelly said. “We just couldn’t get the car counts back up. So, approaching 2015, I made up my mind, that I was either going to do something different or quit.”
The opportunity to try something revolutionary and novel presented itself when Kerry and Wink Bodenhamer shuttered the UARA-STARS Late Model Stock Tour after the 2013 season and ceased operations a year later. Simultaneously, Super Late Model teams had become frustrated with the Pro All Stars Series in the Carolinas and Virginias and were looking for an alternative.
McNelly found his ‘something different’ concept with the CARS Tour, a sanctioning body that traveled across the region and promoted twin features for both Late Model Stocks and Super Late Models.
Its debut event was held on March 28 at Southern National Motorsports Park in Kenly, North Carolina and was an overwhelming success. A total of 67 cars were entered across the two divisions. Cole Timm and Todd Gilliland won the races and a new summer tradition was born in the Piedmont.
Over the past six years, the Tour has visited southern stalwarts like Hickory Motor Speedway, South Boston Speedway, Orange County Speedway, Langley Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville and Greenville-Pickens Speedway.
It’s like a time machine back to the 1980s Busch Grand National Series.
What is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series actually began its tenure as a touring series for Late Model Sportsman — the predecessor to the Late Model Stock. Today’s CARS Tour roster is extremely reminiscent of that era.
CARS Tour features a driver loyalty program, the Touring 12, with fans guaranteed at least a dozen full-time championship contending teams each season. Bobby McCarty, Deac McCaskill, Layne Riggs, Brandon Pierce, Justin Carroll, Mini Tyrrell and Tommy Lemons Jr. have become niche names across the country due to a streaming platform that airs races across the globe.
Josh Berry of JR Motorsports is the tour’s winningest star with 19 victories in 51 starts and currently applies his craft in the Xfinity Series.
Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Quin Houff, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton, Myatt Snider, Timothy Peters and Raphael Lessard are amongst the winners now racing at the three highest levels on TV every week.
That’s part of McNelly’s legacy now.
“That is very, very rewarding,” McNelly said. “We might have played just a little bit of a part in that person’s rise to be able to compete on a national stage. That’s very satisfying.”
McNelly, of course, has competed at that level too.
What is now the CARS Tour hauler that travels up and down I-77, I-85 and I-95 during the course of the summer was once the Mac Hill Motorsports transport — a Busch Series, ARCA and Pro Cup team co-operated by McNelly.
His formative years was spent at Jennerstown Speedway in Pennsylvania, now a stop on the Super Late Model schedule, with his dad. A family friend raced built and raced a car in the region and that was McNelly’s first-hand gateway into the sport.
“They towed that car all over Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia,” McNelly said. “And with that was a little kid running around behind them. I just fell in love with racing and I’ve never got rid of it.”
It took him five years to get Pro Cup right, but he never got rid of that either, much to the gratitude of an entire industry.
Four-time NASCAR Weekly Series champion Lee Pulliam first joined the tour as a driver in 2018 and has spent every subsequent year as the operator of a two-car driver development program. He is the backbone of the series alongside JR Motorsports and Nelson Motorsports.
Pulliam calls the Tour ‘the best thing going in racing’ in his opinion.
“The first time I met Mr. McNelly was when I ran Pro Cup driving for Rusty Skews, and Jack was welcome and right from the get-go,” Pulliam said. “Such a good guy and his passion for racing is tremendous.
“I actually won the last Pro Cup race, so I got to see his vision from the start in turning this into a Late Model series. He’s a pioneer in my opinion. He had a vision of where to take Pro Cup for the future. He’s done a tremendous job. There are many people finer than Jack McNelly and I’m proud to be a part of the tour. He’s a large part of why I’m part of the tour. ”
Meanwhile, next time you’re at a CARS Tour race, look towards Turn 4, and you’ll see Jack, too.
“I don’t do this to make a big living,” McNelly said. “God’s been good to me, so just to see our crowds and to see the cars, 25 of the finest Late Models in the country coming out of 4 to take the green flag — that’s very, very, very satisfying. That’s all I can tell you.
“Sometimes, it’s very hectic, and I walk out of Hickory thinking, ‘Why in the world am I doing this?’ Then comes Monday morning and you’re back at work planning for the next one.”
It’s a cycle that will begin anew on Saturday at Dillon Speedway in South Carolina.