Race Car Drivers Getting Younger

NASCAR driver Thad Moffitt

NASCAR driver Thad Moffitt with his grandfather, racing legend Richard Petty
Most of us have fond memories of our first time behind the wheel of a car, truck or tractor. My wife Pam, for example, told me that when she was a little girl, her grandfather let her drive his car up a country road to a little store. Needless to say, they did not tell her parents about the adventure. NASCAR legend Richard Petty had a similar experience, which he recounted for me during an interview on Triad Today.

“The first time I ever remember driving at all was down on my uncle’s farm. He was getting up hay one day, and had this old ’38 flatbed truck, and they was throwing hay on the back of it. And they put it in ‘granny gear’ and pulled out the throttle so it sort of crept along. And they put me up there and I was standing in the seat, just holding the wheel straight ‘till they got to the end of the row.”

I asked the King if that incident scared his momma. “Well, they didn’t tell her”, Richard laughed.

Last month, 12-year-old Riley Neal got behind the wheel of a car, but he wasn’t driving on a country road or in a hay field, and he wasn’t afraid to tell his parents. The Walkertown Middle School student was driving in a 60-lap race at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, and finished first, much to the delight of his proud father, Kevin, himself an accomplished driver in the Sportsman Division. Riley’s victory was his first in the 602 Super Limited Division, but it’s not the first time that a young person made headlines at a race track. In 2018, Jake Garcia, then only 13 years old, became the youngest driver to compete in a Late Model race when he finished in thirteenth place at Nashville’s Fairground Speedway. For many kids, these lower division races give them an opportunity to develop their driving skills until they can get their NASCAR license, the minimum age for which is 14.

One of today’s most promising drivers also started young. Thad Moffitt is the grandson of NASCAR legend Richard Petty and nephew of Kyle Petty. “Growing up at the track every weekend and being in that atmosphere makes you want to go out there and get in the car,” Thad told me. In 2017, at age 16, he did go get in a car, and today he races on the ARCA circuit, something that didn’t exist when Richard was coming along. Back then Petty learned the sport from under the hood, and spent his time working on his father Lee’s race car.

“When I was eighteen, I said, ‘Can I drive a race car?’, and he said, ‘Come back when you’re 21. You’re going to grow up a lot between now and the time you’re 21’. So I just kept working on his car, and he was winning races and championships, and then, one day, right before I turned 21 I said, ‘I’m turning 21’, and he said, ‘There’s a car over there in the corner. Get it ready to go.”

And though Richard was ready to hit the ground running, he doesn’t believe that anyone becomes an overnight success. “To be a good race car driver, it takes four or five years to see how he makes it from one year to another, and from one car to another. It takes a while.”

Many of today’s pre-teen and teenage drivers are eager to get a head start on learning their craft, and the racing world is taking notice. In a 2018 interview with NBC sports, Cathy Rice, then general manager at a track in Virginia, commented on the ability of young drivers. “Kids today mature so much so early. I’ve been in this sport for 30 years, and I’ve seen the trend in maturity in the kids. Maybe (NASCAR) will even lower the age to 12 or 13.”

NASCAR star Kyle Busch, who started driving Late Model at age 15 (until he got caught), echoed Rice’s sentiment, saying, “I don’t think it’s necessarily an age thing as much as it is an experience thing.” But Busch also told NBC that 13 is too young to race in Late Model. Meanwhile, former Cup Champion Martin Truex, Jr., had regrets about not being able to race at a young age. “For me at 13, I would say I probably could have driven a full-size car…but I wasn’t allowed to in New Jersey. I had to be 18. I lost quite a few years in racing because of that. I can’t imagine what I could have learned from the time I was 14 until I was 18.”

In fact, there are lots of things for young drivers to learn about on their road to a racing career, including how to stay safe at high speeds. But there are also some lessons to be learned away from the track. After he had just turned 16, I reminded Thad Moffitt that women love race car drivers, and I asked him if he had any girlfriends. Motioning to his famous grandfather who was seated next to him, Thad said, “He told me to stay out of that stuff until I get older.”

Sage advice from a King to his Prince.


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