MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Never doubt a racing driver’s competitive streak.
They don’t stop battling when they aren’t in a race car, as the NASCAR NEXT drivers showed during Wednesday’s NASCAR NEXT Karting Challenge at GoPro Motorplex in Mooresville, N.C.
After racing against media – well, racing around media – for a short time, some of NASCAR’s top young talents from the Camping World Truck Series, K&N Pro Series and Whelen Modified Series engaged in a 10-lap shootout.
It was what you’d expect it to be, an all-out wreckfest that decided a winner by survival as much as speed.
So it was like a Sprint Cup race at Talladega.
Modified racing star Ryan Preece, who made his first Nationwide Series start of the season last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, escaped the carnage and won over skilled pilots including Erik Jones, Gray Gaulding, Jesse Little, Ben Rhodes, Kenzie Ruston, Austin Hill and Brandon McReynolds.
For his part, Gaulding – who drives the No. 20 Chevrolet Silverado for NTS Motorsports in the Truck Series – said racing his contemporaries brings out his fiery streak.
“As a competitor, whether it’s a kart race, K&N race, no matter what, I want to win,” said Gaulding, who was third in the karting feature.
He almost did, too. Preece cleared him on the final turn and sped to the win as Gaulding threw up his hands in disbelief.
During a practice portion of the event where drivers and media shared the track, I took a turn relatively well – after all, I was third fastest among media in attendance – when I felt a slight bump from behind.
I looked to my right, and saw a driver in a black Krispy Kreme firesuit with his eyes completely fixated on an approaching curve.
I figured letting Gaulding go by was a wise move, since he had the racing line and all. I even kept pace with him for oh, two or three turns. I needed a faster kart.
I raced you clean though, right? I drive karts aggressively, but respectfully.
“You have my respect,” Gaulding tells me after the race.
This was all about having fun and trying to win while having fun. It’s an interesting sight to see a handful of K&N Pro Series drivers – who are around one another on a track all the time – being friendly and sharing laughs in the middle of the week.
When it got down to the final restart, they all went crazy, but it was more impressive to see how well they all get along. They’re racers. If they’re this competitive, shouldn’t there at least be some rivalry? Maybe a light dust-up?
Can you imagine Will Power and Sebastien Bourdais, or Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch, kidding one another like that after a race? They go straight from car to pit to media center to garage – paddock if you prefer open-wheel racing – after maybe exchanging pleasantries or gestures.
These guys – and girl – sat down at tables, had some sandwiches and poked fun at how aggressive they all can be.
Maybe that’s what makes the whole NASCAR NEXT concept work. Pitting up-and-coming talents against one another on a kart track is just a slower version of their weekend lifestyle, but they aren’t yet accustomed to the glitz-and-glamor that separates most drivers from keeping a major friendship, so they have a good rapport with each other.
They’re all pretty talented, too.
And supremely competitive.