CONCORD, N.C. — A little more than a year ago, a media conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway was an unfathomable idea for the CARS Tour.
But Monday afternoon, the series‘ core ownership group consisting of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Justin Marks convened inside the track‘s media center to unveil their full plans for 2024, which include the schedule of events, an extension on their deal with FloRacing and a new title sponsor in zMAX.
Earnhardt said Monday was a culmination of the hard work he, the co-owners and everyone else with the zMAX CARS Tour put in during their first year together. Despite this, Earnhardt admitted there are a lot of boxes left to check on his agenda as the series moves through the offseason.
“As someone involved in the series ownership group, it‘s never enough,” Earnhardt said. “We‘re ambitious, and the value of the series is still unrealized. We‘ve got a lot of potential with good, quality racing and a lot of great storylines. I‘m pretty bullish, but there‘s not enough days in the year to accomplish all your tasks.
“I wish I could wake up in the morning and work on the CARS Tour until I went to bed every single day of the year.”
Having been with the series since its first season back in 2015, Earnhardt knew there was room for the CARS Tour to grow into a premier division for short track racing.
Every CARS Tour race weekend sees an even mix of local short track heroes and future NASCAR stars coalesce to battle at some of the southeast‘s most storied facilities. Some of the most successful drivers to come from the series include Deac McCaskill, Bobby McCarty and all-time wins leader Josh Berry, who is set to move into the NASCAR Cup Series in 2024.
Each member of the ownership group expected an onerous task when it came to building upon the foundation Jack McNelly constructed from the remnants of the USAR Pro Cup Series in 2015. This ranged from emphasizing the talent already on the CARS Tour to exposing the series to a much wider audience.
For Harvick, the key to attaining those goals was to ensure he, Earnhardt, Burton and Marks could utilize their own viewpoints to build an efficient blueprint toward sustainable, long-term success.
“When you look at the first year, there‘s a lot of things I‘ve learned a lot about,” Harvick said. “I love the group of guys we work with because it‘s a great communicating group who look at things from a much different perspective but also understand that we‘re trying to reach the same goal. It‘s been a lot of work, but a lot of fun, as well.”
A key first step for the new ownership group was coming to terms with FloRacing on a deal that would see the streaming platform provide live, flag-to-flag coverage of all 19 events on the 2023 CARS Tour schedule.
With more eyes now on the CARS Tour, the series proceeded to sell itself.
Intense, side-by-side racing dominated both CARS Tour divisions from the season-opener at Southern National Motorsports Park to the finale at Caraway Speedway. JR Motorsports driver Carson Kvapil ended up pulling away with the Late Model Stock title, while the Pro Late Model championship saw Caden Kvapil prevail in a year-long fight with Katie Hettinger.
The on-track product translated into stellar streaming numbers for the ownership group and McNelly, who now operates as the CARS Tour general manager. While he was ecstatic to see the FloRacing partnership pay dividends, McNelly found himself more impressed by how many people attended CARS Tour events in person.
“The most important thing to me was the growth in the grandstand area,” McNelly said. “The last half of the year had tremendous crowds. Langley probably had their largest crowd ever. I know we cheated at Caraway [Speedway] with Kyle Larson there, but a fellow told me he had not seen a crowd like that there in 30 years.”
Burton had nothing but praise to offer toward the racing that permeated the CARS Tour during the year along with the assistance provided by McNelly as he and the other owners worked through growing pains.
Even with all the positives the CARS Tour experienced, Burton still chalked up year one as a learning experience more than anything else. There were many aspects about the day-to-day operations that genuinely surprised Burton, but he gradually got acclimated to his environment and began to understand what it would take to help the CARS Tour thrive.
“I personally wanted to learn about the series,” Burton said. “What was it I didn‘t know? I wanted to get smarter, put myself in the shoes of the car owners, drivers and pit crew members to understand what we could do to make things better for the competitors and the fan base.”
A full year with the CARS Tour has given Burton and the other owners a general idea of how to build off the momentum from 2023.
One goal the owners would like to accomplish is a condensed race-day schedule that sees CARS Tour events start on time and guarantees a reasonable departure from the track. They have not ruled adjustments to the rulebook that would make weekends easier for the competitors.
Earnhardt said the series has made progress in that regard through regular communication with team owners.
“We kind of put an owner‘s council together,” Earnhardt said. “There‘s about eight different owners we get together with on a Zoom call, and we talk to them about things that could be better. We don‘t want to do anything our owners don‘t want, but we also don‘t need to change anything, because the series is doing great.
“We‘d just like things to be more streamlined.”
Harvick added that the ownership group is also trying to figure out how to ensure the CARS Tour veterans remain a part of the series for years to come.
The presence of drivers like McCarty, McCaskill and others is a quality Harvick finds essential for numerous reasons. By just having them at the track, Harvick said the new generation of drivers can lean on them for advice, so they do not carry any bad on-track habits into the NASCAR ranks.
“Our veterans are the group of guys that teach our young guys how to race,” Harvick said. “It‘s really an old-school approach, and when you look at the CARS Tour, they have a group of guys that race a lot and those guys showing up year after year is important because they have a great fan base. You need those veterans that have those followings and can teach along the way.”
Harvick and the rest of the owners expect healthy car counts for the Late Model Stock and Pro Late Model divisions next season to go along with a rigid infrastructure that includes Kip Childress as the series‘ executive director.
The introduction of zMAX as the title sponsor and FloRacing returning to broadcast events also provides the CARS Tour some stability as they prepare to tackle an ambitious schedule that features two trips to North Wilkesboro Speedway, one of which is the season finale.
McNelly finds himself amazed at how quickly the CARS Tour has grown under the new ownership group in a short amount of time. He envisions a bright future for the series he helped create and knows the right people are overseeing its burgeoning growth.
“I know [the CARS Tour] is going to continue to grow,” McNelly said. “It‘s just like a child. You and the wife have a child, you watch that child grow and do everything to nourish it when you can, but at some point, you have to turn it loose.
“When you do, you have to make sure it is in good hands.”
Earnhardt sometimes finds himself overwhelmed at the challenges he, Harvick, Burton and Marks face on a regular basis trying to run a series. The days might be long, but Earnhardt remains committed to giving short track competitors a platform to excel with the CARS Tour.
“You‘ll never listen to your favorite song the same when you go into the studio to see how it‘s made,” Earnhardt said. “I used to go the track and everything was about me, but [the CARS Tour] has really opened up my perspective to seeing the challenges of a series owner, the promoters and team owners that are trying to make a living doing this.
“It is a whole lot to get this series up and down the road and makes me appreciate the France family and what they‘ve done.”