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So You Want to Be a NASCAR Driver: This is the COMPLETE Development Pipeline

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Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

When people think about the NASCAR Development Pipeline, they likely think of Xfinity, Trucks, and, maybe even ARCA. However, the NASCAR Development Pipeline is far more complicated than that, and it is not a straight line, even at the highest levels of the sport.

Let’s break down this pipeline from the bottom to the top.

  • There are multiple ways that a NASCAR driver can work his way through the ranks. They can race on dirt or asphalt and work their way up through there. Within those two disciplines, there are multiple different series that drivers can race in to work their way up.
  • The development ladder is far from exact, and many drivers take different paths to work their way up into NASCAR. This is a look at every step that prospective NASCAR drivers could take on their way up the pipeline.
  • Fans are always looking for the next big NASCAR star. Thanks to these development pipelines, they may be at a race track near you.

The Beginning: Go-Karts, Mini Box Stocks, and 1/4 Midgets

Many young drivers get their start in go-karts across all racing series. From Formula One to IndyCar to NASCAR, many drivers likely got their start in go-karts. Again, there are many go-kart divisions across the country, so, there are plenty of opportunities for younger drivers to get into go-karts.

Cup Karts of North America has 9 different development classes, kid carts (Ages 5-8), Cadet (8-10), Sportsman (10-13), Junior (12-15), Senior Light, Medium, and Heavy (15+), Masters (35+), and Legends (50+).

Obviously, not all drivers will work their way all the way up through these ranks, but it shows how early drivers get started in the sport.

On dirt, many young racers of the same age race in beginner dirt track divisions such as Box Stocks. Brexton Busch, son of Kyle Busch, and Owen Larson, son of Kyle Larson have raced in these cars.

At Millbridge Speedway, for example, there are divisions called Beginner Box Stocks (ages 5-8), Box Stocks (8-13), Intermediates (10+), and Open Division (14+).

Those who race on dirt or asphalt may also race 1/4 midgets, which are scaled-down midget cars. These cars are run by USAC with the NASCAR Youth Series as the Sanctioning Body. For drivers looking to work their way up the USAC ranks, usually, 1/4 midgets are where they start.

Again, there are many different types of these divisions across the country. For example, Dawson Cram raced in Mini-Dwarf Go Karts that are unique to Southern California. It largely depends on what area of the country the drivers are in.

Working Their Way Up: Bandoleros, Legend Cars, and Restricted Sprints

For drivers going the asphalt route, the next two divisions they could work through are bandoleros and legends cars, with both operating under the jurisdiction of U.S. Legends Cars International. These divisions were started up at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1992, and SMI branding is used on the Legend Cars official website.

Bandoleros are split up between two divisions, Bandits (ages 7-11) and Outlaws (ages 12+). Legend Cars start at the Young Lions class (Ages 10-15) before Semi-Pro (Ages 16+), Masters (40+), and Pro.

Young drivers typically start in Bandoleros before moving up to Legend Cars. Alumni from this group include drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., William Byron, and Chase Elliott.

Over on dirt, Brexton Busch, for example, just started racing in restricted micro sprint cars. This step typically leads drivers into the higher levels of sprint cars.

The Next Step: Late Models, Midgets, and Sprints

Now, this is the level where development starts to get a little fuzzy. At this point, drivers are usually teenagers, and some will jump to different steps on the ladder. Many drivers will camp out in these divisions and make careers out of it.

Many drivers who hope to race in stock cars one day move up to late models. Most short tracks around the country have some sort of a late-model series, and there are plenty of dedicated late-model series out there. Examples include the NASCAR Weekly Series, ASA All-Stars, and the CARS Tour.

There are usually different divisions within late models as well. In the CARS Tour, for example, there are Pro Late Models and Super Late Models. Late models even run on dirt through series such as the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.

S1apSh0es has a video below that explains different late models.

There are also a couple of dirt divisions drivers can work their way up through. USAC sanctions much of the dirt racing throughout the country, and they sanction many different divisions within dirt racing and sprint car racing. They also are involved in asphalt through their Silver Crown Series.

Again, there are a lot of different divisions that drivers can work their way through. Drivers like Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell took the USAC dirt track racing route, while others such as Chase Elliott took the asphalt route.

Many drivers camp out and forge entire careers in these types of divisions. World of Outlaws is a sprint car series that drivers who like to stay in the dirt will race in for years. The CARS Tour has many drivers who compete in the series full-time. For drivers working their way up the food chain, however, these are just stop gaps.

What About iRacing?

As time has gone on, iRacing has become a way for drivers to learn how to race. William Byron famously learned how to race on iRacing before moving up to late models in real life at the age of 15. Ty Majeski even used iRacing to sponsor his late model program in the late 2010s.

Still, iRacing is fairly new as a step on the NASCAR trail, and it is by no means a replacement for racing in real life. Still, drivers have gotten their start here, and they have indeed translated it into success in real life.

NASCAR has even begun to back iRacing with series such as the Coca-Cola iRacing Series. It will be interesting to see how that develops as time goes on.

Regional Touring Series, Modifieds, and the ARCA Menards Series

While NASCAR has a sanctioning presence in the development levels of the sport, the first-time drivers often jump into a fully NASCAR Sanctioned Series is the Regional Touring Series. There are three of these types of series: The ARCA Menards Series East, the ARCA Menards Series West, and the Whelen Modified Tour.

The ARCA Menards Series East and West is a stepping stone into the ARCA Menards Series, and they race on short tracks. Sometimes, they will run combination events with each other or the ARCA Menards Series, but both series have separate points standings. These were formerly known as the K&N Pro Series East and West.

The Modified Tour is NASCAR’s oldest division, and it is primarily regionalized to the Northeast. This is a series that many drivers such as Mike Stafanik or Richie Evans have forged entire careers in. Ryan Preece and Steve Park both worked their way into NASCAR through the Modifieds.

For those who work their way through the K&N East Series, many move into the ARCA Menards Series. This Series gives many drivers their first experience on superspeedways, which is what sets it apart from lower divisions. Chris Buescher and Chase Briscoe are former ARCA Champions who moved into NASCAR.

NASCAR National Touring Series: Trucks, Xfinity, and Cup

From there, drivers move into the National Touring Series, which are the Craftsman Truck Series, Xfinity Series, and Cup Series. Typically, drivers move from Trucks to Xfinity to Cup, however, the lines have been blurred this offseason.

Carson Hocevar jumped straight from full-time Trucks into full-time Cup with only a few Xfinity Series starts. Jesse Love skipped full-time Trucks to head into Xfinity. As time goes on, it will be interesting to see how this feeder system develops.

Regardless, these are the three NASCAR National Touring Series that every driver strives to be a part of. These are the series with the major national TV contracts that race at the biggest and best tracks across the country.

What About Other Series?

Now, fans may be asking, what about other professional racing series? Well-established veterans in other racing series such as IndyCar, Formula One, or, recently, Supercars do not have to start at the very bottom of this ladder.

Sometimes, drivers jump straight into full-time Cup, with examples being Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr. Other drivers develop some in the lower series, such as the case with SVG in 2024, and Marcos Ambrose doing the same in the late 2000s.

For these drivers, they have already gone through the development programs of their other series. As a result, they can jump into a NASCAR National Touring Series ride without people batting an eye.

The NASCAR Development ladder is more like a family tree than a straight line. Plenty of drivers come from different series, but they all have the same goal: NASCAR.

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Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

All Posts