ARCA Menards Series

COVID-19 and the Effect on Developmental Drivers

By Cole Cusumano

Photo By: Nigel Kinrade | Nigel Kinrade Photography

Another calendar page has turned, as the sporting world remains on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Between iRacing in the NASCAR Pro Invitational Series and the latest news trickling from various sources, it’s been well documented how many superstars in the NASCAR Cup Series are finding ways to remain sharp and occupied during this momentary break in the action.

While the sports journalists are doing their part to keep information flowing for now-dormant organizations, it’s easy to overlook the notion that well-established athletes competing at the top division are potentially losing out on some of the more dominant days of their expiratory playing careers.

What’s flown virtually under the radar for a majority of spectators is the coronavirus’ lingering effects, and the reality that it’s delaying the growth of up and coming athletes around the world. We’re all aware of the seemingly ironclad contracts that top-tier competitors can fall back on during times of uncertainty, but what about the young developmental drivers, where every season is essentially a fight for their racing lives and every year is a contract year?

In the ARCA Menards Series, no team has gotten off to a hotter start than Venturini Motorsports. The divisive group of drivers ranging from newcomers to series veterans have accounted for both wins in this young 2020 season. Drew Dollar and Chandler Smith are among the exciting growing talents who’ve seen shared success in the pair of races run this year. They’re also aware of the growing concern of ambiguity as it pertains to the scheduling and their respected racing careers for the duration of the global pandemic.

Dollar, who notched the best finish of his ARCA career after a third-place finish at Daytona International Speedway, has been residing at his home in Atlanta and staying busy by working out in the morning, going on walks with his dog, and occasionally spicing things up with a puzzle or iRacing — a daily routine he reveals he’s grown accustomed to.

For the driver of the No. 15 Toyota Camry, the largest adjustment he’s had to face comes in the form of the mentality and lifestyle of racing each weekend.

“When you’re racing, you can go week to week and focus on these tracks — I’m not even sure what my next race is going to be at this point,” Dollar told POPULAR SPEED. “I think that’s really tough, and trying to maintain focus to keep your eyes on the prize when you’re not doing anything but sitting at home.”

In an effort to stay sharp mentally, the 2018 INEX Semi-Pro National Points Champion has been watching old races (mainly for his own enjoyment, he admits), and doing some iRacing.

“That kind of keeps you sharp to race around some people,” Dollar explained. “Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to be on the track or do any of that, but I think iRacing is the closest thing you can do right now to keep you sharp.”

The 19-year-old uses a SimCast simulator to compete in the online racing game — the same high-tech rig that Denny Hamlin uses.

“Thankfully, I’m able to have something that’s as close as you can get when you’re talking about a home simulator.”
For his teammate and fellow Georgian, Smith, it’s the opposite, as he’s taking minimalistic approaches to be prepared mentally. The 2020 Phoenix Raceway winner is opting to spend a majority of his time coming up with projects to build around his house, stating he’s been in a “crafty” mood.

The driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry is seeking to make the most of his time off, as he is additionally slated to compete in eight races for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series, on top of 13 events for Venturini Motorsports in the ARCA Series.

“I have watched a little film and stayed in touch with Billy Venturini and some of my guys over at KBM like my crew chief, Danny Stockman,” Smith told POPULAR SPEED. “Other than that, I haven’t been doing much. I’m trying to enjoy this a little bit. You don’t really get this as a race car driver every weekend.”
Contrasted to his teammate, it’s the physicality aspect of being away from racing that’s impacted him the most.

“My body is used to ‘go, go go,’ adrenaline rush, race, hopefully sitting in victory lane, getting back on the plane, heading back home and repeating it every weekend,” Smith revealed. “It’s been hard on my body, honestly. It’s kind of freaking out like, ‘okay, why aren’t we going’?”

To combat this physical toll taken on both Smith and Dollar, they’re staying active by participating in a Toyota Development Racing fitness app that TRD has implemented to teams who represent the manufacturer on track. The platform creates a variation of daily workouts catered to the athletes environment – whether they have a home gym, or no equipment at all, there’s specific routines that the drivers must complete throughout the week to stay fit.

“Toyota’s development is doing a really good job in keeping us active,” Dollar stated. “They’re doing a really good job at keeping us zoned in, in this time where I think it’s really easy for a lot of drivers outside of the program to lose track of where they need to be and lose focus easily.”

While both drivers are doing all they can to compose their racing-selves in a race-less setting, they acknowledge that it’s been a rough adjustment and that there’s been a breach in the momentum formed by the dominant Venturini Motorsports teams this season. Falling out of the normalities and weekly routines are the shared factors that the developmental drivers feel are potentially limiting their growth and exposure in a sport where it’s vitally important.

“It’s really affected racing,” Smith said. “That’s my career, everything comes through my racing. It’s a pretty big deal for me, being cut off from what I really love doing as a job.”

For drivers like Dollar who are still in search of their first NASCAR-sanctioned win, the recognition of severity in relation to development and experience stems even deeper.

“We were working out everyday, really getting prepared mentally and physically, and then for everything to just get put on pause really takes away a good bit of momentum — which I feel like we’ll be able to get back pretty easily — but it just kind of takes the wind out of your sails a little bit,” Dollar stated. “The biggest thing is disappointment, because especially in this sport where everything is so dependent on your performance in one year, it’s unfortunate that we can’t be doing it right now. We’ll get back to it eventually, I just wish we were doing it right now.”

As of mid-April, there has been no indication of when racing will resume for the 2020 season. However, President Donald Trump revealed this week that he will be fielding calls with every professional sports organization to figure out a potential timetable for the return of sports nationwide. Additionally, NASCAR has stated that they’re doing everything they can to get teams back in their respected shops to prepare for racing once the CDC approves operations.

There’s a lot of uncertainty right now for the state of the sport and the future for up and coming drivers. Once racing does resume, we can expect Dollar, Smith and Venturini Motorsports to do all they can to pick up where left off, and make the most of every opportunity presented to them in the remaining races.

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