NASCAR future stars get a boost via Chevy’s Drivers Edge program

Like every manufacturer, Chevrolet understood the need to have a place to find its next NASCAR Cup Series superstar. But the group was still hesitant to get involved in the Drivers Edge Development program jointly put together by GMS Racing and JR Motorsports without first knowing if it was going to be successful.

Now in its third season, however, Chevrolet is fully invested in the program. Earlier this week, the first seminar of the season took place at the GMS shop, part of the program’s off-track education that takes place a few times a year to touch on subjects from media relations to branding and social media.

Josh Wise was one of this week’s guest speakers, on hand to explain his driver performance program. Wise works with many drivers across the NASCAR garage on both physical fitness and psychological aspects of racing.

Later, Regan Smith from Fox Sports spoke from a media perspective, resulting in one of the more engaging portions of the day prompting questions from the drivers, with Kelley Earnhardt Miller and L.W. Miller of JRM weighing in with thoughts on the dos and don’ts of handling media obligations.

Drivers involved in the program this season are Tyler Ankrum, Josh Berry, Will Cox, Sheldon Creed (photo above), Noah Gragson, Raphael Lessard, Sam Mayer, Chase Purdy, Zane Smith, and Jack Wood.

Participation in the program gives drivers the chance to race in different series with the two teams. The competition pipeline includes late models, ARCA, the Camping World Truck Series, and the Xfinity Series.

Dayne Pierantoni is the Chevrolet Drivers Edge Program Manager and the GM Racing Program Manager (Truck Series). He sat with RACER this week to give an overview of the state of the Drivers Edge program:

As a refresher, can you explain why there was a need for this program and how it came together?

There were a couple of reasons. Obviously, from a competition standpoint, we’re always looking at how to get the next stars for our Cup program. But that’s difficult. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of money, a lot of time, the right opportunities, sponsorship, and all of that.

It started organically between the teams – GMS and JRM – and they formulated the idea and came to Chevrolet. It took us a little while – we’re switching gears and moving a lot faster today – but this was back in early 2018, and it took us a while to figure out where we fit in as a manufacturer.

To be honest with you, it wasn’t originated by the manufacturer, but we feel it’s going to become an important part of our driver development program. We’ve become fully invested.

How has Chevrolet’s presence in the program changed over the years?

It’s changed quite a bit, but really by the time we jumped on board in 2019, we were certainly a part of the program, and we were helping out in a number of different ways: simulator time, some engineering support, some support to the teams and Josh’s program.

But I will say, we were treading lightly, to be honest with you. Then as we saw the program develop and we saw what Josh was doing with the drivers and seeing results on the racetrack, I think that really excited some of our management. Now they’re like, ‘You know what? This is actually working. We are getting results.’

It’s building on itself, and it’s starting to become a brand.

Toyota has always had a driver development program, and you see a lot of fire suits. Granted, we’re not in the middle of their business or know how good or not good their program is. But that was something we were concerned about it: ‘Can we do it as good as the perception is they are?’

Certainly, a couple of years ago, they were the driver-development guys; but I think we’re starting to gain a reputation that, hey, we actually have a real program, and we’re getting results from that, and now I think we’re attracting guys to ask to be a part of the program.

How do you know the program is working?

There (are several) aspects to it. As Josh mentioned, his metrics are probably slightly different from our metrics because of what he’s doing, but nothing substitutes statistics and results on the racetrack. Granted, it’s a young program, but you look at 2020, and if somebody would say, ‘Why would I want to be in your program?’ well, just look at the numbers. We’ve got championships with Sam Mayer, with Sheldon Creed; and I don’t remember all the numbers, but we’ve got race wins and championships and a fair number of them. We’ve got a significant number of wins on the racetrack, so it’s obviously working.

I don’t want to take all the credit; these guys have to be talented to do that. You get to the truck level, it takes a lot to win a race, and it’s not just driving talent and car setup. You look at Sheldon winning five races last year, and you say, ‘Man, we’re doing something.’ Not taking away from Sheldon, he’s a very talented guy; but you look at 2020 versus 2019 as a driver where he progressed – that really tells the story of specific examples of guys who have grown significantly as part of this program.

Using Sam Mayer as an example, is Chevrolet supporting young drivers to help them get an opportunity?

The one thing as a manufacturer, at least today and over the years, we’re not a sponsor. In general, our mantra is we’re not here to be your sponsor; we’re here to be technical support. Obviously, that’s changed a lot in the last year, and we’ve got a huge focus on engineering and engineering support; but as it relates to Drivers Edge, we’re not the sponsor. We can’t afford to take six kids and bring them all the way up through; it’s millions and millions of dollars.

Our position is we’re here to support the program the best we can and provide the program and other resources – like our simulator. That’s our position. Then, there are a lot of ways to put together the funding to race – family money; sponsors they have in place. It’s different for each driver.

What has been the evolution of this program from day one to now?

We’re still learning, for sure, but I think now we have a structure that we feel comfortable we’re accomplishing things. When we first went in, we had these ideas of meetings and were going to use Josh’s program, but we didn’t know the capabilities of all the different areas. We’re learning how to do a better job with these seminars because, to be honest with you, we’ve had some that were a total miss.

We nowhere near have this perfected, but I think we at least have a structure we’re comfortable with.