NASCAR & Auto Racing

Young race car drivers learn the ropes at Roseville expo

Driver Mariah McGriff, ofVail, Arizona, prepares to participate in a drivers combine designed to discover the next racing talent with potential and those who can make it to NASCAR in the future at the All-American Speedway on Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, in Roseville, Calif.
Driver Mariah McGriff, ofVail, Arizona, prepares to participate in a drivers combine designed to discover the next racing talent with potential and those who can make it to NASCAR in the future at the All-American Speedway on Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, in Roseville, Calif. aseng@sacbee.com

Bill McAnally receives a lot of texts, phone calls and emails from young drivers trying to make a name for themselves in NASCAR.

So the Roseville automotive shop and K&N Pro Series West team owner invited 11 drivers from seven states, Canada and Europe to Roseville for a drivers’ expo Thursday and Friday. It was run like a combine, but without the pressure of competing for a valuable seat in a K&N Pro Series or NASCAR ride.

“This was not some brainstorm that I came up with. They all reached out to me,” McAnally said. “We did this because I’ve been inundated by these kids and others who wanted the opportunity to learn more about the business and how to get on a team. And I think the event was fantastic. I’d work with any of these kids because they were all hungry and passionate about their dream. But they also knew that there were no guaranteed rides up for grabs.”

Eddie Cheever III, 22, lives in Rome and is the son of former Formula One driver and 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. The younger Cheever has dabbled in Formula racing in Europe but has made the transition to stock cars through NASCAR Europe. McAnally said Cheever III viewed the expo as a chance to gain knowledge, not just behind the wheel but in dealing with media, sponsors and race crews.

I wish I could have gone to an event like this when I was coming up. It would have put me years ahead in my career.

NASCAR Sprint Cup driver David Gilliland

Other drivers included Todd Gilliland, 15, of Sherrills Ford, N.C.; Mariah McGriff, 20, of Vail, Ariz., granddaughter of NASCAR legend Hershel McGriff; and Riley Herbst, 16, of Las Vegas, who would rather drive on asphalt than for his family’s successful Herbst Racing off-road team.

Over the two days, drivers were paired with coaches through the more than 20 hours of instruction at McAnally’s race team headquarters in Roseville and nearby All American Speedway. The coaches included three-time K&N Pro Series West driver Eric Holmes, NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Paulie Harraka, Bill McAnally Racing drivers Brandon McReynolds and Chris Eggleston and several former NASCAR crew chiefs, including Larry McReynolds, Brandon’s father and a Fox Sports NASCAR commentator.

“The drivers learned how to handle a sponsor, how to best communicate with a crew chief so the car is running well and how to handle the media,” McAnally said. “They were paired with the coaches and spent both days with them. They ate lunch and dinner together and spent hours at the track and a combined 12 hours in the classroom. The information they received will benefit them no matter what level they race.”

McAnally hired a camera crew to record the event, but to also be an ever-present reminder that professional drivers are frequently in the limelight and their actions could be recorded at any time – both good and bad. The camera crew also recorded one-on-one interviews with the drivers, which were then critiqued.

Members of local media outlets volunteered to work with drivers to prepare them on how to handle interviews and the importance – and perils – of social media. One class imperative: Take off your sunglasses and don’t chew gum. That may seem obvious, but for young drivers such as Gilliland, Blaine Rocha, 17, of Oakdale or Zane Smith, 16, of Mooresville, N.C., the knowledge could be the difference between earning a seat and watching races from the grandstand.

“That was probably the most important part of the two days was the media training,” Gilliland said. “I learned that we always have to watch what we do and say and post on social media. We need to always pay attention, do the right thing and stay positive because we don’t know who is watching.”

Todd’s father, David Gilliland, a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver who made the trip with Todd during a rare week off for the circuit, said he was impressed with the program.

“It wasn’t so much the on-track stuff that was great, and that’s always exciting, but I was most impressed by the off-track stuff the drivers went through,” David Gilliland said. “Todd is a good listener. But it’s always nice for him to hear it from other people in the business, like Larry McReynolds.”

David Gilliland, 39, who was born in Riverside, has raced in NASCAR’s top division since 2006. He earned the pole at the 2007 Daytona 500 and finished eighth. Gilliland drives for Front Row Motorsports and owns a late model team that races primarily on the East Coast.

“I wish I could have gone to an event like this when I was coming up,” Gilliland said. “It would have put me years ahead in my career. This combine will get you as ready as you can be.”

McAnally was unsure if the driver’s expo would turn into an annual event or perhaps expand to the East Coast. But with his email inbox filling up and his phone constantly ringing and pinging with text messages from young drivers around the world, it’s a safe bet McAnally will do this again. Perhaps the next Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson one day will say their careers were launched in Roseville.

Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee. Reach him at editorwriter@att.net or @editorwriter001.

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