Richard Petty has been retired as a driver for nine years, and Dale Earnhardt is dead, but the legends continue to inspire young driving talent to race in NASCAR.
When Ryan Newman, a highly touted NASCAR and Winston Cup rookie at age 23, was a kid, the King and the Intimidator were his heroes. Newman attributes this admiration for planting a seed that he has nurtured to full bloom.
For Newman, born and raised in South Bend, Ind., Indy cars were a natural progression. Starting before he was five, Newman raced open-wheel cars at several levels with increasing honors highlighted by the prestigious USAC Silver Crown championship in 1999.
"I think the dream to race Indy cars was there, but it wasn't as strong as racing in NASCAR at the Winston Cup level," Newman says. "I was sure of that about the middle of 1999."
Right Place, Right Time As a timely and opportune result, Newman was signed last year by premier race-car owner Roger Penske to drive the No. 02 Penske Racing South/Alltel Fords in a limited schedule of ARCA, NASCAR Busch Series and Winston Cup races leading to Winston Cup full time in 2002.
"Ryan is a very talented young driver, committed and focused," says Penske, who owns championship CART teams as well as principal interest in the Penske South Winston Cup team led by Rusty Wallace. "An acquaintance of mine sent me a resume and recommended that I take a look at him. I watched him race a couple of times. He wanted to race in NASCAR, and we thought it would be very positive to have a young driver coming up.
"He's doing really well. Based on what he's already shown, I think he can be a winner in Winston Cup, maybe next year. The younger guys seem to run their cars harder. Sometimes that's not good, but sometimes they wind up in the winner's circle quicker than expected. I think Ryan belongs in that group."
Don Miller, president and part-owner of Penske South, was actively involved in "recruiting" Newman and has taken not only a professional but almost fatherly interest in his and his youthful team's development.
"I watched Ryan race midgets and Silver Crown for two years and was very impressed before we arranged a test for him in a stock car, one of Rusty's old ones," Miller says. "He was outstanding in the test, so we went forward. After he finished seventh at Michigan in his first ARCA race and won his second at Pocono, signing him was a no-brainer.
"Along with immense talent and an uncanny ability to absorb everything you tell him and the next day put it to work, Ryan is a wonderful human being. He has high morals and values and one of the most infectious senses of humor I've ever seen in a person. He's an absolute pleasure to be around."
Obviously, Newman, who earned a degree in engineering from Purdue University in August, is thrilled.
"It's an honor and a blessing to be with Penske, Miller and Wallace," Newman says. "And it's great to have Alltel as a sponsor because it gives us the opportunity to communicate with fans just like you talk on the telephone I can't think of a better position to be in."
Richard Petty said often during his incomparable 35-year driving career that there is always somebody to replace you no matter how good you are. "The talent is out there, we just don't always see it coming," the King says
A Big Splash Indeed, Newman made such a big splash in stock cars that he appeared to competitors and fans to come out of nowhere. For example, last October at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Newman earned the pole for a 100-mile ARCA race with a stock-car track record of 186.780mph and led every lap. At Michigan in August 2001 he won his first Busch race, starting on the outside pole and leading 119 of 125 laps. In Winston Cup, he sat on the pole for the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's, though he crashed out of the race early while leading, and finished fifth in the June race at Michigan. All of this came after winning the season-opening ARCA 200 at Daytona Speedway.