The year that helped Justin Allgaier break into NASCAR’s national level was 2008, when he won six races in his family-owned ARCA car and was propelled into a full-time Nationwide Series ride for the next season. In the process, the native of Riverton, Ill., was heeding words of wisdom offered by another prominent driver from the Midwest.
“Tony Stewart gave me great advice several years ago,” Allgaier said. “He said, ‘Whatever you do, whatever level you’re at, win. And if you can’t win, find a series you can win in. Find a level you can win at. And from there, if you start to win races at that level, you’ll get a shot to move up. And if you’re winning races, people will recognize it. It’s true. you start winning at whatever level you’re at, and it seems to work out.”
It certainly did for Allgaier, a Nationwide Series championship contender with Turner Motorsports, and one of several drivers who will be returning to their home region for this weekend’s event at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. For stock-car hopefuls there’s always talk of “going south,” of making it to a Charlotte area where most NASCAR teams are based, and where the focus on the sport never wavers. But Allgaier is among those carrying on a proud tradition of racers who hail from middle America, one started by the likes of Stewart, Jeff Gordon and the Wallace brothers, and continued in today’s Nationwide tour by those like Jennifer Jo Cobb and Michael Annett.
“If you have success, wherever you go, you’ve broken out,” said Annett, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, who drives for Rusty Wallace Racing. “It’s however you want it to be. You can sit around and be the guy from the Midwest, be the Iowa boy, and you can go out and run top-five, top-10 with the best in the world. It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
Stewart, Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne helped launch a Midwest-based U.S. Auto Club pipeline that continues today with drivers like Cole Whitt and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won two weeks ago at Iowa. Matt Kenseth, who won last week’s Nationwide event at Charlotte, is one of many to come from the late-model circuit in and around Wisconsin. Nationwide stalwarts Kenny, Mike and Steve Wallace continue the racing tradition of their family, which comes from St. Louis. And then there are all those racers at all those short tracks across the Midwest, USAC and late-model and dirt-car pilots, all of them hoping to be the next to break through.
“I think the reason why it’s harder to break out, in my opinion, from the Midwest, is there are so many talented race car drivers that come from that area,” Allgaier said. “Not taking anything away from racing anywhere else in the country, but it kind if seems like the east and west have guys that stick out above everybody else. You get to the Midwest, and everybody kind of ends up being equal. It’s good in a way though, because you get to learn from the best. It’s always been fun for me. I’m glad to do what I’ve been doing, and hopefully there are more guys like me from the Midwest that keep making it.”
There are more coming. Annett is one of many who have taken notice of Brett Moffitt, an 18-year-old native of Grimes, Iowa, who has won twice this season on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. In 25 career starts on that circuit during three years, he’s compiled six victories and a gaudy 15 top-fives. Others rave about 16-year-old Ryan Blaney, the son of Sprint Cup regular and Ohio native Dave Blaney, who has two top-10s in as many starts on the K&N Pro Series East.
And then there are the drivers we don’t know about -- yet. “Hawkeye Downs, where I started racing late models, they always have a lot of good guys there racing week in and week out,” said Annett, referring to a track in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I really think we’re going to see more guys like Ricky Stenhouse and Cole Whitt coming out of USAC. There are a ton of guys like that in the Midwest.”
It helps that NASCAR has been on something of a Midwest migration, adding national-series races to a region where fan support is historically very strong. The May 22 event at Iowa was the first of two trips this season to the Hawkeye State. This weekend’s standalone at Chicagoland is a new event, making up for the loss of a race at a now-closed Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis. To NASCAR drivers from the Midwest, those races help raise awareness.
“Absolutely,” Allgaier said. “The unfortunate part of it is, our racing months are a lot shorter than [those on] the coasts. It’s hard to have a ton of races. But the tracks we do have are really, really good. I think they provide good races, and that definitely helps a lot. I think it’s good for the fans, it’s good for the drivers, and I think it definitely helps get that little bit more recognition for the Midwest that we need.”
Before Iowa Speedway, Annett said the only televised race people saw from his home state was the Knoxville Nationals sprint-car race. “The fact that the Iowa Speedway came about, and now we’re racing there twice a year, both nationally televised, it’s huge to see Iowa Speedway flashed across the TV,” he said. “And of course, Kansas has become one of the more popular tracks we go to, the way everything grew up around that track in the middle of a cornfield. And of course Chicagoland always brings in a big crowd. A lot of people might not think it’s big in the Midwest, but I think if you look at attendance, that’s where a lot of the fans are coming from.”
Many Midwestern drivers end up going south anyway, relocating once their NASCAR dreams become realized. But events like this week’s in Chicagoland offer a welcome opportunity to go back. “I love living here in Charlotte, and I love being down south,” Allgaier said, “but there’s no place like home.”