Admit it. You (like me) have sat in front of the television watching pre-race interviews for a Camping World Truck Series race and asked yourself “Is that kid even old enough to drive?”
I thought maybe it was just me getting old, but the numbers bear me out. NASCAR drivers are getting younger. In the Sprint Cup Series, you have Eric Jones (19 and currently the youngest NASCAR main-series champion ever) and Chase Elliott (19). Kyle Larson, at 23, is in his second year as a full-time Cup driver.
All this age-related thinking was spurred, of course, by Jeff Gordon’s last race as a full-time NASCAR driver. Many of the tributes we saw last weekend credit Gordon with starting a “NASCAR Youth Movement”. He ran his first race at the age of 21 and won his first championship at 23, making him the youngest Cup champion in the modern era.
But is Gordon actually responsible for the “Youth Movement”? To answer that question, we go to the numbers.
TECHNICAL NOTE: The official records appear to use a slightly different age convention. Example: Jeff Gordon was born on August 4, 1971. His first championship was in 1995. As of August 1995, he was 24.
All the records say 23, so I’m assuming they use either the age at the start of the season or the age during the majority of the station or something. To make my life a little easier (so I only had to deal with years and not full dates), the ages I’m using are the current year minus the birth year. In other words, I’m using the biggest age the person was in that year.
Ages of Champions
Let’s start with how the overall ages of Champions have changed over time.
I know – it looks like random dots scattered over the page, doesn’t it? But here’s where what you should have learned in math and science class becomes useful. Look for trends. For example…
If we bound the data by showing how the extremes have changed over time, you notice that the bounding lines slope downward, toward younger ages with increasing time. In science, we call these “lines to guide the eye”, which is code for “I have no mathematical justification for drawing this line, but you see it, too, right?”
See how two lines can make a trend stand out? But there’s a trend within a trend, too.
Look closely. There are groups of points that form lines going up and to the right. And they look like really, really straight lines. When something like that happens, you know there’s got to be a reason because points don’t line up like that by coincidence. If you look into the data, you’ll find it’s not coincidence at all.
Even Sprint Cup champions age. The straight lines represent drivers who have won multiple championships. Since they age one year every year just like us regular humans), their points form a consistent line with slope (rise over run) equal to one.
Notice something else, though. Richard Petty won his last championship at age 42. The very next championship was won by an upstart 29-year-old (named Dale Earnhardt).
The trend repeats itself. When Earnhardt won what was to be his last championship at age 43, the very next year, the championship was won by a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon.
Aha! you say – the young buck comes in and unseats the veteran. So after Gordon won his last championship in 2001, he was unseated by… Tony Stewart, who was born the same year as Gordon and is, in fact, only two months and a couple of weeks younger than Gordon.
Continuing to buck the trend, the next “dynastical” champion (I made up that word, thank you.) was Jimmie Johnson — and he was older than Gordon was when Gordon won his last championship.
It’s true that Gordon started his run five years younger than Earnhardt, but if you look at the data going back to 1970, he’s merely continuing a trend, not starting it. And the trend didn’t even continue after him.
What About the Whole Field?
You can argue that the younger drivers are present, just not represented as Champions (yet). So I did the following: I took the top 30 drivers for seven years: 2015, 2010, 2005, 2000, 1995, 1990, 1985, and 1980. That’s the year Gordon won his first Championship, the four years after and the three years before.
I chose the top 30 drivers because (at least in later years) those are the drivers who tend to be full-time. They either run or attempt all 36 races. And since that’s the cutoff for The Chase, I thought it was fitting. I also chose the top 30 because I didn’t have time to look up birth years for all 125 drivers who ran at least one race in 1980. (The huge number of people who drove in 1980 actually becomes relevant later.)
Warning: The next graph is a little scary because it’s BIG. Bear with me. I’ll explain everything.
I made histograms for each year. A histogram tells you how many people were in a certain age range. Let’s start with the histogram for 2015, because it’s at the top. The information you should get out of this graph is that there were:
- no drivers ages 16-20
- 4 drivers ages 21-25
- 4 drivers ages 26-30
- 8 drivers aged 31-35
- 9 drivers aged36-40
- 4 drivers aged 41-45 and…
- 1 driver aged 46-50 (Greg Biffle!)
- no drivers 51-55.
Also that the perspective function in Excel graphs makes it hard to see the actual numbers. You’ll have to trust me.
Most of the histograms peak somewhere around 30-45. So much for the “youth movement”, huh? There may be the occasional young ‘un, but the vast majority of drivers are in the mid-range of ages. My calculation doesn’t include drivers like Chase Elliott, who will go full time next year and only ran a couple of races this year. But it also doesn’t include drivers like Michael Waltrip (on the other end of the age spectrum from Chase) who ran only the restrictor plate races this year.
Scroll down and see how the age ranges change over the years. You don’t actually have to think too hard because I’ll meet you at the bottom and explain.
Whew. Is there a trend to lower ages after Jeff Gordon appeared on the scene? Let’s see by comparing the average driver age over time.
The first thing to notice is that the average varies from a low of 33.1 to a high of 38.2, so we’re looking at a 5 year difference. So we do see the average age of competitors going down soon after Gordon entered the Sprint (then Winston) Cup. It looks like it’s starting up this year – but more on that in a moment.
One more look at this data, this time in the form of a high-average-low graph. The top green mark is the oldest driver, the blue box is the average and the red mark at the bottom is the youngest driver. You clearly see that, to within a few years, there isn’t a big different between 1980 and 2010. In fact, we have older drivers running in 2010 than we had in 1980. And there was a 20-year old running in 1980 – Kyle Petty just like there was a 20-year-old (Joey Logano) running in 2010.
Overall, there is a decrease in average age since Jeff Gordon joined the series. So there is definitely a correlation between Gordon entering the series and the average age of drivers shifting to lower numbers.
You knew there was a BUT, right? A correlation doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a causation. There are alternative explanations and factors that could also be responsible for the decrease. To make a definite statement, we’d have to eliminate all those other possibilities. Which means we have to know what they are first. A couple thoughts.
- The average age trend seems to be returning to higher ages in 2015. Did the Jeff Gordon Effect (JGE) wear off when he got older? Or maybe that’s just a fluctuation and it will continue down. Or maybe, the large number of aging drivers taking up seats is preventing young drivers from joining up. These are all alternate theories and you can’t refute them (or the existence of the Jeff Gordon Effect) from the data here.
- Look at the 2005 histogram – it’s different from the others. The other histograms show a nice peaky (“normal”) distribution, but in 2005, there were a lot of drivers in the 30-50 range. What happened to them? From 2005 to 2009, Rusty Wallace (48), Ricky Craven (40), Jimmy Spencer (48), Darrell Waltrip (53), Ricky Rudd (50), Dale Jarrett (51), Kyle Petty (48), and Sterling Marlin (52) all retired. That’s a couple hundred cumulative years removed from the series. The drivers who replace these veterans are usually newer, younger drivers. So it’s possible you could have a decrease in average age without bringing in new, younger, drivers – just retiring out the older ones.
- Finally, the nature of the Sprint Cup Series has changed profoundly.
- In the old days, the team found the sponsorship and the driver. A new driver often has to bring his/her own sponsorship and companies are always looking for bright, smiling, young people to represent them well
- The advent of the multi-car team changed a lot. All of a sudden, teams started having development programs, especially after 1982 when the XFINITY series started. You can’t deny that after Jeff Gordon was successful, a lot of owners started looking for young standouts.
- What it takes to compete in terms of money and infrastructure has changed. Teams have to run a whole season to be competitive and there are far fewer drivers who drive one or a few races. Sorry. I just had to graph this.
Over the period from 1980 to 1995, there is a steep decline in the total number of drivers (blue squares). I also plotted how many drivers drove one race (orange diamonds) and how many drivers drove 5 or fewer races (blue triangles). It looks like most of the lost drivers come from those who were driving only a few races. Those drivers were often the older drivers. So this might be entirely responsible for the phenomenon we saw above, partially responsible, or just a correlation with no causation.
It’s a complicated question, so we resort to the statement all scientists use when they just don’t know: We need more data.
But it doesn’t really matter in the end if Gordon was responsible for the “Youth Movement”, right? Because Jeff Gordon has made such significant and lasting contributions to the sport, not just in terms of on-track, but also as a respected voice in the garage, especially in matters of safety. We were cheering for him Sunday, but as you all know…
Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my readers. I am thankful you’ve put up with me this long. I hope I’m becoming a better writing and just wish I could find more time to do it. Be safe on the road and in the kitchen. I’m also thankful to racing-reference.info for being such a wonderful repository of data. I couldn’t do this kind of blog without them.