17 contestants try to make NASCAR team

Combine participants took on the short track for the chance to win a spot on the Rev Racing team. Tom Whitmore/Getty Images/NASCAR

Take “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “America’s Got Talent,” and then put the contestants behind the wheel of a late-model race car at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va., and you might get a feel for the 2012 NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine that just ended.

Annabeth Barnes, 17, of Hiddenite, N.C., started racing go-karts at age 7. She took advantage of the learning curve offered by her second chance at the combine after she missed the cut in 2011. “Last year it was disappointing. I was more confident this year because I was more experienced,” she said.

Navigating the 0.4-mile oval at Langley was still a challenge, as each driver was given the opportunity to make 10-lap runs. “The track is really flat," she said. "It has absolutely no banking. That in itself is extremely challenging.”

The three-day combine featured 17 drivers (chosen from 60 applicants) competing for six spots on the Rev Racing team in 2013. They were evaluated on physical stamina, driving ability, car knowledge, interpersonal skills and marketing and media aptitude. “Our goal with the program is to expose young drivers and crew members to the opportunities within NASCAR that they would not otherwise get with a competitive car or race team," NASCAR vice president of racing operations Steve O’Donnell said. "We’d like to see those members graduate and become future stars in our Sprint Cup series."

Former combine participant and Rev Racing graduate Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., -- who turned 19 on Oct. 8 -- became the first black driver and the youngest ever to win a pole in the NASCAR Nationwide Series when he qualified at Dover (Del.) for Joe Gibbs Racing in the OneMain Financial 200 before finishing 12th on Sept. 29. That same weekend at Dover, he won the pole in the American Real TV 150 K&N Pro Series East race and ran second. Wallace, whom O’Donnell called “an inspiration to the kids coming up,” has three top-10 finishes in his four Nationwide Series starts, but does not have a sponsor yet for next season.

“We are certainly putting out every effort to make sure he’s fully funded. There’s a kid who absolutely deserves full sponsorship,” O’Donnell said. “We’re going to put every best practice forward with the Gibbs team and on our own to make sure Darrell is able to compete full time next year.”

O’Donnell (@odsteve) called this year’s group “very impressive” and the “most-talented group we’ve had” and even tweeted this class photo to his 26,000-plus followers.

Sprint car driver Collin Cabre, 19, of Thonotosassa, Fla., 19, had never sat in a late-model race car before the combine. “It’s way different than a Sprint car. The late model doesn’t react as quickly and the track is very tricky,” he said.

He was aware his performance off the track will be weighed as much as his performance on it. “One of the guys who works at Rev Racing told me … they’re always watching you, how you mingle with others and how you handle yourself,” he said.

Cabre hopes someday to emulate Kasey Kahne because of “the way he handles [the car] and the way he drives," Cabre said. "He also owns a World of Outlaws Sprint Car team, and that’s my world.”

“It’s exciting to see a bunch of young drivers chasing their dreams. It was refreshing to see that,” O’Donnell said. “Ultimately, NASCAR is a reflection of all of North America, and we need our sport to mirror that. To continue to grow the product on the track, the people involved in the series need to reflect people that everyone interacts with on a day-to-day basis.”

The evaluation process, which will include contract negotiations for the winners, is expected to be completed by January.

Ultimately, drivers will be selected for their “potential ability to end up in a national touring series,” said Rev Racing owner Max Siegel, in his fifth year of managing Drive for Diversity. “The average age of the drivers is younger … but they’re more well-rounded and experienced.”

Siegel was first introduced to the program, created in 2004, when he was president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and worked for Teresa Earnhardt, the first female team owner in NASCAR history.

“At that time, it became apparent to me that the sport has huge potential to attract a broader potential from the participation side, including drivers and pit crew members,” Siegel said, which in turn would “introduce the sport to a broader fan base.”