Ryan Preece Overachieved in an Apathetic Industry

By David Smith (on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA)
April 5, 2017

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Qualifying is over, his car impounded. Ryan Preece sits outside the New Smyrna Speedway’s fourth turn on a concrete stoop near his race hauler, his face fixed with a thousand-yard stare reserved mostly for deer rocked to their souls by the sight of a rapidly approaching F-150. Preece isn’t in shock, though; this isn’t anything he hasn’t experienced before. The stare is apparently how he processes what’s already happened and how he will expertly craft his reaction.

“I tried something. It didn’t work,” Preece resigned. “I’ll just wait until the fuel burns off and then see what we have.”

Preece would start 12th for the evening’s Richie Evans Memorial 100, the crown jewel event in February’s World Series of Asphalt. Considering the driver, the starting spot is not ideal. Just one night earlier, Preece became what is believed to be the youngest Modified driver to score 100 feature victories, according to Aaron Creed of Speed51.com, a popular short track racing news hub. For Preece, any running position not near the front is an uncivilized foreign land prompting the formulation of a sound exit strategy.

Not surprisingly, a lot happens during the 100-lap Modified race on the gritty, banked half-mile oval, but Preece deftly plays the long game. His sleek No. 6 car is a restrained rocket on this night, as the 26-year-old driver is content to let others eliminate themselves. Some do. It is an exciting race, but Preece picks his battles, finishing fourth to wrap up the weeklong points title, and collecting another championship trophy for his mantle.

This is what Preece wants to be doing, but there is a strong sense that it isn’t what he should be doing.

Tour the nation’s local racetracks, big or small, asphalt or dirt, and you’ll hear a shared assertion.

Just give him one shot to show what he can do, and he’ll get the job done. He just needs one shot.

There is no shortage of local track patrons who have, in their back pockets, the name of a driver who deserves one shot. The claim has practically become scripture, a belief stiff-arming what is mostly cold truth. The list of former local track studs fortunate enough to rev a NASCAR Cup Series motor on Sundays is deep, so much so that guys like Landon Cassill, Reed Sorenson, David Gilliland, David Stremme, Travis Kvapil, Ron Hornaday and the late Dick Trickle—proven winners and dreaded competitors during their short track racing prime—have combined for zero victories on Stock Car racing’s biggest stage.

The game isn’t easy. And sometimes, it just isn’t fair.

Preece, who became a championship runner-up on the hyper-competitive NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour at age 19 and won the title outright at 22, is absolutely the kind of driver that deserves one shot. In 2016, he got the shot, and did exceedingly well for himself, all things considered.

Preece piloted an aged Camaro for JD Motorsports, a fringe NASCAR Xfinity Series team based outside the incestuous Charlotte-area bubble, in the roaring South Carolina city of Gaffney. To state the obvious, this wasn’t Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske or anything equivalent. Preece’s natural talent persisted, despite the second-hand equipment at his disposal.

From a superficial stat standpoint, Preece was a 23rd-place driver last year, with a best finish of 10th coming at Darlington Raceway, an egg-shaped facility commonly bestowed the moniker of “driver’s track.” Those numbers don’t do him much justice, though; Preece excelled in the periphery.

He ranked 20th overall, and ninth among series regulars, in Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a team-and-equipment-filtering effectiveness measurement exclusive to subscribers of MotorsportsAnalytics.com. This placed him ahead of better-publicized drivers like Darrell Wallace (ranked 22nd), Ryan Reed (24th), Corey LaJoie (25th), Brandon Jones (29th), Matt Tifft (30th), Brendan Gaughan (31st) and Brennan Poole (33rd).

He ended the season ranked 16th in adjusted pass efficiency, with a 51.58 percent mark. He proved especially adept at passing on tracks one to 1.49 miles in length (i.e. Phoenix, Dover and New Hampshire), capturing a 54.95 percent efficiency, which ranked 12th in the series among the non-start-and-park fare. He was even more prolific on non-restrictor plate tracks two miles or larger (i.e. Michigan, Pocono and Indianapolis), where he earned a 55.41 percent mark that ranked third under the same parameters, trailing only the percentage of positive pass encounters by Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard.

Among drivers with at least 10 attempts from inside the first seven rows, Preece was the eighth-best preferred groove restarter in the series; his 80 percent retention rate bested a litany of stars, including eventual series champ Daniel Suárez (79.49 percent), Alex Bowman (78.57), Austin Dillon (78.43) and Brad Keselowski (77.78).

Statistically speaking and given the circumstances, it’s difficult to argue Preece failed to do his job during his one shot.

No one called. Sure, Preece now has some strong advocates of his ability entrenched in the NASCAR garage. Ryan Newman has been a sounding board at times. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. provided his phone number for whenever Preece needs advice. Nothing, though, has led him to the next step following the one shot, which is an investment from a Cup Series team. Preece doesn’t entirely understand why.

“As long as I’m not wrecking the racecar and (I’m) finishing as high as I possibly can to what the car is capable of performing at, I’m doing my job. I’m doing the best job I can,” said Preece in an interview with Motorsports Analytics. “I’m never going to go out there and sit back and say, ‘I got a fifth-place car, but I’m going to finish eighth. You know what I mean? It’s just tough. I don’t know how car owners or sponsors or other people value drivers at this point. I feel like I did everything I needed to do.”

JD Motorsports owner Johnny Davis was prepared to bring Preece back for the 2017 season, but that would’ve called for Preece drumming up additional financial resources if he wanted to elevate his surroundings. About a month after the season concluded, Preece elected to focus on Modified racing, eschewing another season of lackluster results and little spotlight.

“Growing up as a racer, you always have that dream about getting to Trucks or Xfinity and then you get to Cup,” explained Preece. “And being a short track racer like me, you want to win races. It’s not just about being there. It’s about having the right equipment and constantly trying to better myself. So at the end of the day, it was hard to see myself going forward and I was struggling to find opportunities. How you would get those rides is not like it used to be or the stories you would hear. And that’s the tough part about it now, you know?”

Davis understands Preece’s plight.

“Ryan is a good racer. He has a future. The problem we have in the racing community is this is the only sport where talent won’t take you to the top; money is what’ll get you there,” Davis told Motorsports Analytics. “That’s what happened to Ryan. He didn’t feel like spending the money he could come up with to race mid-pack. He didn’t think he had a future here because of talent, because talent doesn’t get you there. He just felt like he’d rather go win short track races than be a 15th to 25th-place car in this series. He didn’t feel like he’d ever get picked up by anybody doing that.”

“Racing my butt off and trying to finish 18th, and getting everything you could out of it, I didn’t see it as something that was going to get me to the next level or make Rick Hendrick or Joe Gibbs or any of those guys say ‘Hey, let’s put that kid in this racecar,’” said Preece. “It’s just not an easy time in the sport right now. I’m not saying that I might not end up in [an Xfinity] car this year. I’ve talked with plenty of people. There are still opportunities that could happen. But you really got to be conscious of the decision you make. Whatever decision I make, this is that final shot. So I’m making the right decision and I’m going from there.”

It appears having faith in one shot might be naïve, but there is a wrinkle in the logic that hardly anyone ever considers: The grass at the NASCAR national level isn’t always greener.

“I can make a living racing Modifieds, and there’s nothing wrong with doing that,” said Preece.

Preece’s contractual agreement with Davis in 2016 was for a modest salary that yielded no percentage of winnings and thus, no additional financial incentive. It’s the elephant in the room when discussing independent teams in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series: the pay is terrible. There’s a reason why the story of Ron Hornaday’s couch, offered up to West Coast racers gunning for Cup Series superstardom, is so endearing.

“My drivers don’t make very much money,” confirmed Davis, without getting into specifics. “We put the purse back into racing. Without that, we wouldn’t exist.”

Meanwhile, Preece is peachy with his blue-collar status, because by his math, he can actually earn more money driving Modifieds, where a combination of owners this year will reward him a percentage of winnings, multiple race opportunities per weekend and a base salary that covers upkeep on the cars, of which he is something of a savant.

“Who’s to say you’re not a professional if you’re not running in one of the top three [NASCAR] series,” said Preece. “I know plenty of professional racecar drivers that make a living with short track racing.”

Preece views knowledge as a currency, and he admits he’s in need of a continued education in Stock Cars. That opinion makes sense, as a Modified is an open-wheel machine, shorter and wider than a Cup car, which produces over 200 less horsepower. It’s a tough transition; the last Modified driver to successfully catch on with the Cup Series was Steve Park in 1997. Knowledge is a necessity, and time is still on the prospect’s side, considering Cup Series drivers don’t statistically peak until age 39. Preece insists, though, that he reached the ceiling on what he could learn while driving for JD Motorsports.

“Really, to learn more, you’d have to get in a car that was capable of doing things that the car I had wasn’t capable of, such as having those extra counts of downforce, or a better motor,” said Preece. “Those guys worked really hard. Their road crew is their shop crew for the most part. I’m not throwing them under the bus, but to learn more, you need the maximum. You need everything to keep improving. I learned as much as I possibly could where I was at.”

Davis felt there was more he could learn.

“No. I don’t agree with that one,” said Davis. “He learns really quick. He does a really good job … but I think for a driver coming from a series like he was, they need to devote one hundred percent to this opportunity.

“They need to forget the Modified for a year, or whatever it is they came from, especially with the talent level he had, really understand and learn our cars like he knew a Modified car. He knows a Modified car, everything about it. He can work on it, fix anything on it, change anything, knows what spring he needs, knows what spring to change if he’s got something going on, knows everything about those cars. These cars he didn’t learn that about.”

Should Preece have kept going? Was this the end of his one shot, or just the first act?

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Preece.

This weekend, Preece will travel to Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway for the annual Icebreaker, the in-earnest season-opening event for Modified racing in the Northeast. He will have designed his car’s setup and devised a plan that will put him in the best position to claim his 16th career Whelen Tour victory. The grandstands will be packed with fans that purchased their tickets with the knowledge that Preece is one of the race’s heavy favorites, a driver to watch. In essence, nothing has changed after one of their heroes did right by his one shot. Alas.

There’s either a hole in the logic of a storied short track maxim, or this is one big indictment on the sport itself.


David Smith is the Founder of Motorsports Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.