51 Commentary:  Pro Cup Opening New Generation Saturday?
Series May Not Be What It Once Was, but Could Be Getting Back to It
By Matt Kentfield - Twitter @mattkentfield
Earlier this week, my Speed51.com colleague Elgin Traylor and I were solving short track racing’s problems like we usually do on road trips to and from racetracks.  The subject of the USARacing Pro Cup Series came up somehow.  Elgin mentioned how when he started with 51 on a part-time freelance basis in 2006, getting the weekly coverage emails and seeing his name assigned with going to what was then the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series was a privilege.  There was that one series that was tops in all of our minds with 51 at that point and that we all got a little more giddied up to cover.  I know I did when I started the year before.

Pro Cup was where it was at back then.  In the mid-2000’s, I knew there was some talent there that would make it up into NASCAR’s top levels.  Clay Rogers won in Pro Cup, had a taste in NASCAR’s then-Busch Series, and came back to Pro Cup.  Shane Huffman and Mark McFarland, after graduating from the North Carolina short tracks, were the next big thing, just like Shelby Howard, Woody Howard and Travis Kittleson.  Teenagers like Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne were getting their feet wet in Pro Cup many years before the typical NASCAR fans even had ever heard of them.

There were the grizzled old veterans like Bobby Gill and Gary St. Amant, who both would likely be a part of the Short Track Mount Rushmore someday. 

Pro Cup races were a show.  The Hooters restaurant chain that owned and sponsored events hosted events near each racetrack the week of the race.  Where I live in Concord, North Carolina, whenever the series came to Concord Speedway, the roadways around town would be plastered with signage advertising the race.  Between sponsors Hooters, Aaron’s and others, there were never a shortage of girls to look at, games for all to play in each track’s midway and the buzz around those races made it a true event –
something that had been missing since the demise of the ASA National Tour.

That’s probably what I miss most about the Pro Cup Series – the event. 

Last week, in Speed51.com’s “Hot or Not” feature, I listed what is now the USARacing Pro Cup Series as a “Not.”  I, and others at 51, got some feedback agreeing with the statements made there.  We also got some negative feedback from those involved in the series.

Let me be the first to say that I appreciate and respect the efforts made by new series owner Chip Lofton.  He, through his Strutmasters.com company, has been involved in the sport for years and have supported low-buck racers in their quest to make it in the sport through sponsorships and other opportunities.  That’s exactly what he’s trying to do with Pro Cup right now, too.  Lofton gave a candid interview to 51 a few weeks back where he outlined what the series was and where he wants it to go.  He has a solid plan, but every series owner and promoter has a solid plan for what they want to do with their series – some succeed, some fail miserably.  Time will tell how Lofton’s plans will work.

The bottom line is, however, that the series is nowhere close to what it was just a handful of years ago.  The main catalyst for the decline of the series’ success came in 2006 when Hooters founder and USAR owner Bob Brooks passed away.  After that, the rumors of Hooters’ involvement ending started swirling, but the series and its sponsorship remained intact until the end of the 2008 season. 

In 2009, an ownership group consisting of several of the series’ team owners was formed, but the corporate support, the marketing dollars to really push the series and big purse money were not at the level that it was under the Hooters regime.

Car counts struggled in 2010.  Clay Rogers won seven races and the championship and took home just over 88-thousand dollars.  In 2006, Rogers won seven races and the championship and earned more than 167-thousand dollars. 

Again, not saying that Pro Cup is a bad series, it’s just not what it once was and numbers like that prove it. Plus, in 2011, the series went through some office personnel turnover and Lofton announced that he was the chief owner of the series at this time.  Then, he announced that NASCAR K&N Pro Series-type racecars, ARCA and old Nationwide Series-type racecars would be allowed into the series.   An announcement of an engine leasing program was quickly rescinded.

All of those factors led many to question just what the Pro Cup Series had become.

But, there is, at least going into the 2011 season opener at New Smyrna Speedway (FL) this Saturday, a sign of things turning around in Pro Cup land.

This week, the series distributed an email stating that “about 30 cars” would be competing at New Smyrna.  Several people doubted that, but I contacted USAR officials and they provided me with a list of 26 entries, with a note that several teams have entered second cars without drivers listed. 

It’s not just field fillers and start-and-parkers in that list, either.  Rogers, who has graduated to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2011, is competing at New Smyrna for the Lamb & Robinson team that he won the 2010 title with as a teammate to his brother Brad, a former series regular who is now in the L&R #16 this season.  Longtime Pro Cup competitor Jeff Agnew is back.  Rogers’ rival for the title last year Caleb Holman and the Henderson Motorsports team will be tough.  Youngsters such as Stephen Nasse, Blake Jones and Joey Gase are the future and could be this generation of Pro Cup’s version of 2006’s Logano and Bayne – time will tell. 

There’s even an event sponsor for the Pro Cup opener at New Smyrna – Kangaroo Express gas stations.

Hopefully, Saturday’s race will be the first race in the new great generation of Pro Cup racing.  It sounds like a good crop of cars will be there.  While there’s still some work to be done before it’s back to where it was back in 2006, Chip Lofton and his staff seem to be doing what they can to keep the series alive.  Since they took over back in 2009, lots of short track series have gone by the wayside, but Pro Cup remains alive and there’s something to be said for that.

Trevor Bayne (#29) was one of the Pro Cup young guns back in 2006.  (USAR Photo)
Before Joey Logano (#51) was anybody in NASCAR, he was a young somebody in Pro Cup.  (USAR Photo)
Caleb Holman is a favorite for the Pro Cup title in 2011.  (USAR Photo)
Brad Rogers returns to the Pro Cup Series in 2011.  (51 Photo)
Clay Rogers (left) and Shane Huffman (right) were two of the heavy hitters in the Hooters Pro Cup Series back in 2006.  (5t1 Photo)