When you picture a typical NASCAR driver, how do they look to you, on average? Are they perhaps in their 30s, reaching the peak of their sport as they remain relatively young in years? Leading the pack against a minority of up-and-coming 20-somethings? If your impression of NASCAR drivers was formed back in the 1980s and 1990s, then you’d be onto something and have a pretty accurate picture of what’s going on. As with many things in NASCAR, however, things are changing.
The average age of NASCAR Drivers as of 2021 was 30.5 across all drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series. This represents a drop of about 20% from 1980 when the average age was 37 years old. This can be related to the earlier retirements of NASCAR drivers, Younger participation in motor racing and more interest in the sport.
In today’s Article, we’re looking at the shifting ages of the average NASCAR driver, and considering what this might mean for the sport moving forward.
If you go all the way back to 1980, you’ll find the average age of a NASCAR driver was between 37 and 38 years old. Fast forward to 2022, however, and you’ll find that it has dropped to between 31 and 32 years old. See the table below for more details, these are the average age of NASCAR drivers, rounded to the nearest 0.5 years old, from 1980 to 2021.
Table 1: Average age of NASCAR Drivers: 1980 to 2021
|Year||Average Driver Age||Year||Average Driver Age||Year||Average Driver Age|
Looking at the data, we can see that the peak year was 1998, where the average age climbed to 39 years old. There is also a definite trend in the past decade or so of drivers getting younger, and a far stronger trend than the short-lived ups and downs of earlier years between 1980 and 1995.
The principal driving force behind the drop in average age of NASCAR drivers is a strong trend of more younger drivers getting into the sport. For example, between 2015 and 2020, there was a consistent year-on-year increase in the percentage of full-time drivers under the age of 30. It moved from 31 percent in 2015, to an amazing 62 percent in 2020, before starting a small decline once again.
In fact, the wider story since 1980 has been a series of peaks and troughs when it comes to the average age of drivers. There were similar climbs in the percentage of younger drivers between 1992 and 1995, and 2004 and 2008. The difference, however, is that each peak gets larger as the years go on, indicating a pattern in which peak times bring more and more drivers under the age of 30.
There are other factors that one should consider, too, such as people getting started on their racing career path far earlier today than they did in years past. In the past, the average age of NASCAR drivers was often higher because they didn’t participate in any officially ranked youth leagues or organizations that are on hand today.
While a NASCAR driver of age 20-21 years old might be thought of as “green”, and people might react with surprise at someone so young making it into the Cup Series, he or she will actually have already accumulated a number of years of competition experience through their teenage years.
It feels intuitive and stands to reason that if we have a broadly larger pool of younger drivers, then we’d also have a larger proportion of younger winners of races and series. In fact, the numbers do not bear this out, which in itself is quite interesting.
Since 2019, drivers under 30 have represented about half of the NASCAR field, but it’s only about the same proportion of young drivers winning today as it was in the 1980s and 1990s when there were far fewer younger drivers.
In addition, numbers are often skewed by a single driver performing incredibly well, such as Kyle Larson and Joey Logano. If it weren’t for the accumulated wins of these drivers in certain years, then the under-30 group would not be so well represented in the results.
Back in 2018, Fox News featured an online piece about how NASCAR drivers were retiring at younger and younger ages, and including stories and examples from several drivers at the time. One of the drivers mentioned was Jimmie Johnson, who at just 42 years of age was already being referred to as “Grandpa.” It also mentioned the case of Kasey Kahne, who was planning to retire at the ripe old age of 38.
In the article, the common theme among drivers mentioned is that NASCAR is a sport that can “make you old, fast.” With that in mind, we might consider a dropping average age a good thing in some ways in that if drivers are entering at a younger age, then we’ll get to enjoy their racing for more years before they finally retire.
On the other hand, we also discover another force behind the overall reduction in the average age of NASCAR drivers. If they’re retiring earlier and earlier, then that means it’s only the younger drivers who are left to make up an increasing majority.
So, is this younger crowd good or bad for NASCAR overall? Older drivers bring experience, but some might also perceive older drivers as being overly cautious.
Could a pool of younger drivers help to create a more exciting and unpredictable NASCAR field? If we assume that younger drivers will at least still drive relatively safely, one advantage could be a greater variety of winners through a season since the pool will be more evenly matched in terms of experience.
For this question, only time will tell.
We have other articles covering NASCAR drivers age on the site which you can access below.
- Who is the oldest nascar driver.
- Why are nascar drivers so young
- How long does it take to be a NASCAR driver
So while drivers appear to be getting younger and more fresh faced each year there are reasons for this and contrary to popular opinion it is not a bunch of teenagers with 700 horsepower under them each week. The Average age as of 2021 is 30.5 years old, which is a drop of 7 years from 1980 but despite being 20% is not that significant.
Especially when you consider the reasons why.
- Drivers are retiring earlier
- Drivers start racing from a much younger age in the past
- More and younger drivers getting into NASCAR ( this can surely only be a good thing!)
- Perception, as the fan base gets older so the drivers appear to be younger!
So while there is an average age drop among NASCAr drivers it is not quite as dramatic as perhaps it first appears.