CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nicole Behar, one of the members of the newest NASCAR Next class that was announced Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, is only 17 years old.
But she seems much older, much more mature. After all, she’s been racing for nearly a decade already and despite not officially graduating from high school until this June 8, she’s already deep into her freshman year of classes at Eastern Washington University.
“My parents actually met while they were racing go-karts when they were kids,” said Behar, who recently became the highest-finishing female in the 61-year history of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. “So I’m a fifth-generation racer and it’s kind of in my blood. For my eighth birthday, I actually wanted a horse; but instead my dad brought home a horse-powered go-kart. That’s kind of where it all started – and thank goodness he did that.”
Behar is one of 12 drivers in the latest NASCAR Next class. She is just one example in a group that is young, talented and driven. They represent a group of up-and-coming talent who join the industry program aimed at spotlighting NASCAR’s emerging stars, helping them with everything from how they deal with the media to how they present themselves to potential sponsors.
“Really what we’re trying to do is provide them with the tools and resources to prepare them for that big moment in their careers,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR senior vice president for industry services, “What they do off the track is almost as important as what they do on the track, so we try to prepare them for that.”
Now in its fifth year, the list of the alumni from the program includes 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Chase Elliott and 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson.
In addition to Behar, who tied the series record for highest finish by a female driver in just her fifth K&N West start when she finished second at Irwindale and has four top-10 finishes in six West starts, the other 11 drivers in the 2015-16 Next class are:
Rico Abreu, 23, of Rutherford, California – The oldest member of the group, Abreu is a 2014 USAC national champion and a driver whose popularity surged after he emerged as winner of the 2015 Chili Bowl. He has two top-10 finishes in three K&N Pro Series East starts, his first season racing in stock cars.
Kyle Benjamin, 17, of Easley, South Carolina – This Roush Fenway Racing developmental driver earned his first K&N Pro Series win at Bristol Motor Speedway, and is the youngest race winner in ARCA history.
James Bickford, 17, of Napa, California – The 2014 K&N West Sunoco Rookie of the Year earned his first win at State Line Speedway last season and finished fifth in the season championship.
William Byron, 17, Charlotte, North Carolina – With a win at Greenville Pickens Speedway and three top-10 finishes, he currently sits atop the K&N Pro East season championship standings.
Cole Custer, 17, of Ladera Ranch, California – He holds the records for youngest pole award and race winner in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR’s touring series, and led late in the Truck race at Martinsville Speedway earlier this season.
Ruben Garcia Jr., 19, of Mexico City, Mexico – The runner-up in last season’s NASCAR Mexico Series season championship, he had one win and 10 top-10 finishes there while also competing in three NASCAR XFINITY Series races.
Austin Hill, 21, of Winston, Georgia – He registered three consecutive K&N East wins over the final two races in 2014 and the 2015 season opener at New Smyrna Speedway, where he captured his first pole award and led every lap.
Jesse Little, 18, Sherrill’s Ford, North Carolina – Had a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, four top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 2014 to finish fourth in the K&N East season standings. He also won the pole at Bristol Motor Speedway in his 2015 K&N East debut.
Dylan Lupton, 21, of Wilton, California – He was the 2014 K&N West championship runner-up with a win at Kern County Speedway and registered 14 top-10 finishes. He also made his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut at Phoenix International Raceway in March.
John Hunter Nemechek, 17, of Mooresville, North Carolina – The son of long-time NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek, he earned six top-10 finishes in 10 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts in 2014, and won the prestigious Snowball Derby Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway in December.
Dalton Sargeant, 17, of Boca Raton, Florida – He has a win at Kern County Raceway Park in the West this season, and four top-five finishes in five combined East and West races.
Abreu said he appreciates all that the NASCAR Next program has to offer at a critical time in his young racing career.
“There are a lot of things that are up in the air when you get to this level, so you have questions,” Abreu said. “They’re there to provide some answers for us and guide us through it. I think it’s going to be really enjoyable and I think I’m going to learn a lot from it.
“Just meeting people and dealing with the media, going to a bunch of different race tracks and seeing those, there will be a lot of advertisement for us and that should help us build our careers. I feel like off the track is definitely as important as on the track. There are always eyes on you, so you can’t make any bad comments, obviously. But if you do get in a bad situation somehow, I think this group definitely is someplace you can go and they can help you.”
Behar said she believes she already is benefitting from some of the media training the program is providing.
“Just the opportunities that they have given us, through social media or media training or promoting us as NASCAR Next drivers, it’s all helped set us up for success,” she said. “The media training helps you be more relaxed and be more yourself (during interviews), and teaches you how not to say or do unnecessary things that you shouldn’t.
“Then they also help with social media from a perspective that you might not know. For all of us, this helps promote us as a brand. It should help us get sponsors to continue our careers.”
Some of the drivers are returning to the program for a second year, such as Custer. He said he already sees it paying dividends. Of course, he was put to the test of media scrutiny last September when he won the Camping World Truck Series race at New Hampshire to become the youngest winner in NASCAR national touring series history at age 16.
“We definitely learned a lot about dealing with the media, about expressing yourself more,” Custer said. “I think that’s one of the key things I got a lot better with last year. I still have a lot to improve on there, but there is no doubt that doing a lot of appearances and getting our names out there helps.
“Winning the truck race really helped jump-start things for me. When you have success like that on the track, you need to know how to try to take advantage of it.”
Many of the drivers are balancing finishing up high school and/or taking college courses with their busy racing schedules. Working in the NASCAR Next program also helps them learn how to budget their time and figure out what’s most important.
Behar is a great example. Through a program in Otis Orchards, Washington, she has been able to stay on track to graduate a year early from high school while already getting a jump on what she envisions as a pediatric nursing degree in college. She already has completed her requirements to earn her high-school degree and is a full-time, on-campus student at Eastern Washington.
“It was my idea. I wanted to continue my racing career, and I thought that would be the best step for me to take,” Behar said. “Plus it gives me more time to go racing.”
Asked whether she would rather ultimately be employed as a pediatric nurse or a race-car driver, Behar broke into a wide, engaging smile and did not hesitate with her answer.
“I’d much rather be a race-car driver,” she said.