Reid Lanpher has discovered the cost of his American Dream at the age of 16. He can’t pay the price. He doesn’t want his parents to pay, fearing it would jeopardize their future.
Lanpher is a stock car racer, a true whiz kid. He sets records as the youngest driver to win races at various tracks. He has the gift of making fast stock cars go faster.
This winter he was offered a 15-race deal with Brad Keselowski Motorsports, the development team owned by the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who won Saturday’s Nationwide race at Loudon, New Hampshire.
Scott Lanpher couldn’t sign the contract for his son. The family would need to pay $660,000 for Reid to compete – and the price tag came with no assurances.
If Reid could throw a fastball as well as he drives, Major League Baseball scouts would be offering million-dollar signing bonuses just to get him into their minor league system and develop his talent further.
NASCAR has turned that old model upside down. Someone has to pay for the race cars and the race teams.
“For a driver trying to work his way up, it’s not a sport for the middle class any more,” said racing veteran Andy Santerre. “It’s for drivers who come from money or come with money.”
The attention of NASCAR fans is focused this weekend on New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Reid Lanpher was busy Saturday night racing the top class of Pro Stock cars at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough. The kid, racing against men twice his age and older, was in first place in the season standings.
Two years ago he raced a Legends car – a five-eighths scale replica of a 1930s coupe – on the road course at Loudon. The car is powered by a motorcycle engine. Lanpher was first across the finish line, the youngest driver to win on the road course. He had dreams of returning there in a full-size stock car, but the 16-year-old’s idealism has been replaced by his own unflinching look at reality.
“There are a lot of other me’s out there,” Lanpher said last week at his team’s race shop in Manchester. “I have a 1-in-100,000 chance. You don’t get a discount for talent.”
There was neither anger nor frustration in his voice. Just sadness.
He’s from the community better known for apple orchards and Cobbosseecontee Lake. It’s a 15-minute drive from the Blaine House in Augusta. He plays basketball at Maranacook High and was on the school’s state championship soccer team last fall.
Lanpher used to play baseball, too, but in 2013 was commuting to Mooresville, North Carolina, home of JR Motorsports, the development team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller. At age 15, Lanpher was one of their two drivers.
He might be the next Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson or Maine’s own Ricky Craven. He learned a lot on the race tracks down south, where NASCAR was born. To his disillusionment, he also learned about the business of racing.
When Scott Lanpher read over the contract offer from BKR, his heart sank. Both of his parents died when he was in high school at Erskine Academy. A good athlete himself, he was offered a job coaching basketball at the China Elementary School. He took it, “so I could bury my father.”
Scott Lanpher and his wife, Holly, have built up a business selling recreation vehicles at two locations. Big and little campers for any budget. The Great Recession hurt. It hurt many potential sponsors, too. Business is better but everyone is wary of another economic downturn.
“I couldn’t pay (the $660,000),” said Lanpher softly. He couldn’t mortgage what they had. Reid, knowing his father’s childhood, told his parents he understood.
The experience with JR Motorsports also came with a price tag for the Lanphers, but much less than BKR’s.
The tens of thousands of NASCAR fans at Loudon this weekend understand sponsorship and marketing. There are billboards and other signage wherever they walk. The selling of any souvenir with a sponsor’s name on it, large or small, is big business. It costs tens of millions of dollars to fund a Sprint Cup team for a season.
No sponsors, no teams, no sport. What many fans don’t realize, the very big business of NASCAR is pinching off its feeder system of young talent.
“If I was 16 again, I would still want to be a race car driver but I’d know I wouldn’t get (to the sport’s highest levels),” said Santerre. He came out of Cherryfield to work his way up to the Nationwide Series, one rung below NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup. He was Nationwide’s Rookie of the Year in 1998. He won his first race a year later. More recently he was competition director for race teams competing in another of NASCAR’s minor league series. He lived in North Carolina for 15 years but has returned to Maine with his family.
Money buys experience, said Santerre. It doesn’t necessarily buy talent.
“Everything comes naturally to Reid,” said Santerre. “He’s the whole package. He can race and he’s a genuinely sincere kid who knows how to talk to people. I’ve been asked to work with a lot of kids over the last 10 years. They can learn how to say the right thing and you question their sincerity. I don’t question anything about Reid.”
Craven had a benefactor when he left Maine for NASCAR’s heartland in 1995 and rose to become a two-time winner in Sprint Cup. Santerre had help. Others, like Ryan Moore of Scarborough and Johnny Clark of Farmingdale to name just two, tried to make the jump. They had talent, too. Money always became the bigger obstacle.
Jason Ricker, 35, is Reid’s crew chief and a mentor. Ricker has worked in race shops down south. Reid is unlike any other 16-year-old he’s encountered. Reid looks like a kid but his maturity is off the charts.
“I still have this old-school mentality that someone will see his talent and who he is and help him,” Ricker said.
Reid enters his junior year at Maranacook in two months. When he graduates he’ll also get a college two-year associate’s degree in business.
“He’s an amazing kid especially in these times when kids think they’re entitled,” said Santerre. “Reid needs to be true to himself and keep dreaming.”