Sports Psychologist Commentary: Hartford Courant – Shawn Courchesne – February 9, 2009 – Joey Logano was 7, racing Quarter Midget cars in Meriden, already saying he was going to be on the NASCAR circuit someday. And that he would challenge his favorite driver, Jeff Gordon, at racing’s highest level.
The kid may have been cocky, but here he is, at 18, ready to make his debut at the Daytona 500 next Sunday for Joe Gibbs Racing. Logano will be the youngest driver in the 51-year history of the race.
The buildup to his arrival in the Sprint Cup Series has been unmatched in NASCAR history. So far, he has excelled at every level. So far, he has not burned out. So far, the only headlines he has made have been for his racing.
In the history of sports, far too many have not been able to handle the pressure of being the child prodigy.
“I think for him, with the racing, he’s going to take his lumps. There’s a learning curve,” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing and son of the team’s owner and namesake. “I think he’s shown he has a gift, though. … He’s going to get this figured out pretty quick.”
Sometimes the on-track part is the easiest, though.
“The racing, for these guys, they love it, but sometimes the off-track stuff can really be a problem,” Gibbs said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job, though, working with [sponsor] Home Depot and everybody else involved in laying out a calendar way ahead of time that helps to make all this go better and try to keep some level of normalcy.”
Logano won his first national championship in Quarter Midget racing at 7. At 12, he was racing against adults in full-size stock cars. At 15, he was part of a bidding war for his services between some of the most powerful organizations in NASCAR, a battle won by Joe Gibbs Racing.
In 2006, at 16, he won in his debuts in NASCAR’s regional minor league Camping World East and Camping World West Series. Last June, he became the youngest driver to win in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, one step below the top level Sprint Cup.
Then, last August, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Logano would replace two-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart in its No. 20 car after Stewart decided to leave the team.
Though Logano and his family decline to reveal how much he makes each year, those familiar with the financial workings of the sport estimate that he could earn upward of $3 million in his rookie season.
This success story is unparalleled in racing. The closest comparison in recent years is that of Casey Atwood, called the next Jeff Gordon by some when he entered the Sprint Cup Series full time at 20 in 2001 for car owner Ray Evernham. After the 2002 season, he never again ran a full season in one of NASCAR’s top three divisions.
“I think if you ask Casey, he would tell you that he underestimated the demands and what it really took to go Cup racing, the commitment that was needed,” Evernham said. “Casey could drive the car, but he wasn’t prepared for all the work that went along with being in that position.”
This is a crucial time for Logano.
“I’ve worked with many prodigy tennis players and golfers who have similar backgrounds as [Logano],” said Dr. John F. Murray, a sports psychologist. “An 18-year-old is just out of adolescence, and that’s typically the time that you’re learning important social skills. When you’re suddenly thrust into a profession where the demands are so much more than just participating in the sport, the effects can be tremendous on a young person.
“You’ll see them dealing with a sense of entitlement that comes with having been so successful in everything they’ve done. You’ll also often see them reach a point where they become more independent, and there’s a tension that develops between the lines of authority and their feelings about how they got to where they are and wanting to make their own decisions with themselves and their money, causing strained divides between parents or principal authorities in their career.”
Having sponsorship deals with major corporations like Home Depot and Coca-Cola come with responsibilities that not only include hundreds of appearances away from the track each year but also representing those companies properly in the public eye 24 hours a day.
Tom Logano, Joey’s father, said his son is prepared.
“I think he’s very level-headed, but he’s still a kid behind closed doors,” Tom Logano said. “He’s a goofy kid. You see that in his personality, but I think he’s surrounded by the best of the best, and I think he’s got his head screwed on straight.”
Room To Grow
J.D. Gibbs said they’ve modified some of the normal demands to lighten the load for Logano.
“In doing our planning with the companies we’re working with, we’ve blocked out time for him to be with his family and relax and not be on the go-go-go during his off-the-track time,” J.D. Gibbs said. “I think, for the most part, you’re better off focusing on the racing and not getting too worn out physically or mentally.
“People have to remember, he was with us when he was 15, and he was phenomenal then. He was great when he was 16. He was great when he was 17. People say we’re pushing him now and we’re doing things we shouldn’t be doing. If we hadn’t seen what we needed to see over the past three years, he wouldn’t be where he is now. You’ve got to take the big picture that he’s been getting ready for this for a long time.”
Still, the schedule can be overwhelming. Take Friday, for instance. There were Coca-Cola and Goodyear Tire photo shoots, ARCA RE/MAX qualifying, media interviews and Budweiser Shootout practices.
Evernham said the support system is there for Logano to avoid the pitfalls that left Atwood’s career crumpled like a car in a Daytona wreck.
“I don’t care what anybody says. At 18, you can’t know what to expect when you get into this,” Evernham said. “Certainly he knows what to expect out of a race car. He’s gotten this far doing that. The life lessons that he’s going to have to learn are about picking and choosing priorities, and that could be tough. He’s going to have 10,000 more things to worry about in his life now than he did last year. But around him are a great family and Joe Gibbs and J.D. Gibbs, who are two of the most well-organized and qualified people in professional sports.”
Tom Logano said he and J.D. Gibbs have talked about hiring a sports psychologist to counsel Logano.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Tom Logano said. “Heck, yeah. So much of sports is in your head.”
Joey Logano said he’s willing to try anything that is supported by his family or the Gibbs team.
“I don’t know what a sports psychologist does or what it would be about,” he said. “But if it was something the people around me thought would help, I would definitely do it.”
His biggest hurdle might simply be dealing with defeat. He’s not used to it.
“This is the top level,” Logano said. “You aren’t going to go out there and run great right off the bat. I know there’s a learning curve. As long as you mentally know that, it is what it is. This is all top dogs. I was a top dog in the other places, but you take the top dog from every level and this is what you get, right here, the Sprint Cup Series. I’m just one of the guys now.”
“When you’re suddenly thrust into a profession where the demands are so much more than just participating in the sport, the effects can be tremendous on a young person.” Dr. John F. Murray, sports psychologist