CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The sun has just gone down and the lights at Lowe's Motor Speedway have come up, showcasing more than 150 race cars crowded into the infield.
Up in the stands, mixed in with family and fans, will be some of NASCAR's most successful car owners, all of them on the lookout for the next Jeff Gordon or Kurt Busch.
On this night, they have come to watch dozens of children ages 8 to 14 roar around a 1/5-mile oval at 80 mph to more than 100 mph.
And it doesn't matter that many of the kids can't even touch the pedals of a car on a showroom floor because the newest trend among Nextel Cup car owners is to stockpile talent - even if that means signing youngsters still in middle school.
In the control room near the press box, the racetrack's president, Humpy Wheeler, also watches.
"Usually, you start noticing kids when they get to be about 12, when they start running consistently in the top three or four," Wheeler said. "You watch for how smooth they are. You might particularly watch for minorities and women because we haven't found our Tiger Woods or Williams sisters yet."
After the race, Wheeler will take a stroll through the pits to meet young drivers he doesn't know. "I want to see what they look like," he said. "It means a lot today. You've got to have that look. It's unfortunate, but to get a sponsor."
One of the kids Wheeler has been watching for the past six years is Marc Davis, a personable 14-year- old with a winning smile. This spring, the teenager sat on his family's sofa in Mitchellville, in Prince George's County, and happily talked about how his dreams are beginning to come true now that he has signed a contract with Roush Racing.
Roush Racing is owned by Jack Roush, who has five NASCAR Nextel Cup teams - including those of Matt Kenseth and Busch, who have won the past two championships in the series.
"It's not a guarantee for the future," Marc said, "but it means I know the opportunity is there."
Marc, a ninth-grader, is one of two 14-year-olds among four drivers hired for Roush's developmental program this season.
`The next great driver'
"There is a talent grab for young kids between the ages of 12 and 15," Roush said recently at his Charlotte compound. "Teams can't afford to miss the 14- to 18-year-old group.
"You could be missing a chance to sign the next great driver," Roush said. "We've gone from a situation where if you needed a driver you'd just go get one from another team, to signing the 18- and 20-year-olds because if you don't, the kids with potential are going to be committed to someone else."
In a sport where owners and crew chiefs are looking for every - and any - competitive edge, it is perhaps not surprising that they are trying to land talented drivers at a young age.
"There is a whole underground right now," said Wheeler, who watches kids race every week in the INEX (Inexpensive Racing) Series, Bandolero and Legend cars at his track.
"It's gotten to be just like football and baseball," he said, "but instead of people scouting kids at high school games, they're looking at them at kart and Bandolero races.
"People are looking at kids when they're 10 and 11, and then it gets really serious when they reach 12, 14 and 15, when they're racing against adults - and beating them. Kids move through the ranks, like in baseball - from [Little League] to high school to American Legion."
In auto racing, young people have been moving up through the ranks ever since there were ranks. But until the past 10 years, that meant building a car in your back yard and running at the local track, or, like Terry Labonte, moving from Texas to North Carolina. In either case, you raced and hoped someone associated with the big leagues noticed.
Now, as Wheeler said, everything is organized - and lots of people are looking.
Children ages 5 to 7 begin racing in quarter midgets, little open-wheel cars with 1/2- to 3-horsepower motors, on 1/16- to 1/10-mile tracks. Children 7 to 12 race in go-karts and 30-horsepower Bandoleros. The Bandoleros are more car than kart. They're full-bodied, with complete roll cages. Speeds top out at 80 mph. And they run on bigger tracks, 1/5- to 1/3-mile ovals that are mostly asphalt.
At ages 13 to 15, the good young drivers primarily move into Legend cars. That's the route Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. took. The Legend cars are five-eighths the size of regular cars and have 130-horsepower motors.
Some owners, including Roush and Chip Ganassi, prefer to put their top prospects into more obvious feeder programs, such as the United Auto Racing Association Late Model Touring Series in the Carolinas and Tennessee, where Marc Davis will run this season in a Ford Taurus prepared by Roush Racing.