By Nate Ryan
Squealing children gleefully wheel pastel-colored electric cars while peeling between million-dollar motor homes. Others chase each other through obstacle courses of golf karts and grills. Doting parents laugh while trading tips about maintaining feeding and sleeping schedules while barnstorming around the country for 10 months a year.
These are the scenes unfolding inside the driver motor home lot at a Sprint Cup track virtually every weekend.
A baby boom has transformed the gated infield communities where NASCAR's stars eat, sleep and raise families during the downtime from racing at 200 mph.
"Five or six years ago, nobody really ever came outside their motor homes," Kevin Harvick told USA TODAY Sports. "Now everyone does, and it's like a kidfest, especially at the tracks that have (playgrounds). That's the gathering spot for all of us that have young kids.
"There's a lot of energy in here."
Harvick, whose son, Keelan, turns 2 next month, is one of many feeling it heading into this year's Father's Day race at Michigan International Speedway. Thirteen drivers are first-time dads with children under the age of 7, with David Ragan becoming the latest Thursday. Clint Bowyer is slated to join the club in a few months, and Kyle Larson announced Friday that he will become a dad in December.
"It's changed a lot," said Matt Kenseth, whose wife, Katie, just had their third daughter since 2009. "I'm not sure who started it, but suddenly everyone started having kids. It makes us all be more social. It's fun."
Actually, the revolution can be traced fairly directly to Ella Sofia Gordon, who turns 7 on June 20.
The arrival of four-time champion Jeff Gordon's daughter marked the first of 23 kids born from 2007-14 to the 43 drivers who competed last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
Gordon waited through 14 seasons and until a second marriage before he felt prepared for fatherhood, but he said the environment since has changed for younger drivers — particularly with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson winning his fifth and sixth championship in the years he had daughters.
"It seems to be far more accepted these days," Gordon told USA TODAY Sports. "Once Jimmie Johnson starts having babies and still is winning championships, then it's "Oh, it's OK to have children." Prior to that, it seemed everyone with children hadn't won a championship. It seemed like "well, was that a hindrance?" It doesn't really matter. If you're a good driver and committed and have a good team, having your family (at the track) can be wonderful. Now it's encouraged for all the young drivers coming to the sport.
"I think everyone understands you can be successful here and have children."
It also has been a natural life progression for several veterans in their mid-to late 30s and early 40s. When Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick entered NASCAR's premier series between 2000-02, their priorities were much different.
"Then everybody was worried about where the party was," Johnson told USA TODAY Sports with a laugh. "It moved to who they were dating. Then wedding dates. And now it's all about kids. I don't know if in past generations (of drivers) there was such volume. Maybe people were at different stages of life. We have all been in that same wave."
Those shared experiences are occurring in the 21st century's digital era of social media immediacy that has created a wealth of new challenges for parents, particularly in high-profile situations.
USA TODAY Sports talked with seven of Sprint Cup's newest fathers about their approach to parenting, handling family life in the public eye and whether they are raising their kids to race.
FINDING THE BALANCE
How do NASCAR stars' lives change on the road and at home with kids? The answers are as varied as the setups on their cars.
"We like to bring them when it suits their schedule. We're more focused on their at home schedule, school schedule and sleep schedule. We probably don't bring Ella and Leo as much as some others do. They don't come to the night races. If it's a day race nearby, then they're there.
"The Daytona 500 seems to be the congregation of all the families. We're there for such a long period, there's a little more downtime. They have the nice playground there. Everyone has their kids at Disney on days we're off."
"They aren't traveling as much with Lydia being so young. At home, it's being a chauffeur and trying to get the kids to and from doctor's appointments, swim lessons and dance recitals. That's where I can help. Moms are flat-out amazing, and I'm gone on weekends, so it's anything I can do to help. Genevieve was at Charlotte (when he won) but was sound asleep, and Chani didn't want to wake her. Lydia is just so small. With a lot of the West Coast travel and the season starting with a fair amount of night races, we didn't want to put the kids through that whole mess. But they were both at Dover, and we got to take them to victory lane."
McMurray: "Your priorities change dramatically when you have kids. What you used to want to do on a Wednesday or Friday night is totally different. It's all about getting together with other families and not really doing what you want but what your kids want to do and hanging out together. You can go to a complete strange environment, a pizza place, and run into another dad who has a kid, and you're automatically friends with this guy because your kids are playing together. That's awesome. It's fun for me, too, when they don't know who you are because you're just having a conversation with another dad. It's a great time."
"Having one kid was an eye-opening experience and amazing, and it's harder than you ever imagine it being. Having two is a whole other level. I tell Matt (Kenseth) that I admire him because they travel all the time with the kids. That's amazing. Because for me, Ingrid and I talked, and we want to make sure they're not missing out on anything Friday. We're not going to home-school them, and then there's the focus (on racing) for me. When they're there and spending the night, it has its challenges. Maybe if you're in a routine like Matt is, you get used to it, but we're not in that routine. They typically come on race day. It suits our schedule and how I like to prepare for the race. When they are there for the whole weekend, it's a big adjustment and it's hard."
"DeLana and I were worried about how it was going to work in general. For the first year, we didn't bring him a lot because he didn't sleep very well. We've learned fast we don't take him on the West Coast trips. We did that one time, and it was a total disaster the next couple of weeks getting him back on his schedule. We've learned where to travel and how to travel. But kids are changing on a daily basis, and you just have to keep up with what they like on that particular day. Cold, rainy days aren't near as much fun as warm, sunny days because you can go outside. My son wants to be outside constantly."
"It's tricky (for drivers) raising kids. Our lives are inverted compared to a normal person's life. We're doing our jobs on the weekends when they get their time off. We get a little bit of time during the week, but it's not the same."
"I'd imagine it gets harder to travel as the kids are in school full time. I really enjoy this age. The pre-kindergarten age where they've got their personalities and are learning so much stuff. It's fun to share all that with them. You just can't wait for them to get up in the morning. So it just changes what you do. Certainly, you find yourself hanging out with people that have kids. Probably the friends who don't have kids, you see less."
"She comes every week. My wife is very strict on keeping a schedule. We always have to adjust what time we leave for her nap and when she eats. We're not traveling before she has her nap."
"It's made DeLana and I more normal. You don't mind going out in public because you need to take him out to dinner, and he needs to be around people. We were always a lot more to ourselves. You want him to be around other kids so he's comfortable and social around people. This is what normal people do. You go to the zoo, go eat dinner, go to the park. You still have to do those things on race weekends because he isn't going to sit in (the motor home) if he can hear cars on the track and it's warm enough to be outside. He'll be miserable."
FATHERS AND FRIENDS
The common bonds of fatherhood has increased the collegial vibe among Cup drivers, many of whom lean on each other for advice.
"More than not before, everyone went into the motor home after practice and pretty much locked the door and never was heard from again. Now everyone is out walking kids or playing with them or hanging out at the playground. You're definitely socialized more and get to know each other better, which is nice."
"(Harvick) would ask a lot of questions (about kids). I'm proud of him for it. Because it's not something you just decide to do. So I really couldn't read him. Then DeLana started asking questions, and I'm like, 'OK, this is pretty far down the line.' That was a good sign they were really considering it — the schedule, the sleepless nights, the structure of sleep cycles, eating cycles. When DeLana was pregnant, it got much more specific."
There's a lot of people to lean on that have already been through the process. I went to Jimmie and Matt and asked the silly questions."
"The first one through has to pave the way. I can remember Nicole calling Katie (Kenseth) twice a day. You learn a lot from each other, from baby cameras to seats. We're all similar so a lot of what works for them works for us."
"Kids are the common ground that everyone can talk about to each other whether you're the CEO or the guy shoveling dirt. If you have kids, you can strike up a conversation."
McMurray: "I was watching Carter ride around in a car for an hour laughing with Casey Mears' son, Hayden. Those are great memories Carter's going to have in 10 years. That's so cool."
"Keelan has a little Corvette and a 4-wheeler. Everyone's got cars around here. Jamie's kids roll around in their 2-seater and then get out and fight over who's going to drive. A lot of kids are going to bicycles now, and scooters are becoming popular with the older kids."
With the encouragement of sponsors and of their own volition, many drivers have turned their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds into a stream of family photographs, and their children often join them in the pits before the race, putting them in public view.
"It's hilarious; Keelan loves to watch himself on Vine. He can unlock your phone, push the Vine app and figure it out. If you'd let him, he'd sit there all day. It's fun to show the experiences that are new and funny. They're normal experiences. I think people see you're in this extravagant job, but you live a fairly normal (existence) because raising a kid is pretty common. I can post something that I think is cool, and it won't get the reaction. If it's not about a race car or Keelan, my social media doesn't even really react. It's strange."
"I've always said I feel we've got the best kind of celebrity. We seem to have the type of notoriety that has more benefits than downfalls. I don't have people hiding in my bushes, looking over my fence, following me every step I take on vacation. At the track, the kids get photographed a lot. That's one day out of the week. If that was happening at school, at home, going to the grocery store, then I'd be concerned. Ingrid is very active. She takes a lot of pictures, and she likes sharing them. There's probably going to be a time where we do less of that when they get older. I haven't seen any challenges so far. I've seen more benefits from it. It's cool to be able to share that with our fans. They really appreciate it. Yeah, that could backfire on you in some ways, but so far it hasn't for us."
"We're definitely aware of it and have some idea where that line is. I'd say with Genevieve we were much more concerned with it being the innocence of a child and our first experience. But unless you're in the solitude of your own home, you can't really control much. Everyone has a phone or a camera now. Every once in a while, I'll post something from home because I know it means a lot for people to see our family unit. There already are a lot of eyes inside our world. We're probably a little more relaxed now than when we started. We're trying to keep the innocence of our children protected for sure."
McMurray: "Everyone takes that differently. Kevin Harvick posts 10 pictures a day and videos, and I like watching them because I know Kevin and I know Keelan. So I watch those, but I don't put any pictures of my kids, my family or my home. I got a little wigged out (after) I did MTV Cribs a few years ago. So they come to your house, film it, and people for years later would talk about items that were in my house. How do you know that? 'Oh, because we paused the VCR and looked around.' They weren't being creepy, they just were looking at stuff, and that freaked me out a little bit. So we're just really private now. And because I don't think it's fair to our little boy or girl to put a lot of pictures out there because they might not want that when they get older."
"Everything I do is public anyway. So my life revolves around a camera in my face. No reason to hide from it if someone is going to cover it. Everything we do is about raising our son. You have time to be a parent and to do your job, and that's about it, but I have no problem with that. They're going to shove a camera in our face, which is going to be in his face. It's kind of fun and helps you document everything anyway. It's like a family album on Twitter."
"I just don't worry about it that much. You do everything you can to protect your kids and keep your family safe and do all that kind of stuff, but man, you've got to live life, too, as far as just sheltering them and keeping them out of everything. If someone really wants to find out where you live, these days with technology and social media, it's not like someone can't find you. I think race fans are great. I think the kids really like going out to pit road ahead and seeing the car and what their daddy does for a living. I think it's a fun experience for them to be able to be part of that. So we try to include them in pretty much everything we do."
"I like keeping my life personal, but there's a part of our personal lives that need to be seen by the rest of the world so that it helps with sponsorships, it helps with fan clubs, fan memberships, things like that. There's a balance in there. You can share too much to the point that you dilute your own worth, though."
When we go in a public place away from the track and someone recognizes me, Ella sometimes will say, 'They knew you as Jeff Gordon the race car driver!' Sometimes she clings to me in that moment, other times she's just watching them and finds it interesting."
"We own everything with his name on it, whether it's a website, or Twitter or Facebook. Just so you don't have those creepy moments. The intention was to protect his name. We have a good website company that suggested and takes care of all that."
WILL THEY RACE, TOO?
Jeff Gordon recently put his daughter in a quarter-midget for a closed practice, and other drivers' children have expressed plenty of interest.
"We'll probably do it another couple of times to check out her interest level. If she continues to show interest, then I think we should pursue it and let her race a little bit.
"She did great, but I was petrified … because I know the things that could happen. She really didn't. I was nervous because I wanted her to do well. I didn't want to scare her. I didn't want her to crash. We had a throttle stop so it wouldn't get full power. But it was getting too much power, and she was going way faster than I thought she should her first time. I let her go because she was doing good, then she got wider and got out near the wall and pulled away from me, and I was like, 'Stop!'
"She didn't let off (the throttle). The funniest thing is we had these radios where I could talk to her and she could hear me but couldn't talk to me. She said, 'Could you hear me? I was saying, "Poppa I'm scared!"' I would have never known it. I told her, 'You were flying.'
"This was no different than trying horseback riding or gymnastics. You have to expose them to all these things to see what they like and are good at, and then if they show an interest in wanting more of it. I didn't say anything other than, 'If you ever want to do this again, you need to tell me, and we'll make it happen.' (A week later), she was like, 'When do I get to drive a car again?' We'll probably do the same thing with Leo when he gets 5½ or 6. He loves cars and dinosaurs and airplanes."
McMurray: If he wants to play baseball, that's what we'll go do, but I don't want to force him into anything. You don't know now what they're going to like or want to be. He loves racing. He loves Lightning McQueen. He loves racing little Hot Wheels, but most little boys love that. I don't think that has anything to do with whether you're going to want to be a race car driver or race go-karts. I think that's part of being a little boy. It's so awesome, because Carter thinks at the end of every national anthem, you're supposed to say, "Start your engines!" He's into racing, but it's also what he's around all the time. He hasn't experienced soccer, baseball, football. You have to open their eyes to it."
"Evie loves racing. She is way into it. Of course, I pushed early. She's more into princesses and all that stuff. But of late, she is asking a lot of questions, and even says at times that she wants to be a race car driver. And live in a castle. And ride a unicorn. And all the good things we do as racers."
"Keelan likes cars. At some point in order to drive something that's not funny and cute and not in the driveway, it's going to cost money, and he's going to have to figure out how to get it himself. I have no problems buying golf clubs and baseballs. I guess you never say never, but that would be my preferred option."
"It's just so hard now. To even run a Late Model team is a lot of work to be competitive. It's a tough, tough sport to come up through the ranks now because it's so expensive. … It would be a big commitment for him. It'd be a lot of work. It wouldn't be just show up and put your driver suit on, because I don't think you're going to learn anything that way."
"Whether they want to race or not doesn't matter because I'm not going to let them race. (laughs) No racing for my girls."
WHY THE WAVE OF KIDS NOW?
"From a young age, I wanted to be a dad. It was just something inside of me, and I was convinced I would have three girls. So here we are at two, and I'm totally cool with that. My life just worked itself into a place where it was time. I was probably a little more anxious to get started on a family than Chani. Once we got married, she said, 'Let's take our time, try to get five years in and enjoy being married and then start a family.' That was the loose mindset, and I'm glad that we did. Because things change so much, and your responsibility factor goes through the roof as a parent. We had a good run of being newlyweds, and now we're buckled down in The 'Burbs sitting in carpool lines and going to dance recitals.
"The only planning I've had is I ideally wanted to have kids later in my career so I could be slowing down and be there for my kids through junior high and high school where the connection with parents is so important. I still feel there's 10 years in me, so maybe I didn't time it just right, but where I am in my career, I can say no to some things. The team works with me very well to make time."
"Starting to see kids around or your friends having kids makes you think differently about it. We always thought we'd have kids but weren't sure exactly when and then all of a sudden, your friends are like, 'We're going to have a baby.' It has changed dramatically. We laugh about it. Me and McMurray and Kenseth were at dinner at Watkins Glen last year, and we all brought baby seats."
"Honestly, I never paid attention to it. It was like, 'I don't want to hear kids or be around kids.' Then you have your own kids, and man, it changed everything that we did. It's very enjoyable. There are some that progressed to kids a lot sooner than De Lana and I. But it's been great."