CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Solvang’s Will Rodgers is ready to make his move in NASCAR.
The 23-year-old Maui, Hawaii, native got a big boost to his career Tuesday when he was one of nine drivers named to “NASCAR’S Next” class of 2018 during a ceremony at NASCAR’S Charlotte, N.C., headquarters.
“This is huge for someone like me,” said Rodgers in a telephone interview shortly after the official announcement. “It’s a real honor to be selected as one of the NASCAR Next drivers. Hopefully, all nine of us in this Next class will be able to move up to NASCAR.”
Now in its eighth year, NASCAR Next puts the spotlight on the best and brightest young stars in racing.
“NASCAR Next highlights emerging talent who have shown the talent and intangibles it takes to achieve success at the highest levels or our sport,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR executive vice president and chief marketing officer, in an email to the Times. “Alumni of the program are currently making their marks across NASCAR’s three national series and we believe members of this year’s class have potential to do the same.”
Rodgers got his start on the Kart tracks of Maui.
“I got started in Karts in Hawaii when I was 8 years old — they love their racing out there — and did that until I was 12,” said Rodgers. “Then I switched to motocross and then moved on to off-road racing before moving over to race cars. I started racing stock cars about 2 ½ years ago.”
As a youngster, his family moved to Maryland and New York before finally settling in Solvang.
“My dad (Bill) is one of the owners of the Solvang Brewing Company,” said Rodgers. “They’re one of my sponsors in both the ARCA and K&N Series.”
Rodgers has two main sponsors for his Ford Fusion — Drydene Oil Company of Pennsylvania and Baltimore’s Kelly Benefits Strategy.
“I’ll need more and bigger sponsors before I can move up to the next level,” said Rodgers. “That’s my goal right now but NASCAR Next will help me with potential partners.”
Rodgers has come to the attention of NASCAR officials through his success in the K&N Series — a series for top young NASCAR drivers.
It is usually the final step before moving up to the Camping World Truck Series or the Xfinity Series with the ultimate goal of making the Cup Series.
Rodgers made two starts in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East last year and won them both.
Moving over to the K&N West Series, Rodgers ran in 14 races with nine top five finishes and 12 finishes in the top 10.
It was his performance in Sonoma at the K&N West Carneros 200 on June 24, 2017, that drew the most attention.
Rodgers started on the pole of and ended up finishing second to NASCAR Monster Energy Cup racer Kevin Harvick, already five-time Cup race winner this year, dueling Harvick right to the finish line.
“It’s pretty awesome to represent Solvang,” said Rodgers after the race. “It’s great to have someone like Kevin come and run with us. To have someone like Kevin come out for us and support us is special.”
“I just wanted to shine a little light on the great talent in the K&N Series,” said Harvick, a Bakersfield native who made his mark in the K&N series before moving up to Cup racing. “Coming up, K&N was great to me. It was fun to win but it was important to shine some light on the series.”
It also started a friendship between Rodgers and Harvick that has helped the young racer’s career.
“Because of what Kevin said about me and being able to race with him last year in Sonoma — that really put me on NASCAR’s radar. It opened their eyes to my potential. Sonoma was really the highlight of all of my West Coast races last year,” said Rodgers. “Kevin has become a good friend. He offers me great advice and has become an advocate for me.”
Sonoma Raceway is one of two road courses for the Cup racers, the other being Watkins Glen, N.Y.
K&N also runs on those road courses and Rodgers has quickly established himself as the premiere road course racer in the K&N Series.
“Road courses are definitely my forte,” said Rodgers. “I’m still learning how to race on circle courses but I’m slowly and surely getting better on the circle tracks.”
The NASCAR Next selection process includes input on drivers age 15-25 from industry executives, the Cup Series Drivers Council and media members.
Among the program’s alumni are current Cup racers Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, Chase Elliott, Gray Gaulding, Erik Jones, Corey LaJoie, Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
Rodgers next race is an ARCA race in Charlotte on May 24 followed by a K&N race at the New Jersey Motorsports Park’s road course.
Then he’s heading home for a return visit to Sonoma and possibly a re-match with Harvick on Saturday, June 23, in the Carneros 200.
After all nine NASCAR Next drivers were introduced to the media, the entire group celebrated with an afternoon of competition — not on the track but at a nearby bowling alley.
“The bowling is okay,” said Rodgers. “But it’s not going nearly as well as my auto racing.”