Harvard's Laurent Rivard, right, and Wesley Saunders talk to the media Friday. Rivard hit five threes in Harvard's win over Cal in December.


On game day, the NFL employs 1,696 full-time football players, the NBA suits up 390 basketball players, major-league baseball has space for 750 ballplayers and the PGA Tour guarantees privileges to 125 golfers.

But if you think it's tough to be a pro athlete, try to make it in NASCAR.

"It's definitely a needle-in-a-haystack business," says Sean Bowman. "There are about 80 full-time drivers at the upper levels of NASCAR. How many millions of people dream about racing those cars for a living?"

And if you really want to be on the NASCAR circuit, you're going to need more than hand-eye coordination, athleticism, steely nerves and the ability to safely pass another car at 175 mph.

If you don't have a big-money sponsor you don't have a chance.

That's why Monday was such a momentous day for Alex Bowman, who long ago put aside the notion of a conventional boyhood so that someday he would be driving at the Daytona International Speedway and at Watkins Glen and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And now he will.

On Monday, the Ironwood Ridge High School grad, who turns just 20 in April, announced that he would be driving the No. 99 Toyota Camry for RAB Racing and will race the entire NASCAR Nationwide series in 2013.

That's 33 races over 10 months for a pool of about $25 million. That's side by side with Danica Patrick and Sam Hornish Jr.. That's Talladega, Bristol, Richmond, Dover, Darlington and all the tracks on a first-name basis with NASCAR fanatics.

Did you know that ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC are scheduled to televise all 33 races? And that Bowman will have a publicist, a crew of 10 and drive a company car?

This is no longer the USAC Midget Circuit.

Sean Bowman is Alex's dad. He operates Finish Line auto collision centers in Tucson and for the last 12 years, since Alex's debut at age 7, has been an inexhaustible coach, sponsor, agent, mechanic, financial analyst, father and marketing guru.

"It's time for the bird to leave the nest," Sean Bowman says. "We had to rely on each other to get to this point. But now he needs me less and less. Now he's got another team."

Alex's driving skill hasn't been questioned for years. He has won more than 140 main events and six national championships in his 13-year career. At 12, he won the Gasoline Alley Nationals on the same track A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti won the Indy 500.

The only question about Alex Bowman's racing future was if he could put together the requisite sponsorship packages to get a regular spot on the NASCAR circuit.

"It's all about the money," he says. "It's just tough. But that's how it is for everybody."

A year ago, simultaneous to his Rookie of the Year award as a four-time winner on the ARCA circuit, Sean and Alex raised enough corporate money to race in four NASCAR Nationwide events. Amazingly, he finished 15th, 17th, 19th and 25th.

Those finishes attracted Robby Benton, owner of RAB Racing, one of the Nationwide Series' leading owners.

"We've had our eyes on him for a few years," Benton said Monday in North Carolina. "He's had success at every level; he's won everything he's raced."

In addition to his racing prep, Alex became fluent in networking and fundraising. He was recently in Los Angeles at the Miss Universe pageant and in Las Vegas at the MMA awards, accompanied by Daymond John, a regular on the ABC reality show "Shark Tank."

John is a notable entrepreneur and marketing giant whose clientele list includes Pitbull and LL Cool J. John has been helping Bowman create a brand and attract corporate money. It's not your father's NASCAR, but it is the way of the racing world in 2013.

In Alex's brief NASCAR debut of 2012, his father raised significant money from Allegiant Airlines and from Port of Tucson to get him rides with RAB Racing and with Penske Racing.

Already this year, the Toyota Racing Development program has agreed to back Bowman.

The Bowmans and RAB Racing hope to announce their lead sponsors in the next 10 days, in time for the season opener, the Feb. 23 Drive 4COPD at Daytona Beach and for the much-anticipated Bashas' 200 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 2.

"We've taken a lot of big steps, but this is the biggest step so far, one that most drivers never get to take," Sean Bowman says.

"There's only one step beyond this one: the NASCAR Sprint Cup. That's ultimately where we want to be, but we're not going to rush. You only get one shot, and Alex is going to make sure we don't rush it."

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com