I’ve worked in and around racing for a long time; at this point, probably more than half my life. I’ve seen some crazy things, done some crazy things, seen some heartwarming moments and seen some heartbreaking moments.
Racing is a strange business. There is an old maxim in motorsports that, to become a millionaire as a racecar owner, you have to start as a billionaire. Alternatively, how do you get a small fortune in racing? Start with a large fortune.
Every once in a while, I have to sanity-check the whole thing. Why do people do it? Why do people pony up untold hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to go fast when there is no discernible return on the investment? Now, I’m not talking about Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Roger Penske or (to a lesser degree) Tony Stewart and Gene Haas (they consistently run races sponsored by Haas’ companies, i.e. no money coming in).
I’m talking about the guys who run shops to field trucks or Xfinity or Cup cars for Corey LaJoie or Landon Cassill or Ray Black Jr. There are beau coups of guys running in ARCA or CARS or at the local half-mile who are spending thousands to earn back hundreds.
Again, it begs the question: why? Why do people jump in this whole lot of crazy and sink mega bucks into cars and people and equipment to run 35th in Cup or 25th in Xfinity or 15th in trucks?
For those of you who are new to this space – and welcome to my friends in Laurinburg and Scotland County – I do a good bit of public relations, marketing and consulting work in racing; it’s where those 20 years in the sport have landed me. Most of my work is with one of those aforementioned teams that puts in countless hours and tries to make a dollar out of fifteen cents (a dime and a nickel) to go out and race against Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex sometimes. Up until this year, they raced primarily in the truck series, and have raced some there this year, but for the sake of my point here, that is irrelevant.
This team went to Daytona in February, made the 40-car field for the 500 (there were only 40 cars entered) and finished 14th. Between the time they unloaded in Daytona and started the race, Ricky Stenhouse destroyed their primary car (which I know is not unique) and they ran the race in a car that was basically built in the garage at the track in about 24 hours.
They then took one of their trucks and finished seventh at Martinsville (I’ve been working with these guys for eight seasons now, and this truck was around when I started). In May, they went to Talladega with a driver making his Cup debut and finished 23rd in the race there.
Then the racing business caught up with them.
They went to Charlotte to run the truck race. Qualifying got rained out and due to not starting all the races and a random draw, they had to load up and go home; didn’t make the race. At Daytona last weekend, there were 41 cars for a 40-car field. Someone had to go home, and, well, it was them.
Here’s the thing about it: you don’t get your money back when you don’t race. Other than the tire bill, not having to rent a pit crew and one less hotel night, there isn’t much of a difference in going to Charlotte or Daytona in not racing or racing from a cost standpoint.
There are still the sunk costs in the car, the team, the travel, the equipment, the shop infrastructure and a billion other little things that you don’t think about. And now there is another element to throw in there. You go to the racetrack as a small team and you have a so-so performance or you don’t make the race and you get lambasted on social media by armchair crew chiefs and owners.
I love race fans, god bless ‘em, but I have never seen a group of people who know how to do everything so much better than people who have been wrenching on racecars and running racing businesses their whole adult lives. From a business side, I still hear it about Rockingham (my original racing heartbreak story). But the guys on that team (three full-time guys at the shop building the cars and trucks and about 10 guys who travel) have not a thing to be ashamed of. They work their tails off – to get the Daytona cars ready, they essentially lived at the shop for two weeks. They drive all night to get home from the racetrack; and it could all go away tomorrow. We look at racing as a sport, but to those three, and a lot of others, it’s a livelihood.
I realize I’ve written a whole bunch of words and still haven’t answered the fundamental question of why. I have these philosophical notions of “dare mighty things” and “fortune favors the bold” and all that, but it’s not my money being bandied on engine packages and hotel rooms and digital dashes or racecar stock from Richard Petty. The truth is, the why is always found in the next race. As Petty famously said, “no one wants to quit when he’s losing and no one wants to quit when he’s winning.”
Between the green flag and the checkered flag, there is always a chance to improve your lot. There are always circumstances to level the playing field that can take money out of the equation and racers – drivers, owners and crew chiefs keep coming back again and again chasing that circumstance, hoping to catch a little lightning in a bottle for 500 (or 200, 300 or 400) miles.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column. He can be reached at [email protected]