Amy Henderson · Friday November 8, 2013
Success in racing comes in different measures. For a team at the pinnacle of the sport, success is defined in wins and championships, nothing less. But while that’s fine for a top-10 organization, wins and titles isn’t a realistic gauge for every team. In fact, for some teams, success is measured in lead lap finishes, in paying the bills every month and in showing up at the track to race the distance each week. And the truth is, those teams are building success stories week in and week out…most people just never think about them.
Veteran crew chief Frank Stoddard didn’t dream of one day owning his own team. He’s a mechanic, a damn good one, and that’s what he wanted to be. Stoddard guided Jeff Burton’s team when Burton drove the No. 99 at Roush racing and was a threat to win just about everywhere. From 1994 to 2001, Stoddard and Burton won 14 times together, and were listed among the title favorites just about every year.
After leaving the No. 99 team in2002, Stoddard formed some partnerships that would keep him on the pit box as well as giving him a stake in team ownership. The prospects looked bright in 2006—there were potential sponsors, a popular driver in Boris Said, and very nearly a win in the summer race at. Said finished fourth after starting from the pole, and it looked like that old Frankie Stoddard magic was back.
But as the economy sank outside of NASCAR, the downturn was even more pronounced within the sport, and it was many a team who fell victim to unfulfilled promises and deals that couldn’t quite be closed. Partnerships were formed and dissolved, and a few of those happened around Stoddard. After the 2009 season, the last one fell apart, and Stoddard found himself facing a decision that was not only an economical one, but a moral one as well.
“Really and truly, I was back doing a full time deal that I had part ownership in, and the partners in that deal weren’t all on the same page at the end of the year,” says Stoddard on a chilly Friday between practices at Martinsville Speedway. “There was a bunch of people who were going to be out of work, and I thought there was an opportunity to field something at the back of the field and try to help some people keep their jobs. Really, it was just by circumstances. It wouldn’t have been a dream of mine to go do it, it was just circumstances.”
For Stoddard it was about the people—good mechanics and crewmen whose livelihoods were in jeopardy. So he and Said started FAS Lane Racing. In tribute to his old friend and mentor from his hometown of Haverhill, NH, local legend Stub Fadden, Stoddard chose the No. 32 (Fadden had run the No. 16 in Busch North competition, but that was taken, so Stoddard’s car became 16 times two.), and put two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte behind the wheel for the Daytona 500.
Labonte finished 15th in that race. It got a lot harder after Daytona—in this age of money buying speed, the restrictor plate is still the great equalizer. Veterans Mike Skinner and Ken Schrader would share seat time with Labonte, and rookies Jason White and Andrew Ranger got some seat time as well. By the end of the year, despite missing the race in Bristol early on, FAS Lane Racing was in the all-important top 35 in points, locked into the field for at least five races in 2012. The team would later sell those points to Michael Waltrip Racing, but they’d done enough to establish themselves in the series as a full-time competitor.
By 2013, FAS Lane was running every race, and running them to go the distance, something not every team can say in a day where the prize money for finishing last is still lucrative enough to entice some teams to park early; after all, if the car parks early in one piece, it’s ready for more of the same next week. But that’s not the way Stoddard operates. He’s not here just to collect a paycheck.
Stoddard knows the challenges of running a small team; he’s realistic. But he also knows that his team has something to offer companies wanting a taste of the sport the way it used to be…they way it still is for the smaller teams in some ways.
“(Success is) paying the bills every week, keeping people employed, getting to the racetrack, and doing a good job for the sponsors and the people who have supported us all year long. There’s a heck of a value back here,” says Stoddard. “We’re not going to go contend for the win this weekend, but for the cost that we have versus what it is to run in the top 5, we give a heck of a value to the sponsors. We try to make sure that we do a good job for them. There’s disappointment that we don’t get enough coverage from the governing body, but it is what it is.
“I’ve been able to keep people employed the last three or four years and we’ve been able to do a good job for the sponsors, enough so they wanted to come back,” Stoddard continues. US Chrome has been with me for 20-something years. Southern Pride trucking, C&J…we have a lot of people who come back and continue to support us because of the value we give them and how we treat them at the race track. When they get here, they’re like family. They can go in the lounge with the kids or whatever they want. We’re not as buttoned-up as the top of the field. Our hauler is basically open so anyone who wants to go in can go in there. But I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep some good people employed.”
One of those good people Stoddard is employing this year is 20-year-old Cup rookie Timmy Hill. Hill isn’t the team’s only driver; sponsor money dictates that. Federated Auto Parts has been with Schrader forever. C&J Energy is from Labonte’s hometown and backs him. Part-owner Boris Said runs the road courses. But Hill has gotten his share of seat time this year, and Stoddard is impressed with the youngster’s performance.
“He’s run some great races,” Stoddard says. “I was just telling Doug Yates that he has scratched the right side of the car one time. You look at some other guys who have come into the sport years ago—Kyle Busch couldn’t leave pit lane without wrecking. He finally figured it out and he’s one of the greatest drivers in the sport, but Timmy has chosen to do it the other way: run smart, run within his means.”
For Hill, running in the Cup Series is the culmination of a boy’s dream. He started running go-karts at age 11 in King George, Virginia, not far from his Maryland home. From there, Hill and his family moved to the racing mecca of Charlotte, North Carolina, where he ran the quarter-mile at Charlotte Motor Speedway first in Bandolero cars, then in Legends machines, during the track’s Summer Shootout Series. From there, Hill joined the Allison Legacy Series, a touring series that runs four-cylinder, ¾ scale stock cars at short tracks on the East Coast. Hill was able to experience a touring series for the first time, and he had to learn race tracks in a hurry—usually just one day.
By the time he was 18, Hill was the NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year, and his team was ready to make the move to Cup…they thought. After a few races in 2011, owner Rick Ware took his operation, and Hill, back to the Nationwide Series. But Hill had had a taste of the top division, and that was where he wanted to be. He contacted teams, sent them his resume…and it was Stoddard who called him back, putting him in the car in Charlotte. Hill had run for Joe Nemechek at Talladega, but that was a start and park from the start.
Unfortunately, Hill’s first full race ended around the halfway mark, when the engine blew. He finally finished a race in Kansas, and finished it well for the team, running 22nd and on the lead lap.
Hill knows he has a lot to learn if he’s going to make a career in the Cup Series. He leans on Labonte and Schrader, and comes to almost every race, even if he’s not driving the race car, often driving up to 11 hours to get there, just to watch.
“Terry and Kenny both, they’ve been in the sport for a long time. This weekend is a good example. I’ve never been to this place before in my life”, says Hill, pointing to the racing surface at Martinsville. “I’m running the truck race here, and I get to bounce ideas off of Kenny. He’s been here a ton and runs really good here and at the short tracks. I can ask him any kind of question as far as where to brake, where to gas up, how the track changes throughout a race. This track is tight with not a lot of room to go if you wreck, so I asked him ‘What should I do? Should I stop, should I try to avoid it?’ He can answer any kind of question I want to ask, so it’s been a big help.
“I go with the team for the most part everywhere,” Hill explains. “I go with them everywhere that I can drive. My driving distance is about 11 hours that I’ll drive to a race, so for the most part, I’ve only missed two or three this season, like Sonoma. I try to learn all I can and be involved. I want to learn about the cars and just be around it.”
Hill also has the veteran Stoddard as a mentor. He’s been with a lot of veterans, a lot of good drivers. He knows what he wants to get out of these cars. He’s been patient with me and helped me as a driver a lot. He can point things out and he’s been a great mentor,” Hill says.
Stoddard is impressed with his young driver’s desire to learn and grow, and says that it motivates the team as well.
“It’s great that he shows the enthusiasm to get here,” says the owner. “In this day and age, there’s a lot of young kids who take it for granted and when they’re not in the car, they just don’t show up. He drove to Daytona this year and helped us. He drove to Kentucky when Schrader was in the car, on his own, just to be there and to watch and listen to how a veteran talks on the radio, how he works traffic, different things like that. It’s been good that Timmy shows that enthusiasm. The guys dig in and work even harder for him when he’s in the car.”
The team has a wily veteran crew chief who can get the most out of a car with fewer resources. They’ve got a young, attractive, marketable driver who’s proving his worth and his desire to be a better driver. What they don’t have is money. The sponsors they’ve got are loyal, but in an era where it takes millions—tens of millions—of dollars to be a frontrunner, the team needs more of them. Hill says no team will work harder for its backers.
“(Racing on a limited budget) makes it more challenging, but I feel like it makes you work harder as a driver and as a team,” Hill says. “As a team, these guys are great mechanics. They know what they’re doing, but we all know the curveball that we’ve been thrown. It just makes us work harder. I have to drive the cars harder, and we have to work harder to try and get more speed out of it.”
Indeed, the teams on the backside of the garage have to work harder for every scrap of success. They have to do all the same tasks as the larger teams with often a small percentage of the personnel. They struggle to attract sponsors because they don’t often run near the top of the pack, but in the cruelest of Catch-22 situations, they don’t often run near the top of the pack because they don’t have the money that buys speed, and without sponsors, they won’t get it. Fate is not kind on the backside.
Teams like FAS Lane also face an uphill battle with the media. Hill says that not only has he made himself available to media, he’s reached out and offered to sit down with them…and been turned down flat because he’s not a superstar. How then, wonders the young driver, can he or anyone else possibly have a chance at becoming a star if they’re virtually ignored? Is Hill (and other drivers held back mainly by their budgets) really doomed to be an also-ran his entire career because he’s not among a chosen few?
Stoddard also finds this aspect particularly frustrating. “The disappointment is that the sport only covers ten, 15 people,” Stoddard says. “Most of the time it’s about eight or ten people. That’s not ESPN’s fault; their job is to cover stuff the best way on the racetrack, who’s racing for the lead, and I get all that. The disappointment for me comes that (an outlet) like NASCAR.com hasn’t had an article on Timmy Hill all year. He’s 20 years old, out of Maryland. He’s a young kid who’s run 17 or 18 races for me and he’s hardly scratched the car up, but nobody’s ever comes around wanting to do an interview. They have control over that, and it’s a disappointment that they don’t spread that across the garage area.”
Hill says that people don’t always understand what a smaller team is up against. “The average race fan sometimes might not understand the difference between a Hendrick car and a FAS Lane Racing car,” says Hill. “It’s a big difference. We know the curveball, and it makes us work harder. We know as a team that we’re giving all our effort out when we have good days like lead-lap finishes, top-25 finishes. I’ve been able to run well enough to be Rookie of the Race a couple times this season, which was a big goal of ours. We wanted to get a couple of them; it’s tough running against Ricky and Danica with the equipment they’re given. I’d say the goals we had this year were to not tear the cars up, to have some solid runs, get a couple rookie of the races. I’d say we’ve done a good job this year.”
Yes, indeed, considering the odds stacked against them, FAS Lane Racing has had a pretty good 2013. The problem is, not enough people have noticed. The major media don’t mention them—it’s almost as if they’re of a social class that nobody wants to admit exists amid NASCAR’s glamor. The fans turn away because they don’t know who they are…another product of the media, really. Sponsors who come to the team stay, because the team treats them like a part of it all, but new sponsors, bigger sponsors are looking for the next big superstar—when only a select few have that status and the rest aren’t invited in for the party.
For Stoddard, Hill, and the others who toil week in and week out for most of the year, it’s a situation they wish would change. They’d like to be mentioned for a good run, maybe featured on a prerace show or a local station for what they have done with so little. But in the end, the team feels that they are a success. At the end of the day, a group of hard-working, talented people have jobs. Hill drives a Sprint Cup Race Car. Stoddard pays the bills. To most observers, maybe that’s not much.
To FAS Lane Racing, though, it’s everything. It’s about people. It’s about value to sponsors. It’s about being there every week and doing more with less. And the team has all that, is all that. Every week, they’re out there on the track until the end, part of the show against the odds. They are part of the sport; on some level, they _ are_ the sport, the last remnant of a game that anyone with the talent to compete could play. Success isn’t always counted in trophies.
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