The Frontstretch: Back to the Baseline for Specialty Racing by Bryan Davis Keith -- Thursday March 18, 2010

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Back to the Baseline for Specialty Racing

Nuts for Nationwide · Bryan Davis Keith · Thursday March 18, 2010

 

Since returning to the Nationwide Series full-time in 2008, Specialty Racing and their No. 61 team has managed to do what no other team has; to run full-time with no sponsorship. Maximizing every penny of their purse money and exercising fiscal discipline, the team was able to contest the entire 2008 season and the first half of 2009, running the distance every race. And in Brandon Whitt, the team had a development driver in their ranks that they were prepared to plan long-term around.

But personal circumstances led to Brandon stepping out of the seat of the No. 61 for good 15 races into the 2009 campaign. Matt Carter, coming off an ARCA campaign that saw him score his first career win and challenge for the series championship the year before, literally walked into the opportunity to go Nationwide racing, and took the wheel for the team starting at New Hampshire.

And while Carter delivered the team’s two best finishes since their return to full-time competition, something wasn’t clicking between he and crew chief/team co-owner Doug Taylor. The chemistry just didn’t develop where it needed to be.

Still, Carter’s top 15 runs at both Bristol and Daytona were “flashes of mediocrity” that proved enough for Taylor to deviate from the team’s established business model.

“I spent money to improve that backfired,” says Taylor of the team’s 2009 summer stretch. The spending proved to be a detriment, as the team was so overwhelmed by the end of the 2009 season that they were forced to start and park three of the season’s final four races.

And then there was the ugly incident at Charlotte that ended with Matt Carter’s release. Accounts varied between driver, crew chief and those in the garage that saw the exchange unfold between a frustrated driver and his owner, but the end result was the same; when the No. 61 car returned to the track after a stay in the garage, it was Chase Miller, not Carter, behind the wheel.

After a tumultuous close to 2009, 2010 has marked a return to racing as usual for Specialty Racing’s No. 61 team. (photo courtesy of The Hot Lap’s Phil Cavali)

That’s all in the past now. As far as the team is concerned, 2010 is back to business as usual for the Specialty outfit. And it’s a return to normalcy that started even before the tumultuous 2009 campaign came to a close.

“We were fortunate that Robby Benton contacted us about running Jason Bowles at Phoenix,” recalls Taylor of the one race in which his team ran the distance last November. “We took our car down there, and literally put back our baseline setup.”
“With their help, we used their pulldown rig, and actually found out that our baseline setup was pretty good. So at Phoenix, we put Jason in there, and he was able to tell us what the car was doing. [Before a wreck] we were actually competitive, at least about as good as our baseline setup ever was.”

“That gave us the confidence back that with everything back at zero, at baseline, we can be better than mediocre.”

The importance of that confidence boost can’t be overstated enough, as it reaffirmed to Taylor that he still had his touch with a race car. And it’s what’s allowing him and his operation to continue running on a model of racing on the previous week’s purse, despite the purse cuts that have come down this year.

When asked about NASCAR’s purse reductions, Taylor remarked “I look at it simply, we’ve got to cut our costs by 10 percent. Each of us are going to take a 10 percent cut in wages this year because we’ve got to keep going.”

“We’re going to work harder on our travel. [In addition to spending money on performance], I got into some situations last year where I was paying more for travel than I needed. We’re going to refine those things.”

“We’re going to run all the races, and race as hard as we can. [That said,] we’re going to have to kind of pick our races where we think we can run well and focus really hard on them, and if that means we have to hold back at other races to keep good equipment for tracks we know we’re going to run good at we will. But we’ll definitely be racing harder than we did last season.”

And while these practices will add new wrinkles to the team’s established business model, they’ve also got added help on the marketing front for the first time since they’ve been back on the circuit. The team hooked up with driver Josh Wise thanks to the former USAC standout’s marketing firm, MMI. And MMI’s forward thinking ended up making the pairing an ideal situation for both a team in search of dollars and a driver needing seat time.

Said Wise, “they’ve {MMI] always been in the business of developing drivers. They understand business models change, and that they’ve got to help me and these guys build a situation that I can grow with and they can grow with.”

Echoing what Wise had to say was Taylor, who noted “their thoughts were you can’t have a race without the owners, you can’t have a race without the drivers. If we can all put our heads together and make this a better situation for all of us, it makes sense.”

“With Roush/Yates help and MMI, and Josh we’ll race the whole year.”
Taylor and his team are optimistic that finally having marketing help on board will not only lead to sponsor dollars for the No. 61 car, but improved performance as well.

“By getting MMI to work with us now, now we know we have someone that knows how to speak the market speak, to market our team, Josh, this whole effort. We’ve just got to stick to our baseline [on the track], and Josh will improve that car.”

That’s not to say it’s been a glove fit across the board though. Wise got a rude welcome during his return to the Nationwide Series, finishing 39th at Daytona after a wreck with Colin Braun. The team rebounded to post a 19th place finish at Las Vegas, but currently sits outside the top 30 locked in spots in the field headed to Bristol. And while the 19th place finish was a solid run by Specialty Racing’s standards, the level of performance has been an adjustment for Wise.

When asked about having to temper his expectations until resources present themselves, Wise noted “It’s going to be hard for me [to adjust] because I’m highly competitive. I’ve won in everything I’ve ever driven, championships, races, everything, and that comes from my competitive nature. I think [now] I just have to keep it in a productive manner.”

“I know where we’re starting out at, and every week we’re just going to have to sit down after the races and be like this could be better, maybe we’re not doing this, maybe we need to make this adjustment, and of course figure out where we are on the money and sponsorship front. It’s going to be a building process all season.”

“Right now at the beginning, as much as we’re trying to go out and do well, to finish as well as awe can, it’s an evaluation process as to who’s doing what well, and what we can do to get better every week.”

The plan remains the same for this bunch: become a contending one car team, expand to multi-car, and hope to make the jump to Cup when the opportunity presents itself. For now though, the challenge is continuing to survive on purse money and getting back into the top 30.

Fortunately for the team, Bristol is next on the race slate. The same track that Matt Carter scored the team’s best finish since 2008.

Speaking of the team’s former driver, that unfortunate episode in Charlotte is now a thing of the past.

For at Daytona, the usually unsponsored No. 61 Ford picked up some paint on Thursday afternoon, the hood emblazened with the website mattc15.bionicband.com. A venture started by a young businessman named Matt Carter.

The struggles of the past eight months are in the past with this bunch. It’s back to business as usual for one of the most under-appreciated stories in the Nationwide Series garage.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

Photography for this article was provided by Phil Cavali of The Hot Lap

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