Bryan Davis Keith · Tuesday October 12, 2010
Kevin Conway may be running all but unopposed en route to the 2010 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year crown, but certainly not unchallenged. In fact, there probably isn’t a driver in the Cup garage that can say they’ve had a more daunting task this season, and that doesn’t come just from the fact that he entered the year with only 25 total starts in NASCAR national competition. The marketing genius also entered this season with one of the most, for lack of a better word, exploitable sponsors seen in NASCAR since Mark Martin sported Viagra colors: Extenze male enhancement products.
Between learning Cup racing and leading the Extenze brand in its transition from an infomercial product to retail, Conway’s freshman year was also complicated by a midseason move from Front Row Motorsports to Robby Gordon’s team. Litigation is currently pending with FRM regarding Extenze’s sponsorship payments, leading for some to speculate his short-term future in the Cup Series could be in jeopardy. Nonetheless, Conway and his sponsor representatives are looking forward to 2011, speaking to Frontstretch regarding his future in the sport.
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Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch.com: When are they going to put you in a Hummer?
Kevin Conway: You know, Robby had talked about that for Dakar, but the thing about that, even the off-road racing comes down to cubic dollars vs. cubic inches. So we’ll see what happens there, but I would love to hop in one of those off-road trucks. They’re awesome race vehicles.
Keith: You’ve only been here a short time, but in comparison to your old home at Front Row Motorsports, how does this operation stack up in terms of the team and equipment?
Conway: It’s interesting. You’ve got two organizations, two completely different management styles, and two different outlooks. The cool thing about racing is you’ve got six different correct ways to get to the same destination and accomplish the same goals. Each team just has a different perspective on things. Not that it’s right or wrong, it’s just different. Here, we’re looking forward to taking advantage of the resources that we have. Not just financially, but in-house. At RGM, they build absolutely everything in-house. Almost every single part is built in-house, which can be a strength, but it can also be a weakness. I will say the shop does a really good job building things and designing things that work. But, being a single car team, the resources are limited.
Keith: You came into this year very green, still learning these race cars. Considering that, balancing learning with adjusting to life at RGM, what can you offer up to that camp? Is there any place you kind of have to bite your tongue?
Conway: I think the biggest thing is that I offer a different perspective on the feedback coming from the race cars. These cars, chassis-wise, are a bit different from the cars I’ve been running since the start of the year. For me, the most important thing is to give solid feedback, and to let the engineers and the crew chief make adjustments based off of it. Of course, Robby and those that have been doing it longer can better point to what changes they want. But, I feel like I came into this deal a glowing, neon green and I think we’re down to like a pine green coming back to race tracks for the second time.
Keith: Does having to balance learning a new team and new cars counter with returning to tracks for the second time? Does that force you to re-evaluate your performance expectations?
Conway: To an extent, absolutely. We had a lot of momentum going at Front Row, and Peter Sospenzo and I had been working together, building a notebook. I was learning him, he was learning me. We were building up a library of notes based off of the cars that we had to work with. So certainly, your outlook changes a little bit. It’s kind of like hitting the reset button and things starting all over again. We’re getting used to the guys and the things they’re doing all over again, but we’re also going back to racetracks for the second time. And the goal remains the same, to keep the No. 7 car in the top 35, learn as much as we can and really ramp things up in October.
Keith: How much of a challenge is it to switch teams midseason, from a marketing perspective?
Conway: It’s huge. All the people that work for us had done an awesome job getting everything in place at Front Row, so from that standpoint it’s a big, big change. Especially from the perspective of your crew uniforms, your toolboxes and everything that has to get wrapped, all of those things. It’s nothing that can’t be overcome, but it certainly proves to be a challenge. With regard to off-track marketing, its not too much of a change. Extenze does a great job with their famous infomercials, and we just shot new infomercials, so I’m really excited. We’re in this for the long haul, and at the end of the day it comes down to Kevin Conway and Extenze, and trying to establish roots here.
Keith: Leaving Front Row in the middle of the season. How did the split go? Was it as amicable as possible?
Conway: Yeah, I think so. I think unexpected is the word that I would use. It was literally just a matter of minutes before practice at Michigan and I wasn’t in the car. I was shocked. Editor’s note: Front Row Motorsports claims to have notified Conway on August 8 that he would not race at Michigan if Extenze didn’t make a full installment payment. But, it’s kind of like the old saying, where there’s adversity there’s opportunity. So, we’re looking at the change as an opportunity rather than a negative, and a chance to better the whole program.
That said, I’m very thankful for the opportunity that Front Row gave me. I certainly wouldn’t be where I’m at without the help of Front Row and Ford. I was able to score 21 consecutive Rookie of the Race awards and gave FRM the team’s best ever finish at Daytona, that was really cool. I became the first rookie since Jamie McMurray to lead a lap at Indy with Front Row, so it was a great experience with a great group of guys.
Keith: You’re kind of an interesting spokesperson for Extenze.
Conway: I’m huge at 3 AM.
Keith: That’s got to be the raciest thing I’ve ever heard you say! Looking at your souvenir hauler, you see all the provocative T-shirts, the innuendo, yet looking at your persona as a driver, you come off as very well-spoken, polished, someone that can make it happen in the boardroom. Talk about the dichotomy in the marketing platform your team is putting forward.
Conway: The biggest thing when we started working with ExtenZe is mainstreaming the brand, getting away from all the stereotypes the name suggests. No matter what brand you’re representing, it’s a reflection of yourself. Whether it’s representing ExtenZe, Ford Motor Company or anyone else, it’s important that I exude professionalism and class in a way that projects myself in a positive manner. That doesn’t really change because of the brand. I think having authenticity and being genuine, being real and not trying to bend to fit a brand is important. So for me, it’s one of the things over the years I’ve tried to do.
And with ExtenZe, while there’s a lot of puns and a lot of things to have fun with around the brand, it’s been cool to see it go from something that everyone jokes about to something where people are looking for samples or really like the product. It’s been cool to take a brand whose elements are kind of taboo, taking it and suddenly making it a bit more mainstream, where people want to know more about it. With all the jokes and all that’s out there, we took the T-shirts, the board shorts and we had fun with it. The elephant in the room with this product is the jokes, and believe me we’ve had a lot of fun with them. But, we’ve tried to get that elephant out of the room by putting jokes on the T-shirts, by saying look, we’ve heard all the jokes. In fact, we put them on T-shirts.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to have fun, and we’ve got a product we can have fun with. It’s not a stiff brand (there’s a new one for you), so it’s something to have fun with while at the same time maintaining a level of professionalism that I expect of myself. I think we’ve done a good job exuding that through the whole racing program this year.
Keith: Looking to the rest of 2010 and 2011, your sponsor [Biotab Nutraceuticals] will be back. They’ll be taking a different branding tack.
Conway: [They’ll be highlighting] Alteril. It’s an all-natural sleep aid, it’s cool. To see the growth of the program, and now to see where we are, going from a Nationwide program last year to here and now, our first year in Cup and leading the Rookie of the Year standings. The whole purpose of this year was to win the 2010 Rookie of the Year title. That’s a huge deal for me. We planned on being the last rookie standing, and that’s the way things have worked out.
Keith: For 2011, what’s the plan?
Conway: We’re still going to be in Cup, and like we’ve said all along we’re evaluating every option. Our unexpected transition here has delayed that a little bit, so now that we’re here we can start focusing on 2011. We’d love to be able to continue and make everything work here at Robby Gordon Motorsports. Right now, we’re focusing on capitalizing on the opportunities of this transition period, making sure we’re solid for the remainder of this year, and then looking to next year. Extenze and Alteril will be back. Where exactly, we’re not sure. That said, Robby Gordon Motorsports is at the top of that list, but we’re evaluating every option.
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Though Conway and his sponsor are adamant that 2011 will see both return to the Cup garage, the upcoming lawsuit with Front Row Motorsports is shaping up to be an ugly affair. Conway and ExtenZe Racing representatives offered no comment on the upcoming suit, though Conway called Front Row’s allegations “unfortunate” and noted that ExtenZe was “looking forward to their day in court.” Front Row Motorsports also did not make official comment, though sources tell Frontstretch that FRM owner Bob Jenkins would not be pursuing litigation in this matter unless he was absolutely sure his organization would recuperate monies as a result.
The financial solvency of the ExtenZe sponsorship has also been brought into question for the 2011 season. In a report by Scene Daily’s Bob Pockrass, it was reported that Biotab’s apparent inability to pay their full sponsorship installments to FRM stemmed from another unrelated lawsuit against the company. A lack of cash flow may well still be restricting their sponsorship efforts; though Conway has run a number of races for Robby Gordon Motorsports since the impending lawsuit was reported, four the six thus far have seen RGM’s No. 7 car start-and-park despite carrying Extenze decals on the hood. Extenze Racing and Conway have publicly denied that their entry was pulling in early, despite the fact this practice was independently confirmed by Frontstretch personnel at Atlanta and Dover.
Following a 31st-place result at Fontana, Conway and the No. 7 team sit only 25 points to the good of the top 35 in the owner standings, a precarious situation for the rookie driver. Conway has qualified in the top 40 for only eight races this season, making his continued ability to hold a “locked in” spot paramount to both he and his sponsor’s short-term future in Sprint Cup.
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