Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday March 23, 2009
As too many of you know firsthand, this recession has no filter in taking the innocent and making them innocent victims before they even know what hit them. Men and women who were the stars of their respective companies have gone from Employee of the Month to Employee Out The Door with nothing more than a bright little pink slip, earning 15 minutes to collect their belongings after 15 years or more worth of effort. Fairness has been replaced with frugal, success with survival in a world where nothing is guaranteed.
This Monday morning, Travis Kvapil knows that pain all too well.
For all intents and purposes, Kvapil wrapped up his time as a Yates Racing employee on Sunday with a spirited 18th place finish at Bristol. Barring a last-minute change of heart – at press time, sources close to the situation claim they’re desperately trying to put a deal together for Martinsville – the 33-year-old driver from Wisconsin now finds himself looking for work in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions.
“Hopefully, in the next 24 hours something great happens to this team,” he said after exiting his car at Thunder Valley. “That’s all we can pray for.”
Amazing, isn’t it, how a lifetime of working towards this level is suddenly contingent on a miracle from God to stay there. Of course, to be fair not everyone may have sympathy for Kvapil right off the bat. We’re already a month into the season, and he’s failed to qualify once while struggling in each of the four others he’s made. Currently, his team sits outside the top 35 in owner points with a DNF and no finish better than 18th, making them vulnerable to an organization looking to tighten the belts.
But to understand why Travis Kvapil is so important, you’ve got to dig deeper, past the lackluster results of this season and beyond the fact most casual fans might struggle to recognize the name. Sometimes, within the depths of a major crisis you need a concrete example to showcase what’s wrong with the big picture.
In that case … Travis Kvapil is our man.
On the surface, Kvapil’s racing background seems qualified enough to put him in Sprint Cup. Rising through the ranks of NASCAR’s lower divisions, he drove in the Truck Series for several years, honing his talent before peaking with an unexpected series title in 2003. Driving for a startup Toyota outfit the following year, Kvapil won twice and turned enough heads that none other than Roger Penske signed him full-time to run in the Cup Series for 2005.
But Kvapil struggled as a rookie in comparison to phenom Kyle Busch, taking home just two top 10 finishes for a team largely disconnected from Penske’s No. 2 and No. 12 shop. At the end of the year, Kvapil was cut and spent 2006 meandering around with an underfunded single car team. By 2007, he was out of a job in Cup altogether, eventually forced to take a ride back in the Truck Series from whence he came.
Such a choice could have been the end of Travis Kvapil’s top-level stock car career as we know it. But not unlike most people given a second chance at life, the driver made the most of his opportunities. Landing in top-tier equipment down in the Truck Series, he won and contended for the series title a second time, eventually ending up third in the year-end standings. Team owner Jack Roush was impressed, so much so that he took the quiet man from Wisconsin and worked with partner Doug Yates to put him back in the Cup Series the following year.
Yet despite that big time recognition, little was expected of that Kvapil-Yates combo in 2008. After all, the team had struggled through a miserable last few years with veterans Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd, eventually losing their M&M’s sponsorship to Kvapil’s old rookie rival Busch. That left the No. 28 car looking for a replacement throughout the season, leaving them on a tight financial budget right along with Yates Racing teammate David Gilliland. It was a difficult problem for a once-vaunted organization now a blip on the Cup Series radar screen; indeed, the two-car team was hanging on by the skin of a Roush Fenway partnership and the strength of their engine shop that drove it. It would have surprised no one – not even the most casual of observers – to see Yates be the latest famous name to hit the history books by the middle of last year.
But instead of folding up, Kvapil’s desire brought fire to a team on the brink. A strong start led to an early flirtation with the top 15 in points, and Kvapil wound up 23rd in the standings with one top 5 and four top 10 finishes. It was his breakout year in the series, an improvement of nearly a dozen positions for Yates from ‘07 that had him making waves as a driver on the rise. That Fall, Kvapil capped off a special season by winning his first career pole at Talladega, remaining a major threat to win nearly all race long before a multi-car crash took him out with less than 20 laps to go.
Heading into 2009 that should have been a building block foundation for a team that righted its ship. After all, for a series drooling for fresh new talent up front there’s everything to like about a feel-good story about a team doing more with less. But while Kvapil was making waves in the car, talk in the boardroom wasn’t exactly going so well. All season long, the team put together patchwork deals from various sponsors simply to keep the No. 28 on the track, with Kvapil hawking everything from Hitachi Tools to Academy Sports to even the California Highway Patrol. It led to a bunch of cool paint schemes — but no long-term deal.
With improvement the name of the game here, that begs a simple question … why? To answer it, that’s where that crazy unfair economy comes in… but it’s not that simple. Yes, finding sponsorship is tough these days. But long story short, Kvapil’s team – like so many on the circuit – relies almost exclusively on one of the “Big Four” car owners for help. In this case, Roush Fenway Racing does all of the marketing and sponsorship deals for Kvapil’s ride. You’d think a top-tier program like that would lead him to a money tree, right?
Wrong. At 23rd, Kvapil is actually the sixth-best wheelman in RFR’s eyes, behind their four drivers who made the Chase in 2008 and even beleaguered fifth man Jamie McMurray. That leaves a team like Yates and a man like Kvapil too far down the totem pole, an afterthought for marketing and a difficult sell to potential sponsors looking for “proven” rather than “potential” when it comes to working with RFR. Kvapil appeared to be a year away, maybe two, from being a true Chase contender – and that’s not good enough for CEOs struggling to come up with advertising dollars in this economy or salesmen looking to keep their job.
Things are so bad at RFR, in fact, that Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth is even struggling to secure his long-term future (DeWalt’s deal expires following the season). For a quiet, media-awkward guy just like Kvapil, it’s a tough environment out there in a world where talent suddenly doesn’t cut it.
So, with their backs against the wall Yates did the only thing they thought they could do in this situation … get money from somebody else. All of a sudden, Kvapil’s team was ripped from underneath him in favor of “helping” a new partnership with Hall of Fame Racing and Bobby Labonte. Sponsors that had once backed Kvapil, like Academy Sports + Outdoors, were suddenly paired with Labonte – along with a critical top 35 locked in qualifying spot in owner points. In one sense, you can’t blame Yates – who wouldn’t want to market a champion? – but their actions killed the future of a man who’d given them a chance at one.
Indeed, there was no chance Kvapil was going to survive out of this mess. He was given the leftovers of what wasn’t raided, along with a crew chief in Ben Leslie who never even quit his full-time job with Ford to come over and run the team. Yet despite all that, Kvapil still put together two top 20 finishes and had a third on the way at Atlanta before the motor blew.
“I’m just proud of my guys,” he said after Bristol, his positive attitude unwavering through the mess. “I just hate it that we’ve had top-15 or top-20 cars or so every week and, except for a couple of races, we’ve had horrible luck and haven’t got the results. It’s unfortunate.”
What’s really unfortunate is Kvapil’s story is supposed to be one with a feel-good ending. The progress he made is supposed to be what puts you in position to make it at this level. Instead, it left him an innocent victim of a sponsorship crunch gone wild, one that opens the door for the sport’s richest men and best-looking faces but leaves survival in question for everyone else. Last I checked, the sport wasn’t built on the wealthy or the pretty, but take a deep breath because that’s where we’re headed.
To his credit, Kvapil has never given up through this mess, even when reports surfaced this week that his team was facing an imminent demise. All day long at Bristol, he fought for every spot, fighting Kyle Busch at one point to stay on the lead lap with the type of aggression you’d expect for a man facing desperate straits.
“Today we weren’t laying over for anybody,” Kvapil said. “We had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I raced 110 percent every lap. I’m sure [Kyle] was frustrated and wanted to just wreck me… but like I say, we didn’t have anything to lose and everything to gain.”
It’s that type of effort that usually rewards you in the end. Instead, it’s just proven to be the end of the story … and that can’t be good for NASCAR in the long run.
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