Behind closed doors, one can only imagine what Jay Frye must be feeling. The Vice President / General Manager of Red Bull Racing has spent over a dozen years as the benchmark of NASCAR’s middle class; building winning organizations from scratch, he’s living proof of how to succeed with half the resources and double the challenges. Riding the crest of a wave that peaked a few years back, his former team, Ginn Racing, once shocked the world by leading the points four races into the 2007 season with driver Mark Martin; in the process, they led the Daytona 500 until the final turn. No doubt, he’s capable of building a team that challenges for Victory Lane.
It’s just a matter of if he’ll have anything left to build.
Frye, along with former driver Martin are in the process of trying to survive for 2012, looking to acquire the assets of RBR after the company announced last weekend they’re leaving the sport. The news, while a surprise to some wasn’t to several insiders; Brian Vickers’ future with the organization had been in serious doubt, according to multiple sources (he’s a pending free agent) and there was no clear successor to Kasey Kahne for next season. Yes, Cole Whitt was in the development ranks, succeeding in the Truck Series but RBR had been there, done that in terms of bringing a young driver up too soon (see Allmendinger, A.J. and Speed, Scott). Sure, the team was in serious negotiations with Clint Bowyer, according to FOXSports.com but others have said that’s not the superstar level they coveted; only Carl Edwards, a bona fide championship contender the second he signed on the dotted line could have whetted the appetite for a team whose Formula One driver, Sebastian Vettel holds a 161-101 lead in the driver standings. The stock car side, in comparison has fallen short, in position to miss the Chase for the fourth time in its five-year existence unless Kahne mounts a surprising summer rally.
But are things really so bad? Kahne has led 183 laps, good for 10th-best on the Cup circuit and earned a pole at Darlington. Vickers, coming off life-threatening blood clots that kept him out of a car for six months has five top-5 finishes in 14 starts. Not only have both cars contended in several races this year, but at tracks like Charlotte, Michigan, even Richmond they could sneak away with a victory. It’s clear, steady progress for an organization that spent their rookie season (2007) failing to qualify virtually every other race.
In the past, those small steps, even maintaining at slightly above average used to be perfect for Frye and Co., middle class organizations comfortable with a victory and enough top-10 finishes to keep their sponsors happy and healthily exposed. Knowing they’re not title contenders – after all, only so many can be within a field of 43 cars – simply picking their spots and working hard to move into the country club elite one day, building the team brick by brick was once the goal. All over the map, we saw two or three-car teams like RBR not just survive, but thrive once upon a time; Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Bill Davis Racing, Petty Enterprises. The list goes on.
But in 2011, the business model has changed, NASCAR: The Chase Era where simply having a B- season isn’t good enough. Teams are judged, then publicized by the bottom line, the number of “playoff appearances” they have and whether that justified the ballooning expense for these primary sponsors to keep appearing on the hood. And for the middle class, even with 12 positions available that’s just not an option they’re able to achieve all that often. For every year like 2009, RBR’s lone Chase appearance with Brian Vickers there’s seasons like this one, where the current 12-man field is comprised of just six organizations: Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (with heavy Hendrick influence – they run Hendrick chassis and engines), and Penske Racing. With the exception of SHR’s fledgling two-car operation, you could title these remaining five the “upper class” – combined, they’ve taken 17 of the last 18 titles, 7 of the last 8 Brickyard 400s, and occupy roughly 40 percent of the 43-car grid.
So that leaves people like Frye faced with a double whammy; RBR, which builds its own chassis and gets engines from Toyota Racing Development is a step behind the country club elite and can’t nose into what’s become an overwhelming focus of the media, broadcasts, and general storyline: the Chase. During the final 10 races, missing out means the entire race team pulls a magic trick and becomes invisible; that makes executives none too happy, even a self-sponsored organization and all of a sudden, the middle class becomes dirt poor.
That gap in parity, once thought to only affect the single-car teams is now inching its way up the ladder. Even Stewart-Haas Racing, with its Chase acumen has zero victories this season and the No. 39, run by Ryan Newman is rumored to need some financial help for 2012. Richard Petty Motorsports, despite a successful comeback season from the brink ran Medallion Financial, the very company who saved it on the side of the No. 43 Ford at Pocono. JTG-Daugherty Racing, paired with veteran Bobby Labonte was once rumored to be expanding to two cars; now, come next season they’ll be lucky to still have just one.
It’s a troubling trend, the roots dying underneath the tree trunk while view at the top continues to click the word “ignore.” Perhaps that’s because, to an extent the desperation of the middle class means better business for them; if Red Bull is saved by the Frye/Martin duo, the Hendrick connections almost certainly mean a switch to Chevy and chassis/engine combinations delivered by HMS. That would leave them with an eight-car base, Chevy’s No. 1 behemoth with Roush Fenway’s Ford chassis/engine shop sitting at six. If you’re a new owner, looking to come in and build a program how in the world would you justify competing with that network? Even two cars could be crushed by the onslaught of information on the other side; that’s like trying to fight a nuclear bomb with a slingshot.
How much of these trends Red Bull was able to ascertain back in Austria is unclear. The only thing we know right now is they’re the tip of the iceberg, an uncertain summer ahead for a sport faced with a serious sustainability question as sponsors come up for renewal: how in the world do they rein in costs when their New York Yankees’-level competitors are still reining in the dough? Will new owners invest in a series where reaching the top level of success seems virtually impossible? And can the parity 20 cars, run by five teams, sustain fans’ interest while the rest of the grid gets filled in by junkyard dogs?
Like it or not, we may be about to find out unless executives like Frye can work their magic one more time. But more than ever, the odds are stacked against them.
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