The Frontstretch: Money Can’t Buy Happiness… But In NASCAR, It Can Buy You Time by Thomas Bowles -- Monday August 1, 2011

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Five years. 167 starts. Four different Sprint Cup organizations. For Paul Menard, the numbers were adding up everywhere but the victory column as his racing career floundered somewhere between “rich kid taking up space” to simply irrelevant at 30 years old and counting. Indeed, a random survey of 50 people on the street, hours before Sunday’s Brickyard 400 would likely end with 49 asking the question, “Paul who?”

Paul, now a winner at the most famous speedway in America – that’s who.

No doubt, Menard’s shocking victory at Indianapolis takes him out of the shadows and into the limelight of racing respectability. Showing exceptional poise down the stretch, the awkward balancing act of holding off a four-time champ – Jeff Gordon – while saving enough Sunoco to survive at that 2.5-mile oval should be proof positive how far this emerging talent has come. Suddenly, this veteran’s placed in position for a $1 million bonus should he win Labor Day Weekend in Atlanta and is on the cusp of a first ever postseason bid.

And just think… all it cost Menard and his family was $100 million plus to reach the top. That’s a rate of $20 million a year, the average cost of a primary sponsor which Paul has gotten in automatic support, straight from his father almost like he’s dishing out lunch money for school. In this age of NASCAR contraction, combined with this Car of Tomorrow “small things can make a difference” era that’s a pretty big bargaining chip to have, squarely on your side that, until Sunday’s checkered flag kept the doubters coming out in droves.

“Can’t change people’s opinions. They’re going to say what they want to say,” Menard claimed when asked about his net worth. “That’s fine with me. I know what I’m capable of.”

That firm, steady confidence clearly helped on a day where even legends like Mark Martin ran their tanks dry with gas. But how much, if anything did the money factor in long-term considering the sponsor’s net worth, from the family patriarch down is valued at $5.3 billion dollars? Some will always claim an inherent advantage, one where “involved” means financially supporting the equipment and organization for which his son has always driven. But it’s not like being rich has led to automatic results; a racing addict for 35 years, John Menard invested millions in developing a Buick V6 engine capable of winning the Indy 500 and never succeeded. Open-wheel converts like Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, and Wally Dallenbach, Jr. are among those he’s backed through the years, winning multiple IRL titles but ultimately turning the focus towards NASCAR. Yet for all John, a billionaire home improvement magnate spent for decades trying to win races at this track that couldn’t bring home the trophy by itself; it was the son, not the pocketbook who made the difference in the way he wheeled a Richard Childress Racing Chevy down the stretch.

“I’m just a proud father right now,” John Menard said afterwards, switching back and forth between sappy relative and sponsor representative during his post-race interview. “I remember smuggling him into the garage [at Indy] because he was too young to be in there. He would be sitting on the workbench back there behaving himself. He had to be quiet or the yellow shirts would throw him out. He was there, always interested (laughter).”

“He wanted to be a racecar driver.”

So give the driver his due, in a season where first-time winners have come out of the woodwork at some of the sport’s biggest races: Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500), David Ragan (Coke Zero 400) and now this upset at Indy. It was Menard, not the money who worked on the basics when a two-year stint at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. led to just six DNQs and one finish inside the top 10. It was the driver, not the cash that pulled the trigger on moving to Childress rather than risk volatility with rebuilding Richard Petty Motorsports. And now, armed with four top-5 finishes and 81 laps led on the year, more than the rest of his Sprint Cup career combined it’s time for the rest of the world to acknowledge the fact being wealthy has no bearing on whether you can drive a race car.

“I know how hard Paul has worked,” said third-place finisher Regan Smith, one of many happy friends inside the garage who placed the mantle of success on the driver – not his family’s income. “A lot of people know what the Menard’s name has meant to racing, what the family meant to racing.”

“He’s really good,” added owner Richard Childress. “He doesn’t tear equipment up. He’s consistent… got a cool head on him in all situations. I knew if the right situation come along, we’d win.”

If anything, Menard’s experience – and his money – serves as a lesson to sponsors eager to throw out a pink slip at a moment’s notice: slow down! It took a good 100 starts in the series, nearly three years for Menard to show signs of promise, developing consistency necessary to contend at this level. And then, beyond that it was another two years before winning was a strong possibility. Last time I took first-grade math, that would be 3 + 2 = 5… or so the calculator said. Could you imagine Menard without the blank check could keep going under that scenario? Casey Atwood, Reed Sorenson, and David Stremme certainly can, all thrown out of high-profile rides before having a chance to properly develop. Even Joey Logano, on the edge after three years isn’t being given the kind of time Menard was guaranteed.

Is it fair? No, and you’d like to think at some point, the pendulum will swing back the other way. But for now, Menard’s the rare, important shining example of practice makes perfect… as long as you have the cash to compete.

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Bill B
08/01/2011 08:23 AM
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If it wasn’t for daddy’s deep pockets Menard would be in the same boat as Atwood, Sorrenson, Stremme and possible Logano.

BTW, if you looked at the resumes of Stremme and Sorrenson you would think they were the same driver.

wcfan
08/01/2011 11:32 AM
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How many TALENTED DRIVERS do not get the chance to leave the local short tracks because a driver with LESS TALENT has BIG MONEY behind them.
It does not matter if its family money or not.

Do you think Steven Wallace would still be driving without Daddy’s money? He wrecks more cars every years then Paul has in 10 years.

Casey Atwood was bump out of his ride because BIG MONEY wanted him out.

Paul has not had the GREAT EQUIPMENT that Joey has had, but now Paul has Driven to a Race Win while Joey needed Rain to win his race.

Which one belongs here?

Andy D
08/01/2011 01:34 PM
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We don’t want Menard, Logano, Atwood level drivers who take five years to their 1st win and win two or three more in the course of their career. We want GREAT drivers – Gordon Earnhardt Sr., Stewart.

If you’re running for a big team and don’t get a win within two years the sponsorts are right to find someone who can get the job done.

And no, Trevor Bayne was lucky. I’ll reserve judgement until he gets another win.

AnnieMack
08/01/2011 02:28 PM
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I’d agree with you Andy if the Nationwide series was the development series it was intended to be. The cup drivers are monopolizing all the sponsorship money and equipment so the lower-level drivers have no chance to improve or make it on television.

Robert Eastman
08/01/2011 05:38 PM
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Great article Tom! I hope this is the turning point in PM’s career so the nay-sayers will be shut-up. I’m still disgusted with Tony’s comments years ago about Paul’s skills/John’s money… because if it hadn’t been for John Menard’s money, Smoke may never have won IRL, the stepping-stone to the “JGR first-class” NASCAR ride that won him his 2 Championships… opening the door to his “free” team-equity stake, making him a very wealthy man.
“Karma” has a way of repaying “INGRATES’ pride and arrogance,” so… look for Paul Menard winning more races than Tony Stewart in the future.
What’s the reasoning behind this “crazy-sounding” prediction? Tony’s frustrated wrecking of Brian Vickers at Sonoma and the Richard Childress observation of Paul’s ability to keep a “cool-head” and bring the car home intact. From now on Menard will be given the best cars, equipment and crew available from RCR… something that he didn’t get at DEI, Yates or RPM.
YES Tony… “SPEED COSTS MONEY… How FAST do you want to GO?” applies to you too… so quit thinking that your success is strictly because of your talent. Lots of people have spent fortunes to make you look good!
With this BIG win at Indy… Paul Menard will have RCR’s “Speediest GO-FAST CARS” at his command!

phil h
08/01/2011 10:31 PM
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@ AnnieMack

you are one million percent hit the nail on the head exactly right!!

Don Mei
08/02/2011 10:19 AM
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Good article Tom. I can only echo Mr Eastmans comment about nay-sayers. Grow up boys and girls, life’s not fair. God knows how many rich guys or children of rich families went racing but a few did display enormous talent. Mike Hailwood, Ayrton Senna, Sam Posey to name just a few. They all came from wealthy families that made getting their racing careers off the ground a hell of a lot easier than most of us, but thier familes couldn’t drive the car or ride the motorcycle for them. Welcome to the real world. Menard drove a heads up race…give the man his due.

LeftwingLeftcoast
08/02/2011 12:03 PM
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Kudos to Paul Menard for finally showing that he belongs in Nascar by winning at the Brickyard. He is still no Jeg Coughlin, but we can now compare him to Morgan Lucas.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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