Thomas Bowles · Monday August 1, 2011
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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