The Frontstretch: Dollars and Sense: Two Brothers, One Team, And A Dream That Never Dies by Tony Lumbis -- Thursday June 24, 2010

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“We should’ve run a .39, but he got loose. It’s just after the Sprint Cup guys run, there is rubber on the track, and it’s not good for those of us who run after.”

Bill Gerhart, owner and crew chief for Bobby Gerhart Racing (BGR), is debriefing. Just moments earlier, his brother and driver Bobby laid down a qualifying lap at Pocono International Raceway for the Messina Wildlife Animal Stopper 200, but it wasn’t good enough for his liking. The ARCA session complete, his No. 5 car ended up ninth-fastest – nearly a second-and-a-half slower than polesitter Mikey Kile.

Gerhart the owner doesn’t seem too phased, though, believing both car and team will persevere. The race gives them a set of similar challenges – the car never does find extra speed – but in a day defined by making the best of what they have, the car still comes home a respectable ninth. It was a workmanlike performance for this team, one that’s made a living out of learning how to survive under any circumstances.

In fact, there probably isn’t too much that bothers either member of the Gerhart duo these days, as the two have been racing stock cars since 1983. That leaves them armed with nearly three decades of experience, including six wins at the famed Daytona International Speedway. But the No. 5 team, a mainstay in the ARCA Menards Series for years, still fights just to simply make it to the track; and nowadays, even that doesn’t happen every week. While observers note how rising expenses and increased competition have changed the landscape of NASCAR’s top three series over the past 10 years, Billy Gerhart explained that even though the cost of operations are a fraction of running a Sprint Cup team, similar challenges are present inside the ARCA Series today.

According to the Gerharts, part of the problem lies within how a growing sport attracted a growing list of owners with unlimited resources. While many car owners today are multi-millionaires, BGR is and has always been a small, family-run team.

“It’s listed as Bobby Gerhart Racing, but he (Bobby) and I have been doing this since the ’80s,” said Bill Gerhart. “We actually ran our first race here at Pocono back in 1983. We leased a Cup car, and then came back here in ’84 and raced our own stuff.”

The brothers would dabble in what was then known as the Winston Cup Series throughout most of the ’80s before deciding to run for (and win) the ARCA Rookie of the Year Award in 1988. Since then, the team has compiled seven wins (six at Daytona, including this year’s 2010 Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200), 43 top-5s, 88 top-10s, and 9 poles. It’s a laundry list of accomplishments that would even make some drivers on the Sprint Cup level blush; but despite these solid results, the team still struggles to find enough funding to run an entire schedule. In fact, since 1996, BGR has only run three full seasons on the ARCA tour.

“We can only run when we get sponsored. Right now, Lucas only sponsors us in just the TV races. With the economy, it’s just tight,” states Gerhart the owner.

Despite over two decades in the sport and a handful of race-winning trophies, the Gerhart brothers still struggle to secure sponsorship needed to run the full ARCA schedule.

The team even has to keep the financial belts tightened in order to stay competitive in the events they do run. That means, at this level, relying on things like unpaid employees in order to keep the ship afloat.

“We’ve got three full-time guys, and the rest are volunteers,” he explained. “That’s how it’s been for awhile. We had 25 volunteers with us at Daytona when we won there earlier this season.” Gerhart was quick to add that funding for a full-time schedule doesn’t necessarily mean a large increase in the payroll, either. “When we ran for the championship in ’06, we had six or so full-time guys in addition to volunteers.”

Some might be curious as to why you’d have to tighten the purse strings, especially in what is sometimes viewed as a low budget racing series to begin with. A walk through the ARCA garage at Pocono is all you need to reveal the full spectrum of rich and poor. In one stall is a car that looks like it was just rolled out of a Sprint Cup shop, while next door sits a jalopy that probably won’t make it five circuits around the track – trailing parts every lap of the way. The BGR Chevrolet is towards the competitive end of that spectrum, but Gerhart says maintaining that level inside the garage isn’t cheap.

“For this race here (at Pocono), we have about a $40,000 budget, and that’s with watching every penny,” he said. “We went out this morning in practice with tires from last year, which saved us $2,000 right there. Some of our guys make the hour and fifteen minute trip home everyday.”

Gerhart elaborated on the details of the race day budget. “The engine is probably $15,000-$18,000 for a rebuild. Some may not need as much work, but that’s what we budget for. We typically buy three sets of tires a race: one set for qualifying and two for the race. That’s about $6,000, and doesn’t even include taxes. Then we have to pay to get our crew in the pits, which for this race, amounted to about $1,500, and they already have their licenses.”

Odds and ends during the weekend account for the remainder of that budget, but Gerhart’s analysis of a single race makes it quite clear that to be competitive at any level in NASCAR, money and, more importantly, the prudent management of it all is necessary.

If the team were to run an entire season, exactly how much funding would it take?

“About a million dollars, and that’s for a team like ours that already has two haulers, 20 cars, and 12 motors,” explained Gerhart.

“A team starting from scratch would probably need about twice that.”

While those numbers may be peanuts compared the $20-$25 million that some Sprint Cup sponsorships are reportedly worth, it is not difficult to understand how companies may be squeamish about coughing up that kind of money to sponsor a car in a series where nine events are not even televised. One glance at those kind of numbers can help anyone understand why even the most talented of teams, such as BGR, find it difficult to secure funding to run for a full season.

While facing a constant financial challenge, those working for BGR find ways to go the extra mile, providing their sponsors with as much return on investment as possible. Part of that means running in NASCAR’s higher series, earning extra cash while getting a little extra exposure for their financial backers. For Gerhart, the Cup dream has been tabled for now, but a limited Nationwide schedule has been something they’ve balanced for several seasons. Armed with two top-20 finishes in his last four starts – including this February at Daytona – it’s a building block that could help spark a larger assault in the future.

The Gerharts have benefited from a long-term relationship with Lucas Oil, who has funded the car for not only a handful of ARCA races each year but a few Nationwide Series starts on superspeedways.

“We’re trying to get our car done for the Nationwide race at Daytona in July,” he said, hoping to run with the CoT before the year is out. “The problem is that it hasn’t been tested, and it is so different than when we ran there in February or even Talladega earlier this season. We’ll probably make a decision in late June about whether we’ll go or not.”

The team also plans to take advantage of the new Truck Series event at Pocono in July, a series Bobby competed in back in 1996.

“We’re working on that with a couple of teams,” he continued. “With our situation with Lucas, we can carry their sponsorship because they don’t have anyone in the big three series, so they like it when we run in the Camping World and Nationwide Series.”

The team also uses its unique location, in the south central Pennsylvania town of Lebanon, to its advantage. “The benefits are that as far as the volunteers go, there’s really nowhere else you’re going to go in our area if you want to work at our level,” he explained. “That’s why we have so many volunteers that have been with us over 10-plus years.”

From both a financial and a competitive standpoint, it appears that Billy and Bobby Gerhart have continued to make the right calls to keep their team on the entry lists year after year. It hasn’t been easy, either, as Gerhart reflects on the biggest changes he has seen in the sport since the team’s debut in the early ’80’s.

“Costs and clearly setups have changed,” he analyzed. “I think setups have changed more in the last five years than they have changed in the previous 30 between rear springs, shocks, rear ends, sway bars, and just theories in general.”

“It started when the Cup guys got going in a different direction with those cars, so in this series, if you wanted to keep up, you had to follow suit.”

Scoring two top-10s in four starts already this season, it seems this team’s able to roll inside their changing on-track world. Still, with the one adjustment no one can prepare for – Father Time – quickly descending on their future, many may wonder how much longer BGR will continue to exist.

Turns out the team has a plan for that, too. Despite Gerhart’s age (he’ll be 52 in July), it looks like they’re not going anywhere for a long time to come, as Gerhart explained there’s a teenager lined up for a driver development program already in the works.

“He’s 18 years old,” said Bill Gerhart, refusing to divulge the driver’s name as of yet. “He’s going to run Berlin and 5 races with us next year, probably all short tracks. He just graduated from high school, and will be going to college while competing in a four-year program for us.”

There you have it, a blue collar team knowing survival depends on a difficult balance: planning for the future while working hard to succeed in the present. So the next time that you watch an ARCA Menards Series race, remember that for every team running on the track, whether it’s a “Sprint Cup, Jr.” program or the jalopy held together by duct tape, there are people toiling feverishly behind the scenes, locating used tires, tuning a worn engine so it can go just a few extra miles, commuting over an hour per day to the track, and many times, not getting paid a dime for it. The formula may not be pretty, but it has been the perfect recipe for six wins at NASCAR’s most famous track for Bobby Gerhart Racing.

And in a tough economic time where so many have wound up biting the bullet, they’re still going strong and loaded with ammo to go after number seven.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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