It’s Friday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With Cup practice roaring to life on the track and the Cup garage bustling with activity, I’m making my way over to the Truck garage for my four o’clock interview with Brent Raymer. I get to the No. 85 team’s hauler, only to find… no one.
I wait a few minutes, and there’s still no one there. So, I turn to the garage stalls, looking for the No. 85 truck. Finding it, I venture over and tap the first guy I see on the shoulders, asking if he can point out Raymer for me. He points not around the garage, but completely under the Ford F-150 that’s on jack stands. After a few more minutes of furious wrench-turning, Raymer emerges from under the truck, only to ask for a few more minutes to work on the front end of his machine. When he finishes his work and is ready to talk, it doesn’t take too long to figure out why the driver of this team is out of his firesuit and under his ride less than 20 minutes after the conclusion of on-track practice.
“We’re based out of Concord, N.C.,” he explains. “Basically, the team consists of myself, my younger cousin Josh, and that guy right there, Mark, he does all the body work.” Raymer points out one of a handful of guys around the truck. “Mark used to work at Roush… and another guy who’s helping us right now is Brett, our engine tuner. We’ve got Roush Yates motors, and he’s been helping us out. [But] basically there are just three of us that are working on it.”
The small-time team is obviously working – but they’re also obviously stumped. And when I ask how they’re running, Raymer doesn’t mince words:
“I don’t have any complaints; it’s just, slow. I held it wide open, we did a, it wasn’t even a mock qualifying run, it was just a run, and we put new tires on it and I held it wide open, and we were still 31st with it. I don’t know what else you can do. We have a problem, and we don’t know what it is.”
Whatever the problem is, Raymer goes on to tell me that it’s costing his truck 200-400 rpms on the track, even with the throttle matted down and with the same gear ratios that the teams his guys polled in the garage are running. And it was the same problem that led to the team’s 30th-place finish in the next day’s American Commercial Lines 200, a race in which they only completed 44 of the 135 laps run.
But confusing that finish, along with the “vibration” on NASCAR’s official results list, as an intentional start-and-park DNF would be wrong. With start-and-park being among the topics discussed in the garage and media center last weekend (or, to those who don’t see the issue as a big deal, among the topics being stirred up by racing muckrakers such as myself), I don’t hesitate to ask Raymer of his opinion on the matter. And again, I get another blunt answer.
“I don’t start-and-park,” he proclaims. “In our stuff, I’ve just got to run.”
He goes even further, stating, “We take pride in that we want to run all the laps. We want to do the best we can. We’re not just here for money, we’re here to make a showing, impress people, in the hopes that one day good things come back to us. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
And while Raymer’s current claim to fame in the upper ranks of NASCAR was his vicious highlight-reel double-tap into the backstretch wall at Daytona in February, there’s definitely signs this prospective driver and his team may well have good things coming back to them. For one, despite all the struggles that he and his crew are having with their truck as he speaks to me, Raymer is quick to note that he is finally feeling comfortable in these machines.
“After I raced Daytona, I realized that these things feel like a normal racecar,” he says. “I’m not just thinking they’re something else, because every time I’ve ever jumped in them they’ve felt weird. After Daytona, I realized that these feel like regular racecars, they are regular racecars. So we got [a new Hopkins front clip] put on this one, and I’m happy with it. It drives great.”
Plus, after running a limited schedule in 2008, Raymer’s also getting the opportunity to return to tracks such as AMS for the second time.
“You learn the line, you learn what’s going to happen, what people are going to do, it’s seat time,” he explains. “You get more laps out there, you get more comfortable, and you drive it in harder, get on [the gas] sooner, it’s a confidence thing. I’m still a real fresh rookie trying to feel these things out and figure out what they need – see what makes me happy. We’re sneaking up on it. We’ve just got to hit on everything just right to make a decent showing.”
One thing’s for certain with both this driver and team… they’re convinced they’re making progress. And their expectations, while not spectacular, are certainly ambitious for a team of their limited resources.
“I want to finish on the lead lap,” Raymer asserts when running through his 2009 goals. “I want to get top 20s, and you know, we’ll just build on that. Once we’ve got that, I want a top 15. And then a top 10, just keep building on it.”
“I don’t want to limit myself to say, ‘Hey, this is what I want.’ I want to win every race. But, we do the best we can with what we have. That’s about all you can do. They’re [the competition] running with so much more money than what we have… so, we do what we can.”
Having seen them hard at work in the garage, I know that the team is doing mechanically everything in their power with their truck. But, in fighting the economy, it’s important to also note that this team is taking a pragmatic approach to their sponsorship search. They’re not racing beyond their means at the start of the season, praying for a multi-million dollar company to appear out of thin air. Instead…
“We’re cheap,” says Raymer. “That’s what we advertise, and it’s seemed to work thus far.”
It has so far in 2009. Though the truck’s quarterpanels were blank at Daytona, BuyGeorgiaCabins.com graced the team’s truck for the weekend at Atlanta, and the team has verbal commitments from several other sponsors throughout the rest of the season.
“We’re very fortunate with BuyGeorgiaCabins.com coming on board right now. I did a radio interview and the guy contacted me and said ‘I want to be on your truck,’ basically when I go on there and advertise… we’re cheap. If you’ve got $3,000, $4,000, $5,000, you can be on our vehicle. Whereas you can’t go up to trucks over there [the front of the garage] and say here’s $3,000… they’ll laugh at you.”
“So we’ll just keep trucking, and do what we can, you know? If we have a sponsor, it helps us out, if we don’t… we have a certain budget, and if we reach it we say we can’t do this race and we don’t race that race. We’re not set on running every race, just running the races we can, being ready when we get to the track, and getting the best bang for our buck.”
“We’re just trying to move up. I want to be out there, I want to be out there right now (Cup cars on track for practice0. So, for us to move forward, we’ve talked about doing a Nationwide car to start out with, and we talk about it. It’s a matter of us getting our minds to it, and getting comfortable in these [trucks]. I’m just starting to get the hang of it. It’s way different running these big tracks coming from running a local short track.”
Raymer’s story has been told before by scores of other drivers, and will continue to be told by more and more short trackers looking for their break. But it’s a story I neither get tired of hearing nor telling. In a weekend that I listened to more than a number of star Cup drivers expressing seeming indifference to many of the issues present in racing today, be it under the hood or in the back of the garage, getting the opportunity to speak to Raymer – a racer and a team that truly were happy just to be at the track and competing – was a breath of fresh air.
And hey, after hearing the story of how the No. 85 got a sponsor through a radio interview, maybe writing this will bring another race fan businessman to the table for this team.