Take a quick stroll through the Sprint Cup Series garage and you’ll see lines of haulers and the full garage stalls of NASCAR’s biggest teams. As you cross through the gates of what should be the exit of the garage area, you see several groups of men huddled around less-colorful racecars, turning wrenches either out in the open or under the kind of tents you see vendors using in the open sponsor-staging area outside the track. These teams are situated outside the Top 35 in owner points, so they find themselves without the confines of normal garage stalls. While mostly start and park efforts, a couple of the outcast efforts at Atlanta Motor Speedway were looking to attempt to make gains in the Pep Boys 500.
Teams that have been running partial 2009 schedules, like the No. 13 Germain Racing team, the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team, all assumed “garage” spots in the outer circle. TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 Chevy had both Taxslayer.com and Bobby Labonte on-hand for the weekend, so they intended on running the full race… if they could qualify – Labonte’s post-deadline entry disqualified him from using the past champion’s provisional.)While those teams had many obstacles standing between themselves and competitiveness, the No. 08 Carter Simo Racing Toyota team had an even steeper uphill climb that weekend.
Situated next to the Wood Brothers team and just across the way from the Front Row Motorsports No. 37 Dodge, the No. 08 bunch had some momentum to build upon in Atlanta. According to team tire specialist Ken Chupp, a full-time youth minister during the week in east Georgia, the team has had better cars that the results have shown.
“At Brisol we out qualified Hendrick, Roush, RPM, Penske cars to have gear problems that ended our night early,” Chupp said, referring to Terry Labonte’s 22nd-place qualifying effort just a couple of weeks before in Thunder Valley. But problems like a bad rear end gear or a loose alternator wire can derail the upstart runs of Cinderella-like teams.
John Carter has owned a NASCAR team of some sort for a few years, employing such drivers in spot roles such as Bill Elliott, Mike Skinner, Chad Blount, Todd Bodine, Tony Raines and Kevin Lepage. Lepage scored Carter’s only career top 10, a surprising ninth in the 2005 Daytona 500. Carter’s team made 20 starts in 2005, the most he has ever attempted as an owner. As the competition in the Cup Series and, thus, the expenses, began to mount more than ever before, Carter’s team scaled back its schedule and eventually changed numbers from the No. 37 to the No. 08. Based out of Toccoa, a small town in northeast Georgia, the team changed names to E&M Motorsports and attempted only a few races each year in 2007 and 2008, making only one in each season. With little funding and few resources, the future seemed grim for the team.
If 2007 was the crest in the wave of funded teams (if you remember, multiple full-time, fully funded teams missed races each week two years ago), then 2009 has been the trough. The downturn in the economy and drying up of sponsorship dollars prompted contraction amongst the sports mid and lower-level teams, meaning many parts and resources were up for grabs. Triad Racing Technologies, the company that bought Bill Davis Racing, decided not to field the No. 22 Sprint Cup car and sold much of its Toyota equipment to the new, fledgling teams of PRISM Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing and Mayfield Motorsports. Jeremy Mayfield’s continuing drug suspension and legal battles led to the bankruptcy of his team and availability of his equipment. Enter John Carter.
Carter Simo Racing is the incarnation of Carter’s past operations. At Daytona in February, the team fielded the No. 08 for Boris Said and the No. 60 for James Hylton. Brian Simo was the owner of Said’s part-time No Fear Racing team the past few seasons. Neither team made the race. Said ran for the team for both the Sonoma and Watkins Glen road races and Terry Labonte has qualified for each race he has run this year. Even with a high-caliber driver like Labonte guiding the racecar, Chupp says the odds are stacked heavily against this team.
“The big name big money teams have a full-time fabrication shop and fabrication development shop. Most all of the teams have personnel that weld the actual frame of the car together, cut, form, shape and weld sheetmetal onto the chassis, assemble the bolt on components (A-frames, truck arms, steering components, spring buckets, track bar assemblies, rear end housings, hubs, etc.).”
But Chupp says this is just the beginning of the advantages these teams hold.
“But the development work on those actual components is what begins to cause the separation of the teams. For example Hendrick Motorsports actually makes the rear end housing for all their cars. They have tested the metal, the casing design (the actual shape of the rear end housing), the overall weight, durability and performance of the whole unit. They have done this with every component of the entire race car -even the design, weight, durability of the shifter knob on the gear shifter! So the big teams can not only build a car, but develop, experiment, research to the point that every single component of the entire car has been hand-crafted to be as light and durable as possible down to the ounce and second.”
Keep in mind that Carter Simo Racing bought its modest racing fleet from a team that bought the fleet from a company that bought-out a struggling, low- to mid-level Sprint Cup team. In other words, the racecars are a year older than those of the bigger teams and are less-developed. And that is before the lack of new personnel to work on them is accounted for.
Mayfield’s former crew chief, Tony Furr, moved with the cars he wrenched on to Carter Simo Racing, giving the team an experienced veteran to build it toward prominence. But Furr’s experience cannot compensate for some of the advantages other teams have.
As a tire specialist, Chupp can use his expertise in that field to calculate his and other teams’ abilities and advantages.
“The big teams get their full allotment of tires every race every time. At the Saturday’s Charlotte race, that means each car can buy 16 sets of tires at $2,000 per set and no refunds! Our team might get seven sets of tires. Count on two sets to be used to practice and one set for qualifying laps. So for the race, I will have four sets of ‘stickers’ and one set of ‘three-lap scuffs’, which were out qualifying tires, and two badly used sets from practice to hold in reserve for emergencies. Toward the three-fourths mark of the race we might run to Goodyear and buy two more sets to finish the race with, if we see we can use them. I, then, during the race while I take the 10 minutes or so to prepare these two new sets, have to listen on my headset for a caution so I can break my neck getting to pit wall to add/remove air pressure at the crew chief’s call and make sure all four tires are at the pressure we need them and make sure the valve stem caps are tight and secure.
“The big teams have prepared all their tires the day before. They are all new. They have had all the data on them recorded, logged by a team of tire specialists. They have all been grouped into sets of four and are all stacked in sequence at the pit box ready to go. The mid-size and small teams have whatever sets they can buy and borrow grouped and made ready by one guy. Imagine how long it can take for one guy to move seven sets of tires and do it one set at a time, because you only have one tire cart from a hauler and garage stall over 300 yards to a pit stall.”
The Atlanta race appeared promising for the No. 08. Labonte qualified last (using his champion’s provisional) and worked his way up about 10-15 positions, passing the likes of several big-team racecars, before retiring early with the same alternator problem that ruined the team’s decent run at the Brickyard. As mentioned before, the lack of extra personnel and equipment at the team’s newer Charlotte shop meant that the housing and setup for the alternator could not be tested and perfected for race conditions.
As the sun sets on 2009, both Chupp and Labonte have said they are not one hundred percent sure of the set schedule for the team. The No. 08 will attempt the race at Lowe’s and likely will call it a year. Progress has been made, as good people are in place and working hard to secure the funding and the sturdy parts needed to run a bigger schedule in 2010.
Labonte, though, may not be with the team after the year, as rumors surfaced last week that he may be starting his own Sprint Cup race team. Nothing official regarding that has been announced, but if Labonte does decide to part ways with the team, there surely will be available free agents willing to throw their hat in the ring and drive for the team.
The difficulties that Carter Simo Racing face are no different that what 3/4ths of the Truck Series, 4/5ths of the Nationwide Series and the majority of most racing series around the world. Even small dirt racing teams don’t stand little chance at victory when they try to race Bobby Labonte and Richard Childress-owned entries when national series arrive at their tracks. Fortunately for most parties involved, the gold at the end of the rainbow is not winning – it is simply trying to build on past results and survive.
Listen to Doug fill-in for Captain Herb and host the Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 Saturday from 6:30 until 8 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader with David Chandler Saturdays from 10-11 a.m. on racefanradio.com and 1240 ESPN Radio in Gainesville, Ga.