Back in February, few observers thought the unsponsored, single-car team of TRG Motorsports would make it through an entire season – least of all owner Kevin Buckler. But eight months later, only the newly-minted No. 33 of Richard Childress Racing has had a better first year than Buckler’s No. 71 Chevy, who sits 37th in points with one top 15 despite having a primary sponsor for just a handful of races.
“We went after it, we put our head down,” he said recently in describing his year’s worth of perseverance. “We’re very efficient, made some clever decisions. When we go to work in the morning, we’ve got a little buzz going and there’s not a lot of shops that can say that right now.”
That’s put the organization in a unique position as one of the few cars looking to expand for 2010. Finishing off the season with David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte, Buckler’s dream would to keep both with enough sponsorship to run two cars full-time. But as all sides work to find their best possible option, the car owner knows it’s easier said than done.
“That’s a tricky one,” he explained of the juggling act to keep all pieces of the pie in place. “We would like to have commitments to the drivers, so we could sell that to the sponsors. But a lot of times they would like to know we have a deal. So really, it’s a Catch-22 where we’re very delicately approaching that. If we get a sponsor that says ‘I gotta have this driver,’ we’re going to go right to the driver and tell them, ‘Listen, you’re part of the yes from the sponsor and here’s x number of races we can give you.’ But it’s not easy because we don’t have the drivers signed and we don’t have the sponsors signed, and they’re both here at the party at the same time wanting to get signed and wanting to talk to us.”
Right now, TRG has no driver or sponsor officially under contract for 2010, splitting their focus between the future and simply making it through the rest of the season. With TaxSlayer.com funding the car for just two more races, the team is desperately searching for money for the other three.
“We’re going to start-and-park the next one,” Buckler said of Martinsville this weekend, a tough way to end Gilliland’s last turn behind the wheel of the No. 71 this season. “We have TaxSlayer for Talladega, Texas and Phoenix are open – we’re still working on sponsorship for those two – and then TaxSlayer for Homestead.”
Labonte is scheduled for the final four events, but while the 2000 Series titlist comes with an automatic spot in the field (his past champion’s provisional) without sponsorship going the distance is far from guaranteed.
“It’s a complex business decision,” Buckler said of starting and parking. “Do you stay at home? Is it diminishing to your brand? Is it better to be in the show? Is there more opportunities in the paddock if you’re there? And the answer is yes, we’d rather be there, be in, try to make all 36 races this year, and be one of the teams that everybody starts to recognize.”
“But at the end of the day, [the decision to race or not race] has to be business–driven. We can’t race ourselves into oblivion and not be able to take care of our obligations like a lot of teams have done before us. So we’ve got to be responsible.”
In the meantime, this small group of two dozen is working hard to build on the success of the races they do complete. With Mike Bliss scoring a 24th-place finish at Charlotte, it’s the third such driver to score a top 25 in TRG equipment this season. But for the team to have a permanent place on the grid, Buckler knows the time is running out to get the cash and manufacturer support (Chevy or Dodge) he needs for next year.
“My arms are tired from juggling the last few weeks, we have so many deals we’re trying to get planned,” he said. “My whole job from in the morning when I wake up to when I go to bed at night is to try and keep the balls in the air so I could get a new dance partner for seven races. A new primary for next year. Maybe a couple of small sponsors.”
“We’re working it. We have a great business model; we’re lean, we’re mean, we’re competitive and we’re hungry.”
Now, the key is to find people with money who agree.