One year ago, after the Sprint Cup Series had completed 500 grueling laps at Martinsville and Jimmie Johnson was celebrating another win, Front Row Motorsports was ready to limp home. Driver John Andretti finished 35th, four laps down, while the team’s second driver, Tony Raines, couldn’t even get its start-and-park entry into the field.
One year later, FRM returned to Martinsville Speedway – three cars strong, all of which were there to go 500 laps. The team had a new sponsor in tow, manufacturer support in Ford Racing, and three drivers who each had a role to play in the organization. What’s more, they were all in the Top 35 in owner points, and all would take the green flag on a Monday afternoon.
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“It’s been quite an undertaking, for sure,” says FRM General Manager Jerry Freeze of turning a single-car team into a three-car operation over the offseason.
“We were planning on running a second car all along for 2010, and were talking to David [Gilliland] about driving for us. Then Kevin Conway came along, and [he] had an opportunity with his sponsorship. Initially, we were talking about doing something in the Nationwide Series, but the sponsor came back really wanting to do a Cup program. So, to me, that became our second car.”
“But our car owner was like ‘man, I’d really like to do a deal with David’ and fund it out of his restaurant business. So when we had the opportunity to get the owner points from Yates for both the No. 96 and the No. 98, and to go into 2010 with three locked-in cars, we made the decision to go ahead and run the third team, the No. 38, and hire David.”
It wasn’t quite that simple, as the No. 38 team had to come together in a big-time hurry.
“Our team came together two weeks before Daytona,” noted driver Gilliland. “We’ve had a lot of building in a short amount of time.”
But despite the mammoth undertaking, FRM has so far managed to pull off what scores of teams have not been able to do in NASCAR during a rough economic patch: Survive. And that, according to Freeze, all comes back to the team’s owner, restaurateur Bob Jenkins. A successful businessman who has made his money acquiring struggling restaurant franchises only to turn them around, Jenkins has applied the same discipline that has succeeded in that world to owning his race team.
Says Freeze, “Bob gives us enough of a budget to race on. With our motor program and the drivers we’ve got, we feel like we can be of value out there for a sponsor. At the end of the day, sponsorship is very hard to come by in this economy. So our whole thing is to try to survive as a race team, to be that solid team when corporate America is getting more friendly about putting their names on the sides of racecars again. Unlike so many that have gone by the wayside the last few years that have been so weighed down by overhead, so dependent on that corporate dollar to survive, we’ve got a business model that’s lean and mean. [I mean], we’ve got a 28,000-square foot race shop that we race three teams out of. We’ve got about 20 people per team, and there are no fancy planes, or buses or Taj Mahal race shops.”
“It’s not what you need to win races and make the Chase, but we’ve got enough that we can show up every week, go out there and finish 15th through 20th, somewhere on a good day.”
And while Jenkins’s business model of providing enough to race without breaking the bank is largely to thank for FRM still being around, there’s something to be said about the realistic expectations that every member of the team seems to have.
“We know we’re not going to knock off Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush, any of those teams,” states Freeze. “But we feel like we can be one of those teams that runs 15th through 30th every week in the rundown.”
The team also made an astute move with regard to driver hires in the offseason. After Andretti managed to keep the No. 34 car locked in the Top 35 for all of 2009, a campaign that Freeze notes Andretti ran as a favor to Jenkins (“I know him and Bob have a real special relationship as driver/owner,” he remarks), the organization reunited former Yates Racing teammates Travis Kvapil and Gilliland, who injected much-needed life into the Yates organization back in 2008.
The move has already paid off, at least according to Gilliland.
“Some teammates and some people that work together in the garage area probably don’t trust each other 100%,” he says. “Travis, I feel 100% confident in working with him. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever worked with, and I feel 100% confident that if he says something helped his car and it’s race day, I feel 100% putting that in my race car and going racing. That’s the trust you need to have in a good teammate.”
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It’s hard to question the moves that FRM has made in getting to where they are, a legitimate three-car Sprint Cup operation. Bob Jenkins’s business model is lean and mean, and has the teams still showing up week after week. Kvapil and Gilliland have a proven track record as teammates. And in getting manufacturer support from Ford shored up, the team was able to get away from the unenviable position they were in during the 2009 season; being a small-time team responsible for their own motors.
“Last year, I think they owned their own engines, and that’s tough to do at this level,” said Gilliland. “I think as a whole the engine program has helped the organization a lot.”
But despite making all the right moves, the challenges still remain, and they’re daunting. Reality is, FRM is still what they were even back in the days of 2007, where Kevin Lepage qualified for only two races in 27 attempts with the team; a small-time organization with a small-time budget, playing against the Goliaths of American motorsports.
And that makes technology an enormous challenge. In fact, according to Freeze, technology is the biggest challenge facing FRM today.
Says the GM, “Things change from week to week to week, whether it’s how do we get our cars lighter or how do we get them to turn better, because we’re not doing a lot of that development in that background… Ford gives us some of that now, but it’s not like we can get on the seven-post every day. But last year was quite a challenge, because we had no support and were just a single-car team. So basically, our R&D department was our crew chief just getting ideas from people. This year, at least, we’ve got three crew chiefs bouncing ideas off each other, we’ve got Ford.”
“Still, compared to the other end of the garage, it’s a thimble full of technology for our racecars. We’ve put some people in place to try to build in-house front clips, rear-clips, but that’s the challenge for us. How do we know how to build a better racecar, and how do we build our cars that much quicker? We’ve got a small staff. There’s just four body hangers in our shop, two guys doing chassis/fab and just a few guys doing finish fab. So for us, it’s just trying to get cars done each and every week, plus projects trying to make better racecars. It’s hard to get those introduced into the fleet when you’ve got a small crew like we’ve got.”
“The biggest challenge is to not slip farther and farther behind technology-wise in these cars. We’ve got to work smart, we can’t afford to just wing it, try a front-clip this week on this car or a rear-clip on that car. If we’re out to lunch, we’re out of the points.”
Falling out of the Top 35 in points is an absolute nightmare scenario for this operation, and one that must be avoided. For the team’s third driver, rookie Conway, it also constitutes a unique situation that even juggernauts like Hendrick Motorsports would find challenging. Because while Conway brought desperately needed sponsor dollars to the FRM organization, experience behind the wheel didn’t come with it.
When asked about the challenge of bringing up a “green” driver, Freeze was understandably blunt.
“Just look at this weekend,” he said. “He’s never turned a lap at Martinsville Speedway. There’s a pretty big learning curve for him to get in these races, so for us taking the pressure of having to qualify off his shoulders, allowing him to come out here and just run laps, that’s big for him.”
Teammate Gilliland echoed those sentiments, noting:
“I think that not having run this particular car at these racetracks makes it tough. The CoT is a handful. A lot of drivers say that, it’s tough for everybody. A lot of veterans come to the tracks and struggle. Just like Kyle Busch back at Bristol. He won the two races last year, but was 38th in the practices, qualified in the back. And that’s a guy that won the two races before with the same team. This car will throw you a curveball. It’s tough, challenging.”
But that’s not news to FRM. Because once again, realistic expectations have allowed the little team that could to tackle one of the most ambitious driver development projects this side of Danica Patrick – and so far make it work.
“The thing that’s impressed us with [Kevin] is that he hasn’t done anything crazy to get himself in trouble,” said Freeze. “He’s run the distance at every race he’s been in. He’s caused one caution flag that was his fault at Las Vegas where he spun out early, but he’s been getting a lot of great experience.”
“Atlanta is a great example. We were really out to lunch in practice, he was really struggling with the car, struggling with his feedback, and the team wasn’t really making great calls with the car. At the start of the race, we really weren’t good. But as the race went on and he figured out how to drive the track, he was able to give better feedback. And by the second half of the race, he was as good as our other two cars. He was multiple laps down, but he had really learned a lot.”
“I’m sure this weekend [Martinsville] will probably be the same way. We’ll be at or near the bottom of the sheet in practice, and this will be a hard one to run 500 laps and stay out of everyone’s way.”
“We knew what we were getting into when we hired Kevin, but it’s not like he’s an 18-year-old kid that you have to keep the choke collar on all the time. He’s 30, he’s a pretty smart racer, he just doesn’t have the experience level yet. He has to race within himself, and that was our goal for him. So far, he’s achieved it.”
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Speaking of achievement, as the sun set on Martinsville on Monday evening, with Denny Hamlin celebrating another win, Front Row Motorsports packed up to leave Virginia in a much different manner than they did one year ago.
Gilliland had brought home his ride 19th, a stellar first outing of 2010 for sponsor Gander Mountain. Kvapil came home 27th, right in the 15th-30th place window that Jerry Freeze had made reference to earlier that same weekend. And while Conway finished just outside that frame in 31st, his lap times had greatly improved from his 42nd-place position on the practice charts in Happy Hour… and he had banked 498 invaluable laps of short-tracking without doing anything crazy to mess up his competitors’ days.
When asked about his appraisal of where the ever-growing Front Row Motorsports was as they prepared to tackle Virginia’s most treacherous paperclip, Gilliland noted, “I feel like we’re building as a team and everyone’s starting to get to know each other. It’s starting to gel, so I’m excited.”
After the results FRM posted one Monday in Martinsville, that’s readily apparent.