Back when I spoke to Eric McClure prior to the season opener at Daytona, he was convinced that for the all the economic turmoil facing the Nationwide Series in 2010, that the battle for a spot in the Top 30, and a locked-in spot in the NNS field, would be even more competitive than it was in 2009.
Turns out, he was right. A number of full-time operations from 2009, including the No. 26 team of K-Automotive and the No. 61 team of Specialty Racing have already fallen outside of the Top 30 only seven events into 2010, with a number of others barely hanging on. McClure’s team is one of them.
His No. 24 team now sits a precarious 28th in the owner points standings, a mere 41 points ahead of the 31st-place No. 05 team. And while McClure still maintained the humor that he’s always had since racing full-time in the Nationwide ranks over the course of our interview, it’s obvious that with his team struggling to survive and the real prospect of being forced to qualify on time week after week, the pressure is becoming more pronounced.
“It’s a battle I have daily, worrying about things like that,” says McClure of the current struggle to stay in the Top 30, not only guaranteeing a paycheck, but that his team can focus their limited resources on race practice instead of a qualifying setup. “It’s something you try to block out, but at the same time you don’t want to be on the outside looking in, because when it comes to qualifying, you’ve got to go against all the guys out there strictly to qualify.”
“I think what’s discouraging about it is in the last three races we’ve been unable to capitalize, even with all the attrition. And that’s because we haven’t run as well as we think we should have, and we’ve lost points we should have. It’s very tight all the way back to 35th, and three guys out are mega-teams. You look at guys like that that can make big jumps, and you’ve got to focus on what you can do and hope it’s enough.”
“The last few races have been abysmal for us.”
While the team has been running at the finish of every Nationwide event so far in 2010, the results from the No. 24 car have fallen short of expectations after a stellar 17th-place run to open the year at Daytona. And just like any small team trying to make it in big-time stock car racing today, a lot of it comes down to money and the resources that that money allows for.
“It comes back to where we are economically,” notes McClure of his team’s current situation. “We wrecked the one car at Phoenix last year, which was the car we were planning to take to Phoenix [this season] and probably to Bristol, since we took it to Bristol a week ago, and we didn’t get it back from the body shop till a week ago. We basically took two different cars, one which I believe was our worst car last year, to two of the last three races, and we were really bad.”
What’s more, despite having continued support from longtime backer Hefty, finances for the Rensi race team are tighter than even last season, and that has been further compounded by NASCAR’s late decision to trim race purses for 2010. When asked about the purse cuts, McClure was notably outspoken.
“It really hurts us, because we have to budget off of a) what we have and b) what we’re going to take based on what we think the purse is going to be.”
“Our budget [for 2010] was originally set before they set the purse cuts.”
That’s led to cuts across the board from the No. 24 operation, from the money that the driver takes home to the number of tires the team is able to purchase at the track for race weekend. Given that the team was running on two sets of race tires at some events in 2009, there’s really not much room left for cuts in those operational expenses. And the hits are scheduled to keep on coming for organizations such as this one, as NASCAR is still planning to roll out the Nationwide CoT come Daytona in July.
States McClure, “We’re in a situation now that if we wreck a car, it’s really hard for us to get it back quickly, if at all. And I wrecked all of our cars at least once last year, and it wasn’t till the end of the season that we started to get them back. I think that hurts us. We’ve got a good race team but it’s hard to overcome those things. And transitioning to a new car is really going to hurt us as far as planning for the future and just getting to those four races.”
McClure knows of what he speaks, as his father’s former Sprint Cup team was one of those that has bitten the dust since NASCAR debuted the CoT in the Cup Series as partly a “cost-saving measure.”
“We saw it with my dad’s team in the Cup Series, when they had to do the transition what little budget they had was gone,” recalls McClure. “It’s going to make it a lot harder for a lot of smaller teams.”
“I know we’ve got the chassis, and they’re waiting to get bodies put on them, whoever’s going to do it. I don’t really know, but it’s going to take some creativity I think to get them done, for all the single-car teams to get them ready to go. At some point, it will get done, and there’s always a way. We won’t be able to test, we’ll probably just roll it in and get it done just in time for practice at Daytona.”
“But I definitely think there will be a bigger gap between the big teams and the small teams, at least for while.”
McClure realizes that the deck is largely stacked against small time teams like his, but his attitude remains the same; to do the best he can for a team he speaks highly of and a loyal sponsor.
“The challenge for us is to survive,” says McClure.
“We’ve all taken cuts, from what I bring in to what it takes to survive, and still [we have to] put the best product we can on the track. And like I said, I think we’re going to be stronger, or as strong as we were last year, but I feel like we’ll be far more competitive based on the cars we’re now going to have. We got the one [from Phoenix] back.”
Still, for a driver who told Frontstretch last September that he saw his ride in NASCAR as “a way to expand my business, and at the same time I get to drive a car,” the competitive streak of a David fighting a Goliath that’s stacking the deck is definitely visible.
Because when asked about the challenges that 2010 poses, from purse cuts to a new car, McClure assuredly stated “It’s going to make it a lot harder for a lot of smaller teams, and I’m not sure that’s a big concern of anybody’s.”
“But it certainly is for this race team.”
Here’s hoping more people start listening… fast.