NASCAR in 2010 is about survival of the fittest. Littered amongst the ruins of team owners folding, sponsors fleeing, and pay-to-play rides are hardcore veterans, old dogs being taught new tricks on how to play the field as an underdog. Fighting to simply scrimp and claw their way onto the fringes of series where they once celebrated in victory lane, it’s an ugly landscape upon which to make a living – the type that would force any 51-year-old into early retirement rather than brave that minefield.
But for Mike Wallace, defeat is not a word left in his vocabulary. Determination is more like it; and after years of frustration, he’s finally paired with a team that feels the same way.
One year ago, Wallace’s career found itself clinging to life support. After years of being paired with longtime sponsor GEICO, Nationwide’s backing left the company forced to work its way up to Cup. Choosing Italian Max Papis over Wallace’s Cup experience, marketing and big money left him hitting the unemployment line in a career filled with plenty of potential but never enough stability to give him the success brothers Kenny and Rusty once enjoyed.
Wallace was clinging to his last legs; at the same time, so was JD Motorsports. Announcing they wouldn’t run more than the first few races of 2009 without sponsorship, team owners Johnny and Lori Davis poured their life savings into doing whatever it took to keep the team afloat. All they needed was a driver to give them the same dedication; but after churning through half-a-dozen “young guns,” they were out of bullets and just about out of racecars. What they needed was experience capable of building a solid foundation for the program – all while bringing the car home in one piece.
It was a perfect match. After running a handful of races for the team early in the year, Wallace was named the driver of JD’s No. 01 car for good starting at Montreal, scoring three top-15 finishes in the final 10 races (by comparison, former driver Danny O’Quinn scored none in over 20 starts). Of the many drivers the team has employed over the last few seasons, Wallace has been by far the most veteran of the bunch.
And that’s worked just fine for the JD camp, given the nature of its ownership.
Says Wallace, “The thing that’s great about John and Lori and this whole race team is they spend every darned dime they get. They don’t have another business: this is their heart and soul business.”
“Johnny [Davis] appreciates me driving his cars and I appreciate driving for him, because he’s a racer, just a hardcore racer. We’re taking the resources we have, which are very limited, and making the best out of them. And that’s probably just what clicks.”
But maximizing limited resources for the No. 01 team is only part of the puzzle for Wallace. His experience has also allowed him to consider all aspects of the team’s program, leaving them focused on the future while capable of succeeding in the present.
“We know what our capabilities are. We also know what our restraints are,” he explains. “The one great thing about JD Motorsports is that I know where we can improve our program. We know how money can help improve our program. It’s not hypothetical, it’s not a pipe dream. We’ve shown what we can do with little to nothing; now, if we can put these other factors [read, sponsorship] into play we’ll be fine.”
Being cognizant of these capabilities and restraints has led the team to shutter their second car, which was often used to start and park to raise additional funds. According to Wallace, team owner Davis instead “realized the value of focusing on one car at the moment.”
“You can have two and three cars and have none run good, or you can focus on one and have one run good,” he says. “Then, put yourself [in position] to grow your program.”
JDM also appears to be prepared more than most to handle one of the biggest transformations in Nationwide Series history later this summer, when its Car of Tomorrow is slated to debut at Daytona in July. From test one of this new car at Richmond back in 2008, JDM has taken the lead amongst independent organizations in preparing for the transition.
Being amongst the first Nationwide Series car owners to build one of the new cars has allowed them to state confidently their preparation for its rollout; they’ll have two CoT cars at the upcoming CoT test at Daytona, and three race-ready come Daytona race weekend in July. Such is a far different tale than that being told by the other independent teams in the Nationwide garage, and for Wallace, it all comes back to ownership.
“I’ll tell you, I’m working with a dedicated racer,” remarked Wallace. “He’s [Davis] doing whatever he has to do, putting his own needs to the side to make sure the needs of the race team are met at the moment.”
There’s just one obstacle still remaining in this David’s battle against Goliath. Despite instant success, all the wisdom and dedication in the world doesn’t substitute for the sport’s secret weapon these days: cold, hard cash.
There’s no disputing that the Nationwide Series is involved in the most challenging economic tribulations it has ever faced, and JDM finds itself smack in the middle of what is becoming an increasingly dire situation in the garage. With upwards of 14 teams start-and-parking at the Nationwide race at Dover last fall, a series dominated by Cup regulars increasingly has no room for mom ‘n’ pop organizations like this one.
When asked about whether there was a gap between the rich and the poor in NASCAR, Wallace pulled no punches.
“There’s a huge gap, and there’s no sugar coating that. There’s teams that have plenty of financial backing, and there’s those that don’t have it. It used to be that there was an in-between… there’s no in-between anymore.”
That lack of an in-between has stemmed from a trend that Jason Keller observed in an interview with Frontstretch last week, that the biggest teams in the NASCAR garage have been forced to accept the sponsorship packages out there that teams such as Wallace’s used to be able to rely on. What’s more, the sponsorship shortfall that is crippling NASCAR’s AAA ranks is being perpetuated by a culture of misunderstanding.
Says the veteran, “I don’t think everybody understands racing. I’ve called a lot of people, talked to them about NASCAR sponsorship, and the first thing they’ll tell me, I haven’t even told them a dollar number yet, is that it’s too expensive. How can it be too expensive if I haven’t told you a dollar value yet? But that’s what we’ve heard in the past.”
“I’ve had this conversation with NASCAR, I actually had it with them last week. There’s got to be a NASCAR 101 saying this is what costs to go racing, these are the parameters, these are the real numbers. Five years ago, there were some fictitious numbers going around, and everyone was getting them. That’s not happening today. It’s just an ongoing challenge. You just wish you could take the race side, and separate it from the sponsorship deal.”
It’s certainly concerning to hear of misconceptions running rampant in the corporate community that NASCAR sponsorship is inherently too expensive, but according to Wallace that’s not the only misconception to be found in the garage. For me, it started as a simple question: whether marketing himself as a veteran in a sport that has increasingly been centered around youth posed any additional challenges for himself and those working on JD’s marketing.
What I got instead was a complicated answer that delved much deeper than trying to tear my theory to shreds.
“I think that’s a misconceived notion that you have,” Wallace told me. “I haven’t heard a sponsor yet, don’t know of a sponsor that’s walking in the door still looking for a young driver. They heard that four or five years ago. Mark Martin shut up a lot of that skepticism. They’re just looking for people that can produce results.”
“I don’t know of any sponsor out there waiting for the next Jeff Gordon. You’ve got to remember, Gordon was the last great young phenomenon. Joey Logano‘s here, but still doesn’t match Gordon’s numbers. I think right now, looking at car owners, looking at Rick Hendrick, why did he hire Mark Martin? I’ll give you the answer… you want the answer? He wanted to win races. He wasn’t worried about training kids anymore. He wants to win races, because he’s asking for millions of dollars to sponsor his racecar. He has to lay performance on the table. You’ve got to give them performance and results, and you hire experience when you want performance and results.”
Wallace speaks with conviction when considering the element of youth in today’s NASCAR, but the facts aren’t necessarily in line with his vision of how age and the sponsorship market are more intertwined now than ever in the sport’s history. There’s a reason that Specialty Racing, in the same neighborhood of the Nationwide Series garage as JDM, was forced to release Kevin Lepage in favor of Brandon Whitt midway through the 2008 season, even though Lepage had taken the team from a DNQ at Daytona all the way into the Top 30 in owner points. There’s a reason that despite delivering an owners’ championship to Richard Childress Racing, Scott Wimmer was nonetheless released from the team in favor of development driver Stephen Leicht. There’s a reason this season that despite facing a sponsorship crunch as he moved his minor league operations from the Truck Series up to the Nationwide ranks, Jack Roush promoted Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who had been out of a ride for a year, instead of calling up a veteran like Travis Kvapil with history within the organization.
And there’s a reason that veterans like Mike Wallace, his brother Kenny, Keller, and others are all still in the Nationwide Series producing results… on the poor side of the garage in underfunded rides in the middle of the pack, instead of at the front of the Nationwide field. There’s a reason that a former Daytona winner, a two-time NNS Most Popular driver and the Nationwide Series’ all-time starts leader, among others, are racing for top 20s instead of the checkered flag.
It’s a rough way for those careers to run out, fighting for a lead-lap finish instead of another trophy on their mantle. So it’s no surprise that Mike’s optimism for his future is couched perfectly within a twinge of bitterness towards rides he’ll likely never receive again.
“There’s a lot of kids in this garage area,” he continued. “All of those kids paid for those rides. There’s nobody that’s got a sponsor. They’ve got someone that’s funding their effort to get in those cars. But sponsors… there are not sponsors out there looking for the next greatest driver. They’re looking for results on the track. And what can a 20-year-old do for a sponsor that Mike Wallace can’t do? Nothing. They probably can’t talk as well, they probably don’t understand the business as well or how to market their products as well.”
“That was just a trend that was going around.”
A trend that’s left most veterans like Wallace with a pink slip, not the upward potential. But it’s hard to blame the guy for getting angry; after all, while still racing at the Cup level, Wallace found himself on the outside looking in of an opportunity that many consider that he had earned. Following the release of Jeremy Mayfield from Penske Racing’s No. 12 car late in the 2001 season, Wallace was given the keys to the ride on a trial basis. Racing as a teammate to his brother Rusty, he posted a number of solid results, including a runner-up finish at Phoenix. But with the departure of sponsor Mobil 1 at the end of that season leading Penske Racing to maintain a two-car model, Wallace’s tenure with the No. 12 team was short-lived; Ryan Newman, who pioneered the “ABC” (ARCA/Busch/Cup) development model through the 2000 and 2001 season, was instead given the keys to the No. 12 and went on to win Rookie of the Year.
Youth and potential outweighed a veteran presence in that case, even with another Wallace in Rusty on the other side of the garage. What’s more, the decision was made despite the fact that a rift in the Penske garage already was visible between Wallace and Mayfield, a fault line that divided Penske until Rusty’s eventual retirement in 2005.
But through that heartbreak of personal experience, Wallace also may prove a point over the long run. In an economic struggle where teams are being forced to do more with less, the Jason Kellers and Mike Blisses of the world may find themselves to be worth more. Wallace certainly has proven to be an asset for JDM; he’s scored more top-15 finishes in his 20 races as the full-time driver of the No. 01 than every other driver in the history of the team has combined – a total of 333 starts since 2002.
And the team’s latest sponsor, One Hour Heating and Air, were quick to espouse the advantages of backing a veteran driver, even as they themselves were still learning Darlington Raceway and the intricacies of their first weekend as a race team affiliate.
“[We’re] loving it,” said One Hour representative John McCarthy. “What a personality. Mike Wallace can handle himself in front of a racecar, in front of my clients and in the boardroom. What more can we ask? That’s the kind of guy that we need.”
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To say it’s been an eventful four weeks for Mike Wallace and the JDM No. 01 team is an understatement, with the sport’s highest of highs and lowest of lows all manifesting themselves less than a third of the way into the 2010 season.
After a disappointing crash at Daytona to open the campaign, Wallace rode a streak of four consecutive top-20 finishes all the way to ninth in the Nationwide Series points standings, uncharted territory for the JDM operation. “Everyone thought we were heroes,” remarked Wallace of his team’s surprising run to the front.
But racing luck is a fickle mistress, as headed into this past weekend’s race at Darlington Wallace was riding a stretch of three finishes outside the top 30, including DNFs at Talladega and Richmond. Wallace slid from ninth to 19th in points, and the Lady in Black didn’t seem to be keen on letting the No. 01 team rebound, with a backup car needed after trouble in practice. But that’s where the resiliency of this suddenly up-and-coming group set in. The elder Wallace battled from a 40th-place starting position to finish 13th at night’s end, surviving the steamy Darlington night to not only move to within 32 points of cracking the top 15 in the Nationwide Series standings again, but also registering his best run at the Lady in Black since 1996.
On this night at NASCAR’s toughest race track, not a single Raybestos rookie contender finished better than 25th. Veteran experience and skill proved to be invaluable for a driver trying to make it work, in a sport where those same traits have become less and less the norm.
Trends in the sport aside, the veteran influence of a driver like Wallace has proven to fit JD Motorsports like a glove. But time is running out; the Davis’s pockets are not unlimited, meaning time is of the essence in finding the right sponsorship fit.
“There’s companies out there that need us,” Wallace said last week. “And we need them. We’ve just got to find them.”
If they don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.