Most people remember Chad McCumbee as the actor who played Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the movie 3. But as he enters his fifth full-time season attempting to establish himself within NASCAR, the North Carolinian hopes to be remembered for his own accomplishments in the sport.
Two years ago, it seemed like he was on the verge of making those dreams come true. An exceptional season in the Truck Series led to a six-race Cup deal with Petty Enterprises, preparing him for a Rookie of the Year bid in 2009. But once the team’s investment deal fell apart, the 20-something phenom was released after the merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports and has yet to find himself a consistent ride since; currently, he’s pulling a race-by-race deal with RAB Racing’s No. 09 in the Nationwide Series.
Why is one of the sport’s once-promising drivers still flirting with a spot on the bench at 25? McCumbee answers that question in one word – money – and describes the difficulty of finding sponsorship to keep his career afloat in a revealing interview with our Bryan Davis Keith Friday at Darlington.
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: This is your second race with the No. 09 team. What are the challenges of working with a team that’s doing driver by committee?
Chad McCumbee: You just have to make the most of every opportunity you’ve got. That’s the biggest thing that you have to look for going into it. Robby [Benton] and everybody else that works here gave me a really good opportunity, so I’ve just got to go out there and do my job, and hopefully come out with a good result. You’ve just got to take it one race at a time, because it’s a different sport right now then what I’ve seen or what anyone’s seen in the last five years. It’s really, really tough to find sponsors out there, it’s really, really tough to find funding, so its kind of made things work differently than you’d have anticipated. It’s not all about having a heavy right foot anymore. We’ll just keep working at it, everyone’s under the same pressure.
Keith: You’ve taken a different path, from Trucks to part-time Nationwide and ARCA. Is that a product of where the rides are?
McCumbee: You’ve just got to do whatever presents itself at the moment. I want to race. I don’t care if I’m racing Trucks, as long as you can race something. Obviously the goal is to get up there on the Cup side again, and I’ve been over there, but I have had a ton of fun in the Truck Series. I had a lot of fun with these guys at Texas here in the Nationwide Series, and the ARCA Series is always fun to go back and play in a little bit. I can’t thank Andy Belmont and his group enough for giving me that opportunity. It all came out of the blue. We all look at these opportunities and make the most of them that we can. You’ve really got to be blessed and count your blessings right now because there’s just nothing in terms of rides out there. There’s rides out there, but the teams aren’t funded. And if the team’s aren’t funded, they can’t just pick who they want to drive. It’s whoever has the dollars. We’re fighting that, but everybody is, so we’ve got to come up with really good ideas and ways to keep our sponsors happy, to create marketing programs that really work for them.
Keith: GPS Store has been with you for a long time, they’re on your car this weekend. What has having that backing done to help you in the current market? Is it significant enough to get someone’s attention?
McCumbee: I mean, obviously we’ve built a great brand with the GPS Store, and have had a lot of success in the Truck Series with those guys. They were looking at possibly doing some different stuff this year, and when running the race at Texas we were kind of like come check this out, so we made an introduction at Texas and they were interested in doing something at Darlington. It’s tough, and we’ve just got to make a campaign that works for these guys, works for any sponsor. It’s tough right now, and you’ve really got to show that return, that activation to make it work. But it definitely helps, to at least be able to say we’ve got that connection. No matter what the numbers are, or being able to make something happen; just having that connection and possibility means a whole lot.
Keith: You’ve been in the sport for a while now, including in the years where sponsorship was plentiful. Talk about that activation. As a driver, how have your responsibilities had to change on and off the track to handle the sponsorship market?
McCumbee: You’ve just got to be well-rounded, and you’ve got to be able to sell the product, whatever the product or service may be. There’s a lot more [to do] off the race track. We’re trying to create programs that work for these sponsors, and just being on the side of the cars is a very small part of that. We’re bringing company guests and partner guests to the race, we’re doing hospitality, we’re doing everything that we can possibly do so they can broaden their horizons and maybe even make some business-to-business relationships out here in these garages. There’s a wealth of things that we’re working on.
Keith: You’re a development driver without the backing of a Cup program, and that’s pretty much the only way in right now. What’s that situation like for you, and what would tell a driver coming into the sport right now?
McCumbee: Oh man. Four years ago, I’d talk to guys asking “what’s my next step” and I’d tell them look, if you get up to Charlotte, you can sweep the floors, clean the bathrooms, whatever you need, and you can meet the right people and get the right opportunity. You know, I was very blessed to be able to do something very similar to that for Andy Hillenburg. But right now, with the funding situation everyone’s fighting that’s just not the case. You know, I tell people you’ve got to really pound the doors for sponsors. Your talent’s got to be there, but you’ve got to be able to help bring some money into some of these teams. If nothing else, you’ve got to be a great spokesperson for a company, you’ve got be a great spokesperson for a team so they can have the opportunity to try and find a sponsor. It’s a little different right now. The old days of getting up there and just banging on doors and putting forth effort are different.
Keith: You ran a couple of races with Andy at the start of the year in Trucks, weren’t running the distance. In trying to keep your name out there right now, is start and parking an advantage or disadvantage? Does it attach a stigma to a driver?
McCumbee: It’s tough. I think if you go back a year, two years ago I think that was a negative. But right now, I think it’s understood in the garage that as drivers, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. We’ve still got payments coming and we’ve got to figure out how to 1) get in the garage and 2) any way you can make laps, even if it’s just a few, is good. It’s something that none of us want to do, and you know I went out there and helped Andy out with that stuff, but he couldn’t even afford to keep that thing on the racetrack with us doing what we were doing. I don’t know, I don’t think anybody wants to do it, but it comes down to maybe you have to do it. Like I said, I’m very blessed to get these opportunities to run in the Nationwide Series and to run in the ARCA Series. If we have to, maybe I’ll look at that, but I don’t plan to do it.
Keith: What irons do you have in the fire with this team and for the rest of 2010?
McCumbee: It’s all race-by-race. We’re all collectively looking for sponsors as hard as we possibly can. That’s the bottom line. Until we can get something secured on a lengthy contract, I don’t think we can say anything for sure. We’re just fighting tooth and nail, these guys are fighting tooth and nail just to get to the racetrack. We’re buying less sets of tires. We’re trying to cut corners everywhere we can to keep going, but I know that the guys in administration are working as hard as they can to figure out how to get to each race, and I’m working as hard as I can to help them find funding. We’re going one race at a time, and hopefully I’ll do a good job for them here [at Darlington].
Keith: Compared to the front of the garage, where the cars still are sponsored, is there anything that can be done by the sanctioning body to make it more attractive to come sponsor a team like the No. 09?
McCumbee: I don’t know. It’s a debate that goes on forever. How can we help each other, how can we work together to make this work. I don’t know if there’s an answer. There’s been programs that have helped, there’s been programs that haven’t helped and have maybe hurt. There’s not just that one magic answer to help us fix the problem. I think we’ll see a lot of it, as we start coming out of this recession, fix itself. But in a broad view, I don’t know. I do know there’s a lot of effort put forth on NASCAR’s part to help everybody out as much as they can. They want to see cars in these races. They don’t want to send anybody home, but they want the car count to be as high as it can be, so they’re going to do everything they can in their power to help everyone out.
Keith: The Nationwide Series, NASCAR this year, has made it a point of emphasis to get back to “boys, have at it” racing. Have you noticed a difference on track as a result?
McCumbee: I think it’s pretty aggressive. The Truck races I’ve ran are always short, so we’re qualifying every lap. I’ve seen the exact same thing over on the Nationwide side. At Texas, we had a problem where we had to go behind the wall right off the bat, but even so just taking note [from the garage], these guys are running hard every lap, too. The thing is when you’re in a race where there’s a lot of Cup involvement, especially at a place like this, there has to be give and take. When I did run some Cup races with the Pettys… [I learned] these guys that do this know when to go and when to hold. When you’re not up there with them, it’s a totally different story.