I stopped by Brian Keselowski‘s hauler at Richmond International Raceway last month to ask about why his third car, the No. 96, had been withdrawn from the Nationwide Series entry list that weekend. The answer was not what I expected.
“Couldn’t get it done in time,” quipped Keselowski. “It’s sitting on the trailer outside, but that’s the absolute truth to that. With the way Texas went, with the days we had to stay there [for rain], we got home, got the Talladega stuff ready and got to the track. We barely got home in time from that deal, and I just couldn’t get it all done. There’s not enough time in the days to get all of that done to come here and run successful enough to make the show.”
“You can’t come and just play. You’ve got to come serious. It wasn’t going to be a serious enough effort to spend that kind of money to come and try to make it.”
Just like every other Nationwide Series team out there without the deep pockets of a Cup backer, the K-Automotive camp is struggling to find money to keep coming to the track. And this particular weekend, the team brought that struggle to the track, along with the third car they couldn’t find the time to prepare. Because the team’s second driver, Johnny Chapman, had the makings of a sponsorship deal in his pocket that Friday afternoon.
“That’s why Johnny’s in the [No. 26] car. He has the option to race, because he has a sponsor. If I’m in the car, I’m not making any money,” said the elder Keselowski of his team’s flagship ride. “It’s not what I want to do, I want to race. I want to race my car and go. But it ain’t gonna happen if you can’t pay the bills everyday.”
Paying the bills has become the primary focus for this organization, and has made start-and-park a more prevalent practice for the team. After a secured spot in the Top 30 allowed them to race both the No. 26 and at times the No. 96 car with Michael McDowell in 2009, falling out of that same owner points bracket has left even the team’s lead car down the start-and-park path. There just weren’t any other places to cut costs and run the distance every weekend.
When asked where his team was cutting corners, Keselowski again fired a straight shot. “Everywhere. Tires, we run our motors till they’re dead. It’s very unfortunate, that motor I blew at Texas, that was a brand new motor. We can’t be blowing up our new motors.”
“Everywhere you can possibly cut… you’ll look at a part and be like ‘this part is good for one more race,’ three times, and hopefully it doesn’t break. That’s what everyone on this side of the garage is having to do right now. That’s guy junk might be our good stuff for at least a race.”
The team has even gotten creative trying to find ways to get their cars to the track; Keselowski towed his unprepared No. 96 on his own truck-and-trailer combo to make sure he had a backup car should disaster strike at Richmond. A week later at Darlington, they struck a deal with Specialty Racing’s No. 61 team to ship their third car on their hauler, though they haven’t brought the third No. 96 car to the track since.
And while being forced from racing for the checkers to barely racing for a check, life hasn’t gotten any easier for this bunch. For the same Nationwide Series is home to the founders of the professional start-and-park racket… the newly christened Riley/D’Hondt Motorsports operation, amongst other cars.
Going against them “is somewhat of a challenge” acknowledged Keselowski. “They know what they’re doing and that equipment is specifically built to do what it’s doing. They’re making a business out of this, and I can respect that. It’s free enterprise over here, that’s the great thing about NASCAR. You can do whatever you want. You bought a car, you can go racing. They don’t tell you you have to run two laps or 50.”
“They’re difficult to beat” he continued. “They’ve got their equipment and it’s good stuff.”
The stats bear out how tough it’s been for K-Automotive just to join the start-and-park brigade. While the team’s full-time S&P entry, the No. 92, has made every race, the team has also had at least one of its cars miss four of the last five Nationwide Series races, including three misses for Brian’s own No. 26 car.
What’s more, the team’s owner/driver has also had a hard time accepting this new role. Case in point, Darlington.
Speaking to Brian that Friday morning, I asked him again if he was going to be able to run the distance that evening. “If I can get both cars (Nos. 92 and 96) into the show I’ll race.” Chapman failed to qualify the No. 96 a few hours later. Brian raced the distance anyway, and scored a top-25 finish for his troubles.
Even minute successes such as his run at Darlington that evening have been few and far between in 2010, however, as there’s a stark reality facing K-Automotive; as the owner puts it, “For the most part, everywhere we’ve come we’ve had five or six guys running two and three cars.”
The perpetual lack of staff, money and time has also put the team way behind on the impending debut of the Nationwide Series Car of Tomorrow, now only a few weeks away. And this despite the fact that Brian and his team have had chassis for the conversion project since last year.
“In December I bought four [Cup CoT] cars from Evernham,” Keselowski recalled. “They were stripped down, they were shell cars. But I got such a good deal on them, I couldn’t pass on it. That helped out a lot. Now we’ve got to find the money to get them transferred over to a NNS racecar.”
“It’s not a complete body rebuild, but basically if you were to wreck the current car, and you had to fix the whole body or half the body, that’s what you’d have to do to a Cup car. It’s not a whole lot of difference, but it’s just more money we have to spend.”
For Keselowski though, the week-to-week focus of his understaffed organization trying to keep their cars on track week to week made finding time in 2009… as well as all throughout 2010, to prepare new race cars next to impossible. What’s more, the team knows full well that whatever cars they put on the track are going to have a hard time competing… because instead of building new-generation cars, the team is going to have no choice but to strip down and rebuild first generation Cup cars that have aged significantly.
“Where can you buy a Nationwide CoT?” asked Brian rhetorically. “There’s no product out there to buy. And the way for me to do it is to rebuild one of these old Cup cars. How am I supposed to compete against those guys that built them brand new?”
This obvious challenges are not the only ones facing his team though. Others were out of their control.
Talking about the delays the team had faced in preparing the new machine, Keselowski points out the danger facing his already cash-strapped organization in preparing untried equipment. The lack of personnel at his disposal meant that his team’s window of opportunity to get a jump on the new car was the offseason… but that wasn’t NASCAR’s timetable.
“I wanted to have a car ready for the Daytona test,” said Keselowski, “but they were so late on deciding what they wanted…”
“And if I’m off just a little bit, they’ll fine me a bunch of money. So there’s not really a point of building one earlier if it’s not going to be right. And I can’t really afford to rebuild a car. I need to know what direction we need to be going in, you know?”
For this bunch, as it is for so many other teams in the Nationwide Series garage, the new car is now a looming giant in the mirror. It’s a race against time to prepare for Daytona… while struggling to keep Goliath at bay on a weekly basis.
Just another tale of, as Keselowski coined it, “the guys struggling to keep the Nationwide Series alive.”