At the end of the 2009 season, Dusty Whitney, Nationwide Series car owner since 2007, evaluated the landscape of his sport and resulting position within it. He did not have a sponsor or a Sprint Cup car, and his team had made just 70 Nationwide starts with a revolving door of drivers – producing only three top 10s to show for their efforts. So after careful consideration, Whitney did the only thing that made sense to him; he started a Sprint Cup team.
It seems like an absurd idea on the surface, but further evaluation proves otherwise. Whitney realized that the changing scenery due to economic constraints among teams in Sprint Cup translated into opportunities for someone in his shoes.
“When Gillett-Evernham Motorsports switched to Ford following the merger with Yates, he (Whitney) realized that he could buy Dodges for 20 cents on the dollar,” explained Tony Furr, crew chief for the team. “That’s a huge savings when they normally go for $150,000 apiece. Considering the fact that the purses are more in Sprint Cup than in Nationwide and he was able to purchase equipment at a much cheaper price, the return on investment at the top level becomes much higher.”
An analysis of purses offered in both series at the Chicagoland Speedway last month further illustrates Furr’s point. Joe Nemechek, the last-place finisher in the Lifelock 400 Cup race, received $79,381. Only Kyle Busch, the winner of the Nationwide Dollar General 300 that same weekend, won more money in the companion event. Second-place finisher Joey Logano received $57,875. Just one look at that comparison makes Whitney’s decision to move to the Cup Series a no-brainer.
Not unlike most new teams, the first season has been an arduous one. After only making three of the first 10 races, driver Terry Cook stepped aside and the team tapped JJ Yeley to take his place. Having more experience behind the wheel of a Cup car paid off immediately, as Yeley and company went on to qualify for the next eight races. Considering the majority of those starts were start and parks, however, it would appear that most of the benefit of this relationship lies with the team – not the man behind the wheel.
“For me, it’s important to be at the racetrack,” he said. “Last year, I took some time off, I didn’t go to all of the races and when that happens around here, you are quickly forgotten about. So if that means coming to the racetrack and only doing a start-and-park program, that is fine.”
Of course, pulling it in early for a driver during any race can be difficult. So the Arizona native now looks for other types of victories throughout the weekend, recognizing that each and every one presents a new opportunity to sign a sponsor.
“For us, the victory is just to make the race every week,” he elaborated. “This weekend [the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500], we qualified 30th and beat out one of the Red Bull cars, a team that has a budget that is several times the size of ours. For us to accomplish that with one of just seven cars in our stable, that are two years behind in technology, no less, it’s a good feeling. It makes us feel good because it means that I’ve done my job, Tony has done his job, and that extra effort pays off. Hopefully, sponsors notice how our team on a shoestring budget is competing against teams with massive budgets.”
A limited budget translates into a small crew for the No. 46 team, each of whom has to fulfill several jobs throughout the organization. “Everybody has to fill a role,” Furr explains. “There are no specialists here.”
Yeley provides some numbers to further clarify Furr’s point:
“We have seven total employees,” Yeley says. “When we go to the racetrack, there is only a secretary left back at the shop. Those same guys who work on the cars during the week are the same guys that are changing tires and refueling out on pit road. We have some volunteers that will help us as well because at this point, we don’t even have enough people to make a pit stop.”
Sponsorship searching is one of the most important functions that everyone on the team can perform. Such efforts paid off in June, when a four-race deal with Cash America was announced. The relationship got off to an ominous start when the team failed to make its second race with the new sponsor. More importantly, that race was the Brickyard 400, what some consider to be the second-most prestigious race on the schedule.
While the DNQ was disappointing, Furr explains that the team was prepared for such a scenario by addressing this very situation up front. He does state that all was not lost at Indy.
“They knew we were outside the Top 35 and there were no guarantees,” Furr states. “But qualifying at Indy was on TV, so they got some exposure. Now, we’re going to run another race (as a replacement) with them so they’re going to get even more exposure and definitely get their money’s worth. They’re going to get the entire car for us, where they may normally get a small spot and never get recognized with another team.”
Yeley further explained that in such a cutthroat environment, where larger teams are constantly eying up sponsors of smaller organizations, it is important to work with an honorable company, and he believes Cash America fits that description. “So far, they do seem like they have a lot of integrity. They are committed to this program and want to stay here versus the up sell that they may be receiving from other teams. They received good exposure at Daytona, and they’re pretty pumped about the opportunity they have with us.”
The Brickyard DNQ was just one of many trials and tribulations the No. 46 team has faced, and there are certainly more on the horizon. At the same time, Yeley and Furr point out that Whitney Motorsports has a lot to offer a potential sponsor, especially one that wants to break into the sport and grow with a team that has a good foundation.
What they lack in numbers, they compensate for in knowledge. “This whole team has got a lot of experience,” Furr proudly acknowledges. “We all come from big-funded teams, and you never forget that information.”
Furr believes that experience combined with the proper funding will translate into successful results. The veteran crew chief is quick to point out, though, that he is a realist when it comes to expectations. “If we can get a third of what some of those other teams get, we can be a top-20 team. It’s all about putting yourself in position. In this sport, it’s not all about the fastest sometimes. It’s about putting yourself in position for better finishes.”
On the topic of experience, Yeley has been around the sport long enough to understand that sponsorship involves so much more than simply putting a logo on a car. He is confident that his team can deliver value to its marketing partners. “We can provide sponsors with a lot of exposure,” he explained. “And there are a lot of B2B opportunities with our marketing company.”
While some may view the team’s size as a detriment to their sponsorship search, Yeley believes that it is the very thing that can give them an advantage over the competition.
“Sponsors will receive a lot more attention with this team,” he says. “With the larger teams, a $500,000 associate sponsor will get them passes or whatever is in the package, but that’s it. If there is something they are unhappy with, the team is not going to go out of their way to fix those problems. At the end of the year, when the contract is up, the sponsor most likely leaves with a bad taste in their mouth about the team and the sport. The team just finds another sponsor. With a team like this, we’re going to show more appreciation.”
They may not have a lot of cars, money or resources, but what those associated with Whitney Motorsports do have is plenty of courage. From the owner who started a team amidst economic chaos, to the seasoned head wrench who believed enough in this upstart program to sign with them this late in his career, to the driver who has the confidence to bide his time with starting-and-parking, they all believe that the team has the potential to be competitive over the long-term.
The determination represented by these three men carry throughout the shop to those who work feverishly both at the shop and the track, filling as many roles as they can. The statisticians may track team performance, and the financial advisers can analyze the bottom line, but sheer willpower is an intangible measure that may be more important to a team’s survival than any top-10 finish or annual profit.
If that proves to be true, then Whitney Motorsports will have a bright future ahead.