Eric McClure has fast learned that life outside the top 30 is much different.
“It’s agonizing,” says McClure of his current situation, “because we’re trying to qualify against guys who are professional qualifiers. They’re here to run and park, so anything can happen. Case in point, Bristol and Iowa. We were plenty fast enough to make both races, but we had incidents in qualifying, and missed the race despite beating 10 or 12 cars.”
“[Meanwhile], I’m learning to qualify again.”
That learning curve has proven steep, with the No. 24 team missing two races at Iowa and Bristol, where McClure endured two hits and was ordered by a doctor to sit out the road course race at Montreal. To make the situation even more painful for the Virginia-native, his substitute, DJ Kennington, delivered an 11th place result that was the team’s best of the season.
“They did run well,” admitted McClure. “It was good for the team, that’s for sure. I certainly wanted to drive, and the way the race unfolded, with 20 guys finishing, that could have been a nice finish for me too. That’s not to say I was going to do what they did, I’m not a road racer. But it was good for them.”
It was perhaps the highest moment of the 2010 for the Rensi camp since McClure opened the year with a 17th place result at Daytona. It’s no secret that on-track performance has been a struggle for the organization in 2010. Where they’re fortunate, however, is that for all the anxiety week after week of having to qualify into races, the marketing side of McClure’s Hefty sponsorship, the deal that has kept the stalwart Nationwide Series organization afloat the last two seasons, is no worse for wear.
“Some sponsors just want to be on the car, that’s all they care about,” explains McClure. “They want to run good and generate advertising exposure. They see the other stuff secondary. We’re backwards. Off the track is first and this is secondary. That works in my favor.”
“Obviously, the more we run, the more excited they are, and they want us to run well. But the business relationship has been very strong. It’s been a positive marketing platform for them. They’re not a sponsor that got in just to run up front. It’s no secret they’re not the biggest player in the garage, but they’re probably the best player.”
The combination has proven successful in more ways than one. Not only has the partnership between Hefty and McClure lasted for going on five seasons, it’s been one where the perception of Hefty’s racing program has become formidable.
“We make this work,” says McClure of his sponsorship package. “We look we’ve got a $5 million deal out here. We look awesome and we represent well. Our off-track programs are first class.”
“[So] one of the biggest things I have to explain to a lot of people is why we have a big sponsor on our car and we’re not up front.”
McClure takes a tremendous amount of pride in the marketing success that he and his company have had marketing Hefty in the NASCAR market. Coming from a racing family (his father was an owner of Morgan McClure Motorsports) whose relationship with the Kodak brand remains of the iconic sponsor/team relationships of NASCAR’s modern era, McClure recognizes that longevity in this sport for him will likely come more from his marketing prowess than his efforts behind the wheel.
That said, the competitive side of McClure has come out more. Because at the end of 2009, the No. 24 team was on the rise, not falling out of the top 30. Running in the top 20 consistently throughout last fall, McClure and his team had a taste of what was possible even with their limited resources.
“We had some flashes last season and this season where I thought to myself, I can really do it with these guys” said the driver. “That makes you feel good. It’s like one good golf shot, it makes you want to come back and do it again.”
And that’s where the marketing success that McClure has had with Hefty comes back to bite. For all the pride he rightfully takes in the success his sponsorship has proved to be off-track, on-track the perception of the Hefty car being a cash cow driven by a subpar driver has reared its ugly head. And that’s not the story at all.
When discussing what has changed between 2009 and 2010, McClure was quick to make it clear that this is not a case of “comparing apples to apples.” Between the 2010 season purse cuts and the expenses of building the new COT, Hefty’s sponsor dollars have had to be stretched farther than ever. The resources that the No. 24 team is able to bring to the track every weekend in 2010 are not what they were last year. Namely, tires. Despite Nationwide Series rules allowing teams to use six sets of tires over the course of a race weekend, “We’ve [only] showed up to four races with four sets of tires,” says McClure.
What’s more, it’s not a simple matter of McClure or the No. 24 team simply being able scale back and “do races right,” much the way Furniture Row Racing contested the 2009 season in the Sprint Cup Series.
“As a competitor, I would love to scale back to a part-time deal, to maybe 2/3 of the races and do it right, to be closer on the per-race resources compared to other teams,” states the driver. “Unfortunately, we’re business people first, and that doesn’t fit Hefty’s current needs. We have to run the full schedule or as close to it as possible. We get the question about scaling back, and we can’t, because this is business.”
That business reality means that McClure is running 34 races (Hefty didn’t sponsor the No. 24 at Montreal) on money that would secure him less than a half dozen races driving for an organization like Roush Fenway Racing. And while the ability of both driver and team to stay on track and continue to provide a viable marketing platform for Hefty under those circumstances is admirable, the resultant fiscal limitations have had a detrimental effect on McClure’s improvement as a driver.
“It’s even harder now,” admits McClure of his current situation. “It’s harder for me than it is for everyone else. I’m not a superhero. I’m an OK driver, not a great driver.”
“But I like it.”
Speaking to McClure, I asked him point blank if for all the struggles, all the penny pinching, was all of this work to be a race car driver still worth it. The answer was an unqualified yes.
“I still feel like I have something to prove to myself” he says. “[And] I’m not going to go home and quit because somebody thinks I’m not deserving enough to do it, or because I’m not a real driver. It’s not my fault this is the way the game is played.”
“I’m fortunate that there’s still people that appreciate the sponsorship, and believe they can help me get better. I’m lightyears better than I was in 2008 and 2007. You look at us, a bad race for us even with our tire [situation] is five laps down, and that was a good race for me a few years ago.”
Spending nearly an hour with McClure before last Saturday’s race at Atlanta, it was easily the most fired up competitive side I’d ever seen the Virginian display. The intensity and drive was visible to the naked eye.
Then the jokester came back.
“I’m an evil ride buyer” he cracked. “Remember that. I want to get evilridebuyer.com.”
I told him I’d buy a t-shirt.
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Photography for this article provided by Phil Cavali of “The Hot Lap”:http://www.thehotlap.com/