2011 saw Mark Smith roll into Daytona as the owner of Tri-Star Motorsports, playing Nationwide Series underdog with an operation that just one year ago took an unsponsored car that failed to qualify for three of the first seven races, and with Jason Keller behind the wheel charged into the top 30 in owner points…and a locked in spot in the field…by season’s end. The roster has changed for Tri-Star; Eric McClure joined the team in the offseason along with longtime backer Hefty, while veterans Mike Bliss and Jeff Green have also been brought on board. But the role Smith is playing in the garage as owner is nothing new.
After all, he, and Tri-Star, have been here before.
“We started racing in the Cup Series in 1991, 1992, and 1993 [with the] Country Time No. 68 car” recalls Smith. The team stopped racing after the 1997 season, with Smith opting to focus more on his engine shop. “The engine shop, I started doing customer work for a number of Cup teams, so I’ve kind of been doing the engine stuff for really about the last 10 or 12 years” he notes.
“[But] I’ve had the idea since the early 90s of being a car owner and having an engine shop. That’s where we’re at.”
Though in the Nationwide ranks as opposed to the Cup Series, this latest incarnation of the Tri-Star operation finds itself in a similar, but amplified situation as they go against many of the same Cup racing juggernauts one tier below.
“[The sport] hasn’t changed,” observed Smith. “You still have the haves and have nots. I think the disparity of now versus then is larger, but back then if you had a group of racers that wanted to race, you could still do a lot.”
“[How] this sport has changed…back in the 90s when we raced back then you had teams if you had 30, 40, 50 people you were huge. Now you’ve got 400 people.”
And while 100+ person staffs may only be a reality for the Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing’s of the world, Tri-Star has opted to go the multi-car route again in 2011, capitalizing not on the growth of race teams within the sport, but economies of scale…and a team owner who’s primary business can contribute directly to the race team.
“By running multiple teams, you can get by with a few less people,” explains Smith as he discusses how his organization has battled a lack of sponsorship. “There’s a little flexibility with doing engines in house that saves us some money. [And] we ran some races with the third car to try and offset the expenses with the second car,” referring to the No. 36 start-and-park entry that Tri-Star ran in a number of races during the second half of 2010.
That entry has been renumbered No. 44, but it’s role is still the same; to start-and-park and make money. It’s been a common practice over the past few seasons, with every team from MacDonald Motorsports to JD Motorsports at times rolling out second cars. “To a certain extent, [the start-and-park has become a necessity]” admitted Smith. “There’s some owners that can probably fund rides out of their own pockets. I’m not one of those.
My engine shop is first and foremost with what I do, and I can’t deplete that. If this is another avenue for me to offset some of that, then that’s what I’ll do for a while.”
The team was fortunate to land 2000 series champion Jeff Green to fill the seat for the majority of the races this year, and even turning a few laps the driver has proven a valuable asset. Discussing what he’s seen of a chemistry develop between the team’s regular drivers McClure and Bliss, Smith wasted no time including Green in the conversation, noting “Jeff just adds to that. He’s here when we discuss stuff at the front of the trailer, they all put their input in.”
The goal of that input, at least from an ownership perspective, is all but singular; get the team’s Hefty-backed No. 14 car running as competitively as possible. Because while the hope is to keep at least the second, No. 19 car running for all of 2011, the Nos. 19 and 44 are largely on track to at least give it an attempt thanks to those sponsorship dollars.
“Right now Eric’s car is the number one focus, whatever we have to do to make that program successful” said Smith of the team’s early season strategy.
It’s not an easy road, as going from a largely one-car operation (Tony Raines’ No. 34 entry last season was part of a partnership with Front Row Motorsports that dissolved after last year) to three full-time teams while transitioning to new race cars has been a mammoth undertaking. One so massive, that it’s even sidelined the team’s plans of returning to Cup racing after making one attempt with Tony Ave at Watkins Glen last year.
Talking of his team’s offseason expansion, Smith stated “This is a pretty big step, so we’ve kind of put that on the backburner. [But], I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think we’d run one before the season’s out.”
For the immediate future, the team’s focus remained on building cars. As of Daytona, the team was still preparing its Las Vegas equipment in advance of the demanding two-week western swing the tour follows its season opener with; Smith noted that 2/3 of the fleet the organization is hoping to field was complete as he spoke with Frontstretch in Florida. It’s been quite the investment; according to the owner, Tri-Star will have 12 completed Nationwide COT cars to pull from by April.
And being so invested in the Nationwide Series, Smith had no shortage of remarks when discussing the short fields NASCAR is now encountering even two and three races into the season. “It’s very concerning,” says Smith of the short fields, “knowing the investment that some of us have, what we’ve done here.”
“The positive side, with what NASCAR has done now with the cars and the engines we’re building now, is once we get it built now, I think it will be around for a long time.”
Tri-Star is building for that future, but what shape that future takes is up in the air; outside of McClure’s No. 14 car, the Nos. 19 and 44 as well as the team’s Cup entry are all lacking the funding to compete; Smith estimates that the No. 19 car has enough funding to run to the midway point this year if additional dollars can’t be secured. Charles Lewandoski was a big chunk of that, signing to drive 10 races for the team throughout the season.
It’s presented a bit of a quandary for Smith. While Smith is a longtime friend of the McClure family and was instrumental in bringing Eric and his Hefty package to the Tri-Star camp, there’s no doubt that finding sponsorship for his other two teams is also forefront on the mind.
“The ultimate goal is to have three teams funded and racing” said Smith. “But the second and third team have to be able to bring in revenue somehow.”
“[There’s a] little bit of history with the No. 19 team, with Dave Fuge and Mike Bliss” noted Smith (Fuge was Bliss’ crew chief at Xpress Motorsports the year they won the 2002 Truck Series championship, with Smith’s engines under the hood).
“When we did the engines for them…we can try to sell how back at one point, that program was extremely successful. I hope to build on that. [And] somewhere down the road I want Jeff to be able to race, to pay him back for what he’s helping us with now.”
“[But] they’ve [McClure and Hefty] entrusted me with this, they’ve brought the funding over here. The No. 14 has definitely got to have everything it needs, and the second one has to take care of itself.”
As previously mentioned, the cutoff date for when that care has to materialize isn’t set in stone. After all, just getting to this point was a challenge for Tri-Star, as it was for so many that showed up to race Nationwide at Daytona just a few weeks back.
When asked how a team like his could try to market itself as “the independent Nationwide team,” Smith responded “Right now all we’ve been doing is focusing on getting to here.”
Being there meant more than having all three of his teams take the green flag at Daytona that Saturday. It also meant the team was in attendance to see one of Speedweeks’ most dramatic upsets unfold as fellow underdog Brian Keselowski raced his way into the Daytona 500.
Asking him about that whole episode got Smith to pop the biggest grin I’d see him make in Daytona.
“That was huge,” said the team owner of Keselowski’s accomplishment. “You’ve always got to pull for the underdog once in a while, and to see that it could still happen…”
It’s no stretch to think Mike Bliss, Jeff Green and Eric McClure hope to see the same thing.
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