The results may not be flashy on paper. And, according to the driver of the No. 14 car, the first three races of 2011 haven’t even been what “we all [at Tri-Star] thought it was going to be.”
And that’s not even taking into account that the next stop for the Nationwide Series tour is the Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that Eric McClure isn’t too keen on visiting. “I really don’t have any fond memories of anything related to Bristol, and that’s not even limited to the track,” he quipped when asked if the world’s fastest half-mile was out to get him.
There’s a case to be made for that. Not only did McClure injure his back in a qualifying wreck at the track the last time the series visited, earlier this week he injured his hand in a household fall. A case of Bristol getting the best of him? Not according to the driver.
“Either that or I’m just a goofy person,” he said.
It’s that goofy side of McClure that’s suddenly a bit more prominent early into this season. Thus far, a move to Tri-Star Motorsports has proven to be just what the doctor ordered for a driver who was looking for a new place to develop as a driver after two years in the Rensi camp.
“We have a top 20, we should have had a top 15 at Daytona” he remarks of the team’s start. “The only top 20 we had last year was the first place and we never got close [after that].”
There is no doubt in the driver’s mind that his new team is an upward move, describing his new team as “a step up.”
“I mean, to be honest with you the race we ran the worst we had our best finish,” he continued. “I think the biggest thing to sum it up quickly for me is we had a great car at Daytona and had a sparkplug break early. [And] in the last two races [where we didn’t run as well] we’ve had finishes that would have been great days last year. For me, every week we’re practicing better and we’re qualifying better.”
And though Tri-Star is still a step below the heavy hitting organizations of the Nationwide Series, there are pieces in place that make the No. 14 team fit like a glove. Thanks to team owner Mark Smith’s engine shop, Tri-Star has been able to provide resources that McClure did not have a season ago, even as the purses in the Nationwide Series have fallen to their lowest level in years.
“I’m practicing more than I did last year,” said McClure. “[And] I’ve got a set or two more tires than I did a year ago.”
McClure also has a teammate or two more than he did at Rensi. Between Mike Bliss and Jeff Green, there is a bevy of experience in the garage for the still-developing driver to draw from. And with car counts across the Nationwide Series also down in 2011, a series lacking opportunity for so many is host to just that for McClure.
“It’s kind of nice to know as you’re getting to a track with a lot of cars and now there’s not so many,” says a driver that found himself on the wrong side of the top 30 qualifying rules for much of 2010. “That’s sort of a good and bad thing.”
“[But] for us, I’m looking around saying ‘wow’ we have an opportunity now to be here and to grow and learn. I really don’t feel any pressure at all for anything.”
“I come to this situation, where you’ve got a veteran team, you’ve got a driver in [Mike] Bliss who’s been up front in everything he’s ever been in, and [Jeff] Green, a former champion as your teammate, I’m now locked in a situation where I don’t have to prove that I’m better than Mike Bliss, because that’s an argument you just don’t need to have. I can relax because nobody can come up now and say ‘Bliss is outrunning you.’ In all reality he’s supposed to.”
For all his efforts behind the wheel, McClure will never argue that his greatest strength lays off the track in his marketing company. And in an economic situation that is proving challenging to the level that even Carl Edwards can’t sell races on his car, the environment is all the better for the Hefty-backed driver. Not only does he now have talented teammates back at the shop and on the track, but a challenging environment to put his marketing skills to the test.
“For me, it’s very rewarding to go after deals,” stated McClure. “We have a primary sponsor in Hefty and Reynolds. We appreciate that and we love them. But we go out there and try listening to them [additional marketing partners], putting together an opportunity for them that provides return on investment. That’s the challenge, be it a large company or a small company; how can our company benefit them, at the track and off? I think the days of getting a big sponsor at the market rate are gone. That’s part of the fun for me and for this team. We have a lot to offer.”
Tri-Star is proving to have a lot to offer McClure as well. Teammate Bliss has stepped into his racecars on several occasions to provide feedback. And more than anything else, they’re positioned to survive the Nationwide Series’ transition to a COT car. It’s a situation McClure knows better than most…for his family’s Cup team was one of those that disappeared when the Cup Series made the same jump. What’s more, McClure has made the jump to ownership as well; he’s fielding a late model team, making resourcefulness and the cost of racing easy to relate to.
“I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to pay for that [late model],” says McClure. “So I can only imagine how it is in the Nationwide garage. I don’t know how he’s doing it. Mike [Smith] is very resourceful.”
“It’s always been a sport of get what you can get, and that doesn’t change,” he continued. “You’ve just got to get more creative in finding ways to survive. And we’re doing that. We’re out every week looking for partnerships, whether that’s monetary partnerships or something to compliment Hefty or product deals, we have a lot of them. To some degree, they’re as good as money. It’s tough [out there], and it changes the way you budget. But once you get going, Mike’s a racer.”
And for all his work on the sponsor side of this sport, McClure remains one as well. And he’s thrilled about the direction the No. 14 is going. Even if it’s Bristol weekend.
“I’m excited, I’m having fun,” he said of his season this far. “I don’t know how this hand injury is going to go down, it’s going to be there at least through the Texas race. [But] I really like it, I really like where I’m at. I’ve always wanted to have veteran teammates.”
“I don’t have to prove myself to anybody, I can just worry about improving myself. And I’m excited about that aspect of it. I love the team and I love Mike Smith.”
“I just want to do better than I’ve ever done.”
The pieces appear to be in place for just that to happen. It may just have to wait till the next weekend. After all, Bristol’s out to get this guy.
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