Racing in NASCAR’s top series is a spectacle of color, sound and excitement. At least, that’s what they tell you on TV. But underneath the excitement, there’s another side to the sport, a reality that many teams face each and every week. For many of the teams running in the Sprint Cup Series, it’s a race on the razor’s edge, not necessarily to win, but to simply survive. And if they survive, they fight to grow and thrive among the sport’s elite, operating with a fraction of the resources, but still having to somehow do the same amount of work as the fully-funded teams.
The razor’s edge cut extra deep for one of NASCAR’s smallest teams one weekend in May. Leavine Family Racing and driver Michael McDowell were in Kansas when a phone call came that could have destroyed them. Their race shop, located in Concord, N.C., the heart of NASCAR country, was on fire. It was a moment of stunning reality for the team, which races part-time in order to survive. Cars – expensive cars – were destroyed, and equipment was lost. It was a devastating blow to the team.
But nobody was hurt, and that was a blessing.
Still, the aftermath of the fire made things look bleak. So much of their sweat equity was gone. There wasn’t extra money lying around. But the team wasn’t quite ready to give up on what it was building. Not yet, with so much left to prove. Where many saw the end for a team, Leavine Family Racing saw an opportunity to get stronger.
McDowell is no stranger to adversity. The journeyman driver has toiled with backmarker teams in recent years because, while many recognized his talent, they couldn’t offer him an opportunity to use it. LFR did, though it was only a partial schedule. For many smaller teams, it was either run a handful of races, or go to them all and park it early. That wasn’t a direction LFR wanted to go in.
LFR Vice President Jeremy Lange explained the team’s choice at Bristol in August: “I think the limited schedule, which was actually a handful of start-and-parks and full races, was a strategic approach in trying to create sustainability and be a team that would be here for five, 10, 15, 20 years vs. a team that’s spending money and racing 36 races only to be a flash in the pan and gone, which the sport has seen a lot of. It’s really a crawl, walk, run model.”
So when the team was knocked to its knees, it crawled forward rather than looking back. The team races Fords, and that helped it find an ally.
“Obviously, we were devastated. There was a lot of hard work, a lot of years’ worth of parts and pieces and cars there,” said McDowell. “But at the same time, it allowed us the opportunity to go to Team Penske for a few weeks there, and that helped us to rebuild during that time. Without that help from Team Penske, it would have been a very challenging few months. I’m not sure if we would have made it to all the races. So that part of it, we were very thankful for.
“The biggest thing that it did for us was that it was a distraction,” continued McDowell. “A lot of our key personnel that help our program be successful whether on the racetrack or off the racetrack were getting contractors and cleaning up messes and repainting and power washing and just getting all those things done so we could move back in. The major setback was, yeah we lost some equipment, we lost some stuff. That can all be replaced. But just having key personnel just distracted for a few months was probably the most challenging. But we made it to all the races we said we were going to go to, and just like anything that’s tough and a challenge, you grow and you learn and you’re stronger for it.”
The team has improved by small measures over the last couple of seasons. It doesn’t park early anymore, and McDowell’s average finish has improved. A finish in the 20s is a good day for a team like LFR. While many outsiders only see the number, the team approaches races realistically.
Lange explains: “It’s almost the race inside the race. After each race, we look at it and figure out. We talk internally about cars that beat us who shouldn’t have beat us and who we beat that we shouldn’t have beat. So, if you finish 28th, you look at cars who are fully funded behind you who usually finish ahead of you, but there are a couple of cars who finished above you, then you’ve probably finished right where you should. It’s really that race inside the race that we look at and analyze on a weekly basis.”
Rebuilding the race shop after the fire has been a months-long project. Redoubling its efforts has also taken time, but it’s starting to pay off. Finishes are slowly improving. The team is realistic. Growing a team is a long, difficult process with a steep curve. Doing it without the resources of a larger team is even more difficult.
McDowell said the team has made gains in 2015, and it’s looking ahead.
“There are a lot of areas where we’ve made really good gains with our partners and marketing and just providing value for our partners,” McDowell said. “The racetrack performance isn’t where we’d hoped it would be. I think we were fairly close to where we are right now last year, but a lot of that is that teams are developing at a quick rate, so as we’re getting better, so is everybody else. So that next step is really challenging. It’s just a hard spot to get to. But running averaging in the low 30s, high 20s, there’s a little bit for us to go there, but the next step, to run consistently in the low 20s and teens is daunting for sure. But we’re pushing towards that goal and it’s going to take years to build that; it’s not going to happen overnight. The biggest thing for us to get where we can do that it so be in all 36 races and be full-time.”
That may be happening sooner rather than later. A full-time effort is on the radar for the team as soon as 2016.
“Ideally, going to 36 races for 2016 potentially was on the plan per se, but we feel like the sport is going that way and like Michael said, in order to to be here consistently and be competitive every week, being here matters,” said Lange. “For our crew guys, for our driver. It’s like being out of the car for a week or two weeks and getting back in. It takes a while to get acclimated. Also, a lot of stuff at the track changes from week to week and it’s almost like we take one step forward and two steps back. Going to a full schedule was always a goal. It may be happening sooner than we anticipated, but it was always on the horizon. I think we’re getting there mainly because of need but also because of progress… It’s definitely under discussion for 2016.”
But there’s another crucial piece to the puzzle, and that’s money. Running full-time requires sponsors, and the team has been expanding in that area this season. Of course, the organization is always looking for more. But in doing so, one thing it will not do is compromise their beliefs.
“I think it plays into Michael and also the Leavine family,” Lange said. “I like to say we’re a race team with Christian sponsors vs. a Christian race team with sponsors. I don’t want to pigeonhole us or paint us into a corner. If someone came along who was not faith-based, we don’t want to say no to them. We really put it on more of a moral compass vs. faith and family: do they do good and is it a good company? That’s key to what we do. Also, it’s important to look at those things because we have a driver who is faith-minded and at the same time, we have partners who are like that, so we want to be fair to them and make sure we don’t bring in someone who would go against their beliefs.”
He added that it’s not unprecedented.
“[Michael’s] had sponsors in the past that he’s walked away from because of his beliefs,” Lange continued. “Look at the No. 43. They didn’t allow liquor sponsors on the car because Richard [Petty] made a promise to his mom that they wouldn’t have liquor on the car. They still don’t run the Coors Light Pole Award sticker.”
The team gets its chassis from Team Penske, and while it doesn’t have an alliance like some other small teams do with information sharing, the team knows how important the partnership is.
“We’re not directly linked to the information and those things, but they have been a big help to our program and we want to be able to continue that relationship,” explained McDowell. “What that will look like is an important part of what we’ll be able to do, or not do. If we have to start building our own cars in-house and if we have to do all those things, it’s a game changer for us. So those discussions are being had so that when we do go full-time, we’re prepared and we’re not just there every weekend, but we’re keeping it at the same level we do now if not better. It’s hard. It’s hard to run 30th every weekend. Every weekend, we’re beating teams that run full time and have big sponsors and are part of the big four or five teams. It’s a big challenge these days to get top-20 runs.”
What does it take to build a full-time team? “Time and money,” said Lange.
McDowell added that it’s about more than simply deciding to race every week and heading to the track with the car in tow.
“A lot of it is that right now, we’re able to be prepared when we get to the racetrack because we have a limited amount of guys, but we’re doing a limited amount of races,” he said. “For instance, our Bristol car, we can take it back to the shop and we have two or three weeks before we have to get it ready to use it (again). When you know that you have to be out there again next Wednesday, you have to have a bigger fleet. You have to have more people working on that fleet. So, it’s not just, ‘let’s just add the races’ and you buy more tires and stuff like that. There’s an infrastructure that has to be in place to accommodate it. That’s going to require hiring more people and having more inventory as far as cars, parts and pieces.”
Knowing it won’t be easy, that it will cost in the form of sweat and probably tears, McDowell and LFR rise from the ashes to not simply rebuild, but to build more, to grow a future. Overcoming what were already daunting odds to make it in NASCAR’s top series, they continue to push toward that five-year mark.
Then they aim for 10.