Since 2011, BJ McLeod has made steady progression up the racing ladder. Starting in super late models and having won numerous races and championships, McLeod quickly found himself racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series from 2010 to 2014 before jumping to the XFINITY Series in 2015.
For 2016, the 33-year-old took to full-time competition in the second-tier series, racing under his own team name in the No. 78 while, beginning in 2017, offering other drivers an opportunity in the team’s No. 8 Chevrolet.
This year, McLeod has more than a half-dozen roundtable of drivers race on his team, highlighted by the return of Tommy Joe Martins to the series. With two 11th-place finishes this summer, McLeod is confident the team is on the rise, and he plans to move his ownership to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — a series he will race for the third time this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — within the next three to five years.
Additionally, McLeod, who has taken a few races off in 2017 for funded drivers, will run the full schedule in the XFINITY Series in 2018.
Frontstretch spoke with McLeod to discuss these plans, his thoughts on ownership in the XFINITY Series and why exactly he likes skulls on his racecars.
Catanzareti: You seem to be making gains in the XFINITY Series. Describe this season and how it’s been going this first half.
BJ McLeod: The toughest part is that we ran top 20 five times last year and had a really good start. Then we picked a good year, a sophomore year, to get 10 or 12 more fully funded teams, and it was a big worry during the offseason to make enough adjustments to be able to hang with those guys. We made our stuff way better, we started out the year, you know, 30th, 28th. Now we’re getting where we finished 11th at Iowa [Speedway] with Tommy Joe [Martins] and finished 11th at Daytona in my car. We’ve had some top 20s. Basically working every week trying to get better.
You start with the same baseline setups, it’s just each week you try to get a little better. Then it runs into the next race and you get better there.
Catanzareti: Those 11th-place finishes were good moments for your team; especially for those who love underdog stories. How much did those boost the team’s morale?
McLeod: Oh, it definitely boosted morale a lot. The guys who work with us know that we’re under-budgeted and we do the best we can. They understand that most weeks we are going to finish 25th. But there is always that hope of fuel strategy or maybe just having a good car and get a top 20. That race at Iowa, both Tommy Joe and I raced in the top 15 before fuel strategy and it just turned out that that’s why he got 11th and I made a mistake on pit road. That got us back to 17th. Still top 20 legit.
It was a huge morale booster for my guys. To be in top 10, yeah, it would’ve been cool to say top 10, but as far as the team, the one spot doesn’t really matter. Once you’re 11th, you can be 10th, you can be ninth.
Catanzareti: You ran the full season last year as a driver but you’ve missed a couple races this season. Is that by chance, or are you pulling back to focus on ownership more?
McLeod: No, I don’t even care about being an owner. I just did it because it’s what I needed to do to run my team correctly. The people I have to help me, I’m best off owning a team and being able to make decisions the people want me to make.
I’ve always wanted to drive, and I always will until I don’t have a heartbeat. The beginning o the year, it was a budget deal of where I didn’t have sponsorship for Daytona [International Speedway] [and] Atlanta [Motor Speedway]. And a couple people I’ve worked with in the past had sponsorship. I’m not going to hold the team back if we have a good driver with sponsorship and I don’t. That’s why I got out, to help the team overall. It turned out after that, we didn’t have two drivers with each week with sponsorship. We’ve had one quite a bit.
I think, looking into the future, I’m not going to get out of the car for one or two races, I’m going to stay full-time. Next year, I will be full-time in XFINITY with the one car, and then the second car will be for sponsor drivers and try to make the team better.
Catanzareti: How different is it being a driver-owner? We saw it with Tony Stewart and Alan Kulwicki back in the day. Not too many do it but you are.
McLeod: I don’t know a lot about Alan’s deal because I was really young, but I did watch it and I do remember his races. The difference between Alan, Tony and I is that I know Alan didn’t do it until he had his things right in order and went at it when he did. He was not under-budgeted. Tony, obviously, was not either and he did it right.
I was from a small town in Florida called Wauchula. I have tried to come from there to NASCAR’s world. It’s a big jump. I knew I was going to start under-budget to one day have sponsorship to where I can run where they were. Alan Kulwicki had a name and so did Tony Stewart. I didn’t, so there was no way for me to start right off the bat with the perfect funding to run top 10. I knew I’d have to start at this level for a couple years, and hopefully we can attract sponsors and move into [the] top 10.
Obviously, both those guys are excellent drivers. I have nowhere near the proof that I can drive like they did. Not even close. Right now, I just want to keep working on driving skills and hopefully we can find sponsors and elevate the team up.
Catanzareti: Do you see it as a proactive move? You’re looking into the future, you’re not going to sit on the sidelines and wait for something to happen. You’re going into ownership now as a small XFINITY team.
McLeod: I’ve been in business myself since I was 19. I worked at my parents’ business; they had a citrus business and trucking company since I was a kid. So, I worked there from 12 years old to 27 or so. I learned a lot about business at a young age, and I know that everyone successful at business, you look ahead five years. Then once you’re there, you don’t enjoy it, you look five years ahead of that.
I’m not doing everything perfect. I hang on, barely make it sometimes. But were still here, so we’re doing something right.
Catanzareti: Talking about change, the XFINITY Series changes a lot, from rule changes to championship changes to Cup drivers. What are your thoughts on the series and how tough it is for a small team?
McLeod: I love the competition. I’ve won in everything I’ve ever raced in. I had probably 300 go-kart wins, more than 100 super late model wins. Between the two, I think I had 20 or 30 championships, track records everywhere. We were really good, but we raced at a top level; I wasn’t an underdog there. Now, I love the competition in NASCAR and the chance to get better and how hard it is to run even 30th.
At Charlotte [Motor Speedway], I ran a mile-and-a-half race[track], three hours long, ended up finishing 29th on the lead lap. Usually lead lap will get you 20th, 19th. It was a first lead-lap finish for me at a mile-and-a-half.
As far as Cup guys go, I enjoy them being here. Kyle [Busch], first time I ran this track [New Hampshire Motor Speedway], he passed me. I looked at his arc going into the corner and I was three tenths quicker. So it’s nice to have the Cup guys to learn off.
Catanzareti: What do you look for in a driver? We’ve seen a few drivers in this team. Tommy Joe Martins, he hadn’t raced XFINITY in three years. Angela Ruch was back; it had been five years for her. You look for funding but you want someone who knows what they’re doing out there.
McLeod: The biggest thing for me is that I want someone who wants it. I don’t deal well with people who just show up and it’s something to do. Everyone who comes into my deal, they all really want to drive and to be good. Jeff Green, I think he’s 53 years old and he wants it like he’s never raced before. Same thing with Tommy Joe; you look at his practice results from Trucks and he’s always the top of his equipment or better. That’s why we worked with him. Angela Ruch, I’ve been friends with her for four or five years now. She said she wanted to drive a car again, [and] she had some sponsorship. It was a fun deal to try, and she did a great job, she definitely exceeded our expectations.
Catanzareti: You said you’re full-time for next year. Are you planning two cars, and if so, are you looking for one driver or multiple?
McLeod: I would like to have one stable driver for the second team, but it’s so hard to secure sponsorship right now, especially a year ahead. I don’t think we’ll have a second car that is full-time one driver, but there are some possibilities, some things we’re talking about right now that could happen. As of now, I’ll say you’ll see a mix of drivers in the second car. Every now and then, we may do a third car, but [it] won’t be full time.
Catanzareti: What is it like racing against a teammate, which is also one of your own cars?
McLeod: Restarts are a little difficult [laughs]. Today, we are 0.030 apart in lap times, we’re on top of one another. I try to race it like he’s not there, but you have to be smart, too, and make sure you don’t slide into your own cars [laughs]. It’s definitely a touchy situation, and you have to watch it.
You try to do split strategy with your two cars so you always have one that does well. But sometimes you end up right on top of one another and you have to be smart. I’d say once every two or so years, the team’s cars will get into it because you race for the same real estate.
What I tell everyone who drives the second car: drive me like you would anybody else. Don’t worry about it.
Catanzareti: Speaking of competition, you returned to the Cup Series last week at Kentucky Speedway. How did that come together?
McLeod: I’ve been bugging people like Rick [Ware, car owner] ever since I drove here two years ago. And finally, Rick said, ‘yes.’ It’s the same way I got in the car two years ago. I bugged Mike Hillman Sr., I went into his office once a week for three years asking if I could drive. I got a lot of nos and a few, ‘well, maybes’. Then he called me the weekend of New Hampshire asking if I wanted to drive.
Now, I already know we are going to attempt Indy with the Cup car, we’ll try to make the show there. That will be my first time there in a Cup car.
Catanzareti: Any other plans in that No. 51?
McLeod: Right now, it’s just Indy. The smaller teams like Rick’s, you just take it week to week and see what happens as far as sponsorship.
Catanzareti: Is your goal to be a Cup driver? You have your own team in XFINITY; would that maybe pull you back from Cup?
McLeod: My goal is to be driving something in NASCAR for the rest of my life. I want to one day own my own Cup car. I think within three to five years you’ll see us own a Cup car. I want to do that, and I want to keep my XFINITY stuff. I like the people on the Cup side, XFINITY, Trucks. I guess I like how NASCAR runs the three series as an organization. It’s always upfront, and I like being a part of it.
My goal is to be here, whether it’s Trucks, XFINITY or Cup — or to have some super late models to go and play with every now and then.
Catanzareti: You’re expecting this team to be up in Cup within three to five years. That’s a big task; it’s only one series up, but that is the mega jump.
McLeod: Oh, it is big. And the thing is the logistics of it. We do 33 weekends here in XFINITY, with 20 weeks straight. The Cup deal is 36 weeks, with once stretch that is like 27 weeks long. It’s definitely big. We’ll need a different shop, another trailer, a lot of stuff we can’t do right now. We just can’t afford it. We’re going to try to work that way. Like I said, I want to own my own Cup car in three to five years. If I’m doing it myself, I don’t see us being full-time, I see us being a 10-race-a-year type of thing and [having] some fun.
In this XFINITY deal, we chase the points every week. In Cup, I want to have some fun doing it. I can tell you, even if you dumped $400,000 a race in my lap like the top guys are spending right now, it’s going to take a year or two before you can run top 10.
To me, Formula 1 is ridiculous. I compare the top 10 of Monster Cup to F1. It’s just as technical, takes just as much smarts. With our team, we’ll shoot for 30th to start and then work on 25th. I have a goal of working to get there. Nothing wrong with dreaming.
Catanzareti: From the start of this team to now, do you feel you’re on track for the Cup Series?
McLeod: Absolutely. This team six years ago was going to be a super late model team. We started with two SLM teams in 2011. Once I did that for a year, I said that we would do our own NASCAR team and maybe within five years it would be a Truck team. In 2012, we ran like seven Truck races, ’13 we ran four. Everything I have expected to happen has happened two or three years earlier.
Catanzareti: What are your thoughts on finishing out this season? What goals are realistic to you?
McLeod: Realistic goals for us [are] 25th to 20th each week. I am not shooting for a top 10 anywhere, because we just don’t have the resources to pull it off. In my mind, if we’re 25th with a couple top 20s, it’s a very successful finish to the year.
Catanzareti: What are the plans on that second team? Martins, any more races for him? Other drivers?
McLeod: I know Tommy Joe will be back at least five to 10 more times. Angela has some more races and we have Caesar Bacarella driving at Iowa and probably two other races. Then we have Steven Young coming out at Watkins Glen for his debut and the other two road course races. A lot of things still not finished, but we’ll see how it goes.
Catanzareti: You always have these nice skulls all over your racecar, on your shirt, your hauler. I’m not sure what that is all about.
McLeod: [Laughs] Everybody always asks me why I like skulls, and I honestly can’t tell you. I’ve always liked stuff that looks a little on-edge, you can say. I’ve always liked different skulls, all my cars are black, I’ve always looked like that. I have a different image, I’ve always had a different image in everything I’ve ever done. It’s nothing new. I just like what I like, I own my own team so we do what we want to do.
(Below is a video capture of our conversation with BJ McLeod.)