On paper, BK Racing is a small, underfunded Toyota team, and Gray Gaulding is a teenager many NASCAR fans had never heard of before this season. But in their quest for survival, a closer look at their deal turned sour opens a Pandora’s Box of financial questions for modern-day stock car racing.
It’s a different type of divorce, part of a new era in which the back of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field is simply trying to survive. It’s one where money talks before talent and contracts depend on million-dollar checks from the competitor, not the sponsor or car owner.
A Teenager Seeks A Ride
Gaulding, just 19 years old and with limited experience, thought 2017 would be his big break. He struggled to find a competitive, full-time ride in NASCAR’s lower divisions over the past few seasons. But despite making just 15 XFINITY and Truck series starts over three years, he was about to find his way to Cup.
Though Gaulding was not scheduled to race at Daytona International Speedway due to a lack of experience, he signed up to run the remainder of the 35-race schedule for BK Racing after running two Cup races at the end of 2016 for The Motorsports Group. The two-car team fields the Nos. 23 and 83 entries full-time in the Cup Series.
Gaulding hopped on board at Atlanta Motor Speedway as scheduled, finishing 37th in his season debut in the No. 23 car. For over three months, through the June 11 race at Pocono Raceway, the partnership with BK continued.
But on the morning of June 13, Gaulding posted a cryptic message on Twitter addressing why he would not race the No. 23 machine at Michigan International Speedway. Instead, he was replaced by Ryan Sieg in a press release that made no reference to the teenager’s future plans with the team.
— Gray Gaulding (@graygaulding) June 13, 2017
The tweet appeared to insinuate BK Racing took money from another driver to survive.
Little did anyone know that it was Gaulding and his father, Dwayne, who saw their financial pipeline run out after paying to be a participant in NASCAR’s top tier.
Gaulding, BK Racing Relationship
Gaulding was hired to drive the No. 23 car for BK Racing on Jan. 18, according to an amendment read to Frontstretch by team owner Ron Devine. Along with him came his family’s business arm, GGR Enterprises, a marketing agency formed to help the driver find sponsorship.
In Gaulding’s 13 events with the organization, spanning from March 5 through June 11, he had an average finish of 30.8, sitting 35th in the championship standings.
Some might look at those numbers and simply say poor performance forced a change. But as the team was struggling on the track, Gaulding claimed financial problems plagued them off it.
“What happened at BK Racing just boils down to money,” Gaulding told Frontstretch. “When you kind of deal with an owner — and Ron is a nice guy — but when you’re a racecar driver like myself and you have to race without getting paid for week after week after week, I have bills to pay myself. It’s my livelihood, too. That wasn’t the only reason. There was a lot of uncertainty. The team was just week-to-week and it wasn’t the atmosphere I wanted to be in with my career.”
The teenager said he needed to bail from the BK Racing situation in order to save his future in the sport, contradicting his tweet from June 13.
“No hard feelings,” he explained. “It was strictly my decision, and I will stand by that. I had to look at the bigger picture and where I saw my career down the road. Going to the racetrack and knowing that there might not be a next week is not very fun. No one felt stable.
“Every single person over there was amazing to work with. That crew was great to work with and all my [No.] 23 guys. It was so much fun. We all had to kind of all go our separate ways, which is OK. I feel like I benefited for making the move and where I am today. It’s just a business decision.”
Gaulding, for all intents and purposes, felt the team was going broke. But his former car owner told a different story, one of a driver who came on board only to cause financial problems for his organization.
When both sides came together, Devine claimed they had a $2 million agreement for GGR Enterprises to pay BK Racing for Gaulding to stay in the car for the year. The agreement was broken down into a series of monthly payments based on GGR’s ability to bring sponsors to the table.
It was a simple agreement that’s seen more often in modern-day NASCAR, a deal based on money and not performance.
GGR Enterprises would bring funding to the table each week, effectively purchasing a spot in the car, and Devine would get a cut while the teenager gained more experience behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, Devine said GGR Enterprises started defaulting on payments within a few short months. Gaulding and GGR Enterprises were unable to pay their sponsor fees on time in March and April, according to the team’s financial records. In March, they paid the $200,000 owed to BK Racing, though it was seven days late. In April, the check to BK Racing was 11 days past due.
“They had a very unique way of putting the carrot on the string,” Devine said. “And it feels like we’re about to get the carrot, but it stays on the stick of the string.”
Gaulding then came up $160,000 short in May. As a result, Devine sent Gaulding and his representatives an amendment on May 4.
“GGR and Gaulding waive and release all leaves of action against BK Racing,” Devine reported the amendment stated. “In the event that GGR is not timely and properly paid the funds owed to BKR, pursuant to the sponsor agreement, I could remove Gaulding from the [No.] 23 car. Pay no fee or consideration to Gaulding for his driving services unless and until all funds from the sponsor agreement have been paid in full.
“I could terminate the sponsor agreement and/or the driver agreement at any time because if they are not current, we had that right. I could add, modify, replace the sponsor logo on the [No.] 23 for all the remaining races.”
Devine was making the change fearful that any sponsorship money GGR was collecting was getting pocketed by the Gaulding camp; none of it was making its way to the owner himself. This amendment was a way to force their hand while getting money back Devine claimed he was owed.
“What that says is, no longer does the money go to them and they give it to us, but now the money comes directly to us from the sponsor or anyplace they can get the money,” he explained. “It also says all future post-contract agreements for sponsorship to BK’s No. 23 at any time in which GGR and Gaulding are in breach, BKR has the rights to take action if it deems necessary.”
Not only did the Gauldings not respond to this new contract, funds for June and July were also not paid.
Devine said Gaulding owes him $560,000 in sponsorship money, while owing him $1.36 million overall. The original contract was worth $2 million and only $640,000 was paid.
So on June 5, Devine decided to terminate Gaulding’s contract, releasing the 19-year-old from the team. That was a day proceeding his 24th-place finish at Dover International Raceway, but he still let him drive the car without pay the following week.
“He begged me to let him drive Pocono, even after I sent him the notice of default,” Devine said. “He said that he had a sponsor that was about to do this and about to do that, and going to do this and going to do that. And like a fool, I did. Then, I sent him a notice of default.”
Leaving with empty pockets that day has left the teenager frustrated. But Devine said he has every right to withhold money.
“I will read you the paragraph in Paragraph 3B: ‘Pay no fee or other consideration of value for his driving services, unless or until all funds are caught up with the sponsor agreement have been paid,” Devine said. “That’s the amendment to the agreement, and I will say he didn’t sign it, but he had it. I have the email that I sent to him.
“Basically what I said was, ‘look, we’re not going any further until we get this thing done.’ But yet, I did. I kept him going and I kept him going, but I was operating as if this amendment was in place. On June 5, I finally said, ‘it’s time to let you go, sorry.’ I said, ‘that’s enough of this nonsense.’ If you’re not going to do the agreement, you’re not paying us, the sponsorship isn’t coming together, here’s your notice of default.”
Gaulding received eight paychecks from BK Racing, each worth $5,ooo, beginning after Atlanta and spanning until Richmond Raceway on April 30, according to Devine’s financial records. That’s a salary of $40,000 compared to the $2 million yearly payment to actually sit in the driver’s seat for the team.
“We collected his money from him on a monthly basis, and we paid him on a weekly basis,” Devine said. “He got paid every penny on the weekly basis until he didn’t make his monthly payment. The agreement between the sponsorship and the driver are tied together.
“I paid him beyond what he paid me and shouldn’t have, and on the last one of those checks, I stopped payment on it because he didn’t come through with his payment. It was when they got to the nothing month that I pulled the plug on it. That’s bullshit. He’s lucky I’m not in court against him.
“If you want to print something, if he says he didn’t get paid then print, ‘the delusional Gray Gaulding of the Gauldashians has lost his mind.’ You can’t get paid a piece of a sponsor money when you don’t pay the sponsor bill.”
For their part, the Gauldings simply claim they weren’t paid their full amount due. Repeated requests from Frontstretch to see additional legal agreements to get their side of the story were turned down by the family at the time of publication. Following Devine’s revelations, the Gauldings chose not to comment further.
“We still have a decent relationship, and Ron’s a good guy,” Gray Gaulding said. “But the agreements we had, unfortunately, he didn’t live up to them and I went a few weeks without getting paid. If you look at their history, BK is known for that.”
Not the First Time: Past BK Racing Contract Issues
So who’s at fault? Gaulding, BK or both?
In the case of Devine, it’s not the first time he’s been accused of financial malpractice. In just its sixth year of operation, BK Racing has suffered through no less than three contentious divorces between driver and team.
Devine founded BK Racing in 2012, with Landon Cassill running the entire 36-race season and Travis Kvapil competing in 35 events. David Reutimann also piloted the No. 93 machine for a pair of races at Daytona and Darlington Raceway.
However, Cassill, though “appreciative” of the opportunity to compete in his first full season at the Cup Series level, had financial problems get in the way of the Iowa native returning to the organization for a second season. The then-22-year-old filed a $205,000 lawsuit against the organization for unpaid race funds and other fees.
Cassill told Frontstretch he’s trying to put the whole process behind him, while Devine said the two sides have “settled.”
“Landon’s issue is a little bit different than the other guys because Landon had a minimum in his contract,” Devine said. “We paid Landon for the races that we ran and then we also paid other stuff for Landon that we wanted to work toward his minimum, and it should have clearly gone toward it. He didn’t agree with that.
“He said [these extra payments you gave] are exempt from the minimum. I said the minimum is how much you make with us [in total]. That’s what got us into a log jam, but in the end, we settled it. He got his money and went on his merry way with a burr in his saddle. I actually understand that one.”
Next up was Cole Whitt, who competed in 28 events for BK Racing in 2014, his rookie season in the Cup Series. Through Darlington, the 23-year-old was partnered with Swan Racing, but the team shut down and minority owner Anthony Marlowe took Whitt and the No. 26 team to its new destination with Devine.
“I would have been pretty happy to stay there, it’s just [that the] financial stuff wasn’t quite up to par,” Whitt told Frontstretch. “I can’t race for free. I had an offer with another team so I moved on, and that’s how all that ended.
“I liked all the people we had there, and I thought we had a really good thing going and actually probably would have been happier staying there and doing the deal there because we were pretty good and taking steps in the right direction.”
Whitt, now making a living competing with another small team, TriStar Motorsports, said the situation was unique in a Cup career that’s been spent racing for underdogs.
“That was pretty much the first time I ever encountered [financial issues] and [is] pretty much the only problem I have,” Whitt continued. “I’ve had people get behind or whatever, but it ends up getting caught up, so you don’t really worry about it too much. I just can’t do this stuff for free.”
Devine conceded that he and Whitt ended on bad terms, but since then the two have, again, “settled.” In October 2014, the duo and Whitt’s father sat in the BK Racing hauler to discuss the balance the driver was owed. The conversation ended with a handshake and an agreement that they were going to get back on track to settle their differences.
“Cole shouldn’t say anything about me either,” Devine said. “I put my company on its head three times to try and get him so he wouldn’t miss a week. The agreement was, yes, we were supposed to pay Cole, but he was also supposed to bring the sponsorship from the [No.] 26 team with him. It came out to be a fraction of what they thought. They thought it was going to be a couple million dollars and it came out to be hundreds of thousands.
“Right now, I have settlement with him, and I don’t owe him a penny. But I also know he does have a burr in his saddle about a small amount of money. I actually had a conversation with his dad not long ago, and I said, ‘look, we’re seeing each other in the garage every week, there’s no sense of the stress in it all. Let’s see if we can come up with something.'”
The settlement was short between $15,000-25,000 from the money Whitt was owed. He was “upset with him for leaving us in a lurch and not showing up with a sponsor,” the owner said.
That word “sponsor” has meant an environment at the back of the Cup Series field that’s consistently pay-to-play. The deals with Gaulding and Whitt follow the same pattern: talented athletes asked not to build their careers on performance but on boardroom deals.
Could you imagine being a NFL first round draft pick in the same boat? One that, instead of getting a $3 million signing bonus, needs to sign a $3 million deal with Nike just to play in the minor leagues?
That’s what is happening now for guys like Whitt, talented drivers forced to use their bank accounts to run 25th with underfunded efforts. At the Cup Series level, Whitt has competed for Red Bull Racing, Turn One Racing, Circle Sport Racing, Swan Racing, BK Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Premium Motorsports and TriStar Motorsports. All of these teams, by business standards, are considered small. And he has built his career off these opportunities.
“I just like to pride myself on taking a small team and outperform where we should be and take care of the equipment and build the program and try to take steps in the right direction,” Whitt said. “Obviously, it can be frustrating working with a small team and go each weekend knowing the limitations that you have and trying to build on from week to week. But I think any team in the sport is good for the sport. People don’t realize what it takes to be here and people that are working on those cars and people that are driving those cars, even at the back of the pack, are some of the best guys.”
Though Whitt and Devine may not be best of friends, the team owner is happy with their time together and said he believes the driver is a “good shoe.”
Others have had more positive experiences with BK Racing.
Funded situations like with Ryan Ellis came and left without a problem. Matt DiBenedetto, meanwhile, saw the benefits of working with the team as a stepping stone even though he might not have gotten a full paycheck.
DiBenedetto competed in 68 races for BK Racing between 2015 and 2016, posting a career-best finish of sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway last spring. Though he preferred not to comment on the financial situation he faced, the young driver said he still looks back with a smile.
“I was appreciative of the opportunity that they gave me,” DiBenedetto said. “If it wasn’t for there, I wouldn’t be racing right now. That was good and we assembled a good group of guys, and some of them migrated over here with me, and this was a good opportunity for me to continue advancing my career. There are no hard feelings or anything.”
Following the 2016 season, DiBenedetto jumped ship to Go Fas Racing, where he currently sits 30th in the drivers standings.
Devine wished that DiBenedetto would have stayed, but praised the California native.
“[DiBenedetto] made more than six figures, and he’s like, ‘I can’t drive for free,’” Devine said. “He’s already made six figures. The thing on the Matt story is I could have paid that kid $2,000 to race and he would have driven the car and I could have signed him up for a lifetime. He didn’t have a ride. Nobody knew who he was. It was a great relationship.”
BK’s only primary driver right now is Corey LaJoie, who was scheduled to compete in just 14 races prior to the season. Instead, he has already run 18 events, earning a career-best of 11th at Daytona in July. He confirmed that all of his paychecks have been on time.
“Ron took a gamble on me,” LaJoie said. “He went above and beyond because no one else was giving me a chance. It’s kind of showed to me and probably to people in the industry that I can compete with some of the guys when we’re on the same playing field. It’s been good.”
Looking Toward the Future
For the past four races, Gaulding competed for Premium Motorsports, run by veteran owner Jay Robinson, who began a Cup team in 2014. In the 19-year-old’s first outing at Kentucky Speedway, he broke a rear axle on lap 1, resulting in a 35th-place finish, 67 laps down. It was Gaulding’s first race back since his stint at BK Racing.
At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the No. 55 car was inside the top 20 before getting wrecked late. Still, the 24th-place result tied for his second best on the Cup level.
Going forward, the partnership between Gaulding and Premium Motorsports could become a regular occurrence.
“To get opportunities over here in Cup with no funding and nothing, it just doesn’t happen very often,” Gaulding said. “For Jay to believe in me and the team we’ve been able to put together and go out and be chasing those sponsors and partners, it really means a lot.”
It’s “chasing those sponsors” that appears to be the gray area here. Just like with BK, while Gaulding may come with funding in his pocket, it’s clear part of the family’s job will be to find corporate support.
“Gray came to us with a proposal we accepted,” Robinson, who credited Dwayne Gaulding for brokering the deal, said. “We have to have a way to pay for what we do. Obviously, running an open car, you have to have funding to go with it. We really wouldn’t pick up drivers [if they don’t] have some sort of funding.”
Gaulding said that the team is still in the process of getting full-time sponsorship. Robinson has put at least one car on the racetrack in every race this season as the No. 15 car, primarily driven by Reed Sorenson, has a charter.
“You have to understand that you’re running a business, and as racers, sometimes it’s a battle between the racer within ourselves and the businessman within ourselves to try and determine what the right course of action is,” Robinson said. “This is a tough deal, sometimes, but being a small team, everybody is trying to get better as quickly as we can. Right now, the path toward getting better as a small team is pretty challenging.”
As for Gaulding, he hopes to continue the relationship with Premium Motorsports for the rest of the season and “probably next year.” His GGR Enterprises outfit will try to bring sponsorship to the table so he can stay employed. At Pocono Raceway, the team was backed by LaColombe Coffee.
As for BK? Its future remains unclear.
Sieg has run five races in the No. 83 car and Stephen Leicht was in the vehicle Sunday at Pocono. LaJoie remains with the No. 23 team, although since the driver isn’t bringing funding to the table, it’s uncertain how many more races he’ll run in 2017.
No matter what happens, Devine remains comfortable with his place in the sport.
“I created some careers,” he said. “Every now and then, one of them will thank me.”