On the surface, every team was a throwback to the old days Sunday at Darlington Raceway. With memorable paint schemes and bright STP hats, the laymen would struggle to pick out the true underdogs.
However, for Carl Long, the small-team status is one he’s raced in all his life in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, racing on a heavy part-time budget from 2000 to 2006.
More than 10 years removed from the top NASCAR series, the 49-year-old made his surprise return in May, sporting a green and yellow No. 66 self-owned entry after purchasing a Chevrolet from the now-defunct HScott Motorsports.
Fast-forward to Sunday’s Southern 500 where Long made his first start since his return to the series at Kansas Speedway and only the fifth event for the No. 66 in 2017. When it comes to choosing races, Long looks at the risk-vs.-reward scenarios for his true one-car team.
“We only have one car put together,” Long told Frontstretch. “If I told you we were running Richmond next week, I would’ve had to already send in the $5,000 entry to NASCAR last week. So, best case, we go every two weeks until we get more cars.”
During this crucial building time for the North Carolina native, he has had one stable factor in Timmy Hill, who has taken on the role of not only driver, but spotter, driver coach and even tire carrier in both Cup and XFINITY. Additionally, Hill took over driving duties of Long’s Cup car Sunday night in Darlington, performing a driver switch past the race’s halfway point, running more than 100 laps to finish the race in 33rd place.
The driver with 60 Cup starts to his name has been a regular face in the MBM Motorsports stable since 2016, starting 36 XFINITY races for Long.
Having an experienced, dedicated talent on the team has helped keep the team going, said Long.
“Having Timmy along with us, it just works out,” Long said. “Timmy fills in from a driving coach, driver, whatever. He’s a solid part of our team and we’re glad to have him. Hopefully, we can generate sponsorship to keep him in a car every week.”
Hill, 24, is often asked why he doesn’t go race for another team. For him, it’s a worthwhile investment.
“People are kind of confused, they ask if I can go try other teams,” Hill said. “But it’s really nice. Carl has taken me under his wing, he has done a lot for me. Sometimes we need to do start-and-parks to help pay for the other car. That’s part of it. Sometimes I need to do that.
“But, whenever I’m needed, whether that’s over the wall, spotter, driver coach — I’m still here part of the team. I try to be as useful as I possibly can.”
Not sure who gets credit for this 5/10 beauty…so 50:50 split pic.twitter.com/aeCPRiKM7s
— The Racing Underdogs (@RacingUnderdogs) September 4, 2017
Perhaps Hill’s best service thus far came at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July when Hill drove the No. 66 to a 14th-place finish. For Long, the Brickyard 400 purse was enough to give the team a “cushion” in the months following.
“Timmy had many opportunities to wreck and he didn’t,” Long said of the chaotic event. “It allowed us to purchase a pull-down rig and rent out the building next door to the one we had. We’re still chasing the setups, so I’m hoping this pull-down rig will allow us to be a lot better of a setup racecar when we first roll off.
“Bristol cost me about $25,000 just to go there just to miss it. Fortunately, from Timmy’s Indianapolis finish, we had a little cushion. The winter is coming up and that cushion is about to go away.”
Though Hill is a consistent figure for Long, the quickly changing surface of the sport has thrown monkey wrenches in all directions, as varying rule changes have made it tougher on small teams to keep up, said Long.
“When we have a rule change it may take us three races to figure it out,” he said. “For every action they have, there’s always an equal-but-opposite reaction. By the time we figure it out, there’s a new rule change. It’s always been that time, but sometimes, when you have less rules, the garage polices itself.”
From rule changes to competition, tires and so forth, the million-dollar question is how to cut costs. With a team working with little equipment alongside the likes of Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske, Long see’s the best cost-saver in used equipment, something that has a direct correlation to his No. 66 chassis.
“What people fail to realize is that if you cut costs, where we are on this side of the garage, everything we buy is pretty much used,” he said. “If you cut costs, the big teams no longer recycle those parts, they use them up — my costs go up and not down.
“The big teams call their items ‘priority’ or their own ‘spec’ and they don’t sell them. They talk about selling them, it just never happens. For me to cut costs, it’s just being able to buy used parts from anybody that will work.
“I have a Hendrick chassis from HScott, it was on a motor program, the whole deal… I can’t buy parts for the car because I’m not on their deal. If I wreck it, I have to start over. As far as a simple solution, I don’t think you restrict the big teams as much as you open their throwaway stuff.”
Long sits in a unique situation as a NASCAR car owner, balancing equipment, labor and costs in both XFINITY and now Cup. With more than two-thirds of the 2017 season in the books, payroll is often achieved with help from his XFINITY efforts, where he runs two cars, the Nos. 40 and 13 Toyotas.
“Our payroll is pretty much generated on the XFINITY side,” he said. “That’s what we’re geared up to race with every week. You have to have cash flow. If it’s a race we lose money, just don’t go. Or, we have to have someone with a sponsor so what we take in can make payroll.”
On a calendar, as jam-packed as Cup (36 races) and XFINITY (33 races), it’s especially important for Long to focus on just “breaking even” some weekends.
“The weekends we don’t go XFINITY racing, there is no money for payroll,” he said. “If I go to this track and spend it, we get the winnings that offset everyone’s paychecks. Basically, we’re trying to just break even. The Cup schedule is a very grueling one. When you combine it with our XFINITY program, we have no weekends off at all. If I do take a weekend off, I don’t have enough cash flow to cover payroll. We have to be there every week.”
With more than 20 years of racing under his belt, Long knows what to put first in the dog-eat-dog world of racing: dependability for your race team.
“One thing I’ve always had as a goal since 1994 when I first went racing full time is to always be able to pay our bills,” he said. “I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. If we go out and tear up stuff, everyone is paid for, I don’t owe anybody, and we go on down the road.
“There’s too many people who come into this racing and wind up owing every vendor, a bunch of people. Some just don’t have enough self-esteem to pay their bills. I try not to be that guy.
“If we had a large sponsor, I’d love to take those weekends off and spend them with my family, but my main goal is to make sure my guys get paid, even if I don’t.”
Indeed, the constant position of work has chipped away at Long’s personal life, as he has missed time with his family while doing so.
“That’s the sad part, there’s none,” he said of weekends with family. “I have four kids, they’re all involved with something. I’m usually missing out on all of it. When Homestead is over with, we’ll stay down in Florida and do something for a week, through Thanksgiving. Then, there’s a few weeks where we can make something happen there in Daytona. It’s a struggle.”
With all this effort put into a small team that often isn’t recognized for its work, why does Long still put in the hours?
“The Walmart greeter job doesn’t pay that well,” Long joked. “I look at what we do — there’s several people who have come to me to drive who haven’t been in the lower levels moving up. It’s a job for everyone. The responsibility is not so much the racing, it’s the guys working for me. They’re depending on me for their paycheck. It’s a lot bigger responsibility than I imagined.”
Despite missing out on family dinners, Long has found a positive from his time at the race shop, using social media to not only connect with family, but to reach out to thousands of fans. For him, there are endless opportunities involved.
“Some time after the race, your phone is just blowing up,” he said. “People calling, ‘Hey man! What happened? How did this happen?’ And you spend two days answering phone calls about people who are acquaintances of your team. Now, you can just post something.
“When we ran the Dodge back at Indy, I had 66,000 people viewed that… wow. When I came back to race in Cup, it had about 33,000. I could’ve never reached 33,000 people before.”
From plugging sponsors to announcing new drivers and future plans, Long has never been scared to let his voice be known.
“I try to be honest,” he said. “I try to post out exactly what’s going on and this is who we are. Some people have comments about it and I don’t mind telling them my opinion. This is who I am. I don’t have to answer to any of their stuff. If they don’t like the way I run my team, then by all means, do your own team and you can control everything you want.”
Running the race team his way, Long, who left Darlington with a clean No. 66, is hoping to run four to five more Cup races in 2017, with eyes mostly on the 1.5-mile tracks that make up the Cup Series playoffs.
“Timmy is supposed to race in Chicago, U.S. Chrome is going to help him,” he said. “There’s another Kansas race, I’d like to do that again. Definitely won’t be going to Talladega, with it being a different car. I have been trying to team up with other teams and get a car from them, so we’ll have to see how everyone’s financial deals work out.
“You can account on us trying to race every other week. We’ll probably race Texas, but not go to Phoenix and then turn around for Homestead if the money and sponsorship is lined up to make it work.”
(Below is a video capture of our conversation with Carl Long)