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(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP)

NASCAR 101: The Little Team from the Mattress Factory

What is a journeyman?

Barney Visser is a journeyman in every sense of the word. On Tuesday, news broke on the upcoming closure of Visser’s team, Furniture Row Racing. A true rags to riches story, Visser and FRR became one of the most inspiring stories ever seen on stock car racing’s biggest stage.

The Vietnam War era was not a pleasant time for the United States. The American landscape was tense, filled with a strong anti-war sentiment from the nation’s young generation. Thousands of young men and women were protesting a conflict that was as much over ideology, as it was national security. Many young draftees burned their draft cards or fled the country to avoid going to war.

But, Visser was different. Fresh out of high school, an 18-year-old volunteered to go to Vietnam. For 11 months, the brave kid from Colorado was jumping out of airplanes into the jungles of a place many people had never heard of.

Visser’s tour of duty in Vietnam was a start of a long journey that spanned from furniture retail to racing stardom.

After a disappointing post-war college football career, Visser found himself as a Denver pillow salesman. Then he turned to mattresses, which propelled his business career. Visser’s brands, Furniture Row and Denver Mattress, have become some of the most successful brands in the furniture retail industry.

In 2005, Visser turned to racing. Adopting his company’s name, Furniture Row Racing was born.

But, this was not just an ordinary race team.

The greater Charlotte, N.C. metropolis is home to almost every NASCAR race team; except one. Denver, CO is almost 1,600 miles from Charlotte. Visser was insistent on keeping his new team in his hometown, far, far away from racing’s central hub.

In the shadows of a dog food factory, the new team’s shop was an old mattress factory in a suburban industrial park, where it still stands today. Comparatively, FRR’s shop is like the Dallas Cowboys practicing at your local pee-wee football field.

Jerry Robertson was a short track modified star from Denver but a virtual unknown on the NASCAR stage. As a business partner with Visser, he was Furniture Row’s first driver. The team attempted to qualify for 15 NASCAR XFINTIY Series races in 2005 with Roberston, but only made the show 10 times. The driver raced another nine times in the series in 2006, until the team moved full-time to the Cup Series at the conclusion of the season

Like Visser, Kenny Wallace was a journeyman. Wallace, who was stuck in the shadow of brother Rusty’s illustrious career, never won a race in the Cup Series. Prior to 2005, Wallace made 305 Cup starts and only finished in the top five a mere six times.

Wallace gave Furniture Row its first Cup start in 2005. The following season, Wallace made 17 Cup starts for the team, but failed to qualify an additional 14 times. While these two seasons saw tremendous difficulties, Furniture Row proved that it had at least had a functioning team.

2007 saw a new driver come into fold. Wallace was released halfway through the season and was replaced by Joe Nemechek. Nemechek won a NASCAR XFINITY Championship in 1992 and earned the nickname Front Row Joe for his success in qualifying. But, he too, had felt the sports lowest of lows. His brother John was killed in a NASCAR Truck Series race in 1997. After immense struggles in recent seasons, he signed with Visser and Furniture Row in late 2007.

In 2008, the team won its first pole with Nemechek behind the wheel at Talladega Superspeedway. Despite this, the team never finished inside the top 10 and failed to qualify for four races that season.

Regan Smith‘s journey to the top almost never happened. A native of Cato, N.Y., Smith’s trek to NASCAR’s biggest stage came to an abrupt halt at Talladega in 2008. After crossing the finish line first, a jubilant Smith was about to join a small group of drivers who can claim they have won in the Cup Series. Before Smith had a chance to celebrate, the driver was left heartbroken when NASCAR determined that he had violated a rule, thus the win was void.

Smith joined Furniture Row in 2009. What would follow would begin the slow journey to NASCAR glory.

2010 was the first year that the team managed to qualify for every race in the season. The 2011 Daytona 500 saw the team’s first top 10. Just nine races later, the improbable happened.

Via a strategic pit call at Darlington, Smith and Visser were celebrating for the first time in Victory Lane. Yet, after reaching the pinnacle of the sport, the success was very short lived.

Smith was released from the team after a dismal 2012 season and a once polarizing driver looking for a break was hired.

Kurt Busch found near immediate stardom in NASCAR, but the few years before 2012 were horrendous. Looking for a fresh start, the 2004 Cup champion ran the entire 2013 season for Furniture Row. For the first time, Front Row had more than two top-five finishes in a given season. 2013 also saw Furniture Row’s first playoff appearance.

Busch left the team after the 2013 season for Stewart-Haas Racing, leaving yet another vacancy. What followed was one of the most potent duos in NASCAR history.

Martin Truex Jr.¬†grew up on the east coast of New Jersey. The former clam fisherman’s path to NASCAR triumph was a journey. Cutting his teeth on the regional NASCAR ranks, Truex was discovered by a young racer with an iconic last name: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Truex won back-to-back NASCAR XFINITY Series championships in 2004 and 2005 driving for Chance Motorsports, owned by Earnhardt. However, Truex found life much more difficult when he moved up to the NASCAR Cup Series.

After spending several lackluster years at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex suddenly found himself without a ride at the end of 2013.

Cole Pearn was a NASCAR Pinty’s Series driver turned engineer. Pearn’s engineering talent and big ambition gave way to a career in NASCAR. However, he bounced around from team-to-team trying to find his footing in the industry. He suddenly found himself back at the team that gave him his first big break in the NASCAR Cup Series.

After a disappointing first year at Furniture Row with Truex behind the wheel in 2014, Vissar promoted Pearn to crew chief in 2015. The team finally returned to Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway that year.

The following year, after finishing a heart breaking second in the closest Daytona 500 in history, the duo recorded a team career high four wins.

2017 was a decisive year for the team. For the first time ever, it was set to field a second car with rookie Erik Jones as the driver. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the team looked unstoppable. Truex had already won four races and Jones was in position to win Rookie of the Year.

But things were not going great off the track.

Truex’s girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Jim Watson, a tire specialist for the team, passed away suddenly during a race weekend at Kansas Speedway, and Visser, the team’s patriarch himself, suffered a severe heart attack.

With motivation behind them, Truex, Pearn and company had a near perfect playoff run. The team that runs out of a converted mattress factory that was struggling to even qualify for races 10 years prior were NASCAR champions.

As the 2018 NASCAR season enters the playoff stretch, the Furniture Row Racing experiment is winding down. While the team is in contention to win another championship, these last races for Visser’s team are symbol of an all-American success story, even if they drive Toyotas.

What makes Furniture Row unique is how it was built from the ground up. The team was driven to succeed and not driven to compromise.

Visser never recruited the top talent, but roped in people with a heart for racing. The flashiest drivers never came to Denver.

Kenny Wallace wanted to keep racing.

Regan Smith wanted a Cup career.

Kurt Busch wanted to save a career.

Cole Pearn wanted to fulfill a dream.

Martin Truex Jr. just wanted an oppertunity.

This is what Visser provided. A success story in the furniture business, Visser and his team of journeymen were driven to race.

As the team races into the sunset at Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November, we can be disappointed at its departure. However, NASCAR needs to recognize the little team from the mattress factory.

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About Zach Gillispie

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2 comments

  1. A great telling of a true Underdog Story. I appreciate the history lesson and all of its context. Thanks for the fitting tribute, Zach.

  2. Zach – thanks for such a great write-up