In one of the more surprising developments over the course of the 2018 season, it was revealed that Furniture Row Racing would be discontinuing operations at the conclusion of the year.
This one was big. This wasn’t just an “also-ran”team. Nor was it an occasionally competitive mid-level team. No, this was the organization that achieved what in stock car racing amounts to climbing Mount Everest. A team that started at the bottom and through a series of beneficial moves, rose to the top of the pile as Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions just a year ago.
To understand how how this untimely end came about, one must first become familiar with how Furniture Row Racing got to the peak of NASCAR glory. The owner of Furniture Row retail outlets, Barney Visser, his team together in 2005. They made only two starts that first year, followed by a total of 38 starts combined during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The early years featured a revolving door of racing veterans such as Kenny Wallace, Jimmy Spencer, and Joe Nemechek.
When the team hired Regan Smith in 2009, the results had already begun to improve. Nemechek had qualified for all but four races in 2008 and stunned everyone by winning a pole at Talladega. In 2010, Smith qualified for every race for the first time in team history. Then in 2011, Smith rode to victory at Darlington Raceway to give Visser and company their first taste of Cup success. There were a few more strong finishes for Smith but the team and driver went their separate ways just before the end of 2012.
Kurt Busch was next to pilot the No. 78 car. The 2004 series champion was stout, finishing in the top five 11 times in 2013. Yet somehow, victory continued to elude the team. Busch left after just one season and Martin Truex Jr. came in. Truex showed promise his first year but it wasn’t until year two of his tenure at FRR that he reached contender status. That was when he was paired with a new crew chief. Cole Pearn, a small-framed former racer from Canada, turned out to be the perfect match for Truex. 2015 saw the team return to victory lane along with consistently finishing in the top ten. The following year would begin another partnership that shaped the future of FRR: a switch to Toyota and a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex and Pearn would win 16 more times together over the next three years, including eight wins en route to the 2017 series championship.
But in racing, success doesn’t always ensure longetivity. That technical alliance with JGR was what made Visser’s team championship caliber. It also cost the team an enormous expense. So when primary sponsor 5-hour Energy announced that it would not return in 2019, Barney was left with two options. He could continue to race out of his own pocket, all the while still hunting sponsorship partners. Or he could bow out, selling the organization or closing it down.
Rather than personally fund an outfit that could see a potentially significant drop in performance with the end of the Gibbs support deal, Visser opted to go out on top.
It shouldn’t have had to end that way. Multiple race wins and a series title is the very definition of success in NASCAR. So by those standards, Furniture Row Racing was successful. But here we are, less than a month removed from their last race and the doors are closed. The employees are gone. All that remains is a legacy.
Money and racing have always been a package deal. Speed has a price and the faster you want to go, the bigger the bottom line needs to be. Sponsorship is how the bills get paid. However, dwindling sponsor pools have turned the field into a cluster of owner and/or driver-financed cars or pieced-together sponsor packages that feature a different logo on the hood every other week. It’s become too difficult to try to sell a full season sponsorship package anymore. Companies simply don’t see the value in throwing $20 million at a race team between the current state of the sport and the economic tightening of belts across nearly every business landscape. It’s a tough sell that has only become more and more difficult in recent years.
This business model is not sustainable. Without a drastic change, Furniture Row Racing will not be the last competitive team that has to close up shop. Fortunately, there may be a new beginning soon. NASCAR President Steve Phelps spoke recently about plans to restructure how the sponsor money that is currently coming in as well as the hope that such a setup will entice new participants.
“We’re going to a new sponsorship model,” Phelps said. “It’s really more to make the sponsorship buy as easy as possible. As an industry, we are fairly fragmented. You have the sanctioning body, different tracks, race teams, drivers and broadcast partners; all these different groups you can contract with as a sponsor.
“We are trying to bring all of them under one umbrella. If you go to, for example, a company such as Coca-Cola, you can sell them a one-stop shop. It’s an ease in doing business. If you do that, it’s going to foster more sponsor activity.”
Tracks, race teams, drivers and television partners will still look for their own supplemental funding, but NASCAR says the new model will give everyone involved a bigger piece of the pie.
Why is that important? Think of it this way: if a team needs $20 million (hypothetical figure) a year to operate, they currently look to sponsors for the bulk of that money. If a company wants to participate but can’t commit to that figure, they must either sponsor the car for only a select number of events or accept a less prominent role. With a new deal providing money to the teams, the amount of money a sponsor will need to bring in will decrease. This increases the likelihood of current sponsors continuing their relationships as well as new ones being able to afford the price of admission.
It’s a shame that such a thing didn’t take place before the defending champion team had to close its doors. While there’s no way to know if such an arrangement would have saved FRR, it’s an important step towards ensuring the rest of the teams in the garage area have a fighting chance.