Entering the 2020 NASCAR season, Sam Hunt Racing planned to make its next step as a young race team, moving up to the Xfinity Series to run upward of 10 races, primarily via crowdfunding.
However, the current COVID-19 pandemic has forced the team owner’s hand, temporarily shutting down shop.
Hunt, 26, has driven in 34 K&N Pro Series East races over the span of seven years, with a best finish of sixth at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. While competing in a trio of races for his own team, Hunt has relied primarily on up-and-comer Colin Garrett, 19, who ran in 22 of 26 K&N East races over the past two seasons with 11 top-10 finishes.
Garrett made his Xfinity debut in 2019 at Richmond Raceway for MBM Motorsports, finishing 26th. That race licensed him for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Sam Hunt Racing, where the team qualified 15th and finished 21st, respectively.
Over the offseason, all hands were on deck, hoping to qualify for the season opener at Daytona, though the No. 26 team didn’t receive its superspeedway car until mid-December. Unfortunately, Garrett narrowly missed the show – by one-hundredth of a second – as 40 cars showed up to qualify. Because the Sam Hunt team missed the race, it received no purse money, which is primarily how the team operates.
“It was pretty tough,” Hunt recently told Frontstretch of missing Daytona. “Homestead went so smooth in November and building that Daytona car which was an older Gibbs car, but still we put a decent amount of time and money into it.
“At the same time I think it’s taught me a lot, and as hard as the past month was, I dug myself out of it. We’re sitting here ready to go to Homestead and Bristol [Motor Speedway] with good funding and I think everybody took that DNQ as a team.”
As Hunt noted, the team’s next scheduled race was last weekend at Homestead, for which the team had already spent a chunk of money on parts, pieces and entry fees, all of which the team cannot get back. But with the recent coronavirus outbreak, NASCAR announced last week it has suspended the season through the first weekend of May, scheduled to pick action back up at Martinsville Speedway on May 8-9.
Meanwhile, the Xfinity Series’ next scheduled race isn’t until Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 23, meaning 11 weeks would have passed since last racing at Phoenix Raceway. Because of this break, Hunt needed to temporarily shut down his team as there is no cash flow going through the Mooresville, N.C. shop.
“It definitely hurts us,” Hunt said. “After the announcement I had to tell the guys just to go home for this week, and we had to officially close down because we don’t have the budget to have payroll going for eight weeks and no income coming in.
“There was an aspect legally on my end that I needed to protect myself right now. If one of my guys is working in the shop during official work hours and he gets sick, goes home and his grandpa gets it and his grandpa passes from it, there’s ways that can be dragged back to me.
“It might seem silly because we only have a few guys and we don’t have much,” Hunt continued, “but from a business sense it was a no-brainer to cover ourselves.”
The team currently works with just three chassis with two full-time employees: longtime NASCAR driver/crew chief Brian Keselowski and Connor Mediros. During the week, a pair of “younger guys” will come in for three days of work, while two more volunteer their time from the NASCAR Technical Institute.
Since the team has temporarily shut down, payroll has been halted for the most part, though in a team meeting on Sunday (March 22), Hunt notified the team that he was able to gather up part-time work for everyone, paying them a little bit. Nevertheless, Keselowski is in a precarious situation.
“That’s true, unfortunately,” Keselowski said. “Sam is working on some stuff to at least do some part-time [work] here on out. He’s been straight up with me and I know right where he’s at because I’ve been in the owner’s deal, too.
“I appreciate that he’s been straight up with me and said, ‘Hey, we can’t do anything for racing right now.’ I totally understand that.”
With no on-track action for at least two months, Keselowski says this hiatus is like a second offseason and there is work to be done. Because of that, it makes for a “sticky situation” as the team has recently moved into the Mooresville shop with infrastructure that needs to be done as well as the potential of adding three chassis to its stable.
“My goal right now is figuring out how we can continue to work even without racing for a long time, which is near impossible,” Hunt stated. “I think if everyone is willing, myself included, whether it be a 50% pay cut or work three days a week or be creative about how we do it because obviously there’s a lot I would love to do with eight weeks as far as building cars and making cars better. At the same time, with absolutely no income coming in, it makes it almost impossible to do.”
But that’s a double-edged sword because the team makes money solely by competing on the racetrack.
“Sam makes money by putting cars on the racetrack,” Keselowski said. “That’s how we make money so we can afford to pay the employees that are working there. Without having cars on the racetrack, how do you come up with the kind of money that it takes to do it?”
Should the series resume racing Memorial Day Weekend – or potentially makeup a race or two between Martinsville and Charlotte (two weeks in between) – everything is going to move very rapidly once the shutdown is lifted. That reason alone makes it more difficult for Hunt’s race team because the equipment needs to be ready for race condition.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult because once we do go back racing, if we can come up with enough deals to go to the racetrack, we’ve got to have equipment that’s ready to go to the racetrack, too, and that doesn’t just happen,” Keselowski stated. “I can’t say I’m not worried about it, but we’ll make things happen when it’s time to make it happen.”
As for Garrett, he’s missing valuable track time during these two months. The last time he competed in a race was at New Smyrna Speedway where he finished 14th in a Super Late Model event, the same night he failed to qualify for Daytona.
“It definitely affects me because it’s track time, especially at a big track like that,” Garrett said. “I need as much as I can get. Homestead is a little different, obviously, because it’s so technical, wore out and everything. You don’t really go to a track that’s like that throughout the year.
Garrett confirmed he was also scheduled to race for Niece Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series at Homestead. He’s hoping to add the Rattler 250 to his schedule since that, too, needed to be rescheduled from its March 22 date.
Regardless of what races he runs in the future, Garrett isn’t sure how he’ll make an income during this time away from racing.
“It was supposed to be by running Homestead,” Garrett stated. “Not really anything, everything is pretty much closed down. We’ve all pulled back and doing what little we can at the shop, but no income is coming from that. We’ll have to find some odd jobs, cut some grass or something. It’s going to be tough here for a little bit.”
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are uncertain of how long this outbreak will last, it leads to a lot of uncertainty for many race teams, specifically smaller teams.
Tommy Joe Martins confirmed to the Frontstretch Podcast last week that he had to lay off 80% of his employees. At the Cup Series level, it is believed teams like StarCom Racing and others have temporarily laid employees off, hoping to bring them back when the season resumes.
Even though he hasn’t laid anybody off, the conversations of shutting down temporarily is unsettling for Hunt.
“I don’t pay myself much, I put everything into making the company better,” he said. “I think it’s tougher for me knowing that those guys are going to be struggling a little bit because I can survive. It’s not good by any means, but we’ll be OK. I think it’s just guys that buy into the program and want to see their work, so not being able to take care of them for a little bit is kind of sickening, honestly.”
While also worried, Keselowski says his biggest fear is if racing gets halted past its scheduled return date.
“It’s concerning to me that May might not actually be the time and it’s actually going to be longer than that,” he said. “It’s just getting a flow of when we can race again and just getting an idea of what’s happening because right now everybody has no idea of what’s going on. It’s definitely concerning that it might be longer than May.”
But whether the team will fold is uncertain, and Hunt admits, is “very scary.”
Hunt said: “I think we’re all worried. Sometimes to a fault, I’m an optimistic person and I told all my guys that I’m going to take care of them. No matter how this plays out I’m not going to let any of them starve, nobody is going to go broke. I have my avenues to where I can keep these guys above water.”