MBM Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series driver Timmy Hill has become a Cinderella story of the sport’s COVID-19 quarantine. He’s run no worse than third in every virtual event in the sport’s Pro Invitational Series, run on the same dates during the coronavirus pandemic as now-postponed 2020 Cup events.
But on the real racetrack, both Hill and his team find themselves on financial life support. With rumblings of the NASCAR season resuming in the near future, MBM sits in a precarious position to restart its engine along with it.
When North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued a statewide stay-at-home-order on Monday, March 30, Carl Long, owner of MBM, had to let all of his employees go. The underdog operation, attempting its first full-time Cup season, was unable to keep roughly 30 people on payroll.
“I worked everyone until Monday at 3 [p.m.], gave them a check and said, ‘I’ll see you when it’s over,'” Long tells Frontstretch. “There’s a little bit of maintenance work that I’ve been doing myself [at the race shop], but I don’t have to pay [employees].
“I’m paying some of the vendors to rewrap one of my haulers; we didn’t have time to get it painted over the winter. [But] that’s pretty much it.”
Though Long had to lay off his entire race shop, the owner’s been active, helping out any of the workers that need financial help. Over the past three weeks, he’s loaned some of those people cash, understanding they’re living “paycheck to paycheck.”
“I’ve just taken money out of the team and given them a loan, and hopefully, they get reimbursed from the government,” he says. “If they don’t, it’ll just be money we threw out the door, but they’re a part of [this team].”
Long, who owns three Xfinity Series teams along with his Cup Series No. 66, said he believes it’s necessary as an owner to stick his neck out for even some new hires who have “done him right.” Since the shutdown three weeks ago, Long doesn’t believe any of his employees — 1099 or not — have been able to claim unemployment.
“The ones that have filed, they still don’t have it,” Long explains. “The ones that were 1099, they’re not even accepting a new application, I guess, until April 25 for 1099 employees that have already been out of work for over a month.
“I told all of them, ‘Guys, look, if I go get a loan to make sure I can take care of your payroll’ — because at the time we heard there was going to be government loans — ‘if I can take a loan to take care of your payroll, I want you guys to sign contracts that says you’re going to be here until the end of the season and not leave to go work for another team.’”
Those full-time contractual commitments never did get written out. While Long says most people were open to that, one employee said he wouldn’t have signed a contract even if it had gotten completed prior to the statewide shutdown.
“I had one guy that was like, ‘I’ve been talking to another team and I don’t want to sign it,'” Long says. “I let him go because he wouldn’t give me a commitment. I’m going to commit to keeping you guys going the best that we can, [but] I need you guys to say you’re going to be here all year.”
Though those other employees do talk the talk, it doesn’t mean they’ll walk the walk back to MBM. Should they find other work, in racing or not, they remain free to leave the team.
“I don’t have a contract,” Long adds. “I think a lot of the big teams do make their pit crew people sign contracts, and I don’t. My handshake is pretty much what I like to give, but I guess that’s a thing of the past, and a lot of people just don’t really have any respect for what we do as an owner to make sure they have a job.
“I told them a bunch of times, I can do every job there is to be done on these cars, there just isn’t enough of me to go around so I have to hire them. When you’re carrying three Xfinity teams and a Cup team to the track every week, you need to be able to depend on these guys and turn them loose: ‘Hey, here’s the car, let’s get it ready,’ and that’s as much as I need to tell them.”
Long defers to his wife, DeeDee, in attempting to get money through the government for the race team through Wells Fargo, the family’s bank. After applying as soon as possible for a Small Business Administration loan, he still hasn’t heard back, meaning no money has come through the doors.
Since the team hasn’t even gotten a response, it’s led to some internal frustration.
“We have less than 50 people, but we still couldn’t get any priority,” Long says. “I hear about other teams and other people that didn’t even need the money but they applied for it because it was out there, and they got it.
“…We’ve still got payments being made. Haulers, rent and lights are all stuff that is supposed to be deferred, well, they’re still sending you the bills, so you’ve still got to pay them.”
In the season-opening Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway, Hill finished third, the best finish for an MBM car in team history. But that was plagued by a pre-race violation for manipulating bodywork in the nose of the car, resulting in a $50,000 fine that Long says he “would really like to have at this point in time.”
Still, it’s that finish, along with the payday Long received from the Daytona 500 (Hill finished 27th), that is keeping MBM afloat financially. Without it? The team might not have survived even before the pandemic hit.
“The third-place finish there and the Cup race is the reason why I have something in the bank ready to go back,” Long says.
Since mid-March, Hill has put his iRacing experience to use, claiming four top-three finishes in the four Pro Invitational Series races at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway (won), Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond Raceway. That airtime has propelled the team to find potential season-long sponsorship.
“[The sponsors] are happy and Timmy is doing an excellent job at iRacing and keeping their name in front of the public, probably better than we would have if we were racing the real cars,” Long says. “That’s been the positive side of it, and we’ve got them signed up for some more races when we do get to go to the track and we do get to see the schedule.
“Our partners with Roof Claims and Pit Boss [Grills] have been very excited about what they’ve got, and we’re in [sponsorship] negotiations for the entire season. Some of that is based on… we need to have a set schedule first before I can get a commitment from them.”
Regardless of when the season resumes and if all of his employees return to the team, Long remains optimistic. Despite the many hurdles, he doesn’t think this pandemic will run this small team out of business.
“I’ve been doing this since 1983,” he said, “And I haven’t shut down yet.”