CUP: Food Business Strategy Guides FRM

Bob Jenkins went into the food business 11 years ago with two restaurants. As those turned profits, he’d eye under-performing stores and struggling franchisees for potential expansion.

He’d buy the store, clean it up, remodel and bring in a new management team. His operation now consists of 127 Long John Silver’s, Taco Bells, and A&W Restaurants. He hasn’t closed any restaurant except for when a lease expired.

Jenkins has applied the same philosophy to Front Row Motorsports. In 2004, he became a sponsor and part owner with Jimmy Means and has owned the one-car team outright since 2005. Now, with the same business sense of buying cars and equipment when other teams dissolve, he has three cars in the Daytona 500.

“In my other businesses, we’ve built from the ground up,” says Jenkins, whose cars have had 91 starts and no top-10 finishes. “Most of the time, we didn’t have big budgets. We had to be strategic and had to pick our spots. That’s kind of what we’ve done with racing.

“There were times early on where I was embarrassed by what we were able to do. But I always did it within my means. We’ve been able to grow organically because we’ve done it within our means. It’s tough because there’s times when you want to go out and do things that you know would help you run better, but if it blows your budget and you have to let people go, it’s not worth it.”

That’s how a guy who didn’t have one car in the top 35 two years ago now has three cars locked into the Daytona 500. He has more than Chip Ganassi and Teresa Earnhardt. He has just as many cars as Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs.

Jenkins made a deal with Earnhardt last year to get the points of one of the dissolved teams from the Earnhardt-Ganassi merger. This year, he made deals with Doug Yates to get points from his two teams that were dissolved from a merger of operations with Richard Petty Motorsports.

Who in the world is this guy? And is he nuts to expand from having three cars – one full-time Cup, one full-time Nationwide and one part-time start-and-park Cup – to trying to run three full-time Cup cars that will race the full length of every event?

“Is Bob crazy? I think a little bit,” says John Andretti, who raced his way into the Daytona 500 two years ago in one of the race team’s defining moments and then kept the team in the top 35 all of last year. “Bob is an opportunist. He’s a guy looking for [gain] when something is there for the getting.

“Last year was the perfect time to step up and try to do what we did last year because you could get great people and do it with less money and all the things were right. The stars were aligned. Now are they aligned for three cars? That remains to be seen. Bob has a strategy behind all this. Bob is an extremely intelligent man.”

Jenkins now has 55-60 employees in a race shop, compared with 21 a year ago for an organization.

“He’s a passionate racer,” says Jerry Freeze, the team's general manager. “He grew up going to the races at Bristol and Charlotte and wherever else, and he’s one of those guys who like me growing up, he sat in the grandstands watching these guys and is passionate about it.”

Freeze came to Front Row from Petty Enterprises and jokes that when Jenkins was purchasing 22 Petty cars, haulers and tools from Freeze, “I threw myself in the deal at the last minute.”

Like many of the employees, Freeze is someone who has a wealth of racing experience but had no job as other teams consolidated.

“He is a behind-the-scenes car owner,” Freeze says. “He’s not going to have the fanciest hauler or a corporate jet take him to the races. He drives everywhere. He’s built his restaurant business in the same vein that he’s trying to build this race team – start off with one store, figure out how to contain costs and make a profit with it and all of a sudden you buy a couple of more.

“He’s a very, very savvy businessman. Where there’s a downturn in the economy and teams like I was faced with at Petty Enterprises that had a lot of overhead and you were so dependent on corporate sponsorship to survive, when it wasn’t there, there was no way to survive. Bob is not going to sink all his money into this race team, but he’s got a comfortable amount that he’ll put into the race team to support it. As long as we can manage in that threshold, we’ll be OK.”

The key, of course, is keeping all three teams in the top 35 and the purse money coming in as well as running a tight operation with low overhead.

For the Daytona 500, Andretti is driving the No. 37 Long John Silver’s car, which will be driven the rest of the year by Travis Kvapil. Kvapil is driving the No. 34 this week, but Kevin Conway (who brought the Extenze sponsorship) takes over after this week as he wasn’t approved for Daytona. Robert Richardson Jr. will drive three races in the No. 38 with his sponsor Mahindra, while David Gilliland will drive the remainder of the events with sponsorship from Taco Bell. The team also is getting support from Ford.

“We want to move this team to a mid-pack team,” Jenkins says. “We want to know that every week we’re getting a little bit better. That’s our philosophy going back five years. In this sport, you're either moving forward or you’re moving backward.

“We realize it’s an incremental process. … These next five or six races are critical for this organization. If we don’t perform, then it’s just going to look like it was another team that went out and made a bold statement and then couldn’t back it up.”

Kvapil called the shop a “beehive” of activity as employees scrambled to get cars ready.

“I haven’t told him to his face, but I kind of think he is crazy,” Kvapil says of Jenkins. “But this is his vision. If he can keep it within the model of spending a certain amount of money, he says he can do it and can afford it.

“I’m proud of him for taking the plunge.”

Jenkins loves it when people call him crazy.

“That is part of what drives me,” Jenkins says. “I love being the David vs. Goliath, but I don’t like being the victim. There’s a huge difference there. I’ve seen so many teams come in and they’re so overwhelmed by the NASCAR system and how they work, and they take the victim status.

“I understand the landscape. I know what we’re up against. I don’t want to make any excuses when we fail. My goal is to go out there and beat some of these guys.”

It’s been a goal that Jenkins has had for as long as he can remember. He remembers as a newlywed, more than 20 years ago, talking to his wife while watching a race.

“I said, ‘One day I’m going to own one of those teams,’” Jenkins says. “And she says, ‘We don’t even own our passenger vehicle. Why do you think we could own one of those teams?’

“I’ve never lost sight of that. It’s something I’m passionate about. I’ve applied the same philosophy to my restaurant business. We do what we can do, but we always want to position ourselves in the best possible place. I lay awake at night thinking how can I put myself in a little bit better place, what can I do to shore up where we are as a team?”•Scott Lagasse Jr. gets ride with Baker Curb Racing