Sports

CUP: Tough Times Test Team Owners

It is an all-too-familiar circumstance in NASCAR racing, even in years when economic stresses aren’t severe.

Someone with a pile of money enters the sport by buying a team (or majority ownership of a team), shoots for the moon and falls short. The financial ledger suddenly doesn’t balance, employees are laid off and drivers find themselves without rides. Often, lawsuits follow.

Dreams die hard.

The most recent big failure was real estate developer Bobby Ginn, who came into the sport with big plans and a polished portfolio but left in darkness, leaving mechanics without jobs and other team members twisting slowly in the wind.

Now comes trouble at Richard Petty Motorsports. The team has four cars at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, but the future is shaky, at best, as principal owner George Gillett is struggling with finances and Petty, the team’s figurehead, apparently is trying to put together a financial package to gain control of the operation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the garage, Barney Visser, owner of Furniture Row Racing, is making it work. A Sprint Cup team owner since 2005, Visser owns Furniture Row, a chain of furniture stores, and operates his racing team from Denver, where his business also is headquartered.

Visser, whose team is 31st in owner points and 30th in driver points with Regan Smith at the wheel of the No. 78 Chevrolet, cut his Cup involvement to part-time last year as the economy tanked but, after working out an engineering agreement with Richard Childress Racing, returned full-time this season.

The team dropped to 25 employees (from 55) last year but is back to full staffing this season, Visser said. He has benefited somewhat from the fact that other teams have had to fire employees.

“I didn’t know where the economy was going,” Visser said Friday. “I didn’t know if we were headed into a depression, so we had to kind of find a bottom where we thought it might settle out. Once I knew where that was going to be and we weren’t going to just keep falling off a cliff, we could come back full time this year.

“The guys I’ve hired, people like Joe Garone (general manager) and Mark McArdle (managing director of competition) know people in the business. There are a lot of people on the street who normally aren’t on the street, and that’s helped us.”

Visser operates his racing team from what he called his business “expansion fund,” using his cars as advertising vehicles for his furniture chain. He never considered dropping out of the sport even at the lowest point, he said.

“I’d rather have the race team than another Furniture Row center,” he said.

Gillett, an international sports entrepreneur who built a formidable empire in winter sports resorts and has owned the Montreal Canadiens hockey team and the Liverpool soccer team, has struggled to keep all of his holdings stable this year, and his NASCAR interests have suffered.

“I hate to lump everybody up in one pile and say every guy that’s not a racer that comes in is not successful because,” said veteran driver Jeff Burton. “I don’t think that is fair. I think that this is different than other businesses. We have seen a lot of people come and try to bring a lot of money, and, obviously, you have to have money to be successful. But where you spend that money is what really matters, and the efficiencies that you learn to garner are really, really important. It takes years of experience, I think, to do that.

“I don’t think that they [the Gilletts] came in here and just threw money at everything. I think that they … paid a premium for a race team. They paid a tremendous amount of money, probably a little over-valued. They are in at a high purchase price, and now with the economy the way it is, it is hard to make that work. It is kind of hard to fault them when you are looking a sport when they bought in at how successful the sport was. … Without having the years of experience to understand the ebb and flow, I think it is a little difficult to know what you are getting into. I think they are a lot smarter now, and the question is will they be strong enough to live through the learning phase.

“Just because I have the money doesn’t mean I know what I am doing with it. I am not being derogatory, but there is a reason that some people are successful at it and more successful than others. That is because of their skill set. That has been exhibited, and not everybody is going to be as good as the good ones.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.