Furniture Row Racing Has Overcome Mountains
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
A weekend of goosebumps turned into a weekday of goosebumps for Furniture Row Racing general manager Joe Garone when got back to Denver from Darlington earlier this week.
The second set of goosebumps came courtesy of a local Denver news radio station. The announcer talked about Furniture Row’s Sprint Cup victory at Darlington in the Southern 500 and said, “This is Colorado’s NASCAR team.”
Suddenly, all the problems of creating and building a Sprint Cup operation 2,000 miles away from NASCAR’s Charlotte-area epicenter were forgotten.
“That made me think,” Garone said of the radio reference. “You know, that’s something that can’t happen in North Carolina. You can’t say this is North Carolina’s team. That’s an interesting perspective. As you start to be pulled into being one of the regular sports, stick-and-ball type sports – it’s the Denver Nuggets, the Broncos and the Furniture Row NASCAR team – it’s pretty neat to think of it that way.”
And it’s been a long, hard climb to get there.
Furniture Row was founded in 2005 by Colorado natives Barney Visser and Jerry Robertson. It was founded, basically out of a love of racing and a way to promote Visser’s furniture retailing business.
It raced just twice that year in Cup: Robertson drove one and Kenny Wallace the other. The race schedule grew over the next several years with journeyman drivers like Wallace, Joe Nemechek and Jimmy Spencer taking turns behind the steering wheel.
Those steering wheels, and the cars constructed around them, emanated from a race shop that was, is
and apparently always will be located just east of the Rocky Mountains in Denver, Colorardo.
Garone watched the team’s birth from North Carolina, where he was working for the teams of Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip and Cal Wells III. And even though Garone himself was a Colorado native, he watched with a skepticism which was commonly held back in the Charlotte area.
But in 2007, Garone, who had worked with Colorado driver Rick Carelli early in his career, accepted an invitation from Visser to come home – and help build a racing operation in ski country.
Garone figured it would be tough. And it was.
“When we first started, we weren’t even sure we could do this,” Garone said during a telephone chat this week. “There was one year of just, literally, going to and from the race tracks to see if we could even do it logistically. It was more about seeing if it was even possible than it was about putting a car out there and trying to win a race. And the second year was more about trying to find out how to fine tune that: How to overcome some of the obstacles.”
“For instance, on an engine-lease program (they started by getting engines from Hendrick Motorsports), the engines have be picked up and delivered and that’s got to be done in a timely fashion,” Garone said. “Gears, transmissions, parts. All that stuff has to be worked out to be able to have it here (in Denver).”
The result was a team that got pretty good at solving problems.
“It probably makes us be really, really prepared with our cars ahead of time. Our cars, obviously, have to be prepared sooner than some of the guys in North Carolina just because we have further to travel. But you get that worked out. We were able to spend a total of about three years working all that stuff out to where it works flawlessly.”
Another obstacle was people. Racing people. Top-level racing people who had experience in the Sprint Cup Series. Getting them to come to Colorado from North Carolina and then keeping them there through what could be an extended period of trying times.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, there were a lot of good people thrown out of work in NASCAR during
the on-going recession.
“Racing in Denver, Colorado, you’ve really got to prove yourself to bring on board the kind of people we were looking for,” Garone said. “It’s taken time, but over the years, those opportunities came one at a time and we’ve been able to bring people on board.
“And our employee retention rate has been terrific. Once people are here, they stay.”
North Carolina is a beautiful place. Trees, hills, nice climate. It’s a great place to work and live. But Colorado is pretty nice too. Hence, the retention rate.
“Not everybody wants to live in North Carolina,” Garone said. “It’s just that their job is there. We have a lot of people on our race team who used to come out here to go skiing or go hunting. It’s a different lifestyle and, by the way, ‘there’s a Cup team here and I can get a job.’ I have had several people inquire about working here just based on that. And I like to think we’ve generated a nice place to work.”
A key person on the Furniture Row team has learned to love Colorado. Is moving their soon.
Driver Regan Smith came to the team through a series of interesting circumstances. Circumstances involving Furniture Row and Smith himself.
The team had Nemechek as its driver in 2007 and ’08. But with the economy hurting, and furniture sales cooling, the team opted to step back its commitment to Cup. Nemechek was signed to do a whole season so a problem developed.
At about the same time, Smith was available because his former employer, Bobby Ginn and Dale Earnhardt Inc., had come apart at the seams.
“This is the rookie of the year that was available and didn’t have a ride,” Garone said. “We talked to him to see if he wanted to run a limited schedule. And he did.”
He virtually had to in order to keep his career alive.
“There’s been a lot of times when I think, ‘What if I don’t get to race in another Cup race again?‘ “ Smith said of pre-FRR days. “As a driver, you never know when your last race is going to be.”
In 2009, FRR and Smith made 18 starts. With the economy improving, with the team improving, they
started all 36 last year. In the final seven of those starts, there were three top-15 finishes.
Still, all were nervous.
“Last year I was thinking, Maybe they’re going to fire me, I hope not. But who knows what is going to happen. When we had struggles at different points in the season, last year the lowest point was I broke my wrist at Sonoma and raced at Loudon with it broke completely, didn’t have it fixed. I got out of the car, it hurt really bad, it was a horrible day. We were so far off the pace. Probably one of the worst races I personally ever have driven.
“From that point on, we started rebounding again. Ever since the Chicago race, even though some of the finishes don’t show it, we’ve been running way more competitive. It’s just been uphill from there, or downhill, I don’t know how you look at it.”
Furniture Row needed one more big push to get to victory lane. It came from Richard Childress Racing. For 2011, the team opted to switch from an engine deal with Hendrick to a full affiliation with RCR.
FRR now gets everything from chassis to data from RCR.
“We really need to go to the next level and have technical alliance and share engineering resources and that was something (Hendrick) couldn’t deliver and something Richard was willing to do,” Garone said. “I’ll tell you, I can’t speak enough about how good that relationship is, how good Richard and his crew, his race team is to work with.”
Furniture Row and Smith shook the garages and grandstands at Daytona in February. Smith got in contention and stayed in contention. He led seven laps and nearly won. He finished seventh.
They have been strong since.
And then came Darlington.
After winning, Smith got so choked up he could barely talk.
“There were a lot of emotions,” he said. “I was trying to get them all out at that point so I didn’t
show it too much on TV there. But I couldn’t help it. It’s Mother’s Day weekend. My mom is not here. She’s in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She left Thursday, about the same time I left to come down here, to help out with the recovery efforts and save some animals down there. She’s down there doing that. She’s always been there for all my wins, all my races, everything. She doesn’t miss too many of them. To not have her here, that got me choked up a little. It is now, too.
“Outside of that, there’s been so many ups and downs for my career, so many points where you think, Man, what am I doing? What’s the next move? I think it’s obvious now the best thing that happened to me was the end of the ’08 season I didn’t have a drive, I didn’t have a ride, got hooked up with Barney and Joe and Furniture Row Racing.”
The next move for Furniture Row is expansion. Garone said the hope, the plan, is to add a second car. Possible soon. Possibly, this season if the economics can be worked out.
FRR has already received the go ahead from Childress to add a second team.
“There’s not a target date,” Garone said. “We’re just working on it. If somebody (a sponsor) came on board and wanted to take the 78 (Smith’s car, and the Furniture Row/Denver Mattress sponsorship and move to a new FRR car), that could happen next week and then it might take me a couple months to get the second one rolling. But we could respond pretty quick. We can handle two teams here without building a new shop.”
With the one victory in hand, the possibility of a Chase berth this year is also in hand because of the new points system.
And with Smith racing the way he is, the team is not counting out a climb from its current 27th points position to the top 10 out as he is just 79 points away.
But for now, the goal is improvement. Slow and steady, as has been the style at FRR the last couple years and the lifestyle for decades out in the high country of Colorado.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.com Comments