(Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
In the Sprint Cup Series, the motives of some maverick owners often are called into question. Are they there trying to build a race team or simply cashing in by starting and parking the car after a few laps?
In the last superspeedway Cup race, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Mike Bliss started the No. 09 Dodge after running a minimal number of laps in practice, then headed to the garage after 21 laps. The official reason for his departure was listed as “overheating.” Still, his car earned $70,141.
But for teams in the Camping World Truck Series, there’s no such thing as a high-five-figure payday for just showing up. Even race-winner Kyle Busch can’t claim that . His winnings were $56,300.
The only possible way to make a start-and-park truck effort pay off is to unload a back-up truck and run a minimal number of laps. Still there’s little there to cover the costs. Clay Rogers finished last in the truck race at Atlanta and earned $7,990. Still, that produced a better result financially than Gabi Dicarlo, who ran the entire race, finished 24th and earned $8,355.
So why do drivers and owners keep showing up to compete in the truck series, where the sagging economy has put out the red flag for many a sponsor?
“It truly is passion versus profit,” said Red Horse Racing owner Tom DeLoach, who is campaigning a truck with no primary sponsor. “If you were in this trying to make money, you’d be better off stopping at the very beginning and you’d wind up with more profit. Your most profitable moment is just before you start.”
DeLoach’s driver, defending series champion Johnny Benson, said the financial situation today shows that the truck series garage is where the real racers are.
“When you are spending money like that out of your own pocket, there is nothing that shows greater commitment to the sport,” he said.
DeLoach said it’s the eternally optimistic spirit that prevails in the lower rungs of racing that keeps him going from week to week.
“You always believe the next play is the one that is going to make everything happen,” he said. “Racing is no different than that. The next race you’re going to win the race and someone is going to step up and say, ‘I want to sponsor you for the rest of the season.’”
It’s that kind of optimism and determination that keeps truck series driver Timothy Peters going in spite of being released by both Bobby Hamilton Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
Three races into the 2009 season, his is one of the sport’s most heart-warming stories. Rather than retreat back to the Late Model ranks or abandon driving altogether after losing his Childress ride last year, Peters and some of his friends put together a truck team and are running it out of a cramped two-car garage behind a friend’s house in Danville, Va.
As the series heads to Martinsville Speedway, the team’s home track, for Saturday’s Kroger 250, Peters and his pick-up crew are ninth in points, with finishes of sixth at Daytona, ninth at Auto Cl ub Speedway and 15th at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“Basically what we have is a truck team that we’re running out of a two-bay garage behind my friend Steve Stallings’ house,” Peters said. “We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to do. We’re making a splash with a lot less resources than most of the other teams have.”
The team has just three trucks total, far fewer than the average team, and for now it has sponsorship to run through the truck race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Two backers – Strutmasters.com and Hayes Iron and Metal – have been very loyal, he said, and he and the team have been able to make the sponsors’ investment worthwhile.
It helps tremendously that the team gets engines and technical support from Toyota, as do the rest of the teams that race Tundras.
Still, most days find just two people in the shop – Peters and crew chief Chad Kendrick. An outside fabricator hangs the sheet metal, and local volunteers pitch in when they can, especially on race days.
It’s not the traditional racing business plan, but it’s working so far, and Peters plans to press on no matter what obstacles are thrown in his path.
“I race because I love it,” he said. “This is all I know, and I know in my heart that I can be successful.”
TV fans seem to be appreciating stories like Peters and DeLoach are producing. While ratings for Cup races this year have been mostly down, the truck series is continuing its run of ratings growth.
According to the Speed Channel, which broadcasts most truck series races, the Atlanta race scored a Nielsen rating of 1.29 (943,000 households), peaking at 1.63 (1,197,000 households), a 23-percent increase over 2008. Last year, 19 of 22 truck races on Speed saw ratings increases, 15 of them in double digits. The season opener in Daytona saw a 21-percent increase over last year.
The folks out there trying also are earning the respect of people like Richard Childress, the multi-car magnate who once was a struggling privateer himself.
“What it shows is that if you look at bright side of everything there’s always opportunity even in the gloom of the current times,” Childress said. “People are using it as an opportunity to get a business started.
“Some will survive and make money.”
More importantly, he said, they’re showing that they’re real racers.
“Even if a guy gets lapped five or six times, if he’s out there he’s a racer,” Childress said.