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Andretti Team Is On Front Row Of Racing Efficiency

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 21 2009
Front Row Motorsports keeps Sprint Cup racing in perspective.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Front Row Motorsports keeps Sprint Cup racing in perspective. It has to. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Joliet, Ill. – In the infield of Chicagoland Speedway, John Andretti keeps motioning over his shoulder and talking about “that side of the garage”.

He’s sitting in a relatively spartan Sprint Cup hauler as he does it. He’s sitting on a well-used upholstered bench-seat which is, like, naugahyde or something, but pretty obviously not genuine Corinthian leather. There is nary a laptop computer in sight.

The hauler is clean, but institutionally white inside and devoid of just about anything that does not have a purpose.

That is, the hauler and the Front Row Motorsports team which operates out of it, is clearly not on “that side of the garage”. On its side of the garage, where NASCAR parks teams which are struggling to make races and payrolls, frills are considered to be cheese on the crew’s hamburgers.

As Andretti says with yet another motion over his shoulder, “We don’t have an engineering department here. We have an engineer.”

But Front Row does have some things going for it. Good things, mostly good people. And in times like these (read: in times of economic chaos), it is running relatively well and perhaps standing as a model as how to do more with less in NASCAR.

The team was launched in 2004 by former driver Jimmy Means and restauranteuer Bob Jenkins. It was launched on a partial-schedule basis.

In 2005, Jenkins became the sole owner. The team knocked around in NASCAR – its car qualified for just 34 of 135 Sprint Cup races – until a deal was made in the recent offseason to form an alliance with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. The plan was to run, virtually, the entire schedule (Andretti missed two races because he opted to run the Indianapolis 500 in May).

As part of the alliance, however, Front Row picked up the owner points of the former No. 15 EGR car of Paul Menard and locked itself into the first five races of the 2009 season.

The team has performed well enough to maintain its automatic-entry status and will arrive at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend’s Allstate 400 at the Brickyard 35th.

Andretti, despite missing the two races, is 35th in driver points.

Those kinds of numbers can get drivers and crew chiefs fired on that side of the garage, but over on Front Row’s side, well, break out a box of wine.

“There is a lot of pride in what we do,” Andretti said. “Any time we can do something good here, steal a position here or there, it’s special. If we were to finish in the top 10 in a race, that would be a victory. When we qualified in the top 10 at Michigan (earlier in the year), that was a big deal.

“Not that we are satisfied with where we are. But I think we squeeze more juice out of the fruit than anybody here.”

Front Row has been able to secure some sponsorship money this year. Window World is on the car much of the time and companies like Taco Bell and Long John Silvers have been on the No. 34 Chevrolet’s hood this year.

But big money, that gravitates to the other side of the garage.

Oh well, Andretti, a former resident of the ritzy side, said.

“Sponsorship does a lot of great things,” he said, “but it is not a complete necessity. Racing has existed a long time before corporate sponsorship.”

What Front Row does possess is people. Not people in large numbers, but people of large quality. People like veteran crew chief Steve Lane, who came over from EGR.

Oddly enough, it has been the economic meltdown which has helped Front Row secure its people. Most of them were let go by other teams and then wandered over to Andretti’s side of the garage.

“They are just really talented people,” Andretti said. “Our timing was perfect to start a new team. We are not a new team by name or by owner, but by working parts, we are. The people we got to hire, if the economy would have been strong, those other big teams would have been hiring them, not laying them off. There are so many good people out there.

“Every team in this garage, except maybe a couple of others that got started this year, have let people go. They were just over-loaded with people. That is the nature of this thing. Big teams were getting and keeping people on their payrolls just to keep them on their payrolls. So other teams didn’t get them. But now, people are sharpening their pencils.”

The pay scale at Front Row is not what it is, say, at Hendrick Motorsports. But there are perks to working with the smaller team.

“Everybody here has an influence on the result,” Andretti said. “Everybody on the team has their fingerprints on that car.”

Those fingerprints sit on the ends of fingers which do a lot of different jobs. When the team hits the road for a race, the shop goes empty because most of the people who work there also are in the pits on race weekends.

That’s good and bad. It saves money but hurts performance. To wit:

“On that side of the garage,” Andetti said at Chicagoland almost two weeks ago, “their Brickyard cars are probably ready to go. Mine are being built now. We took an old car, cut it up and it is going together next week. Our guys will get home (from Chicagoland) and they will have to build the car for next week.”

The cars that Front Row uses are year-old and two-year-old castoffs from other teams. Andretti says they are a generation or two old. He said some of the engines are from Joe Gibbs Racing before that team moved to Toyota two years ago.

But those cars are made competitive enough to keep the team in the top 35 by Front Row’s crew of castoffs.

Andretti says the team works itself crazy trying new things. If the those things work, they are retained. If not, something else is tried.

He said that type of throw-back method of operation has paid off to the point were other teams are now dropping by the Front Row garage stalls, snooping to have a little look-see what is going on there.

Some of Lane’s ideas, he said, have been, well, borrowed by bigger teams.

As Andretti sits and talks about his team, he maintains this wry smile on his face. He looks satisfied, content, even though the team’s best finish this year has been 16th.

He’s asked about his level of happiness. Yep, it’s high, he said, even though, “we get bloodied every week”.

“We’re not racing to win here,” Andretti explains. “Our goal is to get better every week.”

Success for Front Row, he said, is to run well enough this week to keep racing next week.

So far, the team has been wildly successful this year.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 21 2009