Celebrity Race Teams Face Bumpy Track Surfaces

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, September 25 2020

Denny Hamlin has been very successful as a driver. Becoming a successful owner will be even harder. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Tom Copeland)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

It looks so easy, this NASCAR team ownership thing. Especially, apparently, to bored celebrities.

Buy a car, hire some people, accept big checks from corporations eager to have their brands splashed across national television airwaves 40 or so times a year, hang out in luxury suites at race tracks until it’s time to head down to victory lane for some photo ops.

Geez, Joe Gibbs did it.

The thing is, it’s not quite as easy as all that.

I’ve lost track of how many pressers I’d sat through back in the day that featured high-profile celebs grinning like kids on Easter egg hunts as they announced they intend to throw in with NASCAR as team owners.

They ranged from Jackie Joyner Kersee and her husband, to Dallas Cowboy legends Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. None held a presser announcing that they underestimated the difficulty and expense of forming a team and had decided to waste their time and money elsewhere.

On Monday, basketball legend Michael Jordan announced he was joining forces with current Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin to form a team and compete in the 2021 season.

Their driver will be Bubba Wallace.

This kind of feels different from those past celebrity dabblings. But it also kind of feels the same.

Bubba Wallace is joining forces with basketball legend Michael Jordan and Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.

First of all, Jordan has more money than the dabblers of old. He is reportedly worth over $2 billion. And, his brand has more cache than had past dabblers so attracting sponsorship dollars should be easier. Celebrity forays into NASCAR in the past made Page 2 note columns in newspapers. Jordan’s joining is a Page 1 standalone story.

Then there is Hamlin. He’s 40 years old and has been a full-time driver since 2006. He’s won three Daytona 500s and 40 other Cup Series races.

Plus, he has spent all those years at the top-shelf Joe Gibbs Racing operation. If he’s spent his years at Gibbs with eyes, ears and mind open, he should be able to offer the new team things that money and Q-Ratings alone can’t buy.

And then there is Wallace. In the NASCAR of old, his involvement in the social justice movement would have ended his career in the sport. Indeed images of Wallace wearing Black Lives Matter gear probably had NASCAR old-schooler throwing boots at television sets.

But the fact is, because of disgust over changes in the sport in the 21st Century and advancing age, old-schoolers have been leaving the sport over the last decade. NASCAR knows this. And it knows new fans need to be found and cultivated.

Everybody in the sport took notice that after Wallace took his stand, support and money – new money – flowed into Richard Petty Motorsports, the team for which he is now driving. Even more of that moolah will be pipelined into the Jordan/Hamlin/Wallace team.

And make no mistake: The Jordan/Hamlin/Wallace team will need money, knowhow, money and more money to be able to compete with the Team Penske’s, Hendrick Motorsports and Gibbs teams on a weekly basis. The old saying that” speed costs money, how fast do you want to go?” still holds true.

Other than who owns the team and who will drive the one car it fields initially, not much else is known about the project right now.

The name, car number, manufacturer, sponsors and other details for the new team will be announced at a future date, Tuesday’s announcement of he team’s birth read.

The charter for racing in the series was purchased Germain Racing. It was a team that had little success in Cup. Upgrades will clearly be needed. The best way to do that would be to establish a technical relationship with an existing successful operation. Gibbs would seem to make sense.

So, yes, this all feels different from the past.

What feels the same is: here comes a celebrity who may think success on a race track will be a snap. Or, in this case, a slam dunk.

In announcing his entre’ into NASCAR, Jordan talked about his reasons: longtime love the sport and, especially, contemporary social consciousness issues.

“Historically,” Jordan said, “NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitments and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educated a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

And absolutely and righteously laudable those reasons are.

But Jordan is also a businessman. A great one. And business people can get real uneasy, real quickly when things head downhill financially. Jordan – a man who has made becoming a sports legend and a business mogul look so easy – needs to enter this venture knowing success is probably not going to come quickly and easily.

All three principals in the new need to be committed, realistic, savvy and determined. They can’t approach this venture as a hobby or a plaything.

Because there is another old saying in racing. And it too can be as true today as it was decades ago: “How do you make a small fortune in racing? Start with a large fortune.”

Best of luck misters Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace. Life in racing will not be an uncontested layup. But that will make success all the more gratifying.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, September 25 2020
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