Teammates: Once Despised ... Now Embraced
Darrell Waltrip and the late Neil Bonnett once were teammates. Two of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. That was their public image. Behind the scenes, both grumbled about having to share the attention of team owner Junior Johnson. The belief was that if one driver flourished, the other suffered. There was only so much first-class equipment to go around.
Welcome to 1998. Me has been replaced by us. Racing reflects a society that discourages individuality. You can't make it on your own. Depend on someone else instead of yourself. Learn the goose step, fall in line and follow the leader. Ironically, Waltrip, who earlier in his career denounced the high-dollar, multi- car concept, painfully has learned the facts of modern-day racing: Without a teammate, you're on your own.
And don't expect anyone to chip in for gas money. Lose a sponsor as Waltrip did and it's even more money out of your pocket. When his deal with Speedblock fell through, Waltrip had to withdraw $1 million from his bank account to keep the operation running. "With the budgets these teams have today, it's not a battle one guy from Franklin, Tenn., can handle,'' Waltrip said. "I feel like I'm in a gun battle with a knife - and that knife isn't even sharp.'' Without the unlimited financial support of a NASCAR "super team'' such as Roush (five cars), Hendrick (three), Yates (two), Childress (two) or Penske (two), there is no one to compare test results with. No one to draft with on race day. No one to block for you.
Teamwork has hastened the demise of racing's independent spirit. Rusty needs Jeremy. Jeremy needs Rusty. One-two in Winston Cup points, Taurus teammates Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield hope to ride engine and caboose with no one in between all the way to Atlanta and the November season finale, deciding the championship among themselves. Of course, the time may come when they actually might have to race each other. Then what will they do? Rusty: "You go first.'' Jeremy: "You go.'' Rusty: "You first.'' Jeremy: "No, I insist.'' Hopefully, while they're exchanging niceties, someone will come out of pack and blow past both of them.
Team conspiracies relegate racing to the level of professional wrestling, where the outcome is predetermined (Mike Tyson wins by disqualification against Stone Cold Steve Austin, setting up rematch). There is a cliche drivers use to explain things that happen in motorsports. "That's racing," they say. This ain't racing.
Team owner Rick Hendrick made a radical choice for his Hendrick Motorsports team heading into the 1986 season. After two years and three wins as a single-car team, Hendrick Motorsports became a two-car operation. The reasoning behind the move was simple: Hendrick had a sponsor who wanted to enter the sport, and a driver and crew chief who were no longer working well together, so he saw a second car as the logical way to grow his team and improve team chemistry.
There was one small problem with the choice, though, as nothing in NASCAR's recent history told Hendrick the concept would work. Quite the contrary was true, because two-car teams were notorious for upsetting drivers and upending team chemistry. Junior Johnson had the sport's only sustained two-car effort at the time, and his team's performance was waning, despite Darrell Waltrip's Winston Cup title in 1985.
Now, 19 years after Hendrick formed Hendrick Motorsports and 17 years after he chose the two-car concept, Hendrick has become one of the sport's most successful owners, with five Winston Cup championships, more than 100 wins, a showcase complex near Charlotte, North Carolina, and four cars competing full-time on the circuit. The concept not only worked, but multi-car teams have become the preferred method of doing battle in Winston Cup.
So did Hendrick's peers see him as a visionary who foresaw the future of the sport? "No, because I spent so many years with people telling me how dumb I was and that I would never win a championship by running multi-car teams," he says. However, the number of one-car teams running the circuit full-time today has diminished. And only one single-car team reached victory lane in the first part of this season, after single-car operations were winless in 2002. One-car teams are dying a slow death in Winston Cup racing and have been for several years.
As multi-car teams have found their way to victory lane, single-car teams have, conversely, found the path to success more and more difficult. Of the 10 race winners during the 1993 season, for example, seven were from one-car teams, including Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt, the top winners that season. Just five years later, though, the trend had reversed, with seven of the 11 race winners coming from multi-car teams, including Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon, who led the way with 13 wins, and Roush Racing's Mark Martin, whose seven victories were second on the list.
Eleven different drivers won during the 1999 season and 14 in 2000, but none were from one-car teams. A record 19 different drivers won in 2001 but only one, Elliott Sadler, was from a single-car team. Sadler's employer at the time, however, was Wood Brothers Racing, which has had an alliance with Roush Racing for several years.
Following Sadler's win at Bristol in March of 2001, nearly two years passed before another single-car team found victory lane. That came during March of this year when Ricky Craven put the Cal Wells No. 32 Pontiac into victory lane at Darlington, nine days shy of the two-year anniversary of Sadler's Bristol win. Note, though, that Craven barely beat Kurt Busch of the Roush Racing juggernaut.
Buoyed by the Darlington victory, Craven spent several weeks in the Top 10 in points during the early part of the season — Wells' first with Pontiac after fielding Fords for three seasons. "To be honest," says Wells, "I think that if we were a two-car team we would be running that much better with Pontiac."
Wells actually fielded a two-car team for half of the 2001 season, before sponsor McDonald's pulled out, forcing the team to go back to the one-car concept. Wells, in an attempt to grow his team back to two cars, has searched for additional sponsorship since the McDonald's pullout, to no avail. "Right now, the best survive and the best get the opportunities," says Wells. "With the multi-car operations growing and growing and growing — where you see five-car operations, three-car operations, and two-car teams that want to be three-car teams, teams that are successful and have a great resume — it makes it tougher for the single guys to jump from one to two. But all things said, when the economy recovers, and more importantly — most importantly for our team anyway — if our performance continues to meet expectations, then I'm hoping we can (add another car)."
Statistically, no team represents the perils of running a one-car operation more than Morgan-McClure Motorsports, based in Abingdon, Virginia. Owner Larry McClure started the team in 1983 and has run a single car every season since. Morgan-McClure fields the No. 4 Pontiacs, sponsored by Kodak in the longest-running primary sponsorship package currently in Winston Cup.
Morgan-McClure won 14 times from 1990, when the team earned its first victory with driver Ernie Irvan, until 1998, when Bobby Hamilton put the No. 4 in victory lane at Martinsville. In between, Sterling Marlin won six times with McClure, including consecutive Daytona 500s in 1994 and '95. Marlin was third in points in '95. But Morgan-McClure has posted no wins since Hamilton's victory in '98. That's four complete seasons without a win, a timeline that parallels the emergence of multi-car teams. "It is a tougher deal because you don't have the information coming in," McClure says of running one car. "You don't have anything to compare to except what you have yourself. That's probably the biggest and hardest thing to overcome with a one-car team. But having said that, all the emphasis on this race team is toward this one car and not split up between two cars. If you've got the sponsorship dollars and can afford to do a lot of private testing, and can afford to do a lot of R&D on your engines, you can win races. We had a single-car team this year to win Darlington. But if Hendrick breaks one motor a week in their four cars, or Childress, they don't think anything about it. But if Larry McClure breaks one engine a week, I would be out of business. So that paints a difficult picture for a single-car team, but, really, I don't think there are hurdles that a one-car team can't overcome."
The hurdles are numerous, nonetheless, and McClure says his team plans to run a second car at select races before the season is over. "It's a chicken and egg thing: The more success you have, the more you can command," says McClure. "If you're fighting to have success and fighting to get where you need to be, you have to do it with less dollars. There was a time when if you worked harder and smarter, you could be successful. But now, I mean, people are working harder and smarter and they have a lot more money to race with than we have. If we had more sponsorship, it would be easy for us to have success."
Wells, having fielded two cars for part of one season, has seen the advantages inherent with two-car teams and the disadvantages of running a single car. "From our perspective, the biggest challenge we have is the economic model," says Wells. "Two cars are more cost-effective than one. It allows you to manage your price point a little better, and it gives you adequate resources to compete against three-, four-, and five-car teams. That's where I think it's most important. It makes it very tough to carry the overhead with the income stream relying solely on one vehicle. I really believe you can run the second car much more cost-effectively. Or you can run both your cars more cost-effectively if you have a second one that carries the accounting department, and certain levels of engineering, engine development, testing, and all sorts of things. The economic model is just a lot better."
Other significant advantages enjoyed by multi-car teams are the amount of tests they are allowed and the exchange of information built into the system. "The more cars you have, the more NASCAR track tests you're allowed ... and I really feel that that is a huge benefit to your efforts," adds Wells. "And on race weekends, if your cars are heading in different directions and one hits the combination that works and one doesn't, then you can bank the setup off the other car and at least get yourself in the window where you've got something to work with, and I think that's a huge benefit as well, on any given race weekend."
Wells and McClure both say that with enough money a single-car team can compete with multi-car operations. Wells stops short of saying that competitive single-car teams will be nonexistent in the near future. "It depends on who's running them," he says. "I think if Roger Penske decided he wanted to run one car with Ryan Newman, he would run pretty damn good." Still, with the obvious advantages with multi-car teams, the surprise isn't that one-car teams are no longer in vogue but that it took so long for multi-car teams to catch on in NASCAR.
Carl Kiekhaefer had demonstrated the potential of multi-car teams as far back as the mid-'50s, fielding as many as six cars in a single race and winning nearly everything in sight in 1955 and '56. Kiekhaefer was a wealthy businessman who was racing as a hobby and as a way to market his company, Mercury Outboards, which had brought him millions. It was nearly 40 years before the multi-car concept took root in NASCAR.
Other car owners tried it over the years — with Holman-Moody, Petty Enterprises, and Junior Johnson being the most popular — but none were able to change the complexion of the sport. While Hendrick Motorsports didn't single-handedly change the sport, the success of that operation certainly showed the racing community that multi-car teams could work, and work well. "I just think guys didn't step up because there weren't enough drivers multi-car teams at the time," says Hendrick. "Junior (Johnson) really had it going and he, because of the politics involved with his teams, just quit."
With so few examples to follow, Hendrick had to draw on his business experience and follow his gut instinct to make it work. "It's one of those deals you know in your heart that it will work," says Hendrick, who is one of the country's largest auto dealers. "I looked at multiple dealerships and saw we could learn from each other and could grow people and give people opportunities to step up. I knew in the business world that it would work, and I thought it would work in this sport. We just had to work to where we could make it work and win."
Making it work isn't easy, especially with the parity found in the sport today. Finding the right chemistry is key, whether it's with a single-car team or a multi-car one. Chemistry, or the potential lack of it, was an overriding factor when the majority of team owners were content to run a car with one driver. "When I was reasonably successful on a consistent basis, I wanted to do a multi-car team at that time," says McClure, "but the drivers I had certainly didn't want to do that. They didn't want any emphasis taken off them."
That was true, no doubt, from the sport's earliest days, and it lies at the heart of being able to field a successful multi-car operation today. "Multi-car teams are great if you get the guys to work together," says Hendrick. "If they don't work together, or you don't want to have them working together, it's just double your pain. We've got the best chemistry we've ever had between our four crew chiefs right now. They're sharing, and we've done it long enough that we're giving the information for setups before the race to everybody, and the engine information, so they've got all that to play off of, and they can go talk to another guy. I think my job has always been handling the chemistry between people. I'm almost in the people business, trying to find guys who will work with each other. Now we've laid it out to where before we hire somebody we tell them if they don't believe in this concept then they don't need to come here, because we're not going to change the way we're doing things. You're done if they don't work together. If you've got one guy who wants to take and never give, it's not going to work, and the other guys are not going to help him. Our guys see the benefit of it."
So have other teams over the last decade, as multi-car teams have changed the dynamics and complexion of the sport. Gone are the days when a teammate was viewed as an unwanted and unnecessary distraction. "It's a different story now," says Wells. "Teammates help each other go faster. It's as simple as that. Now if you've got the right teammate, it's a huge benefit and I think that most athletes, if not all, really want a drivers teammate. If they're true to themselves, they want a teammate who's just as fast, and in some places maybe faster, so they can learn. That's definitely a change from what we would have experienced even as recently as, say, seven, eight, or 10 years ago. I honestly think the competitive environment requires it."
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