Trials of NASCAR's bush league and aspirations for the top
The choppy rumble of an American V8 engine at idle. The roar at full throttle. The smell of fat, heated rubber and the fumes of high octane gas. Names like Earnhardt, Gordon, Yarborough, Petty, Waltrip, Elliott. The trash talking between Ford and Chevy. The rootsy appeal of NASCAR has been pervasive in the South for decades as a popular mecca for motorheads. Some folks were happy to watch the stock cars go ‘round and ‘round from the stands. Other preferred to guzzle beer in the infield. Others liked the sport so much, they bought their own company.
Jerry Davis and Tony Weight did just that. After years of owning their own computer software and services firm, the two sold out and did a dogleg turn from semiconductors and integrated chips to crankshafts and gear oil.
“I was born and raised here,” said the energetic Davis. “I used to go to Daytona with my dad.”
Australian native Weight is also an avid racing fan. After transferring to the United States in 1979 for business, he met Davis and the two soon eschewed corporate servitude and struck out on their own.
Davis and Weight founded Computer Management Sciences, Inc. in 1983 and grew it into a $500 million publicly traded company over the next 16 years. Along came Computer Associates, who made the two a deal they couldn’t refuse to buy their interests in CMSI in 1999.
“I told Tony one time if we ever had any money, let’s go into racing,” said Davis who reaped a bountiful harvest of green after selling CMSI. “And now since we’re in racing, we don’t have any money.”
Start your engines
The two broke into the racing world by purchasing two defunct units: a Busch Grand National team in Fernandina Beach and a Winston Cup team in Charlotte. The two teams were consolidated and moved to their North Carolina location.
“We’ve made a huge investment,” said Davis. “We’ve got two buildings in Charlotte. We have a 15,000 square-foot building, which is our engine and mechanical shop. We build our own engines. We have a 12,000 square-foot facility where we do all the construction of the parts.”
For a couple of fans-turned-owners, NASCAR turned out to be more than rolling out a car with fresh tires, full gas tank and lots of horsepower.
“I didn’t really understand sitting up in the stands how sophisticated this business is,” said Weight. “It’s not a bunch of good ol’ boys out there figuring our what they can do. This is a precision sport. You’d be surprised with how sophisticated this is.”
NASCAR has come a long way since its early days of running cars on the beach at Daytona. It’s become big business with big prize money and big television contracts.
Winston Cup teams are approaching the exclusivity of NFL owners, with an initial capital outlay of around $5 million to start a team, plus payroll and other expenses.
Davis and Weight were missing a crucial element requisite to all but the deepest pockets in Winston Cup — a sponsor. Without financial backing except their own bank accounts the two chose a slightly cheaper route.
Davis & Weight Motorsports ran its first NASCAR race in the Busch Series at Bristol in late August 1999 to moderate result. One year and 22 races later with Michael Ritch behind the wheel of their No. 55 Ford Taurus, Davis & Weight never finished higher than its 13th place showing at Talladega. Slowly, the initial gleam of owning a racing team tarnished a bit. Efforts to gain a sponsor were fruitless and an independent team proved to be a financial drain on the the partners. Costing between $50,000 and $65,000 to fund one race with 33 races a season, Davis and Weight knew something would have to give.
“Racing a full schedule, there’s no way you can do it for less than $300,000,” said Davis.
All was not well with the crew as Ritch didn’t assimilate with the team as hoped.
Davis recalled some of the hard lessons learned during his first year of racing.
“Our first driver wasn’t in the shop very much,” he said. “That was a problem because he should have been in there. I think what we learned now is there has to be a great chemistry and a great technical discipline between the driver and the crew chief.”
For 2001, Davis & Weight fired up its engines with fresh determination. Driver Mark Green replaced Ritch to shore up problems on and off the track, but the team had shortcomings in the shop.
“[Green] was in the shop working every day,” said Davis. “That was a real asset to us. But unfortunately, we didn’t have a crew chief that was capable of taking us to the top. We have driver who was capable of running up front, but we didn’t have a crew chief who was capable or getting us up there.”
Green made his debut for Davis & Weight at Daytona Intrnational Speedway Feb.17. While his 20th place finish garnered the team their most prize money to date for a single race, nearly $30,000, the rest of the season went pretty much like the first. Three finishes in the 40s, a few in the 20s and nothing better than mid-teens prompted Davis and Weight to suspend their racing operations by mid June.
Lack of sponsorship and the economics of the Busch Series had taken its toll. Davis and Weight could no longer ignore their nagging business instincts.
“The rewards in Busch, as far as prize money and sponsorship, just don’t add up,” said Weight. “There are probably a handful of Busch teams that are profitable because they are the ones who have major sponsorships.”
Their team of 26 was pared down to two and their Busch Series cars were put up for sale. Suddenly, the 27,000-square-foot Davis & Weight race car facility was still.
The two partners haven’t driven away from NASCAR, but have instead zeroed in on the sport’s big league series: Winston Cup.
Winston Cup is to Busch Series as the Jacksonville Suns are to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Busch cars, similar in appearance and a little lighter, often run on the day before the Winston Cup event as a support race. The purses are less, but the travel and team costs are the same.
Big money flows into Winston Cup with team sponsorships and prizes running in the millions. Big names flow out with the likes of Earnhardt, Petty, Gordon and Jarrett.
The Busch series, a place to learn and be seen, is a more spartan affair.
“Let me give you an example,” offers Weight about the Busch series. “If you won the race in Darlington, you get $40,000. If you qualified in Winston Cup at Indianapolis, you get $77,000. Just to finish dead last, you get $77,000.”
Big names in Busch Series? Well, uh . . .there’s Ritch and Green.
For Davis and Weight, priority No. 1 is to get a primary sponsor to subsidize their racing efforts in Winston Cup. They redoubled their efforts, sending out hundreds of letters to top companies around the country. Although the two have a few prospects in the works, the economy has confounded their efforts.
“There is a bit of a recession in racing right now,” notes Davis. “Many teams have shut down because they’ve lost sponsorship. It’s not the heyday it was a year and a half ago. You’ve got a lot of Busch teams right now struggling to make it every week.
“We’re a little bit discouraged right now because of the economy. But we’re not going to just shut down the whole operation. We’re going to keep going.”
The two remain hopeful to get back to the track. If they land a lucrative sponsorship, they aim to rub bumpers with the big boys of Winston Cup next February at the Daytona 500.
“It’s good entertainment,” said Davis. “It really gets your blood rushing to watch your car come in and they do a good job — or a bad job. It’s got its highs and lows. I remember in one race, we were leading the race for a while and that was truly a lot of fun. It’s really exhilarating to see your number on the top of the leaderboard.”