Wednesday, September 05, 2018

NASCAR's Glorious Lunatic

Barney Visser is an American success story.
Fresh out of High School in the late 1960s, the Colorado native volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War, spending 21 months as a paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. After being discharged, he briefly attended the University of Northern Colorado before losing his GI scholarship and going into business manufacturing pillows in the 1970s.
His “Pillow Kingdom” expanded to eight stores by 1977, giving birth to a “Big Sur Waterbeds” brand that expanded into an 85-store franchise by the mid-1980s. Waterbeds soon led to conventional mattresses and furniture, and Visser’s Furniture Row and Denver Mattress companies now operate more than 330 stores in 31 states.
Visser took a similarly nonconformist approach to motorsports, racing at Colorado National Speedway before forming a NASCAR team with local modified driver Jerry Robertson in 2005.

A self-funded, single-car team owner based far from NASCAR’s North Carolina epicenter, Visser was given little chance of success when he arrived on the scene. With Robertson at the wheel, Visser struggled to gain traction at the sport’s highest level, making just 11 combined starts in what are now the NASCAR Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup Series, with a best finish of 22nd.

Despite their competitive struggles, Visser continued to prop up the team with millions of dollars of his own money each season. Robertson, Kenny Wallace, Jimmy Spencer and Joe Nemechek all spent time behind the wheel in FRR’s first three seasons, without a single Top-10 finish to their credit. Youngster Regan Smith experienced similar struggles in 2009 and 2010, before the team finally broke through with an upset victory in the legendary Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 2011.
Since then, Furniture Row has added 17 more MENCS victories – all by Truex – in addition to qualifying for the postseason playoffs five times, with Kurt Busch (2013) and Truex. They reached their peak last season, with a series-high eight wins and a championship-clinching win by Truex at Homestead Miami Speedway last November. Teammate Erik Jones claimed MENCS Rookie of the Year honors, capping a season Visser compared to “climbing Mount Everest.”
Unfortunately, while the view from the top of the world’s highest peak is unquestionably spectacular, very few climbers feel the need to risk their lives by ascending it twice.

A lack of sponsorship forced Visser to park Jones’ No. 77 Camry at the end of last season, taking FRR back to its roots as a single-car entity. And when 5-hour ENERGY informed the team last month that it will not return in 2019, it left Visser with a $10 million capital deficit to overcome, and only 60 days to do it. Coupled with a Joe Gibbs Racing technological alliance that was reportedly set to triple in price next season, the financial writing was on the wall.

Visser announced yesterday that his championship-winning team will not return in 2019, saying, “The numbers just don’t add up. I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that. I’ve always felt that we could be a competitive team and run for a championship, even when it seemed like a pipe dream to many racing insiders. To continue with anything less than a competitive team would not be acceptable.”

Furniture Row Racing authored NASCAR’s ultimate Cinderella story last season, overcoming insurmountable odds to become champions on the sport’s grandest stage. But without regular infusions of life-saving capital, Cinderella’s coach must ultimately change back into a pumpkin.

A sport whose business model requires a sponsor to spend far more than perceived market value (or an owner willing to invest tens of millions of his own dollars annually) is ultimately doomed to failure. The cost of climbing NASCAR’s version of Mount Everest is approximately $30 million per year, and while the U.S. and world economies have each begun to show signs of a rebound in the last 12 months, not enough corporations consider the view from the top to be worth the price of the climb.

Two decades ago, most major NASCAR teams operated with a single, full-season sponsor. Today, very few teams enjoy that luxury, forced instead to secure multiple, smaller backers to underwrite their whopping, $30 million annual price tag.

“I had a wake-up call last year,” said Visser, who missed Truex’s 2017 championship celebration while recovering from heart bypass surgery. “And while I feel great, I need to make the best decisions that will have an impact on myself and my family.”

For Truex, Visser’s decision has an all-too-familiar feel. The New Jersey native joined Furniture Row in 2014 when NAPA Auto Parts departed Michael Waltrip Racing in the aftermath of a late-season cheating scandal, leaving him without a ride. FRR was Truex’s only option to continue as a MENCS driver, and he thanked Visser this week for saving him from the scrap heap, saying Furniture Row “…took me in while my career was in a bad place.”
The timing of yesterday’s announcement could not be worse. Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn must now find new homes for 2019 and beyond – likely at Joe Gibbs Racing – while simultaneously being embroiled in the heat of a late-season playoff chase.
“Make no mistake, this is not the immediate end,” said Truex yesterday. “We still have unfinished business to attend to, and that’s to give everything we have to successfully defend our championship.”
Visser deserves nothing less, and NASCAR owes it to him to learn from his example.
Very few owners are devoted (or crazy) enough to do what Visser has done over the years, funneling their personal fortunes into the pursuit of a checkered flag. Very few allow themselves to be guided by their hearts, rather than their heads.

And with the departure of Barney Visser at season’s end, there will be one fewer still.

One less glorious lunatic to pour his heart and soul into a sport that seems to give less and less in return.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

COMMENTARY: Furniture Row’s Withdrawal Warns of Larger Issues

Barney Visser is pulling the plug on Furniture Row Racing at the end of the 2018 campaign.

That decision will leave a reigning series champion (Martin Truex, Jr.) without a ride for the first time since Blue Max Racing closed its doors just a year after winning the 1989 premier series title with driver Rusty Wallace.

No matter how you slice it, that’s bad news for NASCAR.

The 69-year old Visser first fielded entries in what is now the Monster Energy and Xfinity Series with driver Jerry Robertson in 2005 and self-funded the effort until 2016, when backing from 5-hour ENERGY and Bass Pro Shops allowed him to remove his Furniture Row and Denver Mattress brands from the quarter panels for the first time.

5-hour ENERGY and Bass Pro have backed the team this season, with 5-hour contributing a reported $10M per year to the team’s coffers. The energy shot manufacturer announced in mid-July that it will not return in 2019, however, leaving FRR very little time to secure a replacement.

Visser" "The numbers just don't add up."
“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Visser, who underwent heart bypass heart surgery on Nov. 6 of last year and missed Truex’s championship coronation at Homestead Miami Speedway. “I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that. We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour ENERGY and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but haven’t had any success.”

So what happens now? What does the demise of Furniture Row Racing mean for its employees and for the sport itself?

Shed no tears for Martin Truex, Jr. In the last three seasons, the Mayetta, NJ native has established himself as one of NASCAR’s brightest and most competitive stars. With 17 victories and a Monster Energy Cup Series championship since joining FRR, Truex can virtually write his own ticket in the NASCAR garage. He enjoys an extremely close relationship with the powers-that-be at Toyota, and TRD USA president David Wilson said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that the manufacturer has no intention of letting him go.

TRD USA's David Wilson
“I’m not doing my job if I’m not trying to protect our assets,” said Wilson. “I assure you that I am working to that end. Martin, (crewchief) Cole (Pearn) and some other folks are included in that equation. We don’t have anything to announce today, but hopefully in the near future, we will.”

As of now, the only remaining Toyota organization in 2019 will be Joe Gibbs Racing, and multiple sources say Truex, Pearn and the Bass Pro Shops sponsorship will move to JGR’s No. 19 Toyota next season, replacing youngster Daniel Suarez. Suarez and his full-season ARRIS backing will reportedly shuffle off to Leavine Family Racing, which assumes Furniture Row’s previous position as the number two Toyota organization, behind JGR.

Team owner Bob Leavine has done yeoman work since entering the NASCAR ranks in 2011, but has never been able to attract the type of top-tier talent and sponsorship that would allow him to contend for championships. Veteran Kasey Kahne – currently 27th in the championship standings – failed to provide a anticipated adrenaline boost this season, and announced last month that he will retire at season’s end. A coveted spot at the Toyota table; complete with a JGR technological partnership, a talented young driver like Suarez and a full-season sponsorship from Arris should be just what the doctor ordered.

LFR's Bob Leavine
While declining to discuss LFR specifically, Toyota’s Wilson confirmed that the automaker is interested in replacing Furniture Row, and that qualified teams have expressed an interest in joining the lineup in 2019.

“I would certainly like to think (that could happen).” he said. “But the key isn’t just adding a team; that is relatively easy to do. What’s critical is doing it in a manner so you have all the ingredients that put you in a position to win. That’s how we won the last two manufacturers championships with arguably the fewest number of teams and drivers. It has been an intentional strategy that puts quality over quantity.

“In a best case scenario, we would take on another partner… and add another seat to the table… if we could get all the stars to align. We are working day and night with our partners at Joe Gibbs Racing – and others – to add some additional seats and quality partners to the stable.”

While LFR looks to improve its standing, the biggest losers will be the employees of Furniture Row Racing; those mostly anonymous individuals who uprooted their lives and families from NASCAR’s hub in North Carolina and transplanted them to FRR’s home in Denver, Colorado. Visser spoke of those employees in his written statement saying, “I feel that it’s only proper to make the decision at this time to allow all team members to start seeking employment for next year. I strongly believe that all of our people have enhanced their careers by working at Furniture Row Racing.”

Racing at the pinnacle of NASCAR is no longer financially viable for Visser, whose net worth is estimated at more than $200 million. If Barney Visser can no longer afford to play in NASCAR’s sandbox, there aren’t many people out there who can. With top-flight NASCAR sponsorships now in the $28-30 million range – with an equal amount required for marketing and activation – fewer corporations than ever have the financial wherewithal to take part.

Visser’s decision to step aside is a warning shot across the bow for NASCAR; the clearest indicator yet that the cost of competition has become more than the average multi-millionaire can muster. That needs to change, and soon.

It’s easy these days – and popular – to beat the “cost control” drum. In theory, the sanctioning body, its team owners, drivers and fans all share common ground, advocating budget cuts in the hope of creating a new, more affordable NASCAR. Unfortunately, that common ground turns to quicksand when it’s time to talk specifics.

Earlier this season, NASCAR attempted to cut cost by mandating new, standardized air guns as part of the sport’s pit road protocol. Midfield and backmarker teams hailed the move, saying the guns saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development costs. The front-running teams – who had already spent their R&D money and were reaping the fruits of that labor on Sunday afternoons – were vocal in their opposition to the change. They alleged that the so-called “spec guns” were flawed, accusing them of failing in the heat of competition and jeopardizing the safety of crewman and drivers alike.

In the end, it was revealed that the guns in question had been intentionally “hopped up” by the high-dollar teams, utilizing helium gas -- rather than the recommended nitrogen -- in an effort to increase RPM and improve pit road performance.

So much for pulling together to cut expenses.

Despite periodic pushback from its teams, NASCAR must continue to examine ways to cut the cost of competition. The Ilmor-produced NT1 “spec engine” has dramatically reduced the cost of racing for many teams in the Camping World Truck Series, as has the composite body now utilized in Xfinity Series competition. “Enhanced weekends” – where the customary three days of practice, qualifying and racing are condensed into just two – have been instituted at a number of venues this season; all in an attempt to trim the bottom line.

Those initiatives need to be expanded and other projects explored, if the sport is to regain its lost footing.

When it cost $4 million to field a competitive NASCAR Grand National or Winston Cup team, the sanctioning body routinely sent a dozen or more cars home after qualifying. Today, 40-car fields are the exception, rather than the rule, and the number of full-season sponsors can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

That’s not a coincidence.

When only millionaires can afford to play, the number of players drops substantially. And when millionaires get priced out and only the billionaires remain, the roster is shortened yet again.

Barney Visser is proof of that.

BREAKING NEWS: Furniture Row Racing To Cease Operations At Season's End

Furniture Row Racing has announced that due to a lack of funding, the organization will cease operations following the completion of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

“This is not good for anybody,” said team owner Barney Visser. “The numbers just don’t add up. I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that. This was obviously a painful decision to arrive at knowing how it will affect a number of quality and talented people.

“We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour ENERGY and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing but haven’t had any success. I feel that it’s only proper to make the decision at this time to allow all team members to start seeking employment for next year. I strongly believe that all of our people have enhanced their careers by working at Furniture Row Racing.”

Martin Truex Jr., who joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 as the driver of the No. 78 car, said, “While I am saddened by today’s announcement, I totally understand the decision. Barney Visser, Joe Garone and the entire Furniture Row Racing team took me in while my career was in a bad place, and together we reached the pinnacle of the sport. I will forever be grateful to each and every one of them, and also to Furniture Row, Denver Mattress and the Visser family.

“But make no mistake this is not the immediate end. We still have unfinished business to attend to and that’s to give everything we have to successfully defend our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Right now that is foremost on my mind as it is with the entire team.”

Based in Denver, Colo. and the only NASCAR Cup Series team headquartered west of the Carolinas, Furniture Row Racing started its NASCAR program in 2005 -- first as a Xfinity team and later in the same year as a Cup team. 

While the team had its share of struggles in the early years, Visser refused to listen to the naysayers that a single-car team based in Denver, Colorado could not be competitive in NASCAR’s elite series.

But with the combination of Visser’s positive vision and team-building skills of President Joe Garone, Furniture Row Racing grew into a competitive team. It has qualified for the post-season playoffs in five of the last six years with the No. 78 car, including winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2017 with driver Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn.

A second full time car was fielded by Furniture Row Racing in 2017 – the No. 77 Toyota driven by Erik Jones, who won the NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year honors.

Furniture Row's Barney Visser
After the first 25 races of the current season, Furniture Row Racing’s career NASCAR Cup Series statistics include 18 wins, 70 top fives, 126 top 10s, 15 poles and 6,142 laps led.

The team’s first victory was by driver Regan Smith in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Truex scored the other 17 Furniture Row Racing wins, all coming since the 2015 season.

Both Visser and Garone have made it crystal clear that the team will be provided with the best equipment as it competes for a repeat championship in the upcoming playoffs.

Visser, a 69-year-old Denver native and Vietnam veteran, is the owner of Furniture Row Companies, one of the largest family-owned specialty home furnishings and bedding retailers in the country.

As a race team owner Visser never wavered in his belief that Furniture Row Racing would develop into a championship contender.

“I’ve always felt that we could be a competitive team and run for a championship even when it seemed like a pipe dream to many racing insiders,” Visser noted. “But to be successful in any business you need to assemble the right people and make a strong commitment to succeed. We achieved what we set out to do and feel like we climbed Mount Everest. To continue with anything less than a competitive team would not be acceptable.”

Visser added, “I had a wake-up call last year (heart attack) and while I feel great I need to make the best decisions that will have an impact on myself and my family. My wife Carolyn and the entire Visser family have been supportive of our racing journey and it’s been one incredible ride for all of us.

“There are so many people I want to thank because without them winning a championship and being competitive would never have happened: Joe Gibbs Racing for our technical alliance, Toyota and TRD (Toyota Racing Development), Bass Pro Shops, 5-hour ENERGY, Auto-Owners Insurance, Furniture Row and Denver Mattress.

 “A heartfelt thank you to Joe Garone, Martin Truex Jr, Cole Pearn and all of our team members for their talent, dedication and sacrifices they made along the way. To the Furniture Row and Denver Mattress employees I want to express a special thank you for always having my back from the early years of our race team to our championship run.

“I also want to thank the fans, the Denver community, NASCAR, International Speedway Corporation (ISC), Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) and independent track owners for providing and maintaining the venues that we compete at. A special tip of the hat to the media and to NASCAR’s broadcast partners – FOX, NBC, Motor Racing Network (MRN), Performance Racing Network (PRN) and SiriusXM Radio. We’ve always been treated fairly by members of the media and I appreciate their hard work in one of the most demanding schedules in major league sports.”

COMMENTARY: Educated Guesses On Silly Season 2018

Silly Season 2018 is off to an early start, with a number of prominent drivers in both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series reportedly on the move. While conjecture is widespread and rumors outnumber facts by a wide margin, the crystal ball is becoming clearer with every passing week.

Truex: On the move?
Foremost on the list of Silly Season topics is defending MENCS champion Martin Truex, Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing organization. With sponsor 5-Hour Energy set to leave the sport at season’s end, multiple sources say FRR could close its doors after the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway. Team owner Barney Visser attempted to calm the speculative waters last month, saying that the No. 78 Toyota would absolutely compete next season, but he has also said that he has no interest in returning to the owner/sponsor role that he assumed prior to last season.

Talks took place recently between Furniture Row and the GMS Racing Xfinity/Truck Series team about a potential sale or partnership, but both sides say not enough time exists to forge a deal.

Visser’s willingness to discuss the sale of his championship-winning organization has thrust Truex to the very top of the Silly Season list. The Mayetta, NJ, native is widely believed to be talking to Joe Gibbs Racing about replacing youngster Daniel Suarez in the No. 19 Toyota next year, with Suarez and sponsor Arris farmed-out to Leavine Family Racing to replace the retiring Kasey Kahne. Gibbs played it close to the vest when asked about that possibility last week, saying, “I think there's a lot right now that is up in the air. The big thing is what the 78 (team does). Right now, there's nothing to comment on. We do like (Suarez). There's so much out there, and most of it is not accurate."

Busch has Monster Energy in tow
Truex has also been linked with Stewart Haas Racing, as a replacement for Kurt Busch in the No. 41 Ford. Busch and sponsor Monster Energy have been openly courted by Chip Ganassi Racing to replace Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 Chevrolet, and Busch told reporters at Darlington that he has two contract offers on the table.

“I do have two offers that I’m looking at,” he said. “It’s kind of the same thing as last year, where the team at Stewart-Haas put me into free agency. It gives me the opportunity to talk to others, and I do have the loyalty and the respect from Monster Energy. We’ll announce things when they get closer.”

At the moment, the most likely scenario is for Busch to land at CGR, with Truex moving to Gibbs and Suarez transplanting to Leavine Family Racing.

KBM to Cup? Don't bet on it.
Considerably less likely is an internet report that Kyle Busch will expand his Kyle Busch Motorsports Truck Series team to the Monster Energy Cup Series next season, fielding a pair of Toyota Camrys for himself and elder brother Kurt. KBM tested the waters in the Xfinity ranks a few years ago with limited success, and the “KBM to Cup” rumor has failed to gain much traction.

Plans for Roush Fenway Racing's No. 6 Ford are also uncertain at present. Wyndham Resorts recently signed a multiyear deal to back the team in a limited schedule of events next season, but former series champion Matt Kenseth is unsigned and Trevor Bayne is considered unlikely to return.

Kenseth focused on 2018
Kenseth commented on his status last weekend at Darlington, saying, “I'm honestly trying to concentrate on the rest of this season, trying to get this done. The season has been up-and-down. I wish our results were better than what they were, but on the other hand, I feel like we've made a lot of progress. It doesn't really show on the stat sheets or the box score all the time, but I feel like we've made a lot of progress. (I’m) really just trying to keep that going, keep moving forward and keep trying to get more competitive by the end of the season."

Bayne’s longtime sponsor, AdvoCare, recently underwent a change in upper management, throwing their continued involvement in the sport into question. Bayne told the Knoxville (TN) News, “I'm still not very happy about being out of the race car. We've tried to make the most of (breaks in the schedule) and not sit here in this place of anger and frustration."

Bayne "not very happy."
Bayne has been linked with the open No. 1 Xfinity Series Chevrolet at JR Motorsports next season, but more recently, Truck Series phenom Noah Gragson has emerged as the leading candidate to fill that seat. Gragson said last week that he would like to graduate to the NXS ranks next season, but declined to comment on possible talks with JRM.

Bubba Wallace is secure at Richard Petty Motorsports, after signing a one-year renewal last month. The team still needs sponsorship, with Smithfield completing its six-race “holdover” deal from previous driver Aric Almirola this season and considered unlikely to return.
And finally, AJ Allmendinger appears unlikely to return to JTG Daugherty Racing in 2019, moving instead to the IMSA Sports Car ranks with longtime friend and team owner Michael Shank. Look for Ryan Preece to replace Allmendinger in JTG’s No. 47 Chevrolet, with teammate Chris Buescher returning to the No. 37 entry.