Justin Haley won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway Sunday, cashing-in a longshot weather gamble when lightning in the vicinity of the track waved-off an impending restart after a number of contenders had just pitted for tires and fuel.
Haley’s win for the first-year Spire Motorsports team was the kind of upset that Daytona has become famous for over the years, and the type of Cinderella Story that fans and media have historically embraced. This time, however, both Haley and his team have found themselves the targets of criticism, second-guessing and name calling, even before the post-race champagne had dried.
Spire Motorsports was formed during the offseason when owners Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr – who own and operate Spire Sports + Entertainment, a talent management and motorsports consultant agency -- were hired by Furniture Row Racing’s Barney Visser to assist in selling his race team and its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series charter. Unable to find an interested buyer, Dickerson and Puchyr elected to take the plunge themselves, obtaining $6 million in loans to purchase Furniture Row’s charter, then contracting with Premium Motorsports to provide race cars and equipment for their freshman campaign.
Spire began the season with veteran Jamie McMurray behind the wheel in the season-opening Daytona 500, finishing 22nd after a late-race crash. Since then, they have fielded weekly entries for a driver list that includes Haley, Quin Houff, Garrett Smithley, DJ Kennington and Reed Sorenson. Prior to their upset at Daytona, Spire’s best finish had been an 18th by Sorenson at Talladega in late April.
In addition to their new racing endeavor, Spire Sports + Entertainment represents a number of NASCAR and IndyCar drivers, including Haley, Smithley, Kyle Larson, James Hinchcliffe, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Todd Gilliland and Vinnie Miller. They also serve as consultants to teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, GMS Racing, ThorSport Racing, Larson Marks Racing, 5-hour Energy and Eneos, as well as for the Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway.
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That, apparently, represents a conflict of interest in the eyes of some, making Spire’s Daytona victory a “black eye for the sport” in the eyes of at least one media member.
“Conflict of interest” is nothing new in NASCAR. Bill France, Sr, raced in many of the early events sanctioned by his National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. From 1995 through 1999, Jimmy Spencer drove cars sponsored by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., which also served as entitlement sponsor of the series at that time. Today, Kurt Busch’s Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is sponsored by Monster Energy, major sponsors of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
In neither case did anyone cry “conflict of interest,” or claim those sponsorships to be injurious to the sport.
When the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. drove for Richard Childress Racing in the final years of his career, one of the teams he had to beat en route to Victory Lane was his own organization, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Jeff Gordon raced against Jimmie Johnson every week for many years, while holding an ownership stake in Johnson’s car.
No one complained about those supposed “conflicts,” or fretted that they might destroy the sport.
NASCAR is not the only sport with conflict in its ranks. There are currently nearly 1,700 rostered players in the National Football League, with only a dozen or so major agents representing them. Does an agent who represents multiple athletes on different, competing teams present a conflict of interest?
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But does it have any negative impact on the athletes, the league or the game?
Before purchasing FRR’s charter during the offseason, Spire contacted all of its motorsports clients, asking for their approval to proceed. Every athlete and team gave their blessing.
If Spire’s “conflict” is okay in the eyes of their clients, it should be alright with you and me, as well.
In truth, the uproar over Haley’s Daytona victory is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot, manufactured by a small handful of utterly joyless souls who apparently cannot stand to see an underdog team (or the sport) succeed. Despite the ongoing efforts of those unhappy few to convince you otherwise, Sunday’s win has not brought the sky tumbling down around NASCAR’s ears.
Saying that something “could” damage the sport is far different than proving that it is actually causing harm. And at this point, not a single shred of quantifiable evidence has been presented that Spire’s so-called “conflict of interest” has damaged the sport in any way.
Some of the same people bemoaning Spire’s dual role in the sport have chastised the team for not being competitive enough in the first 17 races of their existence. One writer described them as “a team that’s shown no interest in being competitive whatsoever,” with another accusing the organization of being nothing more than “a cash grab.”
Dickerson, Puchyr and team president Ty Norris are not disinterested in running up front. They are simply aware of (and bound by) their current competitive limitations. Like a number of other teams in the MENCS garage, they must make the best of a limited budget and non-state-of-the-art equipment, racing in the bottom half of the field while attempting to build their program for the future.
There is absolutely no indication that Dickerson and Puchyr plan to cash-in their chips at season’s end, selling their charter for a healthy profit before snickering their way out the door. If such a “get rich quick” scheme was truly viable, they would have been able to sell FRR’s charter to some deep-pocketed venture capitalist with an eye for an easy buck. That didn’t happen, leaving Dickerson and Puchyr to step up, when no one else would.
If that qualifies as a “cash grab,” so be it.
Most of us regularly execute “cash grabs” when we punch a time clock at work in exchange for a weekly paycheck. So long as Spire Motorsports remains within the rules and regulations of NASCAR, they have every right to operate their team however they see fit, and grab all the cash they can along the way.
It took Furniture Row Racing seven seasons to make its first trip to Victory Lane. It may take Spire Motorsports another seven years to return to the Winner’s Circle, but if it does, it won’t be from a lack of trying.
The men and women who make up Spire Motorsports do not deserve your scorn. They deserve your congratulations and well-wishes after a weekend that every new NASCAR team dreams of, but very few ever achieve.