A few months ago, one of my friends at Toyota invited me to head up to Charlotte, N.C., to cover a NASCAR race. As part of the deal, I’d get a look behind the scenes of where one of Toyota’s NASCAR teams, Joe Gibbs Racing, builds, tests, develops, and preps its cars. While I’m not what you would probably consider the typical NASCAR fan, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. Perhaps surprisingly, it ended up being pretty awesome.
Driving up to Joe Gibbs Racing, it doesn’t look like you’re on your way to a racing team’s headquarters. It actually looks like you’re pulling driving around a suburban office park. If you take a wrong turn, you may accidentally end up on a golf course. It’s the kind of place where you would imagine wild Lexuses roaming free, content to graze their spindle grilles on the perfectly manicured grass in the shade of the leafy trees.
When you find your way to the parking lot though, the building that greets you could easily be confused for a museum. It’s large, very clean, and the parking lot really is full of Lexuses. Judging from the facade, it’s hard to tell that there’s a building with over five Walmarts’ worth of space behind those doors. Even when you walk in, you are greeted by a very museum-like space, full of race cars, a dirt bike that I’m told I can’t ride, and a friendly but intimidatingly large man in a polo shirt.
Everything feels so clean and sanitized, you don’t really have anything to compare it to. You already know NASCAR racing. NASCAR racing is rednecks, tank tops, cheap beer, and chewing tobacco. NASCAR racing is dirt and grit and loud noises and sparks flying in the pit as sweaty, greasy men bang on body panels with hammers to make them useable again. This building though, is nothing like that at all. This is the kind of place where robots are built. If you had told me that I would be touring the factory where ASIMO is built, it would have made sense. The fact that this was a racing headquarters though was a bit disconcerting.
Walking deeper inside this cavernous building, we’re greeted with a giant, open floor where all of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas are prepped for their respective races. Some cars, like Kyle Busch’s M&Ms car are completely race ready and just in need of a gas fill-up. Others are still being tinkered with, which means that the former-NFL-player-turned-racing-crew-member who’s giving us the tour very firmly insists that nobody take any pictures. While I’m normally one to ask forgiveness instead of permission, his hands are each roughly the size of a glazed Christmas ham, and I don’t want to make him angry. I have a feeling that I won’t like him when he’s angry.
Deeper and deeper we go, finding more and more secret chambers filled with bits and pieces of race cars that are all in different stages of fabrication and assembly. I’d like to think that for someone who isn’t a mechanic, I have a pretty solid tool collection, but Joe Gibbs Racing’s tool collection makes me look like a kid on the street, rubbing a stick against the pavement to sharpen it into a spear. After all, the coolest tool I use is a hydraulic jack. They have the equipment to fabricate every single part for their cars, except for the engines. Those are flown in straight from Toyota Racing Development in California. In case you’re interested in trying shoehorn one into your Camry, I’m told I can have one for exactly $90,000. They make over 900 horsepower though, so even if the quoted price is hyperbole, it’s still a pretty good deal. Good luck managing the massive amount of torque steer that you’ll get out of a 900 horsepower, front wheel drive car though.
One of the more interesting sights is the engineering office, a room that’s home to the nearly 50 engineers that they keep on staff. Just like the rest of the complex, everything is clean, modern, air-conditioned, and very nice. Long gone are the days when the guys working on the cars were just mechanics with a “creative” grasp of the rules. Now it’s all computer-based testing, college degrees, and ergonomic office chairs.
Finally, as the tour is winding down, we get to actually meet Joe Gibbs himself, which would have been way cooler if I had been able to keep my eyes open for any of the photos that were taken of us. He doesn’t give me his phone number or offer to take me out on his yacht (If you own a racing team, you own a yacht, right?), but overall, he seems like a genuinely great guy, like the grandfather every guy wishes he’d had growing up. He’d probably be a great boss too, but his, “I’m not mad at you. I’m just disappointed that you aren’t living up to your potential,” talks would have to be absolutely crushing. If you played sports in elementary school, you know what I’m talking about.
As cool and modern as the Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters is, I can’t imagine that it’s much different than the headquarters for Hendrick Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing, or any of the other big names in NASCAR. Annual budgets may differ by a few million here and there, but I doubt any of the big boys spend less than $75 million a year, even accounting for varying numbers of cars. Hendrick’s budget may even exceed $200 million. Clearly, if you want to play in NASCAR these days, it takes big money.
The question is though, where does that put the guys who don’t have $80 million or even $50 million to spend on a team every year? Where does that put the guys who can’t necessarily attract the sponsors like Lowe’s, Fed-Ex, Aaron’s, or the National Guard?
For that, you have to look at Josh Wise, who actually won the fan vote over Danica Patrick at last year’s All-Star Race, and hit the track a few times last season in the now-famous Dogecar. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, the Internet community behind the crypto-currency Dogecoin crowd-sourced donations several last season to sponsor a Dogecoin race car. Even with the mischievous dog head covering the hood, his strategy had to be a cautious one. Mostly content to stay toward to back of the pack, Wise didn’t try to pass anyone. Instead, he waited for other drivers to make mistakes, did his best to stay out of any of the wrecks, and slowly tried to work his way up.
I can’t tell you exactly exactly how much of that could be attributed to Josh’s skill level, but considering that Phil Parsons Racing ran the 98 Chevy at the Coca-Cola 600 the week after the All-Star Race without any sponsors on it, I feel like it’s safe to say that money isn’t exactly flowing like milk and honey over there, and without big name sponsors to attract or a big name racing team to attract those big sponsors, it has to be hard to justify a more aggressive strategy. The Dogecoin sponsorship was awesome on several different levels, but even a group of several thousand individuals couldn’t afford to sponsor a car every race of the season. Sadly, it takes more money than a group of fans could ever come up with to fully sponsor a car and be competitive.
Wise seemed like a friendly, genuine guy when I met him, and I love the idea of individuals being able to get together and sponsor their favorite driver, but at least for now, the amount of engineering, craftsmanship, and innovation that goes into the big name teams’ cars makes NASCAR a sport that only a few teams can afford to compete in at the elite level.
Is the solution to institute budget caps? I don’t know. While I’m generally against the idea in F1, NASCAR will never be F1, nor should it try to be. It’s great to see teams push the limits of what physics and the official rules will allow them to do, but ultimately, it’s still a sport where duct tape and a hammer are necessary parts in a pit crew’s tool kit. There’s something decidedly blue-collar about it, and hopefully, there always will be.
Whatever happens, and as awesome as a state-of-the-art racing headquarters is, I just hope that there’s always room in NASCAR for the little guy.