Taxing expansion process took toll on Swan
April 24, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Brandon Davis had every intention of building a team that would last.
"I want to build a race team for the long haul," the owner of Swan Racing said just seven months ago, when asked why he was replacing former driver David Stremme. And indeed, the Denver oil and gas magnate exuded sincerity, and had a personal fortune to back it up. There have been plenty of fly-by-night owners in NASCAR throughout the years, men who got in too deep too soon and then got out. Davis, it seemed, would be different.
Until Wednesday, when a struggling and overextended Swan Racing team shed its two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series programs, in the process leaving rookie Parker Kligerman under contract, but without a ride. The No. 26 car and rookie driver Cole Whitt have each been transferred to BK Racing -- which overnight becomes a three-car operation -- under the ownership of Anthony Marlowe, a former Swan minority partner. Kligerman's former No. 30 car has been sold to XxxTreme Motorsports owner John Cohen, which is keeping many of the crewmen but putting J.J. Yeley behind the wheel.
Given everything we've heard from the Swan Racing folks over the past year, about how they were building for the future and wanted their young team and young drivers to mature together, this all comes as something of a shock. A few months after expanding from one car to two, a few months after making a big splash with associate sponsorship from a company owned by rapper 50 Cent, Swan now has no cars to put on the race track, and no plans to do so anytime soon. Forget the long haul -- Swan won't even make it to Richmond this weekend.
"And that's where the anger and irritation comes in for me, and the disappointment," Davis said by telephone Wednesday. "It's just, the help wasn't there."
Granted, Davis is far from the first NASCAR newcomer who got into the sport only to be overwhelmed by the commitments that ownership demands. And to be fair, Davis has pretty much bankrolled the team out of his own pocket; his Swan Energy company has been the listed sponsor for 32 of the 60 entries he's fielded since late 2012, and forking out that kind of cash again and again has to grow tiresome. But the old adage -- you want to make a million dollars in racing, start with two -- exists for a reason. Drivers may be the ones encased in helmets and firesuits, but owners remain the sport's ultimate risk-takers. This deal requires five- and six-figure investments, and no return is ever guaranteed.
None of that, though, makes Swan Racing's apparent swan song any less disappointing. The plan was for Davis to fund the team primarily himself last season to get it going, and lean on sponsorship this year. But then the organization expanded from one car to two. It hired a pair of young, rookie drivers, who despite their promise stood 33rd and 38th in Sprint Cup points after the most recent Sprint Cup race, two weeks ago at Darlington. The budgeted financial commitment from Swan Energy was used up within a few weeks. The hole was dug deeper. It's clear now that Davis had concerns going back to Daytona, and it was after Texas when the situation truly became untenable.
All of this coming 19 months after Davis took control of the former Inception Motorsports, and despite what seemed some positive outward signs. Swan brought in minority partners Marlowe and former football star Bill Romanowski, inked a deal with 50 Cent's audio company that earned plenty of good press and seemed like it would be around for a while. It certainly sounded that way in September of last year at Richmond, when it was revealed that Stremme would be out of the car the following week.
"I'm not looking for somebody who can bring me money. I'm looking for somebody who can drive. That's the priority," Davis said then. "… A young driver is what we're looking for. We want someone we can grow with over a period of time. … I would like to bring someone in and work with someone that is in their youth as we grow as a team."
Three months later, he brought in two of them -- the 23-year-old Kligerman and the 22-year-old Whitt, both of whom had shown promise at lower levels. "Now is the time to plan for the … future by adding more resources," Davis said in December.
Later on, Davis would admit that the expansion process was an arduous one. "It's been difficult. It's a lot more work than it was," he said in February. Those growing pains have been evident in the results. So with both cars struggling, with not enough sponsorship money coming in, and with the owner weary of fishing deep into his own pocket, the result becomes a predictable one.
If there's any kind of silver lining here, it's that Davis managed to keep most of his former workers employed, sending them off to BK and XxxTreme along with his old race cars. And though Kligerman doesn't have a ride, he's at least still getting paid while he waits to find a new one. "I've worked harder the last month on this than I've worked on anything in my life, trying to make sure those guys had a place to go," Davis said Wednesday.
And yet, in retrospect it seems clear that adding the second car took its toll. This wasn't Stewart-Haas Racing, an established and sponsor-rich three-car organization tacking on a fourth entry. At Swan, suddenly everything took double the effort, and Davis felt pressed trying to devote attention to both his burgeoning race team and energy businesses. Asked Wednesday if the expansion was too much, he was succinct: "Yes," he said. "Most definitely." At the very least, give the man credit for honesty.
Davis is hardly the first owner to take on too much, too soon, although such ventures stand in contrast to the more measured initial forays made by many of the successful owners of today. Joe Gibbs fielded a single car for his first seven seasons, Roger Penske for his first nine after jumping back into NASCAR in 1991. Rick Hendrick didn't field a second full-time entry until his fledgling operation was nearly three years old. Jack Roush fielded only Mark Martin's car for his team's first four seasons of existence.
The economic conditions then were surely different than they are now, although Barney Visser and James Finch both found ways to make single-car operations last. For a start-up car owner these days, though, it's probably difficult to resist the idea that more cars equals more potential income, both in terms of purse money and available sponsor inventory. And yet, reality has a bad habit of getting in the way of that ideal.
In the case of Swan Racing, it all begs one question -- would we be at this point had the organization remained at one car? On the other end of the telephone, there's a long pause and then a sigh. "I don't know the answer," Davis said. "I really don't know the answer. I don't know. That's a good question."