Expanding BK Racing banks on independence
May 20, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live | Sign up for RaceView today
In winning the Sprint Fan Vote for Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race over the likes of mega-stars from mega-teams, driver Josh Wise scored the ultimate in jaw-dropping underdog triumphs.
It was a bold statement of what is possible even for NASCAR’s smaller teams when the universe aligns just so.
As another small team, BK Racing, is finding out there's a viable and important place in the sport even for lower-wattage teams on the upswing. What the newly expanded three-car BK operation lacks in assets and profile, it makes up for in ambition and potential.
"Hendrick Motorsports wasn't Hendrick Motorsports when it first started," BK Racing owner Ron Devine said. "It seems to me there’s a lot of teams and people who want to be in the top and I'd like to think we’re making a difference, too. There will be a day when BK Racing will be an important part of the sport. We're just getting through our development curve and learning curve."
And that’s exactly what attracted car owner Anthony Marlowe to the team last month when searching for a home for the No. 26 Toyota and driver Cole Whitt when Swan Racing decided to sell off its assets.
"I hadn’t had enough NASCAR yet," said Marlowe, who had just bought ownership interest in Swan at the start of the year and was determined to stay in the sport.
Marlowe and Devine had a previous business relationship outside NASCAR in addition to seeing one another in the garage last season. So bringing the 26-car to BK Racing made sense on many levels -- even if it also created challenges.
"It was really a no-brainer to acquire a little more of the (Swan Racing) assets and we were fortunate to have a partner take the car racing," Marlowe said.
"We've only run three races under the BK umbrella and I've never felt more at home in the sport. Cole’s continuing to perform and now we've gotten ourselves a sponsor (Speed Stick GEAR), too."
That's not to say the transition has been seamless.
Devine, a longtime Burger King multi-franchise owner, fully concedes the biggest immediate challenge will be the "parts and pieces" inventory. He bought the Red Bull Racing team three years ago -- shop, transporters, cars and all. In the last three weeks, the 26-team has moved into the BK shop and Devine was proud to be able to keep most of that crew employed.
"The cost to put a third team on is not like starting up a whole new team," Devine explained. "Hopefully, it actually helps our buying power.
"We understand the challenges in front of us. If three guys start wrecking cars every week, can the shop keep up with it?"
And he joked about making three teams prosper in a shop built for two.
"You've gotta play the hand you're dealt and that's meant extending shifts," Devine said, adding with a laugh. "We've got two surface plates so we do paper-rock-scissors to see who has to wait."
And the challenges extend from the garage to the track. Whitt, 22, a well-respected rookie in the garage, is teamed with two other first-year drivers in 21-year old Alex Bowman and 22-year old Ryan Truex. Whitt's 18th-place finish in March at Fontana is the best finish of the threesome this year.
"We tried to go veteran route thinking it was safer, but good grief, I've been messing around in NASCAR since the 1960s ... And I don't remember wrecking as much stuff in my life as we wrecked last year," Devine said, with a slight chuckle. "I started thinking, the veteran idea didn’t work out so well.
"So if you think of the talent in this sport, and so many of them are tied up already with this sponsor or that. I said, let's just skip a generation and find the new talent coming through and develop a relationship with them and turn them into something. They're all talented, to me, you have to look at someone with good car control and if you look at our guys, all three of them have that."
"I know it's risky and you look at it from the headlines and see 'new team with three rookie drivers' and you take the square root of that and multiply it by Tuesday and you come up with a formula for disaster. But I don't see it that way. I think these guys are going to be a little more cautious in their approach, not wild and crazy. They don't have delusions they are going to run up through the pack (right now). They are stable. To me they are older than their years."
And Devine thinks the fresh face-open potential combination also makes Whitt, Bowman and Truex an attractive sponsorship option. The Speed Stick GEAR sponsorship was just announced Tuesday and will be a primary sponsor on six races for Whitt and associate on the remaining. Dr. Pepper and Burger King have been prominent all season on the Bowman and Truex cars.
"From a sponsor side, the slate's clean," Devine said. "There's something nice about that. The unexpected and unknown isn't as bad in a lot of ways as that veteran who has already worked himself into a certain pattern with the sport. I've explained to all our sponsors what we're doing. And it puts more pressure on the company to over-deliver, but if you talk to them, they'd say they are getting a great bang for their buck.
"That's what we bring to the party. We can price ourselves at a level where their media coverage and involvement in the sport is still a great return on their marketing dollar. We have a leg up on that."
Both Marlowe and Devine fully concede there would be easier, faster, more direct ways to make their mark at the Cup level. The team not only fields three rookie drivers, but builds their own Toyota engines and chassis in-house too.
The past three years have really been huge building blocks -- essentially preparing three new cars with the Gen-6 debuting last year and requiring modifications this year. But Devine is adamant to go about things authentically. He said he already sees improvements in the wind tunnel data and now has a team fully dedicated to on-track testing as well.
Listening to Devine and Marlowe speak about their team, it's obvious this endeavor is a deep passion not just a big business. And most importantly, it's about doing things their way, forging their own course and the reward that path-less-travelled-by could deliver. In due time.
"I don't know if everyone realizes just how difficult it is to put the whole thing together," Devine said. "This is big, big business with a lot of moving parts and the whole field is only a half second apart. ... I respect our competition, believe me, but I'm not afraid of them. And there's a big difference.
"There's no need to fear them. They are doing the same thing we're doing, they're just more experienced at it and have a lot more resources they've built already.
"That's why you see me with my independence. I want to be independent so that we can develop our own competitive edge and that's actually very hard. I explained that to Anthony when he came in. We could probably move further into the pack by becoming one of those 'alignment teams.' There are elephants and mice and we're one of the mice. There are five elephants that feed the industry.
"There's no question our technology would move forward, our motor program would move forward, but at the same time, our independence would shrink. And we're very independent, for better or for worse. And I hope one day that pays off for us."