News & Media

Caraviello: Amid dire predictions, Truck Series rolling along

September 14, 2011, David Caraviello,

Rockingham move may be the first step in series shifting back toward its roots

Two months after winning the 2005 championship, Jim Smith, one of the founding owners in what is now the Camping World Truck Series, closed his team in a dispute over manufacturer support. In early 2002, after Jack Sprague won his third title, Hendrick Motorsports shut down its truck program to devote more resources to the Nationwide tour. In 2008, Dodge and Ford pulled out of the Truck Series because of financial problems stemming from the recession, and the next season General Motorsports cut back support for the same reason. And Friday, Kevin Harvick said he was shuttering his three-truck operation effective at the end of the year to put more of his focus on winning the Sprint Cup crown.

Throughout each of those unfortunate episodes, there is a common thread: all prompted a chorus of doomsday prophecies from those who saw them as a harbinger of the collapse of the entire series, which is in its 17th season. The gloom rolled in again following Harvick's announcement at Richmond International Raceway, a move that certainly removes a high-profile, championship-caliber organization from a Truck Series that needs all the name recognition it can get. No question, this is a circuit that has some issues in terms of visibility and team sponsorship, but worst-case-scenario talk stemming from one team leaving -- for the crime of being too successful, almost -- seems a touch premature.

"Our job is to do as much as we can to support the new owners coming in, and show them a pathway to success."


This is all reminiscent of a few years ago, when certain quarters of the sport's cognoscenti got panicky over the future of the Sprint Cup tour, because the manufactures were facing bankruptcy -- as if NASCAR had not weathered repeated periods of manufacturer unrest throughout its history. There are some who like to think the sky is falling every time it turns overcast, and see the loss of Kevin Harvick Inc. as one loose brick that's going to send the entire Truck Series structure tumbling down.

From his office in Sandusky, Ohio, David Pepper hears it all and shakes his head. "Look," said the vice president for competition at ThorSport Racing, "I haven't missed a race since the first race of the 1998 season. I've seen many, many race tracks come and go. I've seen many, many drivers, crew members, team owners come and go. It is the way of the world. Things change. Some things always stay the same. One of those things is, for the last 16 years, there's always been a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, there's always been a champion, there's always been some great racing. The names have changed, but the events have always stayed the same."

Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president for racing operations, said over 70 owners have participated in Truck Series races this season, and the circuit's television ratings are up 5 percent. And yes -- NASCAR remains committed to the series, O'Donnell said. Friday night's event at Chicagoland Speedway will go on as scheduled, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

"We hate to see owners go, don't get me wrong on that," O'Donnell said. "But I think we've always had a pretty good influx of owners coming in. Steve Turner is a great example of that. Our job is to do as much as we can to support the new owners coming in, and show them a pathway to success. We don't always get it right, but we're hopeful it's still a place where we can bring new owners in and hopefully migrate them up, to expand into Nationwide and hopefully Cup one day."

There are certainly no Chicken Littles over at ThorSport, the longest-tenured active team on the truck tour. The organization owned by Duke and Rhonda Thorson recently moved into a new 100,000-square-foot shop, signed drivers Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton to contract extensions, added a third truck for Dakoda Armstrong, and -- egad! -- has found a way to make the Truck Series financially viable, even while operating from their out-of-the-way (from a NASCAR perspective) Buckeye State home. Their sponsors may not be the biggest of companies, their drivers may not be the biggest of names. But Sauter and Crafton each have a race win this season, and each stand in the top 10 in points. On and off the race track, ThorSport has learned how to make it work.

"You just have to have a good plan. In any business, you're always looking at your costs and trying to keep them down. That's the biggest thing we can control. You can control what you spend. I can't control how many races are in the series or who I race against, but I can control what I spend," Pepper said.

"I can't control how many races are in the series or who I race against, but I can control what I spend."


"Perfect example: If you need to buy wheels, and you know you need 20 wheels to buy a race, we don't need to go out and buy 50, so they're sitting on the shelf, and a year from now all those are obsolete and they might not have even run. I think you've seen the last five years a real tightening of the purse strings, and it's put an emphasis on parts managers, team managers, business operations managers, on all the race teams in every series. We have to get better at our job in making better decisions as far as equipment, people, and the amount of each we have in the shops. It's just being smarter in how we spend our money."

Now, that's not to say there aren't concerns. The looming KHI shutdown comes as Germain Racing, home of reigning Truck Series champion Todd Bodine, is reportedly preparing to cut back because of anticipated sponsorship shortages. Bodine is only on the track this year because Germain was able to partner with Randy Moss Motorsports to keep that vehicle rolling. In the Truck Series, the battle for sponsorship is often a day-to-day activity, and no one seems immune. Even the circuit's biggest name, Kyle Busch, faces obstacles finding backing for the wildly successful organization he founded last year, a fact that leaves him somewhat apprehensive about the circuit's future.

"I think we've all seen it for the past few years that we're all in tough times," he said. "I mean, when Kyle Busch has a hard time finding a sponsor for his truck team when he is driving, let alone anybody else, it's certainly tough. It seems like the only time you can really get anybody to come in and foot the bill is if they're wealthy. It's tough in that respect. Certainly we would like it to be easier, and everybody would. It would make our lives a whole lot easier. But it's definitely troubling a little bit, but all we can do is control what we can do and try to make sure that we survive for as long as we can."

Such struggles, though, are not limited to the Truck Series, as anyone who's noticed Daytona 500 champ Trevor Bayne driving a blank white race car on the Nationwide tour can attest. But these things ebb and flow. Richard Childress Racing got out, and then came back after a 10-year break. Manufacturers got out during the height of the bankruptcy scare, and then later tip-toed back in with some under-the-radar help, primarily technical. Harvick is getting out, for reasons that seem less financial and more about reducing distractions to his Sprint Cup championship bid, but given his history it seems unthinkable he won't remain at least a limited presence in the series, jumping in someone else's truck from time to time.

Rockin' ahead

With Andy Hillenburg the driving force, Rockingham is back in NASCAR with a Truck Series date secure for 2012.

"You always hate to see good, quality teams decide they want to do something else, because you like racing the best of the best," Pepper said. "But every company, every business, every corporate sponsor has a longevity, a business plan. Once they feel like they've accomplished everything they want to accomplish, they change their business plan. It's no different than, I think UPS made an announcement a week or so back that they were changing their focus. If you look back 15 or 20 years ago, at all the different team owners in the Nationwide and/or Sprint Cup Series, you'd find there was a vast difference on the entry blanks now and 15 years ago. And nobody's pressed the panic button that the Sprint Cup Series is closing down."

When it comes to the Truck Series, though, the merchants of doom are convinced the reaper is at the door. Absolutely, losing KHI, regardless of the reason, is a blow. But some Sprint Cup stars like Carl Edwards are already wondering about how they can get to next year's inaugural event at Rockingham Speedway, which comes a day after the premier-series night race in Texas. The sale of KHI's equipment at discounted prices may help bolster existing teams, or coax new owners into the series. Five drivers in the top 10 are 21 and younger, and have very bright futures ahead of them. And organizations like ThorSport prove that the truck tour can work.

"Our team is doing quite well, actually," Pepper said. "We're signing sponsors and re-signing drivers, and building buildings and starting third race teams. There are a lot of things that we've yet to prove, and things that we still want to do, so our business plan moves on, and others, their business plan changes. I'm not at all worried."

Of course, not everything is perfect. NASCAR continues to search for a balance in scheduling a series that started out as primarily a short-track tour, and has evolved into a big-track staple in weekend double- and tripleheaders. The Rockingham move may be the first step in the Truck Series shifting back toward its roots, to a certain degree, although that matter is complicated by the fact that many smaller race tracks lack soft-wall systems. "But as more and more of the tracks implement those," O'Donnell said, "I think you'll see us take a look at more of the short tracks as well."

Edwards, for one, would love to see it. "Maybe there are some opportunities for the Truck Series to go run at some race tracks that we don't run at," he said. "There are a lot of neat race tracks out there. I remember growing up in central Missouri when they would come to [I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo.], that was huge. ... If you brought the Truck Series to Odessa next season, it would pack the house and people would love it. Same with places like [Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis], Rockingham, all these tracks. I think it has a really bright future."

O'Donnell would agree. "I would say, absolutely," he said. "Any series, no matter what you're running, is always going to have its challenges. But I think we've proven over the history of the series it's successful. It's doing pretty well from a ratings standpoint. Are there some things we can do better? Absolutely. But we're looking forward to heading to Chicago for a good race. And yes, we will be there."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.