Editor’s Note: This story was first published on December 15, 2020.
Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace received their 23XI Racing branded polos and jackets minutes before Monday morning’s media Zoom call following their major sponsorship announcement.
The rush delivery was a representation of how every minute is critical for a group trying to establish what they hope will be a highly competitive NASCAR Cup Series organization in a matter of five months — from the formation announcement in September to hitting the track in February of 2021 at Daytona.
It was announced that DoorDash, Dr Pepper, McDonald’s, Columbia and Root Insurance will serve as the founding partners for the No. 23 Toyota, selling out of space on the car for 2021. With those sponsorship dollars in place, Hamlin says they now have a budget to fully work toward next year and beyond.
But don’t think that eases the stress of building a team from scratch, especially for a current driver diving head-first into the ownership realm.
“When building a race team, I can’t emphasize enough that this is from the ground up,” Hamlin said. “I’m looking at catalogs figuring out what the team is going to wear, the polos, the shirts, the sweatshirt … there’s decisions for everything. I wake up every morning and look forward to the emails that I need to respond to. We’re making huge strides right now and I’m really excited about it.”
Hamlin noted the first car is slated to be delivered to the race shop in early January. Meanwhile, he’s receiving text messages past 10 p.m. with updates from team members who are waxing floors and painting walls to ensure the shop is ready for production as the holidays approach.
The focus for Hamlin, who also drives the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is working on logistics of the new race shop, reviewing blueprints and ensuring the facility is thought out to perfection. In order to make sure there is no stone left unturned, Hamlin is working closely with various team members at JGR, even members from Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing.
“Here’s my plans, what am I missing?” Hamlin said. “… How can I make this better? How can I build something where five o’clock comes, people want to hang around? You almost want to create the Google of race shops where everyone’s co-working together. Families come and have lunch, dinner in the café right next to the race shop where they can watch their dad or wife work. That to me is a lot of fun during that process.”
“It’s probably the single biggest thing that a race team is going to have to purchase, so I want to make sure it’s right,” Hamlin added. “… That’s really helped me learn because the management side and the ownership side, I wish I had it figured out but I’m learning this as I go on the business side.”
While other drivers like Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell spend the offseason racing in other forms of motorsports, Hamlin has found that disengaging from racing to recharge the batteries in December and January helps his passion grow once February arrives.
This time around, instead of working on his next round of golf, he’s feverishly answering emails, phone calls and text messages.
“Listen, it’s not a hobby, but it’s like a hobby-ish feel for me where it’s something that’s really, really fun for me,” Hamlin said. “Seeing this thing day by day grow.”
When the team announcement was first made in September, Hamlin was in the thick of battling for a championship. After spending the past two months balancing both responsibilities, Hamlin now has the time to make sure everything goes according to plan.
If it sounds like a demanding endeavor Hamlin has chosen to tackle, then it’s for good reason. Just ask his blood pressure.
“I would say a month ago, my stress level was about an eight-and-a half out of 10,” Hamlin said. “I would say my level of concern now is about a five, maybe four-and-a-half. I feel pretty good about the strides that we’ve made in the last month.”
Adding to the anxiety is the stature of Hamlin’s ownership partner, basketball legend Michael Jordan. The pair had talked about owning a team together for a number of years. Hamlin assured Jordan that 23XI Racing would have the best equipment possible, taking responsibility for making sure the same resources that JGR owns are available.
“It’s up to us as well to almost create that Furniture Row-type of alliance,” Hamlin said. “They won a lot of races and they won a championship. How can we take that information, that equipment and make it better yet? That’s going to be on us to do. I think we’ve hired a lot of really smart people to help do that.”
One of those key individuals is Steve Lauletta, interim president of 23XI Racing. Lauletta has carried over his experience as president at Chip Ganassi Racing, understanding the nuances of operating a race team.
“He (Lauletta) made a great priority list of what we can work on now, what we can defer,” Hamlin said. “Essentially him and his group have really done a phenomenal job of getting that done and easing my anxiety. Trust me, I’d be the first one to call him at 10 o’clock at night asking for some kind of update. But he always has the right answer it seems. I feel pretty good about where we’re at.”
For Lauletta, there isn’t just a concentration on the 2021 season, but what steps the organization can take in its beginning stages in preparation to become a multicar operation when the moment is right.
“This is not a long-term endeavor to have a one-car race team,” Lauletta said. “There’s always going to be a desire to continue to grow with the partners we have and make them an even bigger part of the team. But, also have discussions with partners that will see the value in what Bubba will do on the track with the 23 car with the hopes of growing the team into the future.”