DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Each time the car rounded Turn 4, team owner Willy Auchmoody moved with it, positioning himself against pit wall to track his No. 50 Chevrolet as it sped down the frontstretch. Once out of view from that vantage point, Auchmoody returned to the back of the pit box, located in Stall 39, which had a clear view of the gigantic video board showing Thursday night’s qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.
This back-and-forth pacing began shortly after his driver, Kaz Grala, was penalized for speeding on pit road with 24 laps to go in the short, 60-lap event.
“Sorry, guys,” Grala said over The Money Team Racing radio, as Auchmoody listened in.
Responded spotter Joe White: “No, you’re good. We’re still in this.”
Until that moment, Grala looked to be the favorite between him and fellow open contender JJ Yeley to advance out of the Bluegreen Vacations Duel 1 and into Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX). After Grala served his pass-through penalty, though, Yeley was in the transfer spot with 23 laps remaining.
“I thought we were done, I just did,” Auchmoody said. “I mean, you know, we had a mistake. It happens. I mean, everybody, the best of the best, they speed on pit road. I just thought we were done. But like the spotter kept saying: Stick with it, stick with it, stick with it.”
So, Auchmoody stuck with it, continuing his five-foot mini loop in his personal section of the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
With 13 laps left, Auchmoody’s wife, Becky, stepped down from the pit box. She stood by her husband’s side whenever he returned to the video board. Words weren’t spoken, but looks were exchanged.
Grala soon asked on the radio whether he could catch Yeley.
“I don’t believe so with 10 to go,” White said. “But anything can happen. Don’t give up.”
The white flag waved. Willy stepped up onto pit wall, clenching his water bottle in both hands at his stomach.
Grala had caught up to Yeley. Falling in order on the bottom, Grala was able to capitalize on the draft there to pass Yeley, who wound up running the top alone.
The finish line had long been crossed before Grala asked what everyone was thinking — did he make it?
“You’re in,” White responded.
Grala finished 18th. Yeley 19th.
Both of Willy’s arms went up. He turned around with a full smile, spiked the bottle to the ground and literally jumped down to hug Becky. There was a lot more jumping and hugging before Willy somehow disappeared amid the crowd.
Questions of Willy’s whereabouts were answered when the video board showed him, no lie, jumping and hugging Grala on pit road.
“Oh my God,” Becky said. “I can’t even talk. This is amazing. It’s always gotta, you know, (happen) right at the end. We got in at the end, literally the last second. I think it’s just the way, just the way to finish it. That’s how we got here — in 35 days.”
Keep that in mind.
The rest of the gang — family relatives, crew members, sponsor representatives — made its way to the car. Different location, same celebration.
Willy was still trying to form full sentences when Becky interrupted and handed him her cell, indicating it was her mother.
“Hey, ma,” Willy said. “We’re in the Daytona 500. I gotta go, I gotta go. I love you.”
The Money Team Racing formally announced its team on Feb. 1, just 16 days before Thursday’s race, but its formation has been in the works since February 2020, when Willy worked out an agreement with Floyd Mayweather Jr.
The former boxer would agree to a co-ownership as long as Willy guaranteed sponsorship. Money had to be brought in, not just given. OK, fair. Deal.
Well, the COVID-19 pandemic then began shortly after and the timeline didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. It wasn’t until between Christmas and New Year’s Eve of 2021 that the vision became a reality. Pit Vipers signed as a primary sponsor.
“It took a long time, and then all of a sudden, someone hit fast forward,” Becky told NASCAR.com. “And here we are 35 days later.”
Hope that number stayed in mind.
Veteran crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who won two races with Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2006 and 2008, had even less time to build the team’s Next Gen car. He received a call 15 days before Daytona with the job offer.
“I told them they were crazy,” Eury said. “I still think they’re crazy. But it’s … I don’t know. It’s something I tell people a lot of times, there’s one thing I do miss about the Cup Series. I don’t miss the travel and being gone and not having a family. But I do miss the competitiveness of it.
“The challenge of me building the car in 15 days and being able to come back here and go against these guys, I was like it’d be kind of cool. It’s crazy, but it’s kind of cool at the same time.”
Grala has always been a part of the team, albeit not fully inked until more recent months. He and Willy were transparent with each other throughout the process. Willy made it clear: If a more concrete offer came up before TMT Racing was actually ready to race, Grala should take it. And Grala did have options, but none gave him the same long-term confidence.
TMT Racing plans to run a part-time schedule in 2022 with hopes of a full-time run next year. The number six was thrown around as a possible race count this year, but for starters the group is looking at superspeedways, road courses and tracks close to the Auchmoody’s home in Highland, New York — about 90 miles north of Manhattan.
Speaking of home, seven families made the trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, for the Auchmoodys’ first race. They’re staying in the infield. The Auchmoodys had their three kids in attendance (ages 5, 14 and 17), and Eury’s wife and two adopted sons (4- and 5-year-olds).
There were plenty of sponsor representatives, too. Pit Viper sent JP Gendron, who clarified (yes, really) that he’s the manager of fartnerships rather than partnerships for Speedweeks, his first NASCAR experience. Momento NFT and Mane ‘n Tale also had people on the ground.
“Well, Pit Viper, we’ve always loved going fast, right?” Gendron said. “And rubbing elbows. And just competition. So, NASCAR has always been a good fit for us. We’re full turbo — demand respect and authority — all day, every day.
“But it’s about the right opportunity. We’ve had many opportunities here and there in the past, and we’ve dabbled a bit. But this one was particularly interesting with Floyd’s involvement. Just other categories, other worlds getting into NASCAR. We love that. We love anything to shake it up and (promote) inclusivity.”
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Brent Johnson, Mayweather’s international business and brand ambassador, was also witnessing his first NASCAR race with his wife and child. He FaceTimed with Mayweather on the pre-race grid, passing the phone off to Grala before he strapped in.
“I’m awed by being part of this culture,” Johnson said. “Because as African-American owners, there’s not many of us. We know the stories, like the Wendell Scotts, Willy T. Ribbs and the racers of African-American descent that came before us. But being a number is kind of weird.
“And also, for me, being a non-famous person, right? Like Brad Daugherty, Michael Jordan, Floyd Mayweather. Oh, me. Really? It’s interesting. But there’s no reason we can’t. The world is not limiting. We can do whatever we want if we put our mind to it and if the opportunity is there.”
No confirmation was given on whether Mayweather will be on site for Sunday’s main event, but Willy did tell Johnson to fire up the jets after the Duel, claiming Grala accomplished his part. Pit Viper will be providing a party regardless apparently, as Gendron revealed his personnel group will be rolling up in a limo wrapped with Grala’s paint scheme (repping a No. 69 rather than 50, though, because it’s Pit Viper).
All this hype because the No. 50 The Money Team Racing Chevrolet, sporting vibrant Pit Viper colors, will indeed line up 35th for the 64th annual Great American Race.
“As you know, if you’re on the starting grid Sunday, anyone can win the Daytona 500,” Grala said. “You got to run a perfect race. Not easy to do it. But anyone could have that perfect race.
“Why couldn’t it be us?”
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