Stellar Liberty team faces uncertain future By Dave Rodman

LORAIN, Ohio (Dec. 22, 1999) Liberty Racing has been a launching pad over its five-year history for NASCAR drivers, crewmen and, unfortunately sponsors. Now, a little more than 50 days away from the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season opener, the team sits with its best complement of equipment ever, uncertain of its future.

"We're still here but not as well as we'd like to be," Liberty Team Manager Tim Stephens said Wednesday, three days before a holiday in which the best present his team could ever get would be a ticket to the NASCAR 2000 racing season.

"We could race, literally, tomorrow," Stephens said. "We have a fleet of eight trucks, five of which are race ready, a sixth virtually completed and the seventh and eighth in the fabrication process. Just add money and we're kinda like the Chia pet -- we become a NASCAR team.

"We have more stuff and better stuff -- a better depth of resources overall -- than at any time in our history. We have everything in place except the funding to go play race car. The two trucks that would go to Daytona are sitting, less engines, ready to go in the hauler. The trucks that are complete and in the fleet could run deep into the season."

In its five-year participation in the series, Liberty included in its history Kenny Irwin's NCTS Rookie of the Year campaign in 1997 and a solid campaign in 1999 for Kevin Harvick. Irwin moved in 1998 to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award, while Harvick will race in the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division in 2000 for car owner Richard Childress.

The season opening NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series 250 at Daytona International Speedway is scheduled for Feb. 18. A two-day test is scheduled at the 2.5-mile trioval for Jan. 14-15. But without sponsorship Stephens said his team would not leave its state of the art shop.

"We've always had a sponsor throughout the history of the team," said Stephens of the outfit that formerly included retired NBA player Brad Daugherty among its owners. "We started with a combination of Raybestos Brakes and Ford Credit and then worked with Porter-Cable Power Tools in 1998 and 1999."

Stephens is still supervising a crew of six -- half the crew that ended the season in October -- that is working daily to be ready if a backer can be found. While the team, owned by Ohio auto dealer Jim Herrick, has not set a closure date for its operation, its hope of competing this season gets less with each passing day.

"There isn't a hard date written in stone (for closing the shop), but from the operational standpoint, you look at the calendar and our opener is in mid-February and the test is in mid-January. If you don't have something ready to go by mid-January you're not going to go. We're kind of running out of time and we know that -- all we can do is make ourselves as pretty as possible and hope somebody wants to take us to the dance."

"It would be nice to find a sponsor under the Christmas tree, but we're not nanve," Stephens said with a smile. "You get 'em (sponsors) by hard work and we haven't given up or stopped trying hard. We've got some independent folks out there working for us as well and we've opened up a lot of leads. We've had plenty of opportunities to lay our case on the table for people."

As the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series prepares to launch its sixth season, the loss of Liberty Racing would be a tough pill to swallow for the touring series that has exhibited growth in all five of its previous seasons.

"We're one of that small group that can say we've run 'em all, and we feel like we have a pretty good resume," Stephens said of his team's record. It has started at least one truck in each of the 122 NCTS races that have been held since the series began in 1995. "We have made 130 starts in those 122 events, with three wins and two Bud Poles and $1.1 million in winnings.

"If we're not able to continue, the legacy we have is we launched Kenny Irwin and Kevin Harvick into big time rides, and the infrastructure still remains in place to do it again."

Stephens said Herrick has not put the team up for sale, but that he has had conversations with a couple parties about purchasing it.

"There are some folks who have expressed an interest in purchasing the team, even though there's not a big for sale sign out there," Stephens said. He did say Herrick had considered a partial schedule, but didn't really want to go in that direction.

"We've had some conversations about running a partial schedule, but a partial schedule makes more sense for a team that already has a program up and running," said Stephens, who also said the team had considered offers to switch to the NASCAR Busch Series but decided that course was not feasible. "The overhead involved really makes that cost-prohibitive."

Stephens also said he had discussed possible driving deals with a number of individuals, but the team's lack of sponsorship precluded those exchanges from progressing very far.

"We've had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people," Stephens said. "There's a tremendous talent pool of both veterans and young guys out there, but without a sponsor there's no reason to hire anyone. Our experience has always told us you get the sponsor first because they need to have some input into who they want as a driver and a spokesperson."

Stephens said the mood around the shop is upbeat, as much for the record the team has enjoyed as it's offset by the uncertain future. jjjjjjj "We feel like we're a very good race team," Stephens said. "We are going to stay the course, and if it doesn't work out it doesn't work. I would hate to think it won't.

"We've had a great five-year run. Those of us who have been through most of it have made a tremendous living doing what we love to do. It's been a great experience, but the worst case is we'll be watching and cheering like crazy for Kenny and Kevin.

"We've had a lot of crew guys come out of here to go to work for Hendrick (Motorsports, a NASCAR Winston Cup powerhouse) and Roush (Racing, another NWC power) and land in some other NASCAR Winston Cup garages. We've had a nice history."

"We had a good five-year run and we launched the careers of two fine young drivers, along with a couple sponsors who have moved up as well," Stephens said. "We'd love to keep doing it. The sport doesn't owe us anything -- we owe it a debt of gratitude. It beats the heck out of going to work every morning."

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