NEW PRO CUP OWNERS READY TO SILENCE SKEPTICS
The best short track racing series in the country for at least the past 10 years was the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series, but with the departure of Hooters as a series sponsor at the end of the 2008 season, the future of the series was a complete mystery. The new owners hope the mystery will be solved with the fast-approaching April 4th opener at Concord Speedway in Concord , NC .
"We're coming, we're here, let's go racing. Don't wait for the second race, come out for the first. We're supporting you. You support us just a little bit," that's what one of the new owners told us last week.
Barely two months ago, fans, drivers, teams, sponsors, and vendors could see their hopes of racing again under the Pro Cup banner slowly fading away. On January 16, 2009, a group of businessmen finalized a deal to purchase the series from Hooters of America and the lights began to come back on.. Suddenly there was hope that this very popular racing series would once again put on great shows, entertain fans, and provide a home for some great racecar drivers. But who was this new group of owners?
Comprised of four partners, Interstate Investment Group (IIG) didn't even exist until shortly before Christmas of 2008. Three of the members have prior Pro Cup participation, operating teams during previous seasons. Jack McNelly, Chip Lofton, and Gary Kale joined with Larry Camp and have been working to accomplish in two months what should take 6-8 months under normal conditions.
First, a little background information on the owners.
Chip Lofton - Originally from Louisiana , but a resident of Roxboro , NC for the last 20 years, Mr. Lofton is the owner of Strutmasters [www.strutmasters.com], a manufacturer of after-market automobile struts. He described his product as appealing to a "niche market for cars like Cadillac's and Lincoln's that have air-ride suspension from the factory and want a repair that can save them thousands of dollars." You have probably seen a Strutmasters.com logo on a Pro Cup car in the past [Stacy Puryear comes to mind] and even on a Craftsman Truck Series winning truck at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1996. In 2008, Matt Lofton, Chip's son, drove the No. 07s Strutmasters..com car in the Pro Cup Series.
Jack McNelly - A businessman from Southwestern Pennsylvania , who grew up on a dairy farm, Mr. McNelly and his father became involved in the transportation business with school buses. The school buses evolved into over the road coach type buses and tour buses. In 1998, he sold the company to Coach USA , but stayed on for four more years before leaving and moving his family to Mooresville , NC . While his racing background goes back many years, most recently you've seen his involvement in the form of the MacHill Motorsports team he owns and established back in the fall of 2000. The team has fielded cars in the NASCAR Nationwide Series on a limited basis with names like Danny O'Quinn Jr. and Travis Kittleson behind the wheel. In the Pro Cup Series, MacHill Motorsports has given A.J. Frank and Dange Hanniford opportunities to race. Matt Lofton will be piloting the MacHill Motorsports Pro Cup car in 2009.
Gary Kale - As the owner of Heritage Truck Centers , Gary and his business partner Carl Hubbard combine to make up one of the four partnerships for IIG. They've built a successful business as a full service Western Star and Sterling Truck Dealerships
offering Class 4-8 New and Pre-Owned Truck Sales, Complete Truck Service, and New and Used Truck Parts. [www.heritageequipment.net]. Under their ownership, they've taken the company from 15 employees in 1998 to over 100 today with four locations. Gary 's son, Derek, has competed in the Pro Cup Series over the last three seasons with 44starts and gaining his first win last season in the No. 22n car. We were unable to get with Mr. Kale or Mr. Hubbard for this article, but the other owners assured us they were speaking for them as far as the USARacing venture was concerned.
Larry Camp - The fourth partner in the mix, Mr. Camp was familiar with the Pro Cup Series, but had not been an active participant before now. He has been involved in racing, primarily NASCAR, for more than 35 years in a variety of roles. For the past 18 years, he has run his own sports marketing company - Camp and Associates, Inc., [www.campandassociates.net] working with drivers and teams. Through a business relationship with the late Alan Kulwicki, Mr. Camp came to know Mr. Robert Brooks, founder of Hooters and the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series. Racing and creating successful racing programs is Camp's business. He said, "Our goal is to rebuild the series in the best fashion possible. We think there is a very bright future for the series and believe it provides a great platform for aspiring star drivers of the future."
One thing the owners were all excited to discuss was the newly solidified TV package with Fox Sports Net, which was announced last week. Unanimously, they all felt it was a great package and would be a much better product to offer potential sponsors and teams than the TV coverage in recent years.
Camp: "As we discussed our future plans with existing partners at the time of our purchase, we stressed our vision for the future. The best indicator I can give is, again, our new TV contract. We are committed to solid growth and true partnerships. Our new television package is going to 'wow' folks!"
McNelly: "It's an excellent deal for us on Fox Sports Net. We're going to have a locked in time each week. You're not going to have to guess when to tune in. The ability to have in-car cameras, speedycams, a pit road reporter - it's going to be first class all the way. It is important to the series and finding our sponsors. The ones we talk to want to know what the TV package is and who our other sponsors are because they want to be associated with good reputable companies."
Lofton: "We've been working on the TV package for two months and finally nailed it down, so now we can be more aggressive with sponsors. The truth of the matter is we have to be honest with ourselves, we love racing but what we have to sell is a TV package. People will watch our racing series on television and buy those products. The whole deal is not any better than our TV package to make people come on board. Fox Sports really wants in on this."
Mr. Lofton summed it up best and hit on what a lot of people questioned about the previous TV package, "We'll have a firm timeslot. People can know when to find us on the television, unlike past years when they had to search and sometimes it was not right. It made you want to throw a rock through the TV."
But how did the new owners all come together? Did they know each other well before the partnership? Surprisingly the answer was mostly "no." Camp's introduction to the group came at the recommendation of Ron Smith, father of NASCAR driver Regan Smith, who Camp had worked with in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year program in NASCAR.
"At Ron's recommendation, I contacted Jack McNelly, who invited me to make a proposal to the other prospective partners for a management contract for the Series. He, Gary, Carl and Chip invited me to the due diligence meeting with USAR in Myrtle Beach and, next morning, they also invited me to become a 25% owner. Outside of Jack, I did not know the other partners."
A similar story came from McNelly who said, "I didn't know Gary Kale at all, I had never met him. Chip Lofton and I got acquainted through A.J. Frank. A.J. drove for me. A.J. and Matt [Chip's son] became friends. In fact A.J. did a lot of work for the Lofton's and introduced me to Matt and his dad. So I did know Chip. Larry Camp I knew through my involvement with NASCAR - we also run in the Nationwide Series on a very, very limited basis. Larry I got to know through a couple of sponsorships he helped me gain."
Prior to the smaller group of four businessmen, an attempt was spearheaded by Mr. Kale to get all of the teams from the 2008 season involved in purchasing the series. With nearly 100 teams in competition last year, it would seem like an easy task, but it wasn't.
"A very good attempt was made by Mr. Gary Kale, for everybody that was a team owner [in 2008] to buy a share of stock for a little bit of money and we'd have enough money to run the series. When everybody handed in their applications to do that, there were only 7." said Lofton.
McNelly echoes, "It would be something that if you ever wanted to quit and walk away from, there would be a certain amount of equity involved in that ownership. It just didn't work out however. The response from owners was very poor, but it did get myself, Chip, and Gary together. We knew Gary had a passion. He was a businessman and, of course, Chip is a businessman and I'm a businessman and we just decided that rather than let this thing spin out of control and burn -- 'let's try and do something to salvage it'. The meetings began and that's how we came about."
Lofton added, "We're businessmen. We work hard for every nickel we've made. We love racing and we have reasons why we would want to continue and why we'd want to be a part of this series and that led to a buy out from the Hooters folks." Camp was added to the mixture, originally to run the series on a day-to-day basis, but McNelley "had him come in and meet the other owners. They seemed to like him, and he is not only our managing partner, he is a partner. He has equity in the company. That worked out really well."
It took more time to put their plans into action than the new owners could have ever dreamed. It's not that they hesitated, Lofton said. "We put our money up months ago and started dealing with attorneys and this has been tied up in the estate of Mr. Brooks."
Camp added, "What matters to us is that we have essentially saved the Series from extinction. It would have gone away."
But why buy a racing series? Certainly the timing of it all could not have seemed worse to those on the outside. The economy was in a major downward slide the likes of which most us have never seen in our lifetimes. Sponsoring a racecar or a series was the last thing most companies had on their minds. Just operating a race team was going to be hard enough, why add a race series?
Lofton explained, "A lot of people like Jack McNelly have a quarter million dollars worth of racing equipment sitting that can't be used in any other series. So right off the bat that alone would make you hope the series would continue and then there's just the love of the sport. There are a lot of people out there, a lot of jobs, maybe as many as 475 people would be without jobs if the series didn't exist."
McNelly: "We all sat back and said, 'if this series dies there's going to be 300 jobs lost in the racing industry.' This no longer is a series of people with their car in the garage behind their house with their friends coming over with a six pack of beer and working on the car at night. This series is beyond that now. This is a professional series that has people hired that make decent amounts of money as aliving. When this series was in trouble and maybe not going to run, you were looking at maybe 300 or 400 people that would be laid off. This way, the series is going to continue with the teams that are going to be there and those people have a job. In my shop alone, I've got six people that have a job who would not otherwise be employed. From a business standpoint, the other thing that we looked at was the owners, ourselves included. We have $300,000 to $400,000 worth of equipment that would be totally useless if this series did not run, because the equipment that we have is series specific. We cannot take these cars and go run somewhere else. So the owners can think what they care to, but if it weren't for this series running, they'd be stuck with equipment that had no value, and even if they are not going to run this series, at least they now have a market to sell their equipment because the series is going to go on."
One area of concern that we had heard from teams and fans that have written to us was that perception could be a tricky thing. With all but one of the new owners having connections to a team competing in the 2009 season, how would they handle the thoughts of favoritism? How will the playing field be kept level? The answers we got were what we expected, but then again they weren't.
Mr. Camp's answer to this tough question was, "We were aware of the possibility of teams being skeptical of ownership due to our partners owning teams. That's exactly why I'm the managing partner of the Series and why Jimmy Wilson was named Series Director. Between Jimmy and Camp & Associates, we will control the issue of a level playing field for ALL competitors." He went on further to say something that anyone who knows the Pro Cup Series can attest to and gets a chuckle out of at the same time. "Anybody who knows Jimmy Wilson knows he would put his own mother in the penalty box if she didn't play by the rules."
Lofton's response was, "It was one of the reasons we were reluctant to do it to begin with. Here's what we did. We had to sit down and look each other, as businessmen, in the eye and say, 'you know what, we've got to run this as a business because if we don't, we'll lose a lot of money doing this. If we can't make money in the end, we shouldn't attempt to do this. We have to run this as a business.' On Monday through Friday we're the owners of this series. When we're in the office, we wear shirts that say USARacing. On race day, my shirt is going to say Strutmasters.com Racing, because I want to be a racer on Saturday. We've agreed, we cannot be successful if we are not going to act like every other racer in the pits. You're not going to see us hovering over the officials, telling them what to do. You're not going to see us in Jimmy Wilson's trailer, telling him what to do. You're going to see us with our teams. There are going to be the same officials as last year that would have thrown us out if we needed to be thrown out. If they make a call, they make a call. We're not going to have a radio connected to any official or anybody calling the race. I'll tell you, and this is from my partners as well because when you get into something like this you look yourself in the mirror and them directly in the eye and say 'guys, this is the part where we have to be the most cautious, the most careful, and not abuse it.' My son even came to me and asked me not to do this. I'll probably watch all the races from the stands, just so my son doesn't feel like he's getting any favoritism, since he seems to be a bit more affected by this all than I am."
McNelly began his answer with a chuckle, "They're just going to have to deal with it," and then added, "That's the best way I can say it. The three fellows that have teams that are principles in this are honest people, and quite frankly all three of us, are too darned busy to worry about trying to gain an advantage in stock car racing. Our cars will be presented for inspection. If they pass and they race and they win - that's fine. If they lose, that's fine too. Nothing is going to change in that regard. If that's their perception, they'll just have to deal with it. I'm certainly not going to compete just because I have 25% ownership in the company."
Another giant hurdle for the new owners to overcome is the lack of primary sponsorship for the series. It's certainly not of their doing that a lot of the sponsors from 2008 departed when Hooters left. Many were tied directly to Hooters in the food industry and had no real reason to continue with the series. Having only two months to find a new primary sponsor is a task that most would not want to tackle, but the new owners are determined to overcome the handicapped start.
Camp said, "The old adage is that tough times don't last, tough people do. We've got great competitors, great team owners. We will work together to demonstrate the viability of the Series this year. We have a great vision for what the Series will be in future years and it's a bright future. USARacing is a red, white and blue All American series, so stay tuned. We are prepared to operate the entire season -- with or without underwriting sponsorship. Even in today's economy, USARacing offers a tremendous platform at an affordable price. That's why folks like Aaron's, Sunoco and others waited on us to set our new platform. So we are very optimistic that we'll have additional partners very soon."
McNelly quickly added, "Oh without a doubt - we're going to run the season. Yes we are. We're all businessmen. We've all been there."
Answering my question before I even asked it, Mr. Lofton said, "The money's already in the bank to pay the purse. I think we changed the purse by a couple of thousand dollars but it's still a $68,000 purse and we're going to pay it the day after the race. The first place person will get a little less, but the rest remained the same, paid all the way to the back. We are still giving away the free tires for finishing in the top 20 [one free tire for each top 20 finisher], just like it was last year. We've done everything we could do to keep it like it was last season. We want everyone to race, we want to pay the purse, we want to guarantee that we will have all 14 races - and we will. If a series sponsor comes in, there's going to be some points money, if not then there won't be any points money but we guarantee there will be 14 great races."
With a change as big as this -- ownership and management of the series, there is bound to be a lot of skepticism from teams and drivers. We asked the new owners how the racing community - drivers, teams, tracks owners, etc. has reacted to their decision to buy the series and keep it operating? Have there been more supporters or more critics? Their answers did not surprise me. Being team owners themselves, McNelly and Lofton may have a better feel for the mindset of the rest of their competitors.
McNelly said, "The track owners have been very good to work with. South Boston, Myrtle Beach , Concord , Hickory , they couldn't be nicer. They are thrilled to death that we're back. They're working with us. As far as teams, car owners - some are fine, some we haven't heard from. It could just be a sign of the times. I know for a fact that there are a couple of teams that just can't afford to race this year. As the year goes on and people, teams, owners have a little bit of a chance to recover, the economy turns around a bit, they see that we're there to stay and have a good program, maybe by mid year it will pick back up a little bit. I think the first year is going to be a little short [car count], but we know that. I will say that of the teams that are signed up as of now, we've got some heavy hitters. There will still be good racing. It's just a human nature thing. I believe that people are just afraid, for lack of a better word, of change. We knew that going forward and we're expecting skepticism. We're going to be under a microscope. There were certainly lots of things going against us but we're slowly but surely getting things together and we're making some great strides."
Lofton added, "I would say that everyone is glad to hear that it's still around. I think we have more skeptics than critics. Any of us in the group, we haven't done anything in our past to make people mad. I don't think we caused a lot of trouble so I don't think there's anything to say about us that's bad, I think it's just thatit's a 'we'll believe it when we see it' kind of thing. That's hard to overcome and the only way we can do that is to have that first race."
Will the series be any different this year? Will the fans in the stands and the competitors in the pits notice anything that they might not be expecting? Surely the new owners who just put a lot of money on the line will want to make the series their "own." One thing that always stood out about the Pro Cup Series was it's uniqueness, it's innovative ways of doing things, longer races, live pit stops, and more. Is all this about to change just for the sake of change? One big change was the relocation of the series office from Myrtle Beach , SC to Concord , NC .
To Mr. Lofton, the reason for the move was simple, "We analyzed where most of our teams were that would stick with the series and had the funds to race through this tough time in the economy, and that forced us out of Myrtle Beach . It was there because Mr. Brooks was from there. We felt we had to move somewhere. Larry Camp has an office in Concord , I live in Roxboro, and the MacHill team is in Mooresville. What I've found the hard way is that the good crew, the business people that work on cars, the Billy Hess's, the Racing Electronics, all these people are in Mooresville. If you're somewhere else, it's a lot more driving to have a clip put on your car. When you go to hire people, you look in your own little town and the crew experience for Pro Cup level racing just isn't there. So racing is here - people are here - this is where we have to be."
As for the product on the track, Mr. Lofton told us, "We have nearly every race official and race day person that we had last year on board this year. We bought everything that Hooters had - trailers, command center, desks, computers, everything - and when they show up on race day, Jimmy Wilson will put on the same racing that they put on last year with the same folks. And that's what our strong suit is right now. We have a solid, hard-working staff who are putting in 20 hours a day if they have to make this thing work, and on race day we're going to put on a good race. I think that's all you can expect from us the first time out. We're going to look like the same thing we were last year because we have everything in place to be the same."
With a lot less time to do things, we were curious about what each of the owners considered their most pressing and immediate challenge prior to Concord . What did they think the priorities were right now?
Camp: "Making sure that all components are in place to put on a great show for our fans. We have every reason to believe that the staff of USARacing, our competitors and stakeholders will do their part to make that happen."
Lofton: "Number one - convincing people that we are going to be there, that we're really going to show up. We've got brand new uniforms that say USARacing on them, the Hooters decals are off the trucks and trailers and the new decals are going on. Hootie [the ride-a-long/show car] is going to have a new face. So convincing people to come out and not wait to see how things turn out. You supported the fact that we're putting it together, bring your car. If it's not 100% yet, come, race with us, and let's have some fun. The problem right now is just overcoming rumors that we won't be there on race day and WE WILL."
McNelly: "I don't know if it's a challenge, but our big job that we're going to do for the next two weeks is publicize the daylights out of this Concord race and pray for awfully good weather. That's the big job. Getting the word out there, advertising it. We're going to go with a TV and radio blitz beginning in the middle of next week [week of March 23-27]. As for a challenge - everything is moving right along. We've got the tire deal done and the TV deal is done. We'd like to attract a little bit more sponsorship money - that is a challenge. We're not where we need to be yet, but we're working every day on it."
So let's make a leap of faith that, for 2009, the USARacing Pro Cup Series is going to proceed just as they envision. It's going to be a bit of a struggle and the new owners readily admit that. But they are not going into this with blinders on. Like all other racing series that have begun their 2009 season, it shouldn't surprise anyone that car counts may be down slightly from last year. Just look at the giant in racing, NASCAR, and how even they have had to continually be concerned about car counts as the season progresses. Considering all of that and believing that the Pro Cup series is strong enough to weather the storm, what do the new owners think about the 2010 season? If they are right, the skeptics will be long gone.
From the marketing point of view, Mr. Camp had this to say, "We have substantive talks with several new partners ongoing relative to 2010 and beyond. We will have long-term partners filling out various aspects of our platform. As we discussed our future plans with existing partners at the time of our purchase, we stressed our vision for the future. The best indicator I can give is, again, our new TV contract. We are committed to solid growth and true partnerships. We are committed to supporting our teams by making the pie larger. As we improve the sponsorship of the Series, we'll improve in these areas as well."
Mr. Lofton's view was, "The real good news is that for 2010, we're looking at a huge success. We're looking at really good sponsorship and some heavy hitters that are looking at putting us in their budget. We're going to do this year, we're going to get through it, we're going to have good racing. That's what counts. If everybody comes, we'll compete just like last year. It won't be perfect, it wasn't perfect last year. We see this as an opportunity. It's a good business, a really good racing series."
McNelly added, "I hope to just be able to springboard into 2010, give us some time to work on some things. We've got some really good things in the works for 2010, it's just we didn't have enough time to put them together for 2009. I just want a good enough year that we can showcase what we can do. Have a good safe year - a good competitive year and get into 2010."
Once we began speaking with the new owners, you could feel their excitement for racing, their true interest in keeping the Pro Cup Series alive and well, not just for themselves. You could also get a good sense that these were experienced businessmen, taking a big risk, but one that they went into with a complete understanding of all aspects of owning a racing series.. But there are still a lot of challenges, still a lot of things to deal with and get into place in a short period of time, pretty much against the odds and the clock.
Camp said, "We think the economic situation Americans find themselves in right now actually play to our advantage as a racing series. We're a $20.00 ticket and kids under 10 get in free. You don't have to pay hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms with exorbitant minimum stay requirements. In short, we've got great racing action at an affordable price."
Lofton had this to add, "When you analyze what's available for racing, you look at the Camping World Series, East and West, they only run about 150 laps and are on bias ply tires. They don't do pit stops normally, and then you compare it to the USAR Series where you run 250 laps and have to get good at pit stops and pit stop strategies. We get more laps and are running on a radial tire, so if you're trying to make it up the ladder, it's more like the way to go. We don't think that NASCAR has anything to fill the gap that we fill. We think we're developmental. Now we don't sit down at night and think 'how can we best suit NASCAR.' We think 'how can we be great racing. How can we put on a race that's a lot more affordable than NASCAR.' You can still run our series for about 20% of what it costs to run of any kind of NASCAR series. That allows a lot of people that couldn't race, that couldn't get bigsponsors, to get smaller sponsors and still race. There are still a lot of volunteers at our level."
As to how they were promoting the season-opener at Concord , Mr. Lofton said, "Ads on TV and radio, flyers in stores, posters, we're doing everything we can to get a good crowd there. We leased the track. It's not like Concord paid us to show up. We're promoting the deal ourselves. We'll have a USARacing car and pace car at the track the weekend before our race for fans to see and promote our race the following weekend. We're going to have a good field. We think we are in a very good position to get a lot of fans to the racetrack because the big tracks are charging so much money and the fan counts are down. It's not that they don't like the racing, but a hundred dollar bill for a ticket is a pretty big bill right now. You take a family of four at $100.00 each and that's a lot of money, but at $20.00 a ticket, we think we can get a lot of racing fans that can't make a lot of the other kinds of racing."
Mr. McNelly ended our conversation with this, "The fellows that are involved in this are racers, they love racing, but they are also businessmen.. This series has to be - I won't say a moneymaker, but it can't be a money pit either. We're not in this just to throw money at it. We're going to do what we can afford to do and what we can't afford to do, we're not going to do it. There's no fat here. The bottom line is we have a sport that we truly love, we have a series that we truly love, and it's going to go on."
Is the mystery solved? Are all the possible questions from competitors and fans answered now? According to Mr. Lofton, "Folks will just have to come and race with us and judge that for themselves."
-credit and written by: Lou Lauer, USARfans.com