Speed51.com - The first point you made in the letter to teams was that you and the ownership board of USARacing are committed to running the 2011 season. Is that still the case, is everything still a go for the USARacing Series?
Chip Lofton: Absolutely.
The first thing that got brought to our attention was some turnover within the organization, including Jimmy Wilson no longer being with the series. Are there new people in those positions, including a replacement for Jimmy?
I don’t know how much everybody knows, but Jimmy Wilson never worked for USAR, the group that we have now. Jimmy Wilson worked for Camp & Associates. Larry Camp & Associates was our PR person and Larry Camp was our managing partner. After two years of making a lot of mistakes, we sat down and made some decisions; Number one, do we move forward? And if we do move forward, do we do it in such a way that we minimize the losses that we’ve had? How do we get the car count up? How do we get the fan count up? How do we make it work?
So one thing that we came up with was the fact that we were running the series by a committee. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a committee, but in the end, sometimes it’s better to have a dictator than a committee. I call him a ‘Commander in Chief.’ We’ve never had that. We know that Larry Camp worked very hard to try to get the series a sponsor and with the economy out there, we’re not sure there’s one out there. We don’t hold anything against Larry for not finding us a series sponsor, but we ran the series like a sponsor was coming next month.
If you’re running a business and let’s just say that you’re looking for investors and somebody says we have a big investor that’ll be here next week, the decision that you make that week knowing an investor is coming next week would be different than if you’re being told there are no investors. We led ourselves into a situation where we thought a sponsor was always coming, and we could afford like we had a sponsor, but we never got a sponsor. That put us in a very bad way on the bottom line.
I try to remind everybody when they call me, and anyone that wants to call is welcome to and I’ll return their call, that this whole thing that started a little over two years ago when Hooters was going to close down the series, Gary Kale came up with a great plan. He sent everybody an email and said if every team puts up $20,000 and becomes a stockholder, we’ll have a million-dollars to run the series for two years. During those two years, we can be looking for sponsors, but we’ll have the pressure off and everybody can go out and do some great racing.
Out of that came three people that raised their hands and said, ‘I’ll do it.’ That was Gary Kale, Jack McNelly and myself. Here we are two years later, Gary Kale, Jack McNally and myself, together we’ve put in over a million dollars of our personal funds. And, we ran somebody in the series for all those years, so probably all those years, just because the series was there, we’ve got well over two-and-a-half million dollars in the series.
For two years, we kept hoping and praying like it was a poker game, and you re-up and ante and you go, ‘That guy’s right around the corner with a big series deal,’ let’s put in another 50-grand.
There’s nothing personal about people who aren’t going to be a part of the series anymore. When different managers with different management styles come in, you do things differently. At the end of the day, the buck stops with me, so the decisions of who will be in place will be mine and I’ll live with the consequences. We appreciate everyone who has worked with the series since it was born. We certainly appreciate what everyone’s done in the past two years, but we needed to make some changes all the way around from the top down and from the bottom up. Some of the decisions were hard and were not fun, but I have to do what’s best for the good of the series and to get higher car counts and more fans in the stands.
Here’s the kind of guys that we are and have been. The beginning of the season comes by and we say we’re doing another season, we don’t back up. We say we’re doing another season, and you can look at our record, we’ve never backed up. We get committed and we do it. We’re not quitters. When we make the commitment to go, we go. What’s different this time, is that we all agreed that our ruling by committee was not working. Somebody was going to have to take charge, and that somebody was going to have to be somebody willing to put more money in. I don’t know if I’m the fool or the hero, time will tell, but I volunteered to take charge and to put more money in. I have always seen this from a team owner’s eyes. I’ve never seen it from a racer’s point of view because I’ve never been a driver. I’ve never seen it from a running-the-series point of view because I’ve never run a series. I have sponsored a lot of people in racing and I’ve had my son in racing and I’ve had to pay the bills. This is what I see.
In this economy, and the way it’s been for a while, is this is a pay-to-play program. No matter what you get into, the East/West program, the ARCA program, the Truck program, you can’t sell enough sponsorship to pay for that deal. The return on investment is not there. Why don’t we just be honest with each other and say you know what, this is a pay to play thing. What level can you pay to play? What I’m trying to do is look at my own set of circumstances and say, ‘You know what, I spent X number of dollars running last year. What would it cost me to move to the next series, something like ARCA or Trucks? If I say ARCA, it’s going to cost me three times as much. If I say Trucks, it’s going to cost me six times as much. It’s still pay to play. Everybody in the game that I know of is pay to play. Is there a small sponsor out there for a guy driving a car? I’m sure there is. Be thankful for that. Do whatever you can to hang on to that because they’re very far apart right now.
Let’s be honest. This is for people who can afford to pay to play. What I’m trying to do is make it for more people to be able to play so we can have a higher car count. The way we can do that is to reduce costs any way possible.
This is what our series has to offer. We have the big cars, the big horsepower, the radial tires, the pit stops. We have 250 laps of fender-to-fender racing every race. We had some races last year where we weren’t excited about the car counts. Every race that I went to last year was some fantastic racing. How much better would it be with a higher car count? It would be much better. My son always told me when I said I hoped we didn’t have to compete with the Bobby Gills and the older guys that had 10 years or more of experience, he wanted to compete. You don’t understand, I want to race against Bobby Gill. I want to race against Clay Rogers. I want to race against those guys because they’re the best. If I’m going to beat anybody, I’ve got to race against the best. He was right about that. Our series is perfect for the young guys coming in because first of all, for the pay to play guys, we have a very good cost.
Especially this year with our motor program, where you lease a motor for $30,000 for the whole year, and if you break a motor, they give you another one. If somebody would’ve made me that offer anytime, I would’ve taken that deal right off the bat. That’s not to say anything bad about other motor builders, but there was only one guy that had 400 motors sitting on a floor that were built and ready to go. That was Joey Arrington. I don’t know anybody that could do that. These engines are not used in the Cup Series anymore because technology outdated them. These engines cost about $85,000 in parts just to build one engine. So we’re getting a really great gift, being able to use these kinds of engines and for this kind of price. I know myself, my cost would be cut by a very large number just by the engine program. We understand that some people have three or four motors of the other type sitting on the floor, but you’ve got all season to use those motors. When you use them up, take advantage of the program and use the savings.
Some people are trying to say these are Dodge motors. No, all of the valve covers say USAR. The motors that are spec motors in a series are not one thing or another, they’re the spec motor for the series.
Staying on the engine side, I’m sure you’ve seen the letter that Jeff and Keith Dorton have sent out in response to the letter you sent out. They spell out the cost of the spec engine that was developed last year versus the leased engine. The way they break it down does sound like the leased engine is more expensive.
Here’s the big break. If you have a Dorton engine or another engine and you pay the $25,000 for the engine, it is your engine. They would not do a lease program. It’s a purchase deal. At New Smyrna last year, I blew a brand new Dorton engine. Not saying anything against Dorton because he’s built a lot of great motors for me and I continued buying motors from him that season. But I had to buy a new engine. I didn’t get one race out of that engine and I had to go buy a new one. That one item right there, it takes the new spec program and says nobody can compete with that. Dorton can’t give you another motor, he can’t afford that. He’d have to go buy all those parts and go buy you another motor. So the fact that Arrington, when he bought out the Evernham stuff in Concord, he got all the motors and all the parts inventory, everything it takes to do a program like this. We’re on a contract for three years and he’s the only one that can support a lease, give you a motor if you pop a motor kind of deal.
I sent a nice response back to Keith (Dorton), and I think he’ll verify this, and I thanked him for all of his hard work in the series. I told him that he had my respect and the series will always have respect for what he’s done for us. We don’t know where we’ll be in three years with the motor program, but we’d like to consider staying on good terms to get back in business together.
We were hearing from people like Jay Fogleman, who now races in a (Super Late Model) Series. We say, ‘Jay, we really miss you. Why aren’t you there?’ His answer is that he can’t afford the motor program. If we had a program like they have, where I can run a spec motor, then I’d be there with you. We’ve heard that a lot. We pay attention and we couldn’t make a real quick change in the middle of the season last year.
We started testing, we put the engine out there to see if it would hold up to the other engines and it did. We wanted to know if it could take the RPMs and the short track kind of racing and we proved that it could. As much as I’m saddened to lose someone like Keith Dorton in our program, I’m excited to have an engine program that we have now. Although there has been some controversy about this spec engine package, I’m putting all my money and all my effort on the fact that this is going to be part of the thing that makes our series more attractive in the future.
One thing that raised some eyebrows was the allowing of the K&N East and West Series-type of racecars into USARacing in 2011. What was the thought process behind that, and do you think you will get some of those cars into the series this year?
We started looking at the cost situation that we had last year and we looked at car count, midway through the season we started looking at options. One option that we entertained was allowing the East/West cars. We got a hold of an East/West car with a fresh motor and we took it to the racetrack. We took some of our cars and we raced against it. We felt like we could make them equal. The fact that we’re running short tracks, the body is not that much of a concern. We thought maybe at Iowa it would be an advantage with the bodies they had versus ours, but we’re not running at Iowa this year. When we do some testing at Rockingham, if we see an advantage, we can throw some weight here and there to keep things equal. As the owner of a team, the only thing I ask when I go to any race, whether it’s a Pro Cup race, an ARCA race or a Truck race, is that I have an equal chance. Everything that I will be doing moving forward will be to make sure that we have fair and competitive racing where other people don’t have an edge for having something they shouldn’t have.
Do you think the NASCAR K&N East Series, which was once a Northeastern-based series racing mostly North of the Mason-Dixon Line, moving into more of a Southeastern Regional series, has hurt the Pro Cup product?
I’m sure that there’s always considerations when a team is saying, ‘What am I going to run this year? What is going to suit my son better? What’s going to suit my team better?’ Sometimes they feel like they want to be more associated with NASCAR than anything else. That’s a decision they have to make. When I make comparisons for my own situation, I’ve owned a couple of East cars. I sponsored Peyton Sellers when he went out to California and finished second to Joey Logano on the last lap. I’m familiar with the series and I know Kip Childress really well. I think the major difference in just looking at the two series, is they normally run 150 laps with no pit stops and they run on a bias-ply tire. What we’re trying to accomplish is giving the experience of a longer race with pit stops. If my son hadn’t have had pit stops for the last three years, learning pit stops and pit strategy, moving up to the Truck Series would be a real difficult thing. It doesn’t make our series better than that series, it just offers different flavors for different people.
What we’ve tried to do this year as much as possible, because of the economy, is we’re trying to make our shows where you can come in and do a one-day deal. In some series, it’s a three-day deal. When you have pit crews and hotel bills and travel and people leaving work to be at those races to be on a pit crew, your expenses go astronomically up. There will be a couple that will require you to come in on Friday, but most of our races you can show up on Saturday morning and leave on a Saturday night.
Were there any ideas to shorten the races or limit the pit stops to further make it more economical?
All of that was tossed around. When we say, ‘Why are we different?’ We keep coming back to the radial tires, the pit stops, the longer races and race and pit strategy. We’re leaving that the same.
You mentioned Joey Logano earlier, plus Trevor Bayne, some of the younger guys that went from the Legends Cars or Late Models into the Pro Cup ranks to making a name for themselves in the top levels of the sport. Pro Cup has proven to be a viable stepping stone. Is that still what you want the series to be?
Absolutely. We want it to be a great place for a stepping stone whether you’re a young fellow or a guy who just loves to race and race in a series with a lot of competition and fender bending. We already know that we’ve got drivers that are 14, 15 and 16 and some of these guys are going to be the stars some day. You have to start real young now. That’s just the way the racing is going. We have a series that’s open to the young bucks. Chase Elliott came in and within a couple races he was up to speed and he was competitive after three or four races. I suspect you’ll see him up front a lot this year. Some other young guys coming in are going to catch up real quick. They live on those video machines and they learn these tracks before they get there. We’re not opposed to them coming and practicing. We give a lot of practice time and open practices.
When the series gets to New Smyrna when the series starts up about two months from now, an educated guess, how many cars would you say you’ll have at that race?
I’m hoping to have more than 30. I have over 30 commitments right now. Sometimes things come up for people and they miss the first race or something, but it looks really, really good right now. I think the engine program has helped that. I think that we embrace the young kids and we put in place things safety-wise, so I think I’ll use the term we’ll have a kick-butt year.