Race Weekend Central

Perseverance the Specialty for Doug Taylor, No. 61 Team

Doug Taylor has been doing this for a long time.

He fielded his first entry in the Nationwide (then Busch) Series in 1994, and continued racing through the 1998 season. That was a banner year for Taylor as a car owner, as driver Kevin Lepage delivered the then-Doug Taylor Motorsports team a pole at Dover and a Busch win at the Bristol Motor Speedway.

“We were able to average a 12th-place starting spot and 11th place finish [in 1998],” recalls Taylor, who finished seventh in the owners’ championship that season.

Fast forward 10 years. With co-owner Charlie Shoffner and the same driver that scored him his only career win as an owner, Taylor returned to full-time Nationwide Series competition in ’08 under the banner of Specialty Racing. And while the No. 61 car is not contending for wins, or even top 10s just yet, the season can’t be considered anything short of a success. After failing to qualify for the season opener at Daytona, the team has qualified for every race since, racing its way into the Top 30 in owner points and a locked-in starting spot in the Nationwide field.

That’s an impressive record for a single-car team with no sponsors. More impressive? They’re ready to go full-time again, sponsor or no sponsor, in 2009. In a period of economic turmoil that has seen far better-funded Nationwide teams closing their doors, this relatively unknown team has no qualms talking about being at Daytona this coming February.

That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the road. The team’s most publicized episode on track this season came not on the heels of a top-10 run, but after Lepage had a momentary lapse of concentration at Talladega. Unfortunately, that brief moment destroyed the team’s primary superspeedway car and triggered a massive multi-car pileup that left fans and fellow drivers alike scratching their heads.

Taylor and team were also forced later in the season to let go of Lepage in favor of Brandon Whitt, a winner and former full-time Truck Series competitor, despite having started the 2008 season hoping to rekindle for the long-term the same success that the pairing enjoyed 10 years ago. The parting wasn’t for performance reasons, but the same story more experienced drivers are hearing all too often.

“With Kevin’s age and everything, all I kept hearing was age is a factor,” says Taylor of his dealings with potential sponsors throughout the season. “I kept telling them experience will beat that a lot of times, and the sponsors just didn’t want to hear it.”

“So we just decided we’re better off with a 25-year-old, probably the equivalent in capability [to Lepage].”

Unfortunately, Lepage didn’t take it so warm and fuzzy, filing a lawsuit in July against the team in an attempt to freeze its assets. The outcome is still unclear, as Specialty keeps going to the track each week with Whitt.

How They’ve Done It

The plight of independent Nationwide Series teams out there has been well publicized throughout the 2008 season. Baker/Curb Racing was forced to park its second No. 37 car for lack of sponsorship. Team Rensi’s longtime No. 25 entry is losing their primary sponsor after Homestead, and likely won’t be returning to the Nationwide Series in 2009. And numerous other teams, including JD Motorsports and Stanton Barrett’s team, have had to resort to running second-tier, start and park efforts just to make ends meet.

Numerous other unsponsored cars have chosen to start and park simply for profit. Mike Harmon’s No. 84, along with Phil Parsons’s dilapidated MSRP Motorsports effort, have led the charge of S&P operations this season that have made no secret of their intent never to complete a race they qualify for.

Specialty Racing has broken this mold, running the distance week in and week out despite having no sponsorship. And while “perseverance” is the first word out of Taylor’s mouth when describing how the No. 61 team has managed to compete in 2008, there’s also a lot of tangible practices that have allowed these guys to contest every race with no decals on the hood.

“We’ll run a set less of tires during the race and keep our crew costs down as low as we can,” says Taylor when asked how the team has managed to afford to race. But the big cost for this race team, as with most, is in the engine department. And here, the team again has found a way.

Says Taylor, “We can’t afford to lease a motor every week. [So] we went ahead and worked out a purchase agreement with Yates (the team campaigns Fords) where we own a couple motors that are last year’s engines and then we race them out to extend the mileage to the end of the mileage on everything – and then, I am responsible for it. Fortunately, Roush/Yates builds a good engine that allows us to put 1,000 miles on the motor, which is three races basically, and we’ll go through the valve springs and what not, cut our costs everywhere we can there.”

Specialty also makes its shop services available to fellow race teams. “We’re a full-service facility,” says Taylor when speaking of his operation. “So I can keep the guys busy this winter doing some work for other people and I don’t have to round up a crew come Daytona.”

Operating in this fashion does not have the team contending for the checkers on race day. But it does have them racing, and racing competitively.

“We’re racing for 20th probably right now, [that’s] the best we’ve been this year. It’s just going to take money to get past that. But we’re pretty proud of the fact that we have at times been around 20th in time on the track.”

And while that’s not what Taylor and his team wants to settle for, he is adamant, be it for first or 21st, when he says, “I can’t stand not to race.”

What’s Next

In the eyes of Specialty Racing, all signs point to Daytona 2009. They’re hanging onto a Top 30 spot in owner points, and with that a spot in the field for the first five races of 2009. And though their driver has changed, their goal has not.

Taylor, as car owner, states “Our goal, as with Kevin [Lepage], is to put together a sponsor and Brandon for a long-term situation and get the cars running up front where the sponsors will stay. A good-long-term commitment from a sponsor… that’s what we’re here for. We’ve got to survive, and the sponsor’s got to stick with us and then we’ve got to stick with our sponsors and with our driver and our crewmen. Once we get running like I’d like to, and that’s running up front with a shot at winning every week I think all of that will snowball and keep us going.”

“We’re working with sponsors right now, and I think when the economy turns around, we’ll get the right people in front of us. I have faith.”

Even with this at the forefront of the team’s mind, don’t doubt for one second that Taylor isn’t aware of what is going on in the Nationwide garage at large around him. He’s aware of the talk, the tension, the uncertainty that surrounds NASCAR’s second-tier series today.

Yet Taylor doesn’t see the Cup driver influx in the series as an issue. In fact, he encourages the companion races, stating “If we don’t race with the Cup drivers in the field in 75-80% of our races, its going to cut our income down significantly. And I really believe that the controversy over racing with the Cup guys and all that is misspoken, because if we didn’t have them there we wouldn’t be getting the crowds and the purses that we’re getting.”

Nor does he see the purses as the problem. “Thanks to NASCAR, we’ve got the ability, now, to make it week to week, just on a shoestring, and the purses are good enough now where you can [do that],” he claims. “You’ve just got to watch every penny.”

So, in Taylor’s mind, what is the most pressing issue facing the Nationwide field? Simply, “The sport needs more sponsorship.” And it is here that Taylor’s views take a surprising turn.

When asked about the struggle that so many teams are having with the offseason impending to secure sponsor dollars for 2009, Taylor doesn’t point the finger at the receding economy, or NASCAR for that matter. Rather, it goes right back to the teams themselves.

Question: Walking through the garage, we’re seeing a lot of independent teams that don’t have sponsorship on the hood. Rensi, they’ve been around forever, they’re struggling to find sponsorship. Do you see this as a product of the economy, or is this becoming a major problem that NASCAR needs to step in and address?

“My personal opinion is that it’s mismanagement. That’s my opinion. I believe that if, an entity, a business, our business is racing cars. And if we don’t survive, then I’m the one to take the fall. That’s my opinion.”

“I think, in my opinion, what’s hurting the sport is the owners that have taken the sponsor’s money in the past and bought snakeskin boots and Rolex watches, and they don’t put tires on their darned racecar, and they hired a driver every other week, and they blame the driver, and they never fixed the problem.”

Unexpected, loaded, indicting; these words may come to mind when considering such a stance. But there is no doubt that Taylor as an owner can’t rightfully talk such talk. Because when it comes to being a successful and responsible car owner, he also walks the walk.

The example of the No. 61 team this season is one that needs to have more attention drawn to it. Relying almost entirely on purse money, Specialty Racing has made full-time competition in the Nationwide Series happen in 2008. They’ve raced within their means, taken care of the equipment and resources they have, and re-established themselves on the circuit. Doug Taylor and his No. 61 crew may be racing for 20th, but they are racing.

And that’s more than can be said for a lot of teams and owners these days.

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