Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Eric McClure on Surviving With a Small Market Team

Eric McClure hasn’t exactly set the world on fire this year in his No. 24 Hefty Ford. In 29 races so far this season, he has yet to score a top-15 finish, ranks 17th in the points standings, and has qualified 38th or worse 14 times. But remember that old saying not to judge a book by its cover? Things are not always what they seem, as a driver who’s a family man first, salesman second and racer third is working harder than ever to blend them all together into a successful career both on and off the track.

Eric sat down with our Bryan Davis Keith at Dover the end of September in an engaging, in-depth interview that sheds light on how to make a small-budget work on the track in a world where, more than ever, money buys speed. That, his future in the sport, and his love of all things UVA are the main topics on the agenda in the latest edition of Beyond the Cockpit.

Eric McClure: Wake Forest fan?

Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: Class of 2008. We’ve got a game against Boston College this weekend.

McClure: I’m a UVA fan myself. They’ve got a game they should win [Saturday]; they’re playing a team called “Bye.”

Keith: I’ve got a sister at UVA who doesn’t follow football closely at all. But after they lost to William & Mary, she called and said, “Bryan, even I know that was bad.” Anyways, moving on to racing. This is your third team in three years.

McClure: Thanks a lot.

Keith: I didn’t say it was a bad thing!

McClure: I’m just messing with you.

Keith: This is your third team in three years. Where does Rensi-Hamilton Racing stack up compared to everywhere else you’ve been?

McClure: This has been the best experience I’ve had, for two reasons. Number one, it’s a very professional race team, been around a long time, had a lot of success. They’re business people – I’m a business guy. My primary goal is to represent a sponsor, first and foremost, make [this sport] a good platform for them. [Also], I’ve been more competitive this year.

We’ve struggled a bit recently, been at some tracks that have been historically my worst, but there going through Charlotte we were real competitive. [Then we] had a couple accidents, some part failures that put us down. I really think we should be a lot higher [in points] then where we are.

[But] we’ve been respectable. So for me as a driver, I feel like I’ve got something I can build on and learn from. These people have provided that for me. They’ve helped me understand these racecars, and there’s no turnover here. And to be honest with you, they’ve done everything that they’ve said they would for me. [Now], I bring a sponsorship. That’s what [I] do [as a marketer]; our program is a result of what we can do to help the sponsor.

Now, what we can do on the performance side is good for me as a competitor. This is the first race team I’ve been to where I know every resource is going to the racecar. Every resource we have at the shop is going into the racecars. They give me the best they can with everything we have to work with. That’s all I’ve asked for from anybody, and because of that as long as they’ll have me I won’t be going anywhere [else].

Keith: You’ve mentioned that you enjoy working with your sponsor. How did your deal with Hefty come about, and what do you enjoy about representing the brand on and off the racetrack?

McClure: It was a long time in coming… it actually took about two years to get the sponsorship. I was able to use my education, which was good. I’m probably as proud of that as anything I’ve done in the sport, because I was able to get that from nothing, [Hefty] aligning with me. All we did was put together a marketing platform that allowed them to leverage a sponsorship, to make it worthwhile to them to be in the sport because they could leverage with customers, retailers, [create] brand awareness, and they’ve been loyal to me since then.

It’s allowed me to turn a hobby into a career, I guess. But all the work that happens with my sponsorship happens outside the racetrack. So by the time I get to the racetrack, our work is done in a sense, now we can go have fun. We certainly enjoy representing the Hefty brand, [and] obviously we’re doing a good job, this is their fourth year with us and everything appears to be a go for next year.

So obviously we’re doing something right, obviously they’re not requiring us to win races, but it’s like anything else. We put together a package for them to be successful. That allows them to have their level of involvement, and that gives us a level of resources to go out and try and do a deal.

Keith: A lot of teams are having trouble attracting sponsorship. They don’t win a race immediately and then we see them end up on a Roush or Hendrick car. Talk about being able to use your education. Your equipment isn’t to a level where you can win races yet, but how do you sell that to a sponsor? How do you say “We’re going to be here for the long haul. We’re going to be competitive, we’re going to represent you well, we’re just not going to be first on the scoring chart?”

McClure: Well, it’s just about business. A company wants to achieve a goal. That [can be] either exposure, awareness, sales, all of the above, whatever they want to do. One of the biggest things I was able to do is just sell them on that. It’s a project for my sponsor, it’s not their lifeblood. And because of that, they don’t [have to] invest at the level they would with a bigger team. Their expectations are not to win races.

It’s almost a conflict of interest to me, because my marketing company is going to be around long after my driving career is over. The day I don’t have a sponsor, my [driving] career is over. And unfortunately, that’s the case for a lot of guys that win races if you look at this series. That’s why I don’t consider [my deal] “buying a ride.” I consider it a way to expand my business, and at the same time I get to drive a car.

That’s what we do. I think we operate [a certain way] and I learned from my family’s involvement with Morgan-McClure Motorsports and Kodak all those years: you learn how to treat someone, how to treat a customer. My dad was in the car business for a long time.

I think where some fall short is that some teams have to sell based on performance because they command a lot of money, for their drivers, their organizations. They have multiple cars, lots of employees. We don’t carry that kind of overhead. So, we’re more of the mindset that “we appreciate your involvement with us,” not the other way around. You get to the bigger organizations, and it’s almost like “we’re going to run a car unsponsored, but if you want to be on it you should feel privileged to be with this team or that team.”

And that’s probably true to some extent, certainly if you want to run up front. Still, our situation is “we can help your business.”

Our sponsor participates at a level that is good for them. And as we get their commitment, what I have to do is shop it to teams. I say “here’s what we’ve got, this is how many races we’ve got to run, what can we do?” And I think that’s been a situation that’s been good to me because it’s helped me off the racetrack. It’s helped me learn about the business, helped me become involved more. And certainly I hope that when my driving is done that I’m still involved with them and any other companies. I enjoy that part of it. [But] I [also] like to drive racecars.

The last two years haven’t been any fun… this year has been more fun. I probably don’t have Cup champion written all over me or Nationwide champion, so I’m just going to enjoy it, you know? That’s one thing I’ve had to come to grips with: you have to separate the driver and the businessman. I think the perception out there is somebody like me is a “buyrider,” he doesn’t need to be out there, there needs to be a real driver [in the seat]. I guess that means, “Don’t bring money and struggle [that way instead].”

It’s been good. I’m proud of the relationship. We’ve done a good job representing Hefty I think, and they’ve been loyal to us by coming back.

Keith: You’ve driven for a lot of small teams now, JD Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports, now Rensi-Hamilton. You’ve been all over the garage now…

McClure: Thanks again.

Keith: Again, this is not an attack on you!

McClure: I’m sorry, I thought I was going to give you a more professional interview.

Keith: Not at all, this is good, this is good. You’ve obviously got some perspective on this end of the garage. What is it like out there running as a small-time team?

McClure: Well, it’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve gotten to run one race with a top-notch organization and that was with James Finch’s team in 2005. It’s different. When I started racing in the Nationwide Series, I ran my dad’s car. We ran as we had enough money to go. I drove for Jimmy Means, I drove for these guys.

It’s hard for me as a driver. You don’t really know what you’re up against until you get out there. Every time I get into another situation, it’s like they’re coil-binding and we’re not. Go to another team, they’ve got the engine package, and it’s like a curveball and I’ve had a hard time adapting. If you compared my last two years to driving my dad’s car and the No. 52, I was better in those two years. Now, it’s like I’ve had to come into an organization and learn to do it all over again.

And it comes harder for me than it does for some of these other guys, I’m sure. But we’ve got stability here. I’ve got an organization here that knows how to maximize resources, that has run up front before, that has won races in the past. They’ve got a good relationship with Ford Racing and that information has helped us. Like I said, it’s finally an opportunity to build on. I feel like it’s a home.

I almost feel like in the Nationwide Series it’s kind of like the Rolex Series: It’s class racing. We’re racing a certain group of cars every week and if we beat those cars it’s successful. If we get up into that next group of cars and run competitively, which we were early in the year, it’s good. Can we touch the Cup guys? No, and we’re not going to.

So, for us to stay locked in and to show up every week… we basically showed up unsponsored for two weeks [the road courses], [and] paid a lot of money out of pocket. These guys sacrificed a lot, I paid money out of pocket just to get to the two road races to stay a full-time team and stay locked in.

We operate differently. But like I said, this team, Ed Rensi, Gary Weisenbaum and Ronnie [Russell], they have a level of professionalism that works very well with our sponsor, a very clean-cut image. We do this together. This is an open sport, you get the best package you can together and go compete. It’s fun, and for the first time I’ve got the opportunity to build on a solid season. I really like it here, the sponsor is happy here. I don’t think the sponsor has any illusions that I’m Jeff Gordon. Like I said, it’s been a solid business relationship and I’m really proud of that.

There for a while, until we got this sponsorship, [and at first] it was only for two races, until they increased their level of involvement to where we could have a multi-year deal or a multi-race deal in 2007 I thought that was it. I prayed about it a lot, thought about doing something else.

Keith: You’re in the Nationwide Series right now and like you said you have no illusions of being Jeff Gordon or some other big name out there. If this is where your racing career ends up, the Nationwide Series is as far as you go… is the Cup Series still the end-all?

McClure: No. Not anymore. I love the Nationwide Series. I’ve raced four races in the Cup Series and I’ve enjoyed myself, but I really feel like this is where I need to be. It’s really an independent series, NASCAR has several national series, there’s other racing series, so it’s not like you didn’t make it all the way to the top. I’m one of 43 people who get to do this. And I’m locked in, I don’t have to qualify. I feel very blessed to be able to do that.

It fits my life better. I have two little girls at home. Very, very rarely do they come to the track because I don’t have a motorhome, I don’t have an airplane. So it’s a little more laid back over here, we’re able to do more over here and then I’m home on time for church on Sunday. My life away from here is more important than my life here. I enjoy this part of my life, but it’s not the end all be all. And that’s not a knock on the drivers who go out there and win races… they’re truly elite drivers.

But my life priorities are a lot different now. Even if I had the ability to run up there, I’d be hard-pressed to make that commitment. For me, there are more important things than this.

If the sponsorship dries up, I don’t get to do this anymore. I’ve thought about this a lot, because I didn’t think I was going to come back this year, I was just going to run the account. But I had a heart-to-heart with a lot of people about it, and I came back.

When this is over, it’ll be weird not going to Daytona. But it’ll be OK.

In a nutshell, we have fun. We run as competitively as we can with what we’ve got, do our best to represent our sponsors well. I’ve got a lot of friends over here and it’s a pretty good way to spend your weekend.

Now… if we had an extra set of tires every week, we could probably finish 15th a couple of times. From my standpoint, that’s why I’m not able to read message boards anymore, because people do not know. I get so mad when I read them, even if they’re about me or not. People are so cruel. I’m like, you have no idea. Just because I have a sponsor on my car, this isn’t IROC.

And I don’t want to give the impression that my sponsor isn’t good to me, because they are very, very good. But my sponsor isn’t going to go into the company treasury to make Eric McClure a winner. My sponsor is looking to make the Hefty brand more successful.

If I’m walking around in khaki pants and a white shirt a few years from now overseeing a hospitality tent or something, and my [marketing] company is growing still, that’ll be OK, too. I’m 30, I’m old for a guy to try to break into this sport. So if I go out and I wreck or I finish 40th or I’m not as fast as a start-and-park car, you know what? Dadgumit, that’s the best I can do. So you can just keep quiet. These guys aren’t going to eat me, you know? God isn’t going to tell me “you’re a failure.”

I don’t know, I really felt like I would talk to you more professionally. Give you a company line.

Keith: No, no, I don’t want you to give me a company line. That’s why I cover the Nationwide Series.

McClure: I’m a sports junkie.

Keith: So am I.

McClure: I love the Redskins, I love UVA.

Keith: I should have worn my Redskins cap, I wore my Wake one because we’re playing BC tomorrow.

McClure: I love it. And back when my dad’s Cup team was good, and I would go to races or football games, and be like “this guy’s terrible…” Not anymore. I’ve seen it. And I feel like I’ve got a fair amount of talent in this, but it’s like…

I just completely changed thoughts.

[Anyways], it’s like I’ve learned not to criticize other athletes, because it’s tough and we do the best we can. I’ve got a good race team and I think our deal kept them in business. In reality, most of my guys didn’t work this winter, so I didn’t meet most of my team until we went down to Daytona. I was in the shop every week and I’d meet someone new every week because it was their week to work. But we really pulled together.

And to run as well as we have at times and run 20th or in the middle of the field, at Talladega we had a chance for a top 10 and I blew it, what else can you ask for? They’ve been good to me. That’s been the best part of this year… I haven’t had to be looking over my shoulder. They’re not out buying houses, they’re not running Cup cars, they’re not building race shops. They’re plugging forward.

And they’ve given me an opportunity I’ve never had before… to pass cars.

I don’t have any illusions. I don’t worry about what they did last year with their old driver, I don’t worry about how my old team is running with their new driver. My situation this year is different than my situation last year. I can assure their situation is different this year, as is everyone else’s. That’s made this year more fun, I’ve stopped worrying about what other people think.

Monday through Thursday I’m a business guy. Friday and Saturday I get to race. It’s a pretty good way to make a living.

Keith: One last question for you. You are the athletic director at the University of Virginia. Who is the head football coach in 2010?

McClure: Me. I can do it on the PlayStation.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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