Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Robby Gordon’s Sponsorship Woes Signal the End of the “Real” Owner/Driver

It appears, barring an 11th-hour arrival of a White Knight flush with millions of dollars in sponsorship, Robby Gordon’s five-year battle to be a competitive full-time Sprint Cup owner/driver is about to come to an end. Said Gordon, who competed for the last time with support from longtime sponsor Jim Beam at Phoenix last Sunday: “I don’t know what we’re going to do [in 2010]. We’re going to work hard to sell races through March of next year. After that, I’m looking at a lot of weekends off.”

Sponsorship woes have plagued the 40-year old California native since he first began campaigning in his own No. 7 Robby Gordon Motorsports (RGM) entry as a single-car team in 2005. However, the desertion of Jim Beam, who provided primary sponsorship to Gordon for 14 points races and the All-Star event this season, apparently has the independent-minded Gordon in desperation mode to replace that funding for 2010. Without it, he’s got enough sponsorship for only eight races, leaving him sitting on the sidelines for the other 28.

Already, on three occasions this season, Gordon has found himself in the difficult position of having to participate on race day with no primary sponsorship. It’s a scenario that obviously would be a huge financial blow for any team, but even more so for a one-car operation. That number would have actually increased to four following this weekend had MAPEI and Menards not agreed this week to co-sponsor Gordon at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Considering the financial state of affairs that have seen numerous underfunded teams close their doors or reduce their schedule, as well as multi-car teams that have downsized or put off expansion, perhaps Gordon’s demise was inevitable. There is no doubt that these are tough times for a large number of team owners, as referenced by the handful of teams that come to the track every week only to start and park.

However, considering that Gordon had survived against overwhelming odds for so long, his recent announcement that he only had funding secured for eight races next season still came as somewhat of a surprise.

“No one is spending money,” lamented Gordon. “Everybody is cutting the fat out of everything. To be in racing, you have to be a pretty big company.”

That’s surprising to hear from Gordon, because one thing is for sure; if there’s a sponsor to be found, his group is as energetic as anyone at finding them. This year more than any other, RGM’s resourcefulness has landed him one-race deals at a time when they seem a virtual impossibility for everyone else.

The multi-talented driver has convinced a variety of companies, including SPOT, Interstate Batteries, Quaker State Oil, Richmond Water Heaters, Pittsburgh Paints, Johns Manville, Moen, Hard Rock Las Vegas, Polaris, Camping World, Freightliner and Schrock Cabinetry to sign on board – and did so despite just one top-five finish and an on-track record that has him clinging to a distant 34th in owner points.

In addition, Mapei has provided Gordon with primary sponsorship support in four races during the 2009 season, meaning that no less than sixteen separate companies have provided primary funding for the No. 7 Toyota. That number in itself demonstrates not just how difficult it is to secure a corporate sponsor for the long term, but just how determined Gordon and his organization have been to run the full Sprint Cup Series schedule. One can only guess at how many “nos” were given for every company that agreed to step up and help the team – if only for one race.

Unfortunately, the odds of Gordon succeeding in the Sprint Cup Series as a competitive full-time owner/driver were never good. Ever since Alan Kulwicki‘s Cup championship in 1992, single-car owner/drivers have been increasingly put in an underdog position from which even a miracle won’t be enough to save them. But after failing to qualify for seven of his first 36 events in 2005, Gordon has participated in every race since. It had begun to look like he truly would be a survivor.

See also
That's History Profile: Alan Kulwicki

Unfortunately, though Gordon has overcome the Top-35 rule that has prevented other startup teams from qualifying for races on a regular basis, his race results have progressed little over the past five years. In his inaugural year as an independent in 2005, Gordon finished 37th in points. Two years later he finished 26th in the final standings – the highest he has been able to achieve operating as a “lone wolf.” Today, Gordon sits 34th, claiming a career-low one top-10 finish as a car owner. In short, Gordon has survived… but just barely.

Throughout the last five years, Gordon has made numerous manufacturer, engine builder and crew chief changes to jumpstart the performance of his team – all to no avail. In my opinion, he has done almost everything conceivable, short of merging his team with another operation and perhaps finding a degree of security in numbers by partnering with another small team. And even that almost came to fruition, with Gordon nearly merging into Evernham Motorsports a few years back before the deal ultimately fell through.

So while Gordon is saddened over the current state of his team, he should also hold his head up with pride – for few ever expected Gordon to last as long as he has. And certainly from 2005 until the present, the sport has only continued to become more and more difficult for a small team, let alone a one-car, owner/driver operation to compete. It is hard to imagine anyone else doing it in the future on that scale with any better results than Gordon has achieved.

Of course. it is not news to anyone that follows the sport that a driver and owner must either be part of a multi-team organization or be fully affiliated with one (like Tony Stewart at “Stewart-Haas”) to have any hopes of being anything more than an “also-ran.” But Gordon never fully bought into that notion, and seemed truly convinced that given time and sponsorship dollars, his small group could run with the best of them. Perhaps, he could have… but it seems likely that we’ll never know.

Still, his on-track presence on the track has for years kept alive an important concept – the thought that maybe, just maybe, he would pull one off for the little guy. Gordon was always a threat at the road courses, and who knows, with a little luck, maybe he would get in the right line at the right time and get pushed to a victory at Daytona or Talladega.

But considering the current economic climate, those possibilities are looking like they’ll soon disappear. And when Gordon finally is absent from a race day lineup next year, it will signal the end of owner/driver teams running full-time in NASCAR. It is doubtful that anyone else, observing Gordon’s struggles over the past five years, will put their money and efforts into such a risky proposition.

In the grand scheme of the sport, it probably is not a big deal to most fans who have come accustomed to dominating multi-team organizations – but it’s still a little sad for those that remember a Cup Series where independent owner/drivers were the norm and not the exception.

Yet Robby Gordon, with his varied interests in motorsports will undoubtedly be just fine, turning his attention to his love of both off-road racing and open wheel. And as he moves on with his life, the Sprint Cup Series will continue on without skipping a beat.

The only difference is that now everyone knows that the day of the full-time, independent owner/driver has officially passed for good.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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