Race Weekend Central

Kevin Conway on His NASCAR Cup Rookie Campaign, Smooge Racing & ExtenZe

To NASCAR fans, when you mention the name Kevin Conway, a couple of thoughts might come to mind.

Newer fans may not know much about him. But for those who have followed the sport for a while, they might remember Conway attempting to race the full NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2010 with primary sponsorship from Biotab Nutraceuticals, Inc., via their herbal nutritional supplement ExtenZe. As their commercials often noted, it was supposed to enhance a “very special part of the male anatomy.” You can figure out what that is. Others might remember when he was a prospect with Joe Gibbs Racing.

During his rookie year in Cup, Conway did a sit-down interview with Frontstretch’s own Bryan Keith. Back then, Keith and Conway discussed the learning curve for Front Row Motorsports in Cup. FRM was a much weaker team then than they are today.

Now more than 10 years removed from his time in Cup, Conway is once again racing on a regular basis. He returned to regular action last year in SRO America’s Pirelli GT4 America SprintX for Smooge Racing (see below for an explanation of the name). There, he won nine races in the Am class and won the Am title alongside John Geesbreght. He’s also an entrepreneur with his own company.

Last month, Conway competed in the BMW M Endurance Challenge at Daytona International Speedway, the season opener for IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. Frontstretch had the opportunity to catch up with him and reminisce about his time in stock car racing.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: Your career has been all over the place over the years. At one point, you were a protégé of Ernie Irvan. How did that scenario come together and what kind of tutelage did Ernie bestow onto you?

Kevin Conway, No. 68 Toyota GR Supra GT4: In the early 2000s, I had been racing in the ASA [National Tour] and was looking to step up to the ARCA Re/Max Series (now ARCA Menards Series), then into the [Camping World Truck Series]. At that time, Ernie Irvan had a truck team [Irvan-Simo Racing] that had been going for a while, and they ended up closing that down due to a lack of sponsorship.

Ernie had known me through my uncle, who was an engineer at Robert Yates Racing on the No. 28 car when [Irvan] drove there. He knew of my career a little bit, and the same way that Dale Earnhardt pulled him under his wing, Ernie said, “I like what you’re about,” and gave me an amazing opportunity. We borrowed an ARCA car from a team and built it out of Ernie’s hay barn. Literally, he had a hay storage barn that me and Ernie put siding on. We ran the ARCA car out of there, very Days of Thunder-esque, to use a cliché, but it really was.

The few years that Ernie was helping me out, I feel like I was learning more in that period of time than about any other time in my career. Ernie always used to joke, “I can tell you a lot more about what not to do than what to do.” I jokingly say that there’s a lot of tough love from Ernie.

Allaway: Ernie’s time in the Cup Series was a very competitive time. You had to be up on your game to do much of anything. You don’t get 15 career victories if you’re a dolt. Unfortunately, injuries shortened his career.

Conway: [Irvan] is an amazing driver. I would say [that he’s] one of the last true old-school racers.

I remember before qualifying at Atlanta [Motor Speedway] for an ARCA race, he starts poking me in the chest and saying, “If you wreck this car and the wreck doesn’t kill you, then I will. If you lift, you’re a no-good, worthless whatever.”  A lot of tough love from Ernie, but I learned so much. A lot of lessons that stuck with me throughout my whole career. Now, his son Jared is racing, and it’s pretty cool to see.

Allaway: After your time in Cup, you ended up in Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America, where you won a couple of titles with Change Racing. However, there was a lull in your career after that. What did you do in that time period?

Conway: I did focus [on business] a little. I did stay with Lamborghini through that whole period of time, doing things with testing and a lot of road car development as well as on the motorsports side. Still very, very active in racing, just not racing in Super Trofeo.

In 2017, I started a company called Phoozy and focused a lot of time in 2017 and 2018 getting that company launched and up on its two feet. I was still with Lamborghini during that time, but it takes a lot to start a new company, especially when it gets traction and starts growing like crazy.

My company has grown tremendously. We were on Shark Tank last year, which was a big boost for the company. That’s been another fun adventure along the way, but I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit; I’ve had other companies over the years, but this is the first time I’ve ever created a consumer product.

Allaway: Given everything that’s going on [these days], just doing a show like Shark Tank today would be wildly different than it would have been three years ago. What was the atmosphere like on Shark Tank?

Conway: Shank Tank was unique because we filmed in the fall of 2020, so all of the [COVID-19] protocols were in place. We had to adhere to the protocols and quarantine for a 10-day period before you could do anything. I spent 10 days in a hotel room before filming.

Shark Tank is really intense. I equate it as no different from taking the green flag on some of these racetracks. You still have all of the nerves and all of the butterflies, but as soon as you get out on the carpet in the tank, you just start executing the same way. Once the green flag drops, all the butterflies are gone and you’re just focused forward.

There’s a lot of similarities to racing, which was great for me. For my business partner [Josh Inglis], he’d never been in that scenario, so it was a lot harder for him.

Allaway: Where did the name “Smooge Racing” come from?

Conway: That’s one of the most common questions we get about Smooge Racing. As a young baby, John Geesbreght was a bit of a chubby baby. His nickname back then was “Smooge.” The logo of the team is a picture of John from when he was a baby, sitting in one of his grandfather’s cars, looking out.

Allaway: Last year, Smooge Racing debuted in Pirelli GT4 America SprintX. You and John claimed nine victories in the Am-class and the Am title. Pretty amazing to have that level of success right out of the box. Was that the expected level of success going in?

Conway: No, we certainly didn’t expect to have the season that we had last year. I don’t think anybody could have imagined it. Yes, we race to win, but when we started this program, it was a transition for John’s career path.

We ran some [Mazda] MX-5 stuff in 2020, then stepped up to Pirelli GT4 America SprintX and said, “Let’s get in here, get your feet wet, build some experience.” Then, at Sonoma [Raceway], we won the first race. We won at every circuit on the schedule and won at least one race every weekend. This was a big surprise to all of us, and we tried to build on that momentum.

We did the Indianapolis 8 Hour [in October], which was our first endurance race. That gave us the opportunity to come here and race with Jack Hawksworth again, who is part of the Toyota family.

We said, “Let’s come here to Daytona, get John some laps at Daytona, get some more experience and learn more about endurance racing while we focus on the SRO America [Pirelli] GT4 America SprintX for 2022.”

Allaway: So this will be a one-off appearance in Pilot Challenge. In Pirelli GT4 America SprintX, will you be back in the Am-class, or will you move up?

Conway: We will be moved up for sure. We’re still not sure if it will be Pro-Am or Silver yet, but we’ll be in one of those two classes for sure. They won’t let us run the Am-class anymore.

Allaway: Coming into last season, Smooge Racing chose the Toyota GR Supra GT4 to race. It was a brand-new car with no history in racing. Did you have an existing relationship with Toyota before making that choice?

Conway: I had a lot of familiarity with Toyota Racing Development (TRD) and their efforts in NASCAR. I had some good relationships there and knew their standpoint as to how they approach racing.

I said, “Man, if I have the opportunity to get involved with Toyota at the very early stages of this program, their approach aligns with our values and what our goals are.” When you can have that alignment with a manufacturer and produce the results that we had, you go for it.

Allaway: When you were in NASCAR, you did race with Toyota with Robby Gordon, I believe?

Conway: Primarily with NEMCO Motorsports, Joe Nemechek’s deal. I also did a couple of races with Robby Gordon right at the end of 2010. That was a crazy year, to say the least.

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Allaway: Oh yes, absolutely. It was my second full year writing about motorsports, and the first time I came [to Daytona]. You scored your best finish of the year here, a 14th.

Conway: We were up front for the green-white-checkered restart with a broken shock. We had a shot at running a lot better. At the time, that was Front Row Motorsports’ best finish in the history of their team. What a crazy year that was.

Conway’s teammate John Geesbreght was listening in on the interview at this point.

Allaway: Of note, this was the final race at Daytona before the current pavement was laid down. Needless to say, that would have hurt driving with a broken shock.

Conway: I started on the outside of the front row with the broken shock, and there was nothing I could do. It was a wild green-white-checkered, and I got shuffled back. [The car] just doesn’t turn well with a broken right front shock.

The track was rough back then. There was a huge bump off of turn 4.

Conway restarted 10th on the green-white-checker restart, having avoided the Big One, but was shuffled back.

Allaway: Back then, ExtenZe was your sponsor, and they were gung-ho about their time in NASCAR and their merchandising.

Conway: You gotta admit, the merchandising trailer was pretty crazy. It wouldn’t be appropriate today, would never fly today, but 10 years ago, it could.

Imagine a 53-foot merchandise trailer chock full of T-shirts and hats with suggestive slogans, sometimes in the infield rather than the midway.

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Allaway: My understanding is that they sold very well.

Conway: Yes, they did. There were many races where we were selling as many T-shirts as Tony Stewart and some of the other drivers. It was a crazy time, and I think everyone has those times in their lives when they look back and say, “Man, that was a wild time.”

Below is an example of an ad Conway was featured in for ExtenZe, though it shows him driving what appears to be a NASCAR Xfinity Series car from JTG Daugherty Racing, who he never drove for.

Allaway: On track, it was a bit of a struggle at times. It seemed like it was really difficult for you to come to grips with the Car of Tomorrow.

Conway: The COT was a big challenge, and we were such a small team without any real funding that we weren’t able to go test or do anything like that. My only measuring stick was my own teammates.  All three cars, we ran within a position or two of each other.

That year was unique. Coming in as a rookie, you had to follow up guys like Joey Logano, Denny [Hamlin] and all those guys that were with the big teams. They had all run well, they had all won a race or two at least in their rookie season. […] Then, people judge you against that standard. Judge me against my teammates, not against drivers that are with teams with three or four times the funding for that one car.

I feel like that was a challenge [for me]. Then, you had several other rookies that came along after me that were in those same scenarios in sub-par equipment. It’s always a challenge when you have that. I would have loved to be able to test and be with a better team.

In 2011, Joe Nemechek and I almost won the [Subway Jalapeno 250 while tandem drafting] here [at Daytona in Xfinity]. We had some really good runs there. But when you’re battling in the back, equipment matters and funding matters, no matter who’s in the car. It’s a struggle when you’re in a lower-funded team.

Note: Conway and Nemechek finished 25th and 26th in that race, respectively, after both cars tagged the wall.

Allaway: When you were there, Front Row Motorsports was about a year and a half removed from shutting the doors. In 2008, they essentially went dark.

Conway: It is a cool story for them that they’ve stuck with [Cup] over the years and they’ve improved. They’ve won a Daytona 500 and stuck it out. Here they are now, surviving and I guess, thriving. They’ve expanded into the [Truck Series], and they’re doing great from that standpoint.

Allaway: Earlier, you mentioned that you had Jack Hawksworth in the fold, both for the Indianapolis 8 Hour and here this weekend. His experience in GT4 equipment is not the most substantial, but he’s a very fast driver. What does he bring to your program?

Conway: Jack Hawksworth is fast in anything that he sits in. He’s been that way his entire career. He’s a Lexus factory driver, part of the Toyota family.

For us, Jack brings sort of a measuring stick to see where we can improve our cars, where he can help John even more, and even myself. I learn from Jack and he’s coming in to help us maximize our efforts here. Anytime you have somebody with Jack’s background, experience and, quite frankly, his speed, it makes a lot of sense. If we had the opportunity, we’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.

At Daytona, Geesbreght was able to maintain his place in the middle of the pack early on. A good pit stop allowed him to get the Supra up into the top 10 before Conway got in the car for his stint. Conway drove well and maintained a spot in the top 15. It appears a poor pit stop put the team well down the order once Hawksworth got in the car. The Smooge Racing No. 68 was as low as 23rd in the standings before moving up to 16th, one lap down by the finish.

Conway and Geesbreght are scheduled to be back in action in the Pirelli GT4 America SprintX season opener at Sonoma Raceway the weekend of April 15-17.

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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