Race Weekend Central

Steve Lauletta Talks What’s Driving 23XI Racing

Danny Peters spoke to 23XI President Steve Lauletta prior to the race at Phoenix Raceway.

You’re in the fourth year of operations for 23XI Racing and you have five wins, 31 top fives, 51 top 10s, four poles and 1160 laps led. How do you grade your progress thus far?

SL: I think we’re right on schedule. For me, personally, maybe a little ahead of schedule. There’s a lot of work still to be done. The encouraging thing is the consistency of how we were competitive over the last half of 2023, at least, consistently having both cars qualify in the top 10, running in the top 10, the deep run we had in the playoffs. I feel like the momentum we built late last season is carrying over to the start of this season in terms of the confidence level, and now we just need to execute it on the racetrack.

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Where do you think you’re ahead of schedule?

SL: In a couple of ways. We had an additional year to work with Tyler [Reddick]. We weren’t supposed to have him as part of the team until this season, and through unfortunate circumstances with Kurt we were able to have him race with us last year. So that’s an additional year of Tyler working with Billy Scott and the team, working with Bubba [Wallace], fitting into our system. So that’s for sure put us ahead of the schedule we had laid out with him joining the team. And I think the progression of Bubba and Bootie and the [No.] 23 team has really ramped up. They’ve taken some major steps since 2021, when they won their first race together at Talladega, to get to be a consistent front-running team. We don’t get the finishes consistently enough but we have the speed in the cars. We’re working really hard both at the track and away from the track, whether that’s with our pit crews or our processes to provide them everything they need to keep that advancement going as fast as it can. Those things all combine, plus us working together as a group, adding the things we’ve needed to add to become a front-running, competitive race team takes time. I think we’ve maybe been doing that faster than I originally thought we could.

Expectations for 2024? Both teams to make the playoffs? Both teams have wins?

SL: For me, it’s the continued progression. If we finished sixth and 10th last year, we need to be better than that this year. We won two races with Tyler last year, I would want to do better. than that this year. We’ve won two races with Bubba over three seasons. How do we enhance that in 2024? Multiple wins could be a potential opportunity to continue that enhancement. It’s being consistent, giving ourselves a chance, executing as flawlessly as possible, week in, week out, and being there when the regular season ends and the playoffs start and putting our best foot forward for those last 10 weeks.

Bubba didn’t win a race in 2023, but from an overall perspective, he looked stronger. Can you speak to his maturation as a driver last year?

SL: I think he’s definitely more comfortable with these cars, the team we’ve surrounded him with. He is honing his race craft and being able to understand when and how to make the moves he needs to make to be up front. He’s been great on restarts; he’s been qualifying really well. And we’ve had our opportunities. You can say he had the fastest car in Kansas, and without the blown tire it could have been him instead of Tyler with that win. We’ve definitely got to keep putting him in position, and he’s shown he’s got the ability and the mindset to close the deal and fight for those wins when we’re able to collectively work to give him that opportunity.

Reddick had a strong season, winning at COTA and Kansas and the win at the Duels. As we think about the race in Vegas, were it not for the pit road issues, did he have something for Larson?

SL: Who knows? We were certainly as good as him if not better on the long runs. We just gave too much track position away a couple of times. Tyler took some of that on his shoulders based on how he came into the pit box, which threw off the stop itself. He needs to continue to work on that part of his execution and his pit crew needs to work on their part of the execution once the car gets into the box. There are always things to work on; it’s only our second year with our own pit crews, we’ve got a lot of advancements to work on. We’ve got a facility we’re still building here at Airspeed, our new headquarters. It’s like everything, a process of three seasons to get us where we are as a team, this is only our second season with our own pit crews — that’s a process. You’ve just got to keep chipping away at it, it’s a million things that have to go right, and it was nice to get the second-place finish. We’ve had three top fives in six attempts (the first three races). We just need to try to get both cars finishing in the place that they run in, instead of winding up in the mid-to-late 20s rather than the top five. It’s always that balance of getting the result you deserve, which makes this sport as competitive as it is.

Your second full season of having your own pit crews. One of the challenges, as Denny said on his podcast, is the very best pit crew people are on long-term contracts. And with the competition being closer than ever, pit road is more important than ever. Are there different things you can do with it being such an important part of the race? And fair to say, it wasn’t great at times last year.

SL: For sure, one of the things, and I’ve referenced it already, it’s building a facility that allows for as much race day simulation as possible. So when you’re practicing, it’s as close to what you’ll face that weekend on pit lane. The facility we have from a physical fitness standpoint is second to none. We will have our own strength and conditioning athletic performance trainer, all of those things to make this a desirable destination. We were just awarded as one of the best places to work in sports by Sports Business Journal. That’s important for people; if everything is equal in terms of the opportunity, how do we make 23XI be a destination not just for pit crew members, but for every kind of employee that we want to take this team to championship contending levels that we all want to be at? That’s part of the journey, of trying to be different.

Did you settle on a job title for Kurt [Busch], and what’s his role in 2024?

SL: His role, from his perspective, will be more defined because he’s been through a season of it. He told me he’s more understanding of the rhythm of being out of the car and where he can help with Bubba and Tyler, where he can help with race preparation, and where his feedback as a former driver can help — reviewing competition meeting information and preparing strategy information. He’s been through it. He’s getting more comfortable as our driver coach/mentor; our extra set of experienced eyes with an input and feel for what’s going on from his perspective that none of us have the opportunity to have because he’s done it so long. He’s working with our partners, obviously with Monster and the Beast, and he’s always had a great relationship supporting the military, so he’s helping us with the Air Force [sponsorship of Wallace].

What about a job title? Chief Morale Officer?

SL: I think he comes up with a different one every now and again, which is great. He doesn’t have business cards; he can call himself president if he likes.

You don’t need a business card if you’re Kurt Busch, right?

SL: He’s Kurt Busch. What kind of title do you need?

Any chance he gets back behind the wheel?

SL: He hasn’t talked to me about it. I don’t know what he would say to that but we’ve not had a conversation about it.

Last year with the No, 67, you had some good names in the car. Plans for this year? Longer term plans for a three-car team?

SL: We have plans to field a third entry. The first one will be announced relatively soon (Editor’s note: it was, shortly after this interview). And we’re working on the ability to run more than one race. We found it very helpful as an organization to show we could prepare a competitive third entry, to take some of our key employees who don’t go to the track as much, to manage the effort. So we’re excited to do it again. As far as expansion, a lot of things need to fall into place, the number one being the charter negotiations with NASCAR, so everyone knows what that looks like for 2025 and beyond. And then we would see when the time might make sense to expand. I think three entries is a sweet spot in terms of efficiency you get, in terms of information that can be shared and the ability to compete. But you have to have the right partners, the right drivers, the right employees, so the puzzle pieces really need to align to pull that off.

Cliff Daniels spoke after Vegas about the competition being closer than ever. You’ve come off the truck strong in 2024, what have you learned about the new Toyota?

SL: Everyone was really happy with the speed that we had in Las Vegas. We’re certainly looking forward to the next few races with Phoenix and Bristol and going to the first road course race at COTA with the defending race-winning team, the 45. We still need more races under our belt to really get a good handle on how we feel, but the confidence is there, the initial speed was really strong for us in Vegas. We’ve talked about where Tyler ran, Bubba qualifying fifth, and I think he had at least a top-10 car, maybe better before the problems of the left front bit us. We’re going to continue to learn as we get to different tracks and different types of tracks and really be able to hit our stride as we get to the middle and back end of the year.

Issues Bubba had on pit road [in Las Vegas]? Just one of those racing deals?

SL: It was a mistake on pit lane. We’ve analyzed it and learned from it. A couple things happened after the initial issue that made it worse. We’ve just got to clean that up, which I’m sure we’ll do.

Your thoughts on Full Speed. Is Bootie a big time TV star now?

SL: No, he’s the same old Bootie. He was great. We decided if we were going to do it, we were going to let the crews in, and that meant our competition meetings, what Denny was doing as the owner, preparing Airspeed, sitting in meetings and putting a mic on Bootie at the racetrack as we went on that playoff run. I was glad because of how we raced into and during the playoffs that we were part of the story. The access we gave them I think told some of the behind-the-scenes stuff fans want to see. Our partners loved it. It was great exposure for many of our partner brands supporting 23XI. Our social media channels grew exponentially. I think because of the reach of Netflix and the popularity of the show. So, we were really happy with it and glad they featured up as much as they did.

Who came up with the Airspeed name, and how much of a benefit is the new facility?

SL: I’m not sure exactly where the origin of the name came from. Obviously, it’s easy for folks to put together where it came from in terms of air and speed, it’s the address of the street, Airspeed Drive. I was in a conversation with Denny and a couple others and we kept talking about the shop, the shop, the shop, and I said I don’t want to call it the shop. Everyone’s got a shop, and we have something different here and worked with Jamie Ruiz, our VP of Marketing, and said what if we called it Airspeed, because that’s the address, and give it its own identity. It’s different to any other facility in motorsports that I’ve been in, in terms of the vision, and the fact that it’s been built to this Next Gen type of NASCAR racing.

Denny wanted to build the “Google of race shops.” The interior has its own personality: places for employees to gather, places to work where you don’t have to sit at your desk all the time. There’s natural light coming from 23-degree angled windows in every part of the shop so you’re not in a cave all day. It’s so well thought out, so efficient. We’ve now prepared cars for four races including the Clash since moving in in January. We’re not done yet. We’re still working on the lobby, on branding and on wiring, which is why it’s not open to the public yet. It will be soon. I think fans will enjoy coming and seeing a different look of how a team like 23XI prepares to go to the race track week in and week out. We’re thrilled to be here. Can’t thank Michael and Denny enough for the vision and investment to have Airspeed come to life, and we’re lucky enough to come to work here every day.

Confirming there will be 23XI diecasts this year?

SL: Yep, you bet. There was never a plan there wasn’t going to be. There were some technical difficulties with a system used to update artwork. And somehow someone turned that into 23XI is boycotting diecasts which is not the case.

For the third consecutive year, the 23XI Racing family was recognized at the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Awards for living out our mission and values as they pertain to making motorsports more diverse, equitable and inclusive. Tyler Reddick was recognized with the National Driver Award and Keurig Dr Pepper was recognized with the Partner Award. Talk about your pride in that, and how you keep building on that.

SL: At the heart of what we’re doing, we want to be on the leading edge of bringing a new section of the fan base to the sport. We want to educate people that maybe haven’t looked at the sport before as a career opportunity, and have them realize that they could be involved in the business, engineering or the mechanical part of working for a NASCAR team or the pit crew. We work really hard at having the core NASCAR fan want to be a 23XI fan, but also try to find ways to talk to a new fan base, a more diverse fan base. Whether that’s going on college campuses, whether that’s the program we’re doing with internships, the collaborations we’ve done with the Jordan Brand, or Columbia with Star Wars, or McDonalds with Grimace and the Hamburgler, which would naturally be perceived as for a younger audience, we’re trying to get more fans interested in this sport. Following us for a little bit or a lot, watching every race, all of it, or a little of one, some of it, it’s just paying attention to what 23XI is all about. Our partners believe in that and are working with us to help the cause. Being only three seasons into it, our fan data shows the 23XI fan is going to a lot of races, watching races, but we also have a fan base that is younger and more diverse. It’s a journey, but we’re really happy with the progress so far.

You’ve always talked about doing things differently, different methods, processes, approaches etc. Anything special we might see in 2024?

SL: The biggest thing is Airspeed. We’re finally under one roof; the rented shop we were in had two buildings. The efficiency of Airspeed, the way it’s set up, the employee amenities. I never wanted a fan to come to our former buildings because it just didn’t represent our brand. I want everyone to come and see this place when it’s open so they can come in and get a feel for what 23XI is all about. I think Airspeed’s going to be a big part: for our partners using it for their businesses or events for things that will bring our relationship to life to their customers and potential customers. So at this point, it’s Airspeed and getting this place ready for its grand opening.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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The success of a team is directly proportional to the amount of money the driver brings in.

Last edited 1 month ago by DoninAjax
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