(workingonmyredneck file photo)
General Manager of Front Row Racing, Joe Garone, had two opportunities for celebration this past week. The first, and most obvious reason for celebrating was the Regan Smith victory at Darlington Saturday night for FRR. The second source of celebration came when Garone was interviewed on a local Denver, CO news radio station. The announcer talked about Furniture Row Racing’s Darlington victory last Saturday night and said, “This is Colorado’s NASCAR team.”
Suddenly, all the problems of creating and building a Sprint Cup operation 2,000 miles away from NASCAR’s Charlotte-area epicenter were forgotten.
“That made me think,” Garone said of the radio reference. “You know, that’s something that can’t happen in North Carolina. You can’t say this is North Carolina’s team. That’s an interesting perspective. As you start to be pulled into being one of the regular sports, stick-and-ball type sports – it’s the Denver Nuggets, the Broncos and the Furniture Row NASCAR team – it’s pretty neat to think of it that way.”
And, oh boy, it’s been a long, hard climb to get there!
Furniture Row was founded in 2005 by Colorado natives Barney Visser, founder of Big Sur Waterbeds and
Furniture Row,and Jerry Robertson, a local Denver “hot shoe”. It was founded, basically out of a love of racing and a way to promote Visser’s furniture retailing business, and raced primarily the first year in the Nationwide Series.
FRR raced just twice that year in Cup: Robertson drove one and Kenny Wallace the other. The race schedule grew over the next several years with journeyman drivers like Wallace, Joe Nemechek and Jimmy Spencer taking turns behind the steering wheel.
Those steering wheels, and the cars constructed around them, emanated from a race shop that was, is and apparently always will be located just east of the Rocky Mountains in Denver, Colorardo.
Garone watched the team’s birth from North Carolina, where he was working for the teams of Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip and Cal Wells III. And even though Garone himself was a Colorado native, he watched with a skepticism which was commonly held back in the Charlotte area.
But in 2007, Garone, who had worked with Colorado driver Rick Carelli early in his career, accepted an invitation from Visser to come home – and help build a racing operation in ski country.
Garone figured it would be tough. And he was so correct!
“When we first started, we weren’t even sure we could do this,” Garone said during a telephone chat this week. “There was one year of just, literally, going to and from the race tracks to see if we could even do it logistically. It was more about seeing if it was even possible than it was about putting a car out there and trying to win a race. And the second year was more about trying to find out how to fine tune that: How to overcome some of the obstacles.”
Obstacles? They were huge.
“For instance, on an engine-lease program (they started by getting engines from Hendrick Motorsports), the engines have be picked up and delivered and that’s got to be done in a timely fashion,” Garone said. “Gears, transmissions, parts. All that stuff has to be worked out to be able to have it here (in Denver).”
The result was a team that got pretty good at solving problems.
“It probably makes us be really, really prepared with our cars ahead of time. Our cars, obviously, have to be prepared sooner than some of the guys in North Carolina just because we have further to travel. But you get that worked out. We were able to spend a total of about three years working all that stuff out to where it works flawlessly.”
Another obstacle was people. Racing people. Top-level racing people who had experience in the Sprint Cup Series. Getting them to come to Colorado from North Carolina and then keeping them there through what could be an extended period of trying times.
Due to the horrendous economy, there were very high quality people in Charlotte that were out of work and looking for a new job.
“Racing in Denver, Colorado, you’ve really got to prove yourself to bring on board the kind of people we were looking for,” Garone said. “It’s taken time, but over the years, those opportunities came one at a time and we’ve been able to bring people on board.
“And our employee retention rate has been terrific. Once people are here, they stay.”
North Carolina is a beautiful place. Trees, hills, nice climate. It’s a great place to work and live. But Colorado is pretty nice too. Hence, the retention rate.
“Not everybody wants to live in North Carolina,” Garone said. “It’s just that their job is there. We have a lot of people on our race team who used to come out here to go skiing or go hunting. It’s a different lifestyle and, by the way, ‘there’s a Cup team here and I can get a job.’ I have had several people inquire about working here just based on that. And I like to think we’ve generated a nice place to work.”
Driver Regan Smith came to the team through a series of interesting circumstances. Circumstances involving Furniture Row and Smith himself.
The team had Nemechek as its driver in 2007 and ’08. But with the economy hurting, and furniture sales cooling, the team opted to step back its commitment to Cup. Nemechek was signed to do a whole season so a problem developed.
At about the same time, Smith was available because his former employer, Bobby Ginn and Dale Earnhardt Inc., had come apart at the seams.
“This is the rookie of the year that was available and didn’t have a ride,” Garone said. “We talked to him to see if he wanted to run a limited schedule. And he did.”
He virtually had to in order to keep his career alive.
“There’s been a lot of times when I think, ‘What if I don’t get to race in another Cup race again?‘ “ Smith said of pre-FRR days. “As a driver, you never know when your last race is going to be.”
In 2009, FRR and Smith made only 18 starts on the Sprint Cup circuit. Because sponsorship improved, and the finances were in order for Front Row Racing, the team made all 36 races.
“Last year I was thinking, Maybe they’re going to fire me, I hope not. But who knows what is going to happen. When we had struggles at different points in the season, last year the lowest point was I broke my wrist at Sonoma and raced at Loudon with it broke completely, didn’t have it fixed. I got out of the car, it hurt really bad, it was a horrible day. We were so far off the pace. Probably one of the worst races I personally ever have driven.
“From that point on, we started rebounding again. Ever since the Chicago race, even though some of the finishes don’t show it, we’ve been running way more competitive. It’s just been uphill from there, or downhill, I don’t know how you look at it.”
For 2011, FRR needed just one more piece to the puzzle to get more competitive. That piece came in the form of an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. FRR switched from an affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports to RCR.
“We really need to go to the next level and have technical alliance and share engineering resources and that was something (Hendrick) couldn’t deliver and something Richard was willing to do,” Garone said. “I’ll tell you, I can’t speak enough about how good that relationship is, how good Richard and his crew, his race team is to work with.”
Now that Furniture Row Racing has tasted some success this year with a few great finishes to go along with the win at Darlington, next might just include expansion to two race teams. FRR has the approval from Richard Childress Racing for adding a second race team, maybe as soon as later this season!
“There’s not a target date,” Garone said. “We’re just working on it. If somebody (a sponsor) came on board and wanted to take the 78 (Smith’s car, and the Furniture Row/Denver Mattress sponsorship and move to a new FRR car), that could happen next week and then it might take me a couple months to get the second one rolling. But we could respond pretty quick. We can handle two teams here without building a new shop.”
With expansion thoughts on the horizon, the near future goals are just to steadily improve their results on a weekly basis.
What are your thoughts about the success of Front Row Racing?
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!