NASCAR

Justin Haley’s K&N East title a family affair

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The morning of the most important race of his career, Justin Haley sought the council of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Dover International Speedway, site of the K&N Pro Series East season finale on Sept. 30, was drenched in rain that morning. But the finale wouldn’t begin until late afternoon, giving the 17-year-old Haley plenty of time to get “in the right mindset” for the 126-lap race.

If he finished 25th or better, he would be the series champion. No big deal. How did he get his mind prepared for such an occasion?

On Haley’s phone is an app called “Motivate.” It contains seven motivational recordings, with titles that include “Arnold’s Wisdom,” “Prove Them Wrong” and “Why Do We Fall?” Ranging between three and a half to nine minutes, the recordings are spliced together snippets from sermons, famous speeches and movies, including the “Rocky” franchise.

“It’s almost like listening to Bible verses, just a little more amped up,” Haley says. “I listened to (all of them). I listened to them before I went to bed the previous night, I listened to them while I was in the shower. Getting in that mindset was the biggest thing and just wanted to be extra sure I could use that, and I could deliver the best performance in my ability to my team that day.”

While Stallone and Schwarzenegger may have psyched Haley up on the day, they were only reinforcing the work done over the last eight years by his parents.

OUT OF TOWN

Melissa Braun-Dennis was nervous.

Unlike her husband, Nate Dennis, she wasn’t in Dover to experience her son’s big day.

Instead, she was about 730 miles west in Winamac, Indiana, the town she and her family spent their entire lives in until Haley’s budding racing career uprooted them to Charlotte, North Carolina, last year. She was back home in Northern Indiana visiting her oldest daughter, who attends a preparatory school that was holding its first “Parent’s Day” of the year.

“I had to sit out on this one,” says Braun-Dennis, a mother of four. “It was pretty hard to do that.”

It was hard because even with Haley’s 25-point cushion for the championship, there were lingering doubts.

“There was always that thought of ‘What if?’ ” says Braun-Dennis. “What if we’ve come this far and it doesn’t happen and how are we going to handle ourselves tomorrow? How are we going to be able to recover quickly and not let this really get us down?”

As the laps ticked off in Dover, Haley’s mother drove down the highway to her mother-in-law’s house. The road didn’t always have her attention.

“I had the race on my phone and was trying to check it periodically … safely, while driving down the road,” Braun-Dennis says. “There was a point where I actually had to get out of the car and go inside a gas station to get a drink because I was so nervous.”

Braun-Dennis finally arrived at her mother-in-law’s for dinner. She entered the house to “all the aunts and uncles … staring at their phones.”

She began waiting for a specific message from her husband.

GROWING PAINS

Nate Dennis has witnessed every lap of his stepson’s career.

It began when a 9-year-old Haley asked his mother if he could pursue a career in quarter midgets after driving a cousin’s quarter-midget at a birthday party.

“He was showing it to all of us,” Haley recalls. “I was like ‘Man, that’s pretty cool. Can I just drive it around the driveway a few laps?’ They got it down for me, pushed me off. I think it turned into a few hundred laps. I spent countless hours there in a quarter midget and then went to my mom and said ‘I want one of these.'”

“As long as Nate does it with you, I’m fine with it,” his mother said.

Haley’s first days in a quarter midget, when they raced two cars through four classes, was the beginning of what Dennis called a “kind of funky” progression for Haley.

“Quarter midget kids start practicing at four and a half and you race at five,” Dennis says. “Justin didn’t even race in a race car until he was nine, nine and a half. I always felt like we were behind them. At the mini sprint stage, it kind of evened out a bit, where there were some kids who had been doing it the same amount of time or longer.”

But Dennis himself was as much a rookie as his stepson.

“He didn’t know a thing about racing except being a spectator, which we all know is very different from the other side of racing,” says his wife, who grew up in a family that had been around racing since the 70s. “(Nate) basically put himself out there and started asking questions and bothering people. He learned it so quickly that he found the right people for Justin and when you surround yourself with good people, good things happen.”

For a few years Haley ran street stocks and mini sprints simultaneously. It wasn’t until Haley finished second in the 2012 Tulsa Shootout in the non-winged stock class that Dennis thought “maybe we’re not wasting money.”

But Haley wasn’t seeing his family often thanks to being on the road with his stepdad.

“They would be gone three days, home four days and that was pretty much seven months out of the year,” says Braun-Dennis. “We would beg the school system to have the extra time to travel for races.

After about 18 months of that, Dennis and Haley decided to move to Mooresville, North Carolina, as he was set to begin his K&N career.

“About six months later, I decided being separated in Indiana and them  being down here it wasn’t a lot of fun,” Braun-Dennis said. “We decided to move down here so we could have more family unit.”

FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME

In 2015, his first K&N season at HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks, Haley competed in a full season in one series for the first time. He would win his first race on March 26, 2016, at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

At Dover, Haley had a chance to bring HScott its fourth K&N East title in as many years.

“Having that pressure on me, it wasn’t the biggest concern,” Haley says. “But it was definitely there to get four consecutive. It’s just a super cool feeling to know that a start-up team four years ago could end up with four consecutive titles.”

Haley clinched the championship with his fourth-place result, ending a season that included 13 top-five finishes in 14 races.

Dennis finally got to send his wife the message she was waiting for.

“The excitement in the room and the moment when Nate said ‘I think we got it,’ it was such a huge relief,” says Braun-Dennis.

Even though Haley had won races in the last eight years, including twice in 2016, he’s never gotten to properly celebrate.

“They wouldn’t let me do a burnout after my wins this year because it’s so hard on the drivetrain and the motor and stuff like that,” Haley says. “They were like, ‘You win the championship, you get to do a burnout.’ They just kept telling me that and telling me that. I guess they were trying to motivate me.

“Once I won the championship it was, ‘Yeah, I can finally burn them down here.’ ”

As Kyle Benjamin went to victory lane for the victory, Haley took his No. 5 Chevrolet to the frontstretch. Giving him instructions over the radio was his spotter, driver coach and life coach, Michael Self.

“He was on the radio pretty in-depth, telling what to do, when to use the front brake, what gear to be in and stuff like that,” Haley says.

A month after Kyle Larson first did it in a Sprint Cup race at Michigan, Haley burned his tires down while holding his steering wheel outside his window in “probably the highlight of my career.”

“I think he’s shown me his burnout about a dozen times today,” Braun-Dennis says a few days after the race. “He always makes sure to point out the steering wheel is out the window.”

DESTINATION UNKNOWN

Before his first burnout, Braun-Dennis’ proudest moment from her son’s career came in August 2015.

On Aug. 19, Haley, at 16, made his first start in the Camping World Truck Series. It came at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Haley drove a truck owned by his uncle Todd Braun, who once owned Braun Racing, a small Xfinity Series team that eventually became part of the DNA of HScott Motorsports. Haley started 21st and finished 14th.

“I raced Kyle Busch for about half a lap,” Haley says. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”

But his first start in the lowest of NASCAR’s three national series meant even more to Braun-Dennis.

“When he was, gosh, 14 years old, we were kind of putting all of our heart and our time and our soul into everything, he looked at me one day and said ‘All I want to do is start a Truck race.'”

He did it on her 40th birthday.

“I remember that the most,” she says. “Bristol is an amazing track. It was my mother’s favorite track. His grandmother who has since passed away. They both loved racing and actually both my parents owned race teams in their careers and so for him to be there at that track on my 40th birthday was probably the biggest accomplishment.”

With his K&N title, a ride in the Truck series would be the next logical step for the teenager’s career. But there’s the awkward issue of him not turning 18 until April 28, 2017, which keeps him from competing in the series’ full schedule.

“I’m not sure about my plans for next year,” says Haley. “My birthday is kind of in the worst spot possible. I don’t turn 18 until about a quarter of the way through the season. It kind of chops out my chance of racing for the championship in a national series. With that being said, we’re trying to do something that’s going to be effective in my career.”

Wherever he winds up, he’ll have his family behind him.

Kevin Harvick glad to see evolving Cup schedule, but wants more changes

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – If Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts a Cup race on its infield road course just once it would be worth it to Kevin Harvick.

For Harvick, the buzz around the Sept. 30 event is an example of what good can come from experimenting with the 36-race Cup schedule.

“If we don’t ever run it again, think about all the conversation that it has created,” Harvick said Tuesday at the NASCAR Media Tour. “If you did it every year, it would just be another race. Those are the types of things that we need to create. We need to create events and moments.”

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been one of the most outspoken drivers in recent years regarding a desire for NASCAR to shake up its schedules, including a return to short tracks in the Truck Series.

In 2015, Harvick said 90 percent of tracks that host Cup events should only have one race a year. A few months later he advocated moving Saturday night races to Sunday afternoons and said Iowa Speedway should be given a Cup race.

Harvick expressed approval of changes NASCAR has made this year, including the swapping of race dates.

“You see Richmond in the playoffs (Sept. 22) and Indy in a date (Sept.  9) where the fans can sit in the stands and not burn their rear ends off,” Harvick said.

Another change is Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosting two Cup races, including the playoff opener on Sept. 16. The second race date was moved from New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Both tracks are owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc.

“Going to Vegas to kickoff the playoffs is a good move from a market standpoint,” Harvick said. “It is a great race track but the market itself is something you have to pay attention to.”

According to Accuweather.com, the average temperature in Las Vegas on Sept. 16 is 93 degrees.

Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion, also expressed his desire for a rotation of the championship race.

The Cup season has ended at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval, since 2002.

“I think it gets stale,” Harvick said. “It is a great race track but it isn’t all about the race track. It is about the event. How many times have you had a crappy Super Bowl but everybody goes to the Super Bowl because it is an event. That is what we need to create.”

The swapping of race dates and the creation of the Charlotte road course have occurred while NASCAR is in the middle of a five-year sanctioning agreement with tracks. The agreement ends in 2020.

Harvick presented other ideas for getting tracks more attention and creating unique events, including the prospect of a wild card race.

He also believes tracks should be able to lease their race dates to other tracks, especially when they’re undergoing renovations.

“You renovate your race track, then you have the right to take your date and lease it to someone else during the renovation process so that you can go try new markets and you can go have a unique event,” Harvick said. “Then that gives that particular race track a grace period to get all the work done and not have a race so they can keep working and get the renovations done in a shorter amount of time. That allows you to keep the race tracks renovated and still make money off their race by working a deal out with another race track with their sanctioning agreement.”

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Kyle Busch calls publicity emphasis on young Cup drivers ‘bothersome,’ ‘stupid’

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Kyle Busch was critical of how much more attention young Cup drivers receive in marketing and publicity compared to veterans, calling the gap he perceives “stupid” and “bothersome” during the NASCAR Media Tour Tuesday.

The topic arose when the 2015 Cup champion was asked if he thought there was an emphasis on the younger generation of drivers.

Absolutely there is. Do you feel like that, too?” Busch deadpanned in response.

The 32-year-old driver for Joe Gibbs Racing was pressed on whether it bothered him.

It is bothersome,” Busch said. “We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else, and all you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver. I think it’s stupid. But I don’t know, I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal. You know, I just do what I can do, and my part of it is what my part is.

“I guess one thing that can be said is probably the younger guys are bullied into doing more things than the older guys are because we say no a lot more because we’ve been there, done that and have families, things like that, and want to spend as much time as we can at home. You know, maybe that’s some of it. … Some of these marketing campaigns and things like that, pushing these younger drivers, is I wouldn’t say all that fair.”

The 2018 season opens next month with a growing field of drivers under the age of 30. Rookies William Byron (20) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (24) join the ranks of Chase Elliott (22), Ryan Blaney (24), Erik Jones (21), Kyle Larson (25), Alex Bowman (24), Ty Dillon (25) and Austin Dillon (27).

Busch is teammates with Jones, Daniel Suarez (27) and Denny Hamlin (37).

Jones, entering his second year in Cup, is replacing Matt Kenseth in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota. Kenseth, 45, ended last season as the oldest full-time driver in Cup.

Kenseth’s departure from the sport coincided with the retirement of 15-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Both had been in Cup since 2000.

Clint Bowyer, 38, also called the focus on younger drivers “bothersome,” but allowed that some of the attention is warranted and necessary for the growth of the sport.

“You have somebody getting in Jeff Gordon’s car (Byron), somebody getting in Dale Jr.’s car (Bowman),” Bowyer said. “We have to figure out how to fill that void somehow and it can’t always be the same guys that have been there. I get it.

“If they deserve it, push it now. If people are beating them — there were drivers last year. Look at Matt Kenseth. He was outrunning them pretty much every week and not getting the limelight. Some of those things are bothersome at times. Did I deserve it (the spotlight)? I wasn’t running as good as I needed to. If I was running up front and should have been in the limelight I would have been barking back a little bit.”

Busch, who was on the cover of the “NASCAR Heat 2” video game last year, won five times in 2017 and advanced to the Championship 4. There he finished second in the race and standings to Martin Truex Jr.

Kevin Harvick, who has been in Cup since 2001, was blunt when asked about Busch’s perception.

“That is like the child that’s whining for some attention,” Harvick said. “I can’t complain about that because of the fact our sponsors have been so involved with the things that we do. NASCAR’s been very open to the things that they’re doing and involved us in. I can’t back (Busch’s comment) up to be honest with you. Honestly, you have to have a push for the younger generation drivers as well in order to help introduce them to the fans and in the end that only works if they have the success on the race track. But there has to be a push for the guys coming up to introduce them to who they are and if they happen to perform like they need to perform on the race track and start acquiring these race fans that are looking for drivers to support. That’s good for everybody.”

Meanwhile, other Cup veterans, like Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne are OK with not being the center of the spotlight

“All of us, as race car drivers or as humans, some seek attention more than others,” said McMurray, who turns 42 in June and has been in Cup full-time since 2003. “I don’t really seek attention. So I’m OK with all that. I think some want attention more than others.”

Bayne, 26, is seven years removed from winning the Daytona 500 the day after his 20th birthday. The Roush Fenway Racing feels like the “middle child” when it comes to the two major generations of Cup drivers in the field.

“I was a young guy at one point getting that attention, so I think it’s fun when you’re a young guy coming in, and I don’t necessarily want all that attention,” Bayne said. “I just want to do my job well and win races and be fast and get attention for that, not because there’s media hype or because of my age.”

What does Byron’s generation think about the dynamic between generations?

According to Byron, “it’s all relative.”

The driver for Hendrick Motorsports will make his first Cup start in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

“When new guys come in it’s a kind of fresh thing to talk about, but we’re ultimately going to have to prove ourselves on the race track and do the things that we’re capable of,” Byron said. “I think that’s going to show over time, and hopefully a couple of us young guys can win some more races.”

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Austin Dillon: Richard Childress Racing looking to be ‘leaner and meaner’ with two-car team

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – When the 2018 Cup season begins next month, Richard Childress Racing will show up with what Austin Dillon hopes is a “leaner and meaner” two-car operation.

Dillon confirmed RCR will only field two full-time cars this season Tuesday during the NASCAR Media Tour.

The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet will be joined by Ryan Newman in the No. 31.

Paul Menard, who drove the No. 27 for RCR from 2011-17, is now with Wood Brothers Racing driving the No. 21.

“That was something I was really excited about in the offseason, when we decided to go to a little bit smaller organization,” Dillon said. “I see a lot of two-car teams being successful. Furniture Row is going back to one car and they were a two-car team last year, won the championship. I’m really positive about that. … It’s nice to be able to focus on two cars and our crew chiefs are our best friends. … They want to put RCR where it needs to be and that’s winning championships.”

This will be the first time RCR has been a strictly two-car operation since 2000, when it fielded entires for Dale Earnhardt in the N0. 3 and Mike Skinner in the No. 31. The next season, they fielded a third part-time car in eight races. At its peak, RCR fielded four full-time cars.

It went from four to three full-time cars in 2012.

The team has also downscaled its Xfinity operation from five to three cars.

RCR was able to win two Cup races last season, with Dillon in the Coke 600 and Ryan Newman in the spring Phoenix race. They were the team’s first Cup wins since 2013. Dillon, entering his fifth full-time season in Cup, doesn’t see 2018 as a rebuilding year.

“I think (it’s) just a go forward year,” Dillon said. “We’re getting more resources than we’ve ever had for two teams for a full year. Three teams, you’re getting spread thin at times and now we have the people that we want around us and enough of them.”

When it comes to personnel, Dillon said the team has “grown stronger” in the area it most needed to – engineering.

“It is leaner and meaner, but as far as the depth and places you need them, it’s probably better, truthfully,” Dillon said.

One new addition for RCR is an old face for the team. Andy Petree, who won two championships with RCR as Earnhardt’s crew chief in 1993 and 1994, has rejoined the team as the vice president of competition.

Dr. Eric Warren, who was the director of competition beginning in 2012, will now report to Petree in his role as chief technology advisor.

“I’ve enjoyed Andy since he got to our organization,” Dillon said. “It’s a line between my grandfather and myself and Eric Warren and my grandfather. … Our sport’s moving in a direction that’s heading toward the future and Andy has a passion and always has had a passion for engineering, but also kind of plays to my grandfather’s cards where he’s got an old school part to him, too.

“He’s letting Eric Warren work in his area and Andy’s kind of relaying those messages and pushing my grandfather in the right direction we need to go.”

Whichever direction they go in, they’ll be joined by Richard Petty Motorsports.

The team that owns the No. 43 Chevrolet driven by Darrell Wallace Jr. entered a technical alliance with RCR and now finds its home on RCR’s campus in Welcome, North Carolina.

“It was really cool yesterday having the King (Petty) in the room for a meeting with all of us,” Dillon said. “My grandfather, seeing those two iconic brands kind of standing together, it makes it special. I’m sure Chevrolet is excited about that, too.”

 

Richard Petty Motorsports following the footsteps of Furniture Row

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WELCOME, N.C. – All of the noise at Richard Petty Motorsports’ cozy new home on a recent Friday afternoon was coming from behind a short wall in the corner.

Several No. 43 cars were parked on the shop floor in various states of inactivity and incompletion, but the “Fusion” on the front bumper betrayed they were last year’s models.

Drew Blickensderfer, RPM’s crew chief, didn’t seem concerned as he cast a smile toward the source of the noise – a specialized fabrication department that could be the key to solving a championship-tested equation.

Less space and fewer people can equal better results.

“We have shrank quite a bit,” Blickensderfer said. “Right now, we’re bare bones, but we have the people we need to go racing and performance-wise to go racing.

“To grow into a Furniture Row, or a model similar to that, we need to get that (fabrication department) up and running.”

As RPM makes significant structural changes – switching to Chevrolet, aligning with Richard Childress Racing, shuttering its body-hanging staff – no one is expecting a quantum leap in performance for a team that finished 24th in the 2017 owner standings.

But an improvement to a top-20 car with long-term winning potential is expected, and the model is the reigning team in NASCAR’s premier series.

In winning the 2017 title with Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing has excelled by taking Joe Gibbs Racing chassis and optimizing the accompanying suspension parts and pieces through precision engineering and manufacturing.

RPM hopes to mirror the process through its reorganized fab department, which will have the same equipment from its previous home but with a more laser-targeted focus.

“If we can get that up and running, we’d be better off in the long run,” Blickensderfer said. “And that’s the ultimate goal is to be able to take a car from Richard Childress Racing and develop and work on it and ultimately have a better product for Sunday.”

RPM has traversed various paths toward competitiveness in recent seasons.

In 2014, the team was receiving chassis from Roush Fenway Racing but hanging its own bodies when it made the playoffs with Aric Almirola via a win at Daytona International Speedway. In 2015, RPM added chassis building to its workload but stumbled. Last year, it returned to hanging bodies on chassis supplied by Roush Fenway.

This year, RPM relocated from a 65,000-square-foot shop in Mooresville to a 20,000-square-foot space adjacent to RCR, which will deliver cars from its base just down the hill.

On arrival at RPM, all that is needed is interior (such as driver’s seat, steering wheel and column, air boxes and gear coolers) and mechanical work.

“Basically, it comes as a shell, the chassis with a body on it,” Blickensderfer said. “We do the wiring, the plumbing, the suspension parts, front and rear. Basically, all the parts you would bolt on.”

The change has allowed RPM to run leaner because there’s less work to be done on bodies. After employing about 80 last year (with 60 working on cars), RPM will have about 40 employees in 2018 with roughly 25 working on cars (about a half-dozen of those crew members will stay in the shop for assembly while the team is on the road, and RCR will supply the team’s pit crew).

The staff reduction will allow RPM to reallocate some funding toward R&D (after making zero trips to a wind tunnel last year).

Blickensderfer said the alliance with RCR should provide an aerodynamic foundation that will allow fine-tuning to have a greater impact. Last year, RPM “did a really good job of putting stuff that drove well under our race cars” but still faced the aerodynamic limitations of the Roush chassis.

“The thing that really creates speed on cars is the body and aero,” Blickensderfer said. “You can have the wrong springs in your car and mess up the other stuff a little bit, and you’d still be fast, at least in portions of the race. If you get all the springs right, and your aero is terrible, you still might be only a 20th-place car. That’s just the reality of it. The thing that is the most expensive to develop, create and implement is the aero stuff.

“So that’s why the big teams, they have all the wind tunnel data, and you’re racing against teams that are just developing faster than you can even produce cars. That’s why you’ve got to jump on board with them to get some of their information, or you’re going to be watching them coming behind you ready to lap you.”

With consolidation among chassis and engine builders an overarching trend in NASCAR for the past decade, alliances have become more prevalent. Besides RPM, Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty also have similar arrangements.

But few have made it work as well as Furniture Row, which made the championship round in 2015 through an RCR alliance before switching to JGR and Toyota the next season. Relying on the setups and strategies of crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex consistently outran JGR’s fleet of four Camrys in 2017 with a series-high eight victories and 19 stage wins – despite a few hundred fewer employees working at its Denver location.

“You step back and say, ‘How come no one else has been successful in that model?’ and you look at what Furniture Row has done with their model,” Blickensderfer said. “They still do some stuff in-house. So we pay RCR for an engineering agreement and to get cars from them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t develop ourselves. So you’d only be better off if you get extra money, you can start developing things yourself.

“Get all (the alliance team’s) information. Dump yours on top of it. You can’t help but get better in the long run that way. That’s what Cole and those guys have done. That’s the model that I would think the JTGs, the RPMs, the Germains, companies of this size, that’s what we need to strive to do is use that model to build up into that next level of race team.”

Though RPM will benefit from RCR’s aerodynamic R&D and assembly line capability, some of the information will be transferred the other way, too.

“They’re incorporating some of the stuff we had in our race cars into theirs that they think is going to make them better,” Blickensderfer said. “Before they put the body on it, we can change the brake system and do what we want, which eventually they’re going to do. And that saves us both time to make sure we have the best product.”

RPM took delivery of its first Camaro late last week for the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Its hauler will be on the road Jan. 26 to Nevada, leaving about a week to finish preparing and setting up the car.

“That’s not all that tight of a timeframe,” Blickensderfer said. “What will happen in the future when we start racing is we’ll get a car two to three weeks before the event, and when we come in on a Monday morning after an event, the next week’s car is on the setup plate ready to go, so there’s only about a day’s worth of work we have to do to it.”

RPM has put its surface plates and other tools in cold storage, keeping open the option to revert to hanging bodies. But with the sponsorship landscape scarce, it makes such autonomy more difficult.

“If you could do everything yourself, you’d be better off, because then nobody gets your information,” Blickensderfer said. “But if (RCR) can take the money they’re developing cars with, and we can take the money we’re getting to develop cars and combine it, I think we all end up better. When there is less money in the pot to grab, the more of us that can throw the money in, the better we’ll be.”