Friday 5: Justin Marks looks to make Trackhouse Racing into Nashville’s team

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In 2018, Justin Marks strived to summit Aconcagua, the highest point in the Andes Mountains and the Western Hemisphere.

He failed.

Marks turned around less than 1,000 feet from the 22,841-foot peak after “I got my ass kicked” by the mountain.

Two years later, he reached the summit.

“The success of Aconcagua is not standing on the top,” Marks told NBC Sports. “It’s going through just a very difficult, uncomfortable experience and rising to the occasion.”

The Trackhouse Racing owner, who seeks to climb Everest someday, uses his mountaineering experience to help guide his first-year Cup team. Just as each step is planned well in advance in climbing, so is Marks’ plan for his team. He wants Trackhouse Racing to be “disruptive” in the sport by operating in a different manner.

One example is that he wants to relocate Trackhouse Racing to Nashville, Tennessee, and make it the city’s NASCAR team. He hopes to move there for the 2023 season.

“This new car is going to open up teams to rethink their shops and where they are,” said Marks, who lives near Nashville and has his team based at Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, North Carolina. “I think we’re entering an era of NASCAR where you no longer need to be buried in a 140,000-square foot manufacturing facility in an industrial park.

“I’m right now looking at ways to put our race shop in downtown Nashville and have our race shop be a public attraction for all the Nashville tourists to come in.”

But it might not just be a race shop in Nashville. Marks envisions more with the building.

“Maybe that’s a music venue and bar in downtown Nashville that is over the top of the race shop or something like that,” he said. “These are the kind of things that Trackhouse wants to think completely differently about and to just sort of rethink the entire team operations model. That’s just one example of 50 things on the whiteboard and 50 things that are in process right now.

“We’re just looking at everything and saying, ‘How do we do things different? How do we become the team of the people? How do we get a community to rally around us like one of the local professional teams?’”

A NASCAR team based outside the Charlotte, North Carolina, hub is not unheard of. Furniture Row Racing won the 2017 Cup championship with Martin Truex Jr. while based in Denver. The team shut down after the 2018 season.

With the Next Gen car’s debut next year, vendors will provide many of the key parts, including the chassis. Teams will not have to manufacture as many components. Marks notes that organizations won’t need to be tied to the Charlotte area.

“Nashville, there’s just so much opportunity here, and it’s becoming such a sports town that it just made too much sense,” Marks said of the city, which has teams in the NFL, NHL and MLS. “It’s the perfect fit.”

The area also has this weekend’s NASCAR races at Nashville Superspeedway, including the track’s first Cup race (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN). The city of Nashville will host a street race for the NTT IndyCar Series on Aug. 8 on NBCSN.

Marks is on the ownership group bringing the IndyCar race to Nashville. That group includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., entertainer Justin Timberlake and Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Big Machine Label Group and owner of Big Machine Racing in the Xfinity Series.

Marks, whose resume includes a win in the 2016 Xfinity race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and a class victory in the 2009 Rolex 24 at Daytona in a Porsche, has long been an advocate for street racing in NASCAR. Well before most advocated the idea, he was pushing for it. Marks said in 2018 he was for a NASCAR street course race because “I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people.”

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway
Daniel Suarez has scored two top-10 finishes for Trackhouse Racing in its inaugural Cup season. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

That’s his approach with his team. Marks’ vision includes owning more than the No. 99 car of Daniel Suarez. Marks hopes to have a second car, potentially as early as next season.

“I want to be a multi-car, race-winning, championship-contending organization,” the 40-year-old Marks said. “That’s my goal. I’m willing to work for the next 25 years toward that goal.

“If that’s the goal and there is an opportunity to expand to two cars now, there’s no better time than the present. I mean why not just go for it? … This is what I’m going to invest my life, my heart and my soul into.”

Such an approach does not surprise AJ Allmendinger, who was Marks’ teammate in the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“You need people like that to come in and keep this thriving,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports of Marks and Matt Kaulig, owner of Kaulig Racing. “I love what Justin has been doing. I love the passion he has for motorsports. Not only when it comes to the NASCAR side of it, the Nashville IndyCar race. He’s got his hands in a lot of different things. He’s always been like that. It’s fun to see him having at least some success early to keep pushing him.”

Another way Marks is doing things differently is that he stated from the beginning that Trackhouse Racing would promote STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

That was among the concepts that drew Pitbull into joining Marks as co-owner of the team.

NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600
Pitbull (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“I wanted to get involved because I see it’s a higher calling,” Pitbull said. “It’s about utilizing the culture, creating the culture through NASCAR to bring people together. 

“I know it because I live it. I’ve seen it. Music is a universal language. When I’m out there performing for everybody, it doesn’t matter whether you speak English, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, if you are black, white, pink, purple or orange, it doesn’t matter. We all speak music when we’re there.  

When it comes to NASCAR, we watch the cars race, it’s about letting everyone know no matter what in life, if you focus, you work hard for it, you can achieve it.”

That’s a similar approach for Marks. One that has been reinforced by his experience mountain climbing.

“In the mountains, you are constantly learning how to overcome obstacles,” Marks said. “You are constantly learning how to adapt to hardships. My experience on the mountain has made me a better business owner because it’s changed my cognitive framework about how I look at things that didn’t go my way or problems that arise.

“Maybe before my time in the mountains, those were big problems and I had an emotional response to those problems. Now, I just look at it as a step in the process. … I’m much more methodical about how I look at adversity because if you react to adversity with emotion in the mountains, you get yourself in trouble. Same thing in business.”

2. Whiz kids

This weekend marks NASCAR’s return to Nashville Superspeedway for the first time in 10 years.

For many of the younger drivers competing there this weekend, going back a decade takes them to a time that included varying interests and interesting hair styles. It also was a time when not all of them were racing yet.

Ten years ago, Cup rookie Anthony Alfredo was 12 years old and building a computer for gaming. After watching YouTube videos on how to do so, he started work on his project.

Front Row Motorsports driver Anthony Alfredo, in 2011, building his first computer. (Photo: Anthony Alfredo)

“To be honest, it went very smoothly,” the Front Row Motorsports driver said. “I really didn’t have any issues or challenges (building it).”

His only issue was having all the parts. As he built it, he realized he needed a part or two he hadn’t ordered and had a part or two he ordered that he didn’t need. He couldn’t start playing games on the computer until the proper parts arrived a few days later.

“To be completely honest, I have people … who say ‘Man, that is crazy that you built a computer, especially in seventh grade,’ but, to be honest, everything clicks together,” Alfredo said. “It’s kind of like Legos with really expensive components.”

Alfredo used that computer for his iRacing for “a super long time.” He also used it as an office computer before building another computer for that purpose. He took the computer he built in 2011 to his family’s Connecticut home and uses that when he’s there.

Alfredo says it still is “running pretty smooth, which is awesome 10 years later.”

Before he drove the No. 24 in Cup, William Byron wore No. 35 in middle school football (Photo: William Byron)

A decade ago, William Byron’s focus was more on playing sports than racing. He was a linebacker on his middle school football team and also played lacrosse. It was at about this time Byron started to get into iRacing, which eventually led him to racing cars.

Consider what he’s done since his football playing days:

  • Won the ARCA East Series championship in 2015.
  • Won Camping World Truck Series Rookie of the Year in 2016.
  • Won the Xfinity Series championship and Rookie of the Year in 2017.
  • Won Cup Rookie of the Year in 2018.
  • Won his first Cup race in 2020, winning at the Daytona oval.
  • Won his second Cup race, winning at Homestead in 2021.
Quin Houff (No. 1) in his football days. (Photo: Quin Houff)

Quin Houff, who is in his second year in Cup for StarCom Racing, also played football his freshman year in high school.

He did that while competing in Late Model stocks at tracks such as Ace Speedway and Orange County Speedway in North Carolina.

Tyler Reddick also was racing a decade ago at age 15. He was in his sophomore year of high school and home schooled as he raced. He raced dirt late models in 2011 and scored his first career win, taking the checkered flag at East Bay Raceway Park. But just as memorable was Reddick’s hair style back then. He wasn’t the only one to have a memorable victory then. Erik Jones, then 15, won the prestigious Governor’s Cup 200 in Florida in 2011, giving his career a boost.

Many in the Xfinity Series had unique experiences a decade ago. Reigning series champion Austin Cindric celebrated his selection as a tuba player to the all-county band in 2011. Bayley Currey completed the eighth grade and finished the year on the honor roll despite missing 25 days of school because of his Legend Car racing schedule. Riley Herbst was entering the seventh grade that fall and had already won a few national Legend Car races. Harrison Burton won three USAC Quarter Midget championships. 

That year saw Gray Gaulding sign with Kevin Harvick Inc. to race full-time in the Pro All-Star Series and in 15 Super Late Model races. Colby Howard didn’t turn 10 until late October, but he already was racing dirt bikes. Ryan Vargas turned 11 in September 2011. He wouldn’t start racing until 2012.

Noah Gragson also had yet to start racing. He would do so in 2012. In 2011, he spent time dirt biking, mountain biking, snowboarding and skateboarding. Brandon Jones was going into his freshman year in the fall of 2011. He won the track championship taat year in the Super Truck Series at both Gresham Motorsports Park and Lanier National Speedway (now called Lanier Raceplex).

Joe Graf Jr. entered the seventh grade in 2011 and raced a Legend Car across the Northeast as well as in Florida. Jesse Little qualified for Martinsville Speedway’s Late Model race as a 14-year-old. Matt Mills was racing go-karts. Stefan Parsons raced a bandolero car in 2011.

3. A Big day for this Xfinity team

Saturday’s Xfinity race at Nashville Superspeedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) comes six months after music executive Scott Borchetta announced he would start a NASCAR Xfinity Series team.

Big Machine Racing’s Jade Buford has had a season-best four consecutive top-20 finishes entering this weekend’s race. It is a home event for Buford and Borchetta. Both live in the Nashville area and Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group is based in Nashville.

Borchetta admits the plan wasn’t to be an owner. He originally sought to be a sponsor. When he figured he could own a team for not much more money, he went into ownership.

“My entire life, if you look at the arc of my career in business and racing, it’s always been situations of, ‘Well, let’s do it ourself,’” Borchetta told NBC Sports. “I’ve never put ourselves in a position of having to count on somebody else for us to be successful. I’ve always been able to take my experience in working for others and creating our own businesses and our own culture. We’ve been very fortunate in pretty much everything that we’ve pursued.

“When we look at the first six months of the team, I’m very happy. Jade has delivered on everything I thought he could deliver.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 300
Jade Buford has scored four consecutive top-20 finishes for Big Machine Racing, which is in its first year in the Xfinity Series. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Borchetta has been one to seize opportunities when presented. His father was involved in the country music business in Nashville. When Borchetta came from California to visit in 1981, his father said a country band needed a bass player for its tour.

“I’m thinking I’m 19 years old and I can go on tour,” Borchetta said. “So I went on tour with this country band and I never went back to LA.”

In 2005, he founded Big Machine Label Group, whose artists include Tim McGraw, Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett.

Borchetta said that a saying has guided him throughout his career: “I think we’re right until you prove us wrong.”

He explained why that resonates: “When you have that mentality, we’re going to figure out how to do this. When we started Big Machine, we were anything but a big machine. There was 13 of us. I didn’t tell them that we weren’t. I told them we were a Big Machine and we will figure out how to win. There’s always been that belief that we can do it.”

Borchetta also has done it on the track. He’s a three-time Super Trucks champion at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville and was enshrined in the track’s Hall of Fame last year. He also has competed in the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association and won a national championship last year driving a ’72 Corvette.

So what about driving an Xfinity car?

He nearly did. Borchetta planned to run the inaugural Xfinity road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year. When COVID-19 struck, his plans went away. Instead, he sponsored Buford in a car for SS Green Light Racing. Buford finished 14th in his Xfinity Series debut. That led to Borchetta signing Buford for this season.

As for having another chance to run an Xfinity car? It could happen. Borchetta runs Trans Am races.

“I could see running an Xfinity road race or two within the next couple of years,” he said. “I would love to do it. Running Trans Am 2 has been great experience to lead up to that moment. I’m not counting it out.”

4. What will practice be like in 2022?

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, joined Marty Snider, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett on NASCAR America MotorMouths this week on Peacock. He  discussed what practice will be like next season for teams and if the package used in the NASCAR All-Star Race will be run again.

Since returning from the pandemic hiatus in May 2020, NASCAR has primarily had no practice or qualifying for events.

Cup storylines
The package used in last week’s NASCAR All-Star Race won’t be used again this season. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Eight Cup races this season are exceptions. Those include new Cup events: Circuit of the Americas, the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, Road America and Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Other Cup events with practice and qualifying this season are: Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

With the series moving to the Next Gen car, how much practice will be permitted?

“I think one of the key things that allowed us to do what we did and do it so efficiently is the fact that the race teams had such huge notebooks on these cars,” Miller said on the show about limiting practicing and qualifying this season. “They really hadn’t changed too much over the last two or three years. Just the amount of sim work and how elaborate all the simulation and the models have gotten with these particular cars is what allowed us to do that.

“There’s going to have to be a vehicle to collect that data and get those same systems up and running for the teams. I don’t think zero practice is necessarily going to be something that is on the table but limited practice. They’re going to have to figure out things a lot quicker than they have before, for sure.”

Last weekend, NASCAR reduced the tapered spacer for the All-Star Race, cutting horsepower from about 550 to 510. Miller was asked on the show if such a package could be seen again.

“We don’t see that as something that we will implement between now and the end of the year,” he said. “As we finalize all the different things for Next Gen, power levels and the different downforce packages and things that will be available with that car, that kind of helped us a little bit zero in on something.”

NASCAR America Motormouths airs from 6-7 p.m. ET Mondays and Wednesdays on Peacock.

5. The best the first time around

Hendrick Motorsports has won the most inaugural Cup races since 1994, capturing five of 12 such races.

Here is a look at who won those inaugural races:

Circuit of the Americas (May 2021) – Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports)

Bristol Dirt (March 2021) – Joey Logano (Team Penske)

Daytona road course (Aug. 2020) – Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports)

Charlotte Roval (Sept. 2018) – Ryan Blaney (Team Penske)

Kentucky (July 2011) – Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing)

Kansas (Sept. 2001) – Jeff Gordon (Hendrick Motorsports)

Chicagoland (July 2001) – Kevin Harvick (Richard Childress Racing)

Homestead (Nov. 1999) – Tony Stewart (Joe Gibbs Racing)

Las Vegas (March 1998) – Mark Martin (Roush Racing)

Auto Club (June 1997) – Jeff Gordon (Hendrick Motorsports)

Texas (April 1997) – Jeff Burton (Roush Racing)

Indianapolis (Aug. 1994) – Jeff Gordon (Hendrick Motorsports)