For the past three seasons, lack of sponsorship limited Kaz Grala to only occasional NASCAR starts. By the time Christmas arrived last month, Grala had engaged in numerous conversations with sponsors and teams, but he had no Cup, Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series races “set in stone” on his schedule.
After a flurry of calls and correspondences this month, the 23-year-old could run more races in NASCAR this year than the 15 he raced the past two seasons combined. Announcements are likely later this month.
“It’s never ideal to be trying to put your season together in January, certainly not February,” Grala told NBC Sports. “You’re in big trouble if it comes down to (February). That’s been the position I’ve been in the last few years. Unfortunately, I’m used to it at this point.”
While fans count the days to the start of the NASCAR season next month, Grala, Garrett Smithley and many other drivers furiously seek to complete deals with sponsors and teams. It can turn January into an anxiety-inducing month of promises and pitfalls for competitors trying to secure as many races as possible this year.
“I hope one day … I’m secure in my rides and I’m secure in my sponsorship where I can focus on the racing part, and I still do,” Smithley told NBC Sports. “I still watch film. I still get on the simulator. I still do all those things. But, all of my spare time, as far as working on sponsorship, is geared toward trying to go racing.
“The dessert for me is lining up Sunday and running 400 or 500 miles. All of that can’t happen unless the hours and hours and hours and days and weeks and months and years spent garnering these (sponsor and team) relationships.”
It’s a lesson the 29-year-old Smithley learned more than a decade ago. When he was 18, Smithley had the chance to run a Legends car race at Hickory (North Carolina) Motor Speedway, but he was about $300 short of what the team needed for the event.
Smithley sought sponsorship to cover the shortfall. He went to Google Maps, expanded the map beyond the speedway and “just kind of went down the road and just called every company that was in that vicinity.”
Ten calls led nowhere.
Twenty calls turned up nothing.
Thirty calls went for naught.
Forty calls proved fruitless.
As he approached 50 calls, Smithley found an auto parts business that would provide store credit. That was enough for him to get the ride.
Smithley admits he has to be a salesman along with being a driver. It’s his job to sell sponsors and teams on his ability and what he can do for both.
Grala can relate to Smithley’s persistence after receiving so many rejections. That’s the way sales, in general, can be – more nos than yeses.
“Gosh, for every 100 (proposals) I would send, I would say that I’m lucky if I get 10-20 responses, period,” Grala said. “I sure get a whole lot more nos than yeses. I don’t take that personally.”
The rejections, though, can be deflating.
“Monday, I spent probably the later half of the day working on an email, putting together a proposal for a company, a very large national company whose CEO I reached out to and I have corresponded with before, so I knew he would see it,” Grala said.
“I put together what I thought was a really, really great opportunity. I got a response seven minutes later with just the words ‘we’re not interested.’
“You have moments like that that are frustrating, but at the same time, it doesn’t take but one ‘yes’ to all of a sudden have a great season. Who knows? Maybe have a great career. You never know. It’s always worth putting out that (large) net to try to get them.”
For Grala, the last few years have been lean. After running 22 Xfinity races in 2018, he has run 20 NASCAR races since (12 Xfinity races, four Cup races and four Truck races). For perspective, more than 85 drivers ran 20 or more NASCAR races in any of the three national series last year.
Had it not been for finding sponsorship before the 2020 season, Grala might not even be in the sport now.
In 2019, he had a five-race Xfinity deal with Richard Childress Racing. Grala finished no better than 14th in the first four races in that ride.
“When I first started my part-time schedule, it was really difficult for me,” Grala said. “You do put that pressure on yourself. You get into the race car, and let’s say you’re running ninth in an Xfinity race. Maybe you have a ninth-place car that day, but if you’re feeling like ‘I can’t finish ninth, I get one race every three months to prove myself, I’ve got to make something happen,’ that’s when you make mistakes.
“My first year at RCR, I made those mistakes in four of the five races I did with them.”
Grala finished fifth at Road America in his final Xfinity start with the team that year. It was enough for Richard Childress Racing to want him back in 2020 for select events — provided he could bring sponsorship.
When he wasn’t racing in 2019, Grala spent time coaching Truck series driver Natalie Decker. One of her sponsors, Ruedebusch, was introduced to Grala and provided the funding so he could run five Xfinity races in 2020 with RCR.
Grala said that deal “jump-started” his career.
He had run two Xfinity races in 2020 when Austin Dillon tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Daytona road course race late in the regular season. Grala filled in for Dillon. It was Grala’s first Cup start. He finished seventh.
“If I didn’t go back to RCR for those (Xfinity) races (in 2020), I would have never ended up in that 3 car to fill in for Austin,” Grala said. “I feel that was absolutely the point that I could turn to in my career and say, ‘This is where things changed.’”
His Cup performance at the Daytona road course gained attention and set him up to run three Cup races in 2021 for Kaulig Racing. He finished sixth in the spring Talladega race.
Even with the ability, it still takes money to get rides. That’s why Grala makes calls, sends proposals and brokers deals to get more races and, someday, a full-time ride.
While he has help in finding sponsorship from Team Dillon Management, Grala does as much work as he can on his own.
“My dad taught me very young, ‘No one is going to care more about your career than you are. Ever,’” Grala said. “I take that to heart. I love working with (Team Dillon Management and Business Director Austin Craven). They are a huge help to me, and I can’t do everything I do without working with them side-by-side as a team, but I like to stay involved. I like to be in direct contact with teams, potential sponsors.
“I’m in the loop in everything. I’m sending emails to companies that I’m prospecting. … At the end of the day that makes successes and failures on me, which I think it should be, being my career. I take responsibility on that end.”
Smithley also does a lot of his own sponsorship searches but is guided by Spire Sports + Entertainment’s Phillip Smalley, who has been a motorsports management marketing and consulting professional since 2014.
“Let’s just say I get the relationship and he (Smalley) helps me keep them, and he helps me build them and he helps me garner those relationships,” Smithley said.
It’s still not easy to find all the funding necessarily.
“I wish it was a little bit easier,” Smithley said. “I wish it was a little bit less stressful sometimes.”
Even so, Smithley has found enough sponsors and money for steady rides in recent years. He looks to have announcements later this month on what he’ll be doing this season.
While Grala has run 16 Cup or Xfinity races the past three seasons, Smithley has run 109 Cup or Xfinity races during the same time.
Grala knows he’s fallen behind a number of drivers in experience with his limited amount of races. That makes this a critical time in his career. He needs to find as much sponsorship as he can so he can run as many races as possible.
“I feel like I’m getting to that age where within the next two or three years it’s kind of when it seems to be drivers make it to Cup if they’re going to make it to Cup,” Grala said. “When I say make it to Cup, I mean full-time in a chartered car.
“We’re getting down to where I would like to be in this timeframe, so each year is getting more important. Each year, so far, has seemed to get better for me in terms of opportunities. I feel like if I keep working like I have been, keep putting in the preparation for the on-track product so I can go perform well there, I’m hoping that things will fall where they’re supposed to.
“My dream has been to be a Cup driver since I was probably single-digits years old. It’s almost like the closer you get, the more frustrating because you can taste it. You’re so close, but yet, it’s always so far because it’s never easy.
“I’m hoping that over the next couple of years I can position myself to be out there every Sunday.”
The more he gets done this month, the closer he can get to that goal.
2. Will teams have enough cars at start of season?
Among the key questions this offseason is how many cars will teams have to start the season.
Changes to the Next Gen car late in the development, combined with supply issues related to COVID-19 mean that organizations are not expected to have the maximum seven cars per team at the start of the season.
With the potential for crashes at Daytona and then a three-week West Coast swing, there are some worries about teams managing their cars through the first few weeks of the season.
“We are concerned, for sure,” said Jerry Freeze, general manager at Front Row Motorsports. “We’ve got two cars that you could take to the race track tomorrow and a third one that is on its way of being assembled. That’s about it for us right now.
“The chassis parts are becoming more readily available, but some other things, I feel like, are behind a little bit. Hopefully, we will have more inventory. … It’s definitely different from the days where you’ve got 30 race cars in the shop.”
That’s part of the reason for the switch to the Next Gen car. It is designed so the car can be run on various types of tracks instead of having cars for each individual track type. That is supposed to help teams save money over the long term.
Walt Czarnecki, vice chairman at Team Penske, is not as worried about the number of cars for the organization. He said this week that Mike Nelson, the team’s vice president of operations, told him that they are in “reasonably good shape as we get into this first phase of the season.”
John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of racing innovation, addressed where things are likely to be at the start of the year for teams.
“We’re still on track for five cars per team … and that’s five center sections and seven front and rear clips, so it’s kind of like five plus a little bit,” he said this week at the Daytona organizational test.
“I think that we’re not immune to the world. We’re seeing COVID and supply chains being delayed and some of the distribution being delayed a little bit. I’d say that right now we don’t see any parts or pieces that are going to keep any car from racing in an event.”
All 36 charter teams will compete Feb. 6 at the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Teams then are back on track Feb. 15 in practice for the Feb. 20 Daytona 500.
3. Ryan Newman’s future
Ryan Newman will compete today at the Chili Bowl Nationals, but he said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he does not have any type of NASCAR ride for this season.
Newman completed his 20th full-time Cup season last year. The 2002 Cup Rookie of the Year won 18 Cup races, including the 2008 Daytona 500. He finished in the top 10 in points seven times, including a runner-up result in 2014.
He spoke about his future on “Dialed In” with Claire B. Lang this week.
“Definitely interested in continuing to race,” Newman said. “That’s why there was no retirement party. There were no retirement plans. There was no ‘Ryan’s last ride’ or anything like that because that wasn’t the intention.”
He said he has plans to do some “short track grassroots racing” this year. Other than that, he has no other racing plans at this time.
4. Team Penske’s Xfinity program
Team Penske, which has fielded a full-time entry in the Xfinity Series since 2009, does not have any races scheduled in the series this season, said Walt Czarnecki, vice chairman of Team Penske.
Czarnecki said that could change if sponsorship came along for any of those events.
The team’s Xfinity program has won two driver titles and four owner crowns.
Brad Keselowski gave Team Penske its first NASCAR championship when he won the 2010 Xfinity driver’s title.
The organization won consecutive owner titles from 2013-15. Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and AJ Allmendinger each won for the team in 2013. Keselowski and Blaney won races for the team in 2014. Keselowski, Blaney and Logano won in the car in 2015.
Team Penske won the 2017 owner’s title behind wins by Keselowski, Blaney, Logano and Sam Hornish Jr.
Austin Cindric won the 2020 Xfinity driver crown.
5. Familiar place
Christopher Bell earned his record-tying eighth preliminary night victory Thursday night at the Chili Bowl Nationals.
The top two finishers in each of the preliminary night feature races Monday-Friday earn a starting spot in Saturday night’s main event.
Bell, a three-time Chili Bowl champion, will be joined in Saturday’s feature race by reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson, who has won the past two Chili Bowls.