Jerad Hewitt

Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Inside RPM: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew

3 Comments

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long is spending this week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at all that takes place before a race. He will be with the team at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. Watch for his stories each day through Sunday.

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

Part 2: Searching for sponsorship 

BRISTOL, Tenn. — They brought diecast cars, hats, shirts and hero cards to be signed. A man wearing a No. 3 hat and an orange Bristol T-shirt brought a Winston Cup banner covered in signatures. Bubba Wallace became the 279th name to decorate it. A woman gave Wallace, a University of Tennessee fan, an orange Volunteers bracelet and a lanyard. A man just wanted to shake Wallace’s hand.

And then there was Maegann Wright, wearing a Bubba Wallace T-shirt. Among the 300 or so items Wallace signed Thursday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway, none was more unusual than what Wright requested. She slipped her left black-and-white checkered shoe off and handed it to the driver of the No. 43 car. He wrote his name next to Ryan Blaney’s fading signature.

“It smells disgusting,’’ Wright said of her shoe. “I felt bad, but I had to have him sign it.”

When the line emptied and the last selfies with fans were taken, Wallace returned to his motorhome to prepare for the weekend. The next race is always the most important for any competitor, but that might be more true for Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports.

Maegann Wright gets a fist bump from Bubba Wallace after he signed her shoe at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The single-car team continues to search for sponsorship. Businesses operated by team owners Andrew Murstein and Richard Petty will be on the car Saturday night for the fifth time in the last six races because no other company paid to be the primary sponsor. The team seeks a primary sponsor for more than half of the remaining 13 Cup races.

“We know how much it means to have a really good race,” Wallace told NBC Sports.

Bristol could be an equalizer for RPM because aerodynamics and finances don’t mean as much as at bigger tracks. In April, Wallace drove to the front and led six laps before a blistered left-front tire relegated him to a 16th-place finish. The way Wallace drove to the front gave the crew hope this week as they prepared the same car for this race.

Such a run would provide a boost. The team has had one top-15 finish in the last 16 races, an eighth-place result at Texas in April.

The challenge is not new for Wallace. He thinks back to his early struggles in the Truck Series before he won at Martinsville in 2013, and the search for sponsorship that came up empty and forced Roush Fenway Racing to suspend operations of his Xfinity team last season.

(Photo: Dustin Long)

“Each and every step, there has been something to overcome and a hardship to be able to cross,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “I think that just makes you stronger for the next step in your journey. Being here right now and knowing our expectations … learning from those hardships that I’ve come through before, I don’t put so much pressure on myself.

“Yeah, we’re struggling a little bit. But I don’t feel like I’m about to have a mental breakdown over it. It’s like, ‘Why aren’t we winning all these races?’ Well, let’s back up a little bit. We don’t have the money and stuff like that. We have the drive, we have the passion, but that’s not what wins you races. That’s a step to help you win a race, but we’ve got to have a whole package.”

He came close in the Daytona 500, finishing second to Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing, an organization Richard Petty Motorsports is aligned with and neighbors to in Welcome, North Carolina.

For as memorable as the finish was, what happened in the media center afterward is a moment that Wallace said he’ll never forget. His mother went to the dais and embraced Wallace, telling him: “I’m so proud of you, baby. I’m so proud of you. You’ve waited so long, baby.”

Wallace responded as they hugged: “You act like we won just won the race.”

“We did! We did! We did win that race. We did.”

Wallace’s mother, Desiree Gillispie-Wallace, has provided her son emotional support through the peaks and valleys of a racing career that started at age 9 and saw a steady progression of a driver some labeled the Tiger Woods of racing.

Along the way, Wallace won in his first K&N Pro Series East start at age 16 and became the first African-American to win a NASCAR national series race in nearly 50 years. At age 20, his victory came at Martinsville, just a few miles from the hometown of Wendell Scott, who became the only African-American to win a Cup race in 1963.

“He’s still hard on himself because he feels like he’s carrying the weight of the African-American culture … kids that look up to him,” Wallace’s mother told NBC Sports. “He wants to make sure he’s doing a good job for everybody.”

Bubba Wallace speaks to the senior class at Virginia High School in Bristol. (Photo: Dustin Long)

During an appearance Thursday for the U.S. Air Force before the senior class at Virginia High School in Bristol, Wallace was asked by a black student about being the only African-American in NASCAR’s top series.

“It’s pretty cool,” Wallace told the assembly. “Wendell Scott … laid down the foundation for us all and broke the barriers and went through all that stuff. For me now, I’m one of the most accepted drivers. In our driver intros, I get huge cheers. For me, it’s about being myself … carrying that to each and every weekend. I think the fans latch on to what is real. That’s what I’m all about. There’s no switching it up when you get on camera. Me talking to you guys today is the same person you’ll see … at the race. I’ve always been like that.

“As far as the African-American side, I don’t really pay much attention to try to accomplish that. I just go out and let the driving speak for itself. You have good days that tends to shine a little bit more, the humbling days is what you need to work on, when things don’t go your way you’ve got to manage the emotion and come out on top.”

He has his team’s support.

“These guys are really sold that Bubba can drive even though I don’t think it’s fair that we haven’t given him a good car lot this year,” said Philippe Lopez, director of competition. “It’s not that we’ve given him a bad car, it’s just where we’re at he’s done a lot with it. Sometimes he’s overachieved.”

Bubba Wallace chats with shock specialist Michael Riggs at the shop earlier in the week. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Wallace also has done other things that mean a lot to the crew. Visits to the shop and spending time with crew means a lot to each.

“Some drivers, they’re like straight-laced, you’ve got to be real serious with them and there’s other drivers like Bubba that you can mess around with,” said interior mechanic David Cropps, whose primary job is to make sure where Wallace sits inside the car is as safe as possible.

One of the things that struck mechanic Jerad Hewitt, who joined the team last month, was what Wallace typically does after most practices. He goes around and thanks the crew for their job.

“It’s nice to have that,” Hewitt said.

It’s something Wallace has done since he was racing in the Xfinity Series.

“The moments that we go through are all as one team, from the start of the weekend to the end, all one team,” Wallace said. “Sometimes I forget (to thank them) and I feel bad about it.

“It’s something that came about, showing the guys that I for sure care about them, they’re the ones that I put the trust in to make sure the car is at its full 110 percent each and every weekend. Showing them the appreciation and giving them the love that they deserve is what it’s all about.”

 and on Facebook

Inside Richard Petty Motorsports: Searching for sponsorship

Photo: Dustin Long
5 Comments

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long is spending this week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at how a team prepares for a race. He will be with the team at the shop and at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. Watch for his stories each day through Sunday.

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

WELCOME, N.C. — A stillness hangs in the heavy air. Sounds echo, whether from crickets or distant traffic. Morning dew clings to the grass and the sky is dark as many of the shop employees at Richard Petty Motorsports leave home.

When the team moved on Jan. 2 from its Mooresville, N.C., location to the Richard Childress Racing campus farther north, it meant that many employees had about an hour’s drive to the shop.

Alarm clocks are set earlier to be in the building by 6:30 a.m. for those who work only in the shop and 7 a.m. for those who work on the road crew.

Among the first in the building is shop foreman Brian Dantinne, who wakes up at 4 a.m. and makes the 45-minute drive — among the shorter one-way commutes — to be there by 6 a.m.

Mechanic Jerad Hewitt, whose uncle once was a crew chief at Petty Enterprises, is used to 5 a.m. alarms. He would get up then, have plenty of time to read the paper before making his five-minute drive to Joe Gibbs Racing. After joining Richard Petty Motorsports last month, Hewitt gets up at the same time but has less free time before making the hour-long drive to the shop.

It’s a daunting schedule for those who are not early risers and seems even more challenging when a team’s results include few top-10 finishes. With limited funding — the team does not have a primary sponsor in seven of the 13 remaining Cup races — this single-car team and its employees face challenges each week to be competitive.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer talks to Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman while Joey Forgette works on the Bristol primary car. (Photo: Dustin Long)

So how do those who work at RPM get out of bed, make a long drive to work and face seemingly long odds at success many weeks?

“I look at it as we’re against the mega-teams,” Dantinne said, taking a break from ordering parts while crew members work on the Bristol car nearby. “I look at it as a challenge every day I get up to go to work. Hopefully contribute and get better. Trust me, I want to run good. We see our faults, we know what our faults are, so hopefully we can make them better. We’re all driven. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or the NBC Sports app) presents an opportunity for a better result since there’s less reliance on aerodynamics at the half-mile track. The team is hopeful it can repeat its April performance there when Bubba Wallace drove to the front and led six laps. With the team hosting potential sponsors this weekend, another strong run could impact the team’s future.

“Every weekend is important, there’s no question about it,” Brian Moffitt, the team’s chief executive officer says. “But this one in particular with where we know Bubba has run good and we have run good … we are extremely confident that when we give Bubba the right equipment, he can drive it and take it to the front. It’s exciting going into Bristol knowing that.”

Wallace’s car will have Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage listed as the primary sponsor at Bristol — companies operated by the team’s co-owners Andrew Murstein (Medallion Bank) and Richard Petty (Petty’s Garage). Those logos are put on the car when there isn’t another company that has bought sponsorship.

Bristol marks the fifth race in the last six where Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage were on the car. Philippe Lopez, the team’s director of competition, admits he has to be a strict gatekeeper on how much money the team can spend based on its sponsorship.

“I have to say no a lot,” Lopez said. “It sucks because I put myself in (crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer’s) shoes a lot. When I have to say no, I just don’t say no like your parents did. I explain to him this is where we’re at and this is what we can do this month and here’s what I’m thinking, the money we have we need to spend to go fast. Most of the time Drew and I agree. There are some things we need to spend money on, there are some things that would be nice, but it’s not keeping us from that next position.”

That can mean the team might not have the latest versions of some parts or need to run a chassis more races than a bigger team that is constantly building cars that go faster.

With a storied name such as Petty and a dynamic driver as the rookie Wallace, it’s easy to wonder why the team hasn’t been able to find sponsorship for every race this season.

“Reality is we were so late in what took place in ’17, budgets were petty well set in ’18,” Moffitt, the team’s CEO, says in his office, which is decorated with the trophy from the July 2014 Daytona win, the team’s most recent victory.

“We knew this year was going to be like it is. We were hoping we would close more business in-season like everybody does. We really think that ’19 and the discussions that we do have are very positive around Bubba.”

The crew works on the front of the Bristol primary car Wednesday afternoon while decals are being placed on it. (Photo: Dustin Long)

RPM didn’t sign Wallace until late October last year. That was past when many companies had set their budgets. It’s no coincidence that the team announced a two-year extension of Wallace’s contract in late July. That gives RPM additional time to talk to potential sponsors and for those companies to budget money to sponsor the team.

While talks continue, a cost-cutting method the team does — when it doesn’t have a sponsor other than Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage — is wrap the car in sponsor logos a day before the car is loaded in the hauler to go to the next race. That gives the sales team extra time for any last-minute deals.

It also creates scenes such as Wednesday afternoon at the shop when the crew is working on and underneath the front of the car, while decals are being placed on the back of the car.

Hewitt, who came to RPM from Joe Gibbs Racing admits it is a different atmosphere with a smaller team, but it’s one he appreciates.

“A team like this, a smaller team, everybody is much more focused on the one goal, the focus is on the car,” Hewitt said. “You have to wear a lot more hats because you’re trying to get a lot more done. That’s a little bit of an adjustment where at Gibbs if you saw a certain something that wasn’t in your area you would go find that person. (Here) you just do it.”

 and on Facebook