Spire Sports + Entertainment

New NASCAR Cup team owners invest in minor league hockey team

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You might say that the newest NASCAR Cup team owner is now in a Rush.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which recently purchased the Cup charter of former NASCAR championship team Furniture Row Racing, has branched out, taking a minority ownership share in the Rapid City (South Dakota) Rush of the 27-team East Coast Hockey League.

Spire co-founders Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr will become active minority partners in the Rush, hoping to bring the team back to past prominence.

“We aren’t going to be saviors here,” Spire co-founder Jeff Dickerson said in a press conference at the team’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center home. “There’s no magic bullet. It’s going to take all of us to create the culture that builds excitement and value. The city loves the Rush and we hope to get it back to where it was.”

Rush majority owner, Rapid City businessman Scott Mueller, sees better days ahead for his club.

“The biggest thing is (Spire’s) sports industry knowledge,” Mueller said, according to the Rapid City Journal. “It’s about putting people in seats, selling advertising and they have a lot of knowledge on that. (Dickerson) sees so many venues, and I think he’s going to be involved in changes that are needed.

“We’ve taken some steps in the last few months. These are great days for us, and we’re really excited about our future.”

The Rush is mired in sixth place in the ECHL’s seven-team Mountain Division.

In addition to purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter, Spire represents several race car drivers including NASCAR’s Kyle Larson, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, Todd Gilliland, Garrett Smithley and Vinnie Miller and IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe.

Spire isn’t the only NASCAR Cup team owner involved in other sports. Roush Fenway Racing’s co-owner John Henry owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club of soccer’s Premier League, while Chip Ganassi previously was a minority owner in MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates. Felix Sabates, who also holds a minority ownership stake in Chip Ganassi Racing, is also a minority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

“We have been looking for several years to find something in minor league sports and see if what we do in motorsports translates to this space,” Puchyr said, according to The Journal. “Our due diligence indicates that it does.”

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Niece Motorsports’ Daytona announcement to feature familiar name

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Niece Motorsports has announced it will reveal its driver, sponsor and paint scheme for next month’s season-opening Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway on Friday.

The team listed Ross Chastain as being part of reveal at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Niece Motorsports would only confirm Chastain’s attendance to NBC Sports.

Chastain was set to compete full-time for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series this year until the team announced Jan. 4 it was closing that operation due to a lack of sponsorship.

That announcement came two weeks after it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted raids on the headquarters of DC Solar, Ganassi’s primary sponsor in Xfinity, and the home of the company’s CEO, Jeff Carpoff.

Chastain made three starts for Niece Motorsports last year in the Truck Series, running at Bristol Motor Speedway and playoff races at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Josh Wise is Chip Ganassi Racing’s human optimizer

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At some point in the past two years Josh Wise had to say it out loud.

He wasn’t a professional race car driver anymore.

But what is he now?

“Man, I don’t know. I struggle with titles,” Wise says while sitting in a conference room at Chip Ganassi Racing’s shop.

It turns out the 35-year-old Wise is the driver performance manager for CGR’s NASCAR operations. That’s a vague title covering the work Wise has done “optimizing humans” for the team over the last two years and that now stretches to drivers like Noah Gragson and Brett Moffitt.

But Wise has other titles that tell the story of how he became a man who molds the eating, workout and driving habits of NASCAR drivers.

Former Professional Race Car Driver

Wise concedes the end of his NASCAR career, which lasted 10 years and 318 starts, was “not very romantic” compared to Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His last start came on Nov. 6, 2016 in the Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway. Driving the No. 30 Chevrolet for The Motorsports Group, he started and finished last. His car was parked after 257 of 293 laps due to an electrical issue.

Josh Wise during his final season in the Cup Series in 2016. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“I was really tired of racing the way that I was having to race,” Wise says of the time, which capped off a two-year stretch of dissatisfaction. “I grew up racing with just a tremendous amount of passion and love for the sport.

“The thing that I enjoyed about it was being able to push myself to limits beyond what I thought I was capable of. The position I was in as a race car driver at that point in my career wasn’t that … It just wasn’t that fun anymore.”

Wise now finds himself dedicated to a job that that’s led him to say no to offers to race.

“I’ve actually turned them down because I haven’t wanted to blur the lines between wanting to be a race car driver anymore and doing what I’m doing now,” Wise says. “I really have no desire to be a race car driver anymore.”

But he had to say it out loud.

“I think at that point I told my wife (Ashley), I was like, ‘Hey, I’m done,’ ” Wise says. “She kind of knows when I draw a pretty distinct line when I say things like that. I have a bit of a switch I flip in my mind and I’m able to focus on another direction pretty efficiently.”

Iron Man

The path to Wise letting go of his racing identity began roughly a decade ago when he took part in his first Iron Man competition.

At the time, Wise was not the poster boy for driver fitness.

“I was amazed because I was a guy who had never run more than three miles in my life,” Wise says. “I had started cycling. I didn’t know how to swim. The first time I swam in a pool I didn’t make it across the pool one time before I had to stop.”

He began training himself to swim 2.5 miles, bike 112 miles and run a marathon without a break. He qualified for and competed in the Iron Man World championships in Zell am See-Kaprun, Austria, in 2015 with Landon Cassill.

During this period, Wise found himself consulted by other drivers for fitness advice. Wise trained with Jimmie Johnson, helped Trevor Bayne prepare for his own Iron Man event and worked with Erik Jones, who was racing in Xfinity at the time.

Wise became “fascinated” with the human body, its adaptability, the “fitness benchmarks” and “sensory demands” it needs to handle to process information and make decisions.

As he sought answers, the door to Wise’s future opened at the track where he made his last start. Walking through the garage at Texas Motor Speedway, he ran into Max Jones, CGR’s managing director of NASCAR operations and an acquaintance.

Wise told Jones about what he was pursuing. Jones then invited him to make a presentation to the team.

“I really just presented my philosophy and my foundation for what I was doing already and what I had hoped to build and what I thought I could bring to the table for their drivers,” Wise said. “We basically had made a commitment by the time I walked out of the room.”

Human Optimizer

Wise entered the 2018-19 offseason after two years with Ganassi.

Two seasons of controlling the exercise routines, diets and race prep for drivers.

Two years of “optimizing humans.”

That optimization helped result in four Cup wins for Kyle Larson and 11 wins in the Xfinity Series from five different drivers: Larson, Ross Chastain, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman.

What has Wise subjected his drivers to?

Food

Let’s start with trips to the grocery store.

“If there’s something in packages, I tell them no more than five ingredients and you better be able understand what every ingredient is in there,” says Wise. “Other than that, it’s all fruits, vegetables and meats as close to coming right off the animal as we can get them.”

That includes making farm-to-table restaurants a frequent destination for Ganassi teams on the road.

According to Nemechek – who has documented that he’s willing to eat grass –  one food Wise has imparted on his drivers is avocado on toast with jelly.

“That’s probably a pretty weird one,” Wise says. “It’ll blow your mind, but a good kind of whole grain toast with avocado and strawberry jelly is one of the tastiest, odd things that most people would ever try. Other than that, it just depends on what they’ve been exposed to. There’s some things that maybe I don’t what to share that I have them try that are a little bit unorthodox.”

Chastain, who was set to drive for Ganassi in the Xfinity Series in 2019 before that operation closed due to lack of sponsorship, described how Wise encourages his drivers to introduce themselves to an unusual eating pallet.

“(Wise says to) pretend you’re in the forest, and you’re going to eat all this stuff that you find and then you’re going to eat some salmon,” Chastain says. “There’s blueberries and strawberries and spinach and all this stuff and kale. Me being a (watermelon) farmer, (I ask) ‘What forest are you in? This is some enchanted forest and I want to go there and grow watermelons there because it sounds like anything can grow there.’ ”

Exercise

Among the Ganassi drivers, “everybody’s different” when it comes to a Wise-directed workout regimen.

“It’s a combination of my opinion on where they’re at in a certain area, their opinion on where they’re at in a certain area, what type of time constraints we have, what types of goals we have, what performance is showing we need,” Wise says. “Because in the end we’ve got to create on-track performance.”

He used Larson as an example on where opinions and scheduling come in to play.

“While I might think that Kyle needs to work out more, Kyle’s racing sprint cars all summer and Kyle needs to focus on recovery and Kyle needs to focus on watching video,” Wise says. “So to take resources away from that to say ‘you’ve got to run 6 miles,’ you can easily let ego make things counter productive.”

One driver who is willing to run 6 miles – and then some – is Nemechek.

Nemechek, who will compete for GMS Racing in 2019, frequently documents his running habits on social media.

In early December, he and Wise “felt guilty” after McMurray took part in a marathon.

Their solution? Run 16 miles through a very cold Davidson, North Carolina.

“Sixteen miles might be a little bit over the top,” Nemechek told Fox Sports. “But it takes about two hours to run if you’re really digging. Our races are normally, two, two-and-half-hours. … Granted it was cold, so that really didn’t help the fundamental of being hot in a race car, but still the endurance aspect is really huge.”

Eye Tracking

Reaction time is everything in auto racing, with drivers having to navigate close quarters and avoid accidents in a blink-of-an-eye.

Wise wants to help slow things down for drivers and Ganassi’s pit crews.

He used a driving simulator to highlight the significance of a driver’s vision.

“I could turn off the sound and they could go out and they could probably run a lap time,” Wise says. “Then I could turn the sound on and they’ll probably go run about the same lap time. I could turn off the feel in the steering wheel and they’ll probably go run the same lap time.”

But once you start tinkering with a driver’s visual inputs, “You’re not going to make a lap,” Wise says.

With this in mind, Wise turned to eye tracking.

Eye tracking involves a digital board that lights up with green and red dots. You touch the green dots and avoid the red ones.

The program is a product of Tobii Pro.

Tobii Pro

There are physical exercises that are also done in relation to eye tracking.

“One set would consist of something at a computer which takes a minute or two minutes and then you go and do a physical activity,” McMurray said in early 2018. “They’re not like normal exercises. You get tired and you do it again. It’s interesting. It’s hard. It’s very mind exhausting. It’s one of those things (where) you’re exhausted when it’s over and you haven’t done anything.”

McMurray, who was the oldest driver under Ganassi’s NASCAR umbrella last year at 42, actually found the eye tracking reassuring.

“I was concerned about that because I was the oldest,” McMurray said. “It just so happened that I happened to have the best eyes of all the group as far as just the typical eye chart. But there were some things that Kyle was really good at that I wasn’t at. There were some things Tyler was good at. Everyone had strengths. It was kind of good to see what are your weaknesses.”

Wise emphasizes that everything from a “decision-making and application standpoint” for a driver comes from “visual inputs.”

“All the other things are really supplementing that foundation,” Wise says. “The better that I can make them see, the better I can help them make decisions based on vision, the better the foundation they have as an athlete.”

Student-Teacher

Anyone who pays attention to Chip Ganassi’s personal Twitter account knows he likes winners.

Whether it’s with Josh Wise and Jamie McMurray in NASCAR or Dario Franchitti in IndyCar, Ganassi puts a premium on experienced drivers remaining involved in his race teams.

In 2018, that included six Xfinity Series wins and a fifth IndyCar championship with Scott Dixon.

“I think anytime you have guys that are current in the sport it’s an opportunity,” Ganassi said. “That is what guys like Josh or Dario or Jamie can bring.

“They are the most current guys that are maybe not driving for one reason or another and that is something that is invaluable in a team organization. You are constantly building this book of information and you are constantly tapping this book of knowledge or building it. You have another head in the room. It doesn’t have to be much, just one little piece of advice or one little tidbit of information can be invaluable on a race weekend.”

Wise has no intention of becoming stagnant in his one-man quest for human optimization. He plans to complete an online degree in specialized sports psychology from Capella University in the spring or summer.

“Just checking the boxes on meeting the needs for these athletes. It’s all I care about, really,” Wise says. “I want to be someone that I wish I had when I was doing this.”

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Drivers to take part in Cup Las Vegas organizational test

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway has announced a roster of 14 drivers who will take part in the first Cup organizational test of the year on Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

The test on the 1.5-mile track will be one of the first opportunities for teams to test the 2019 rules package that includes a tapered spacer.

The drivers who will take part:

Brad Keselowski (Team Penske)

Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports)

Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing)

Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing)

Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing)

Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing)

Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing)

Landon Cassill (StarCom Racing)

Matt DiBenedetto (Leavine Family Racing)

Ryan Preece (JTG Daugherty Racing)

Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing)

Ross Chastain, David Ragan and Drew Herring are also scheduled to be at the track. They will be driving manufacture wheel force cars.

The test will be the first on-track time for Kurt Busch, Newman, Preece and DiBenedetto with their new teams.

The test is tentatively scheduled to run from 11 am to 9 pm ET on Jan. 31 and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET on Feb. 1.

A section of the main grandstands and pit road will be open to fans at the test.

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Silly Season Scorecard: Daniel Suarez fills last major empty ride

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The worst kept secret in NASCAR was made official Monday as Stewart-Haas Racing announced Daniel Suarez as the new driver of its No. 41 Ford.

Suarez arrives at SHR after two years in the Cup Series with Joe Gibbs Racing. The news is the last major piece of the silly season puzzle.

Here’s a look at all the notable moves in the Cup and Xfinity Series.

UNANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2019

Rick Ware Racing: The team will field two cars in 2019, but has not announced any drivers yet.

No. 77: Spire Sports + Entertainment will field the car with a charter purchased from Furniture Row Racing. A driver has not been announced.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2019

No. 00: Landon Cassill will drive full-time for StarCom Racing (announcement made Dec. 17).

No. 1: Kurt Busch joins Chip Ganassi Racing for 2019 and brings along sponsor Monster Energy (announcement made Dec. 4)

No. 6: Ryan Newman joins Roush Fenway Racing for next season (announcement made Sept. 22).

No. 8: Daniel Hemric replaces Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing for 2019 (announcement made Sept. 28).

No. 13: Ty Dillon said he will remain at Germain Racing for the 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 24)

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn move to Joe Gibbs Racing from the defunct Furniture Row Racing team (announcement made Nov. 7)

No. 32: Corey LaJoie will drive for Go Fas Racing in his first full-time Cup season (announcement made Dec. 20)

No. 36: Matt Tifft joins Front Row Motorsports in a third car for the 2019 season (announcement made Nov. 27).

No. 41: Daniel Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing to replace Kurt Busch (announcement made Jan. 7).

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through the 2020 season (announcement made July 28).

No. 47: Ryan Preece replaces AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing (announcement made Sept. 28).

No. 95: Matt DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing for 2019. Leavine Family Racing also switches to Toyota (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 97: Tanner Berryhill will compete full-time for Obaika Racing (announcement made Dec. 3)

CUP DRIVERS WITHOUT ANNOUNCED PLANS FOR 2019

AJ Allmendinger: Will join NBC Sports as sports car analyst and a contributor for NASCAR America (announcement made Dec. 19)

Trevor Bayne: 2011 Daytona 500 winner is looking for a ride after the Sept. 12 announcement that he won’t return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019. 

Jamie McMurrayWill be an analyst for Fox Sports, but still has an offer to compete in the Daytona 500 through Chip Ganassi Racing.

XFINITY DRIVERS WITHOUT ANNOUNCED PLANS FOR 2019

Ross Chastain: Is left without a ride after Chip Ganassi Racing closed operations on the No. 42 (announcement made Jan. 4).

Ryan Truex: Was replaced at Kaulig Racing by Justin Haley (announcement made Dec. 1)

Ryan ReedLost ride at Roush Fenway Racing after sponsor Lilly announced it was leaving the team (announcement made Oct. 15).

CREW CHIEF CHANGES

No. 3: Danny Stockman replaces Justin Alexander as Austin Dillon‘s crew chief in 2019 (move confirmed Nov. 26)

No. 11: Mike Wheeler will not return as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 16). Chris Gabehart will take over.

No. 24: Chad Knaus replaces Darian Grubb as William Byron‘s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 48: Kevin Meendering replaces Chad Knaus as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 95: Mike Wheeler joins the team and replaces Jon Leonard, who moved back to Richard Childress Racing to be an engineer on Austin Dillon’s team.

XFINITY SERIES

ANNOUNCED CHANGES FOR 2019

No. 1: Noah Gragson replaces Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports for 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 25).

No. 2: Tyler Reddick will drive the No. 2 for Richard Childress Racing and have Randall Burnett as his crew chief (announcement made Oct. 31).

No. 4: Blake Koch will take over this ride with JD Motorsports in 2019 (announcement made Dec. 4).

No. 9: The JR Motorsports car will be piloted by multiple drivers, including Zane Smith in eight races. Taylor Moyer will serve as crew chief. (announcement made Dec. 18).

No. 11: Justin Haley replaces Ryan Truex at Kaulig Racing after two season in the Truck Series (announcement made Dec. 1).

No. 18: Jeffrey Earnhardt will compete in nine races for Joe Gibbs Racing (announcement made Nov. 10).

No. 22: Austin Cindric will drive full-time for Team Penske (announcement made Nov. 8).

No. 23: John Hunter Nemechek will compete full-time for GMS Racing and run for Rookie of the Year (announcement made Dec. 6).

No. 42: Chip Ganassi Racing announced it will not field its Xfinity team due to a lack of sponsorship, leaving Ross Chastain without a ride (announcement made Jan. 4).

No. 98: Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to drive the team’s second Xfinity car and be a teammate to Cole Custer (announcement made Nov. 27).

Roush Fenway Racing: The team will not field a entry for the first time since it entered the Xfinity Series in 1993 (announcement made Jan. 3).