In NASCAR, and in the rest of motorsport, there’s a huge gap between the top teams and underdogs. But while underfunded teams don’t get much attention for running at the back—and retiring after a few laps just for purse money, in some cases—far more work goes into their operations than the results tell.
Last month, we covered the “zombie” Dodges in the NASCAR field for the race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Dodge abandoned factory support for the sport four years ago, but its cars—from four years ago, of course—still mysteriously make it to the grid every now and then. That story led to a conversation with a team that runs those zombie cars, and being enlightened to how complicated things get for NASCAR competitors who can’t bring big money to the table.
Back in 2011, Kenny Wallace told NASCAR.com that the lowest his Xfinity Series—then the Nationwide Series—team could compete for was $100,000 each race weekend. We couldn’t find any hard numbers, but it’s reasonable to assume that the costs have gone up over the past five years.
Looking at the numbers, that’s the bare-minimum cost for a team that builds new race cars and is able to run in the front half of the field. Others don’t have that much funding available. The team that ran one of the two zombie Dodges at the Mid-Ohio race, MBM Motorsports, is one of those, and it runs on a fraction of the cash that even the mid-pack teams do.
It’s no secret that the back-marker teams run an underfunded operation, but that often leads to their efforts being underestimated. The process of getting a lower-funded team to the race track—and simply getting cars to its shop—is far from easy, and it all starts with the race cars.
Those “Zombie Dodges” We Talked About
When it comes to purchasing race cars secondhand and at a discount, the job rewards a good scavenger. And when the scavenger can only make it to the track in secondhand race cars, the survival of a race team depends on just how good that scavenger is.
The MBM Motorsports team has to scavenge for its race cars, and it doesn’t matter in the slightest what those race cars are—so long as they pass NASCAR technical inspection.
MBM development driver and Monster Jam competitor Todd Morey told Jalopnik that the MBM team owns all four manufacturers—Toyota, Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge—with each of the cars bought at as much of a discount as possible.
The main person behind seeking out those deals is the co-owner himself, Carl Long, who also races. The team runs without any of the manufacturer support that top teams have, which opens up their options when it comes to purchasing race cars.
“When Carl comes across or hears through the pipeline of a car for sale, he’ll go look at it,” Morey said. “It doesn’t matter what the manufacturer is—if it’s a good deal, he’s going to buy it.
“We don’t have the constraints of having a manufacturer alliance. It doesn’t matter. We just want to be able to grab the best piece we can at the time. We’re going to buy it at a killer price, because we don’t have the funding to go get tied in with a manufacturer.”
Since Dodge left NASCAR years ago, the team was able to scoop up its Dodges—and the engine support that goes with them—at a truly killer price.
MBM Motorsports gets its four-year-old Dodge race cars from the Team Penske camp, since Penske ran Dodges through its 2012 championship season with Brad Keselowski in the Sprint Cup Series. Penske dropped Dodge for Ford power for the 2013 race season—the first with the Sprint Cup Series’ new Gen-6 race car, which tried to mimic a road car far more realistically than the previous Car of Tomorrow—and subsequently had to restart both its Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series programs under the Ford banner.
That left a lot of Dodge parts and operations laying around. The Sprint Cup equipment was useless with a completely new car body in the series, but that wasn’t the case for NASCAR’s lower series. Both the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series kept Dodge templates for race inspection, meaning that all of Penske’s leftover Xfinity Series operation was still able to be raced.
With big teams roped in with manufacturers and factory support, Penske’s only choice was to offer up its Dodge parts at a huge discount. That’s where the MBM team capitalized.
“You have a whole engine program that went away at Penske,” said Morey, who confirmed with team owner Long that Penske continues to supply the engines to MBM directly. “Gone. They didn’t supply anyone at all, so you have all of these old motors sitting there that nobody wants to use.
“All of the operation is still there, it didn’t just get scrapped. What Carl did was he jumped on an opportunity when Penske left [Dodge] to get a lot of inventory at a good deal.”
Racing Older Cars
A good deal comes with its own price, though. Because the Penske Dodges served a top-of-the-line team, they’ve got the power under the hood. What they don’t have is modern aerodynamics.
There, Morey said, his team and other small operations are “so far behind.”
“Look at the Dodge nose,” Morey said. “It’s basically a parachute. The grille on that car is so far indented when you compare it to a Toyota or a Ford or a Chevy. It’s old aerodynamics.”
Having less-advanced aerodynamics is like running track with a cinderblock strapped to your ankle. Aero has such a huge impact in the sport that the sanctioning body continually introduces changes to lower downforce and, hopefully, create better racing.
Teams like MBM Motorsports could get the same engine power as the zombie Dodges have—and aerodynamics newer than 2012—from other manufacturers, but the budget isn’t there. They’ve got the older equipment, and, subsequently, they have to get creative for the races where aerodynamics don’t matter.
“The great equalizer races are where MBM shines,” Morey said. “A road course, a short track or especially a superspeedway, where we can suck our nose up behind somebody else and not have any air hit it.”
Those equalizer tracks don’t include the 1.5-mile “cookie cutter” race tracks, which make up about a third of the Xfinity Series schedule. Aerodynamics are key there, and an old Dodge will suffer because of it.
Without manufacturer loyalty that plagues so much of the NASCAR drafting at restrictor-plate tracks like Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway—seriously, the Toyotas help the Toyotas, Chevys help Chevys, you get the idea—MBM is able to put the Dodge horsepower behind a Toyota with a nose that doesn’t eat wind for every meal.
NASCAR outlawed its tandem drafting years ago, but like everything else, there are ways around it.
“If you’re within a couple of feet of the car in front of you, there’s no wind on your nose at all,” Morey said. “We try to say four to six inches away, and you can still tap while drafting—bump, back off, bump back off. That really helps with our Dodge nose, so we do everything we can to be a push car.”
But even at equalizer tracks, the team doesn’t expect to floor it at the green flag and take the top spot. When NASCAR Whelen Euro Series driver Alon Day made his first Xfinity Series start with the team at Mid-Ohio a few weeks ago, Morey said Day thought it would be “like a win” to finish in the top 25.
Day ran third for a good portion of the race, finishing 13th after some troubles on track.
“When it rained, it equalized everything,” Morey said. “He races in the rain—that’s what he does. So, I spotted for turns six, seven, eight and nine, and I’m calling him in third place. I’m like, ‘Dude, go get ‘em. You’re clear. Go get the next one.’
“We don’t say that. Weekly, I’m saying, ‘Leader’s coming. Leader’s 10 back. Leader’s five back. Leader’s coming. We’re going a lap down. OK, now we’re going two laps down.’ We rarely get to call our driver on the lead lap. It’s a shame, but that’s the position we’re in with the funding available.”
The reality in a money-driven sport like NASCAR is, Morey said, that “just having a smart guy and a good driver can’t put you in the top 10.” But every once in a while, it all comes together.
Looking For Funding And The Scramble To Even Show Up At The Race Track
With a “severely underfunded” operation, Morey said his team’s concerns are much different than those of other NASCAR teams each weekend—in essence, the effects of different tire compounds versus finding the money to put a car on top of those tires.
But finding the money is just the start of getting the team there.
“Our driver lineup changes almost every week,” Morey said. “Drivers will call up Carl because they know funding is a problem. If you have an approved NASCAR license and a little bit of funding, we will find a place for you.
“What happens then is [team owner] Carl [Long] will back out of the seat and become the crew chief for the weekend, and we’ll put a funded driver in the car. If we have two drivers in the same week with funding, drivers in both cars.”
Morey said driver lineups change as late as Monday or Tuesday every week, which shifts the roles of the rest of the team with a few days’ notice. On the topic of roles, changing tires during races also isn’t the primary job for the crew members out there doing it.
Despite all of that effort, there aren’t usually cameras waiting around to catch the fruits of it—they’re too busy showing the battle for the lead. At the end of race day, it’s all about taking home enough money to keep the operation going.
“These [crew members] are guys who are working on the cars in the shop, going to the race track and doing four tires and fuel in 14 seconds,” Morey said. “The other guys are doing it in 11.
“We are severely underfunded, but we have opportunity races. If we go to the race track and we don’t have any funding that week, we’re basically trying to survive on purse money which is extremely hard. Almost impossible.”
Morey is trying to alleviate some of that funding pressure, but said he has to do “something outside of the box” in order to succeed. Since Monster Jam and its sponsors are kid-oriented and the crowd watching America’s stock cars is ever aging, Morey thinks a crossover promotion with the two could work.
But as for the hopes of a Dodge return to NASCAR—and getting any type of manufacturer backing from the company—Morey doesn’t expect anything anytime soon.
“If [Dodge is] going to align with someone, it’s going to be a big name,” Morey said. “I’m not saying they are going to do that, but if they did, it would have to be a Penske again, or it would have to be a Stewart-Haas, a Hendrick.”
This isn’t the first time Dodge has left NASCAR, and a return wouldn’t be the first of its kind, either. The manufacturer came back to NASCAR in 2001 after being gone for 24 years, only to leave just over a decade later.
Morey said getting any sort of manufacturer backing from Dodge would be “a feel-good story,” but he knows what a return would take.
“You know, when [Dodge returned to NASCAR and] signed with Ray Evernham years ago—big name, championship-winning crew chief, huge operation—they dumped a ton of money into it,” Morey said. “We’re not big enough for that. We’re not big enough for them.”
Regardless, MBM’s performance at Mid-Ohio shows that there’s some potential even in the smaller teams. That, to them, was a huge win.
“We won the lottery [at Mid-Ohio],” Morey said. “It’s just crazy. For us, the equalizer was having a guy like Alon who is very skilled behind the wheel, wanted to drive and had an opportunity to go do it.
“With funding, we can do that again.”
This article has been updated to reflect that MBM Motosports only ran one Dodge at Mid-Ohio.