RPM, Roush, Murphey the Mustang and the Pride of Ownership

I was 14 years old the last time I stood in line to get an autograph. It was at the Target store in Brookfield, WI and a chance to have my album cover signed by Boston (the band, not the city). The only reason I went was that a group of my friends wanted to go and, when you’re 14 and female, that was pretty much enough reason to do anything.

I’ve met a number of NASCAR drivers.  Carl Edwards has beautiful eyes and looks right at you when he talks as if you’re the only one in the room.  Brian Vickers is one of the most intelligent and well-spoken young men I’ve met.  Jeff Gordon has an intelligent professionalism and intense focus like no one I know.  I respect them all and I enjoyed meeting them, but I’m just not the type of person who stands in line for autographs.

Mumble mumble years later (you can do the math, the album cover already dates me), the Thursday before the Texas race, I dragged my husband out for an opportunity to stand in line to shake Jack Roush‘s hand and get him to autograph my master copy of my book, The Physics of NASCAR.  Not at the track, but at the Ford dealership where we bought Murphey the Mustang last year.

I had checked out Consumer Reports, Car & Driver, and all the manufacturer websites.  Blue, my 1998 Ford Ranger pickup, was my primary car (truck) before Murphey.  (And yes, I name my cars, deal with it.)  Blue is still a great vehicle,  especially when you have the opportunity to go buy mulch by the frontloader-full.  I wanted a convertible and it had to be able to seat two people plus a hound dog, which narrowed the choices considerably Money wasn’t really an issue, although I’m not the type of person to buy more car than I can use.  if I’m going to spend $80K on a high-horsepower vehicle, it’s going to be to drive on a racetrack, not down PGBT.  And the fact that Ford didn’t take stimulus money and instead made hard choices definitely factored into my decision.

There was also an external constraint, which was a calculation done by my husband that went something like :  Diandra + 300 hp = $$$ in traffic tickets.  All of that led to walking into the Ford dealership looking for a 6-cylinder manual transmission convertible Mustang in any color that wouldn’t shout “mid-life crisis” too loudly.  After the test drive, I was hooked.  Murphey is just so much fun to drive.  I’ve become a diehard Mustang fan, looking longingly at the customization gear in the Roush Performance shop at the dealership.

I’m sure Jack Roush was at our dealership to fulfill sponsor obligations, but he was also there because he is the epitome of a “car guy”.  A genius car guy (with physics and math degrees, mind you) but there he was, irritating his handlers because he wanted to talk to each and every person.  They had to keep gently prodding him not to talk so much because the line was getting longer and longer.

It makes sense for Jack Roush to own a NASCAR team.  Anyone who starts their own business does it because there is something they feel passionate about.  While they hope to make a lot of money, they would be happy making enough money to live on because they get to do what they love for a living.

This isn’t true in today’s increasingly corporatized America, especially at the higher ranks.  Apparently, knowledge and experience in the field is no longer a necessary pre-requisite for CEOs.  Bob Nardelli moved from the upper ranks of leadership at GE and, when he was passed over for the top position, moved to Home Depot as CEO.  He apparently read a lot of management books and helped streamline operations, but lost his job as Home Depot consistantly underperformed relative to Lowes.  In 2007, he went to Chrysler and we all know how that turned out.  One can only wonder how he would have fared had he stayed in the same industry where all his experience had been.

I firmly believe that you should focus your energy on the things about which you feel most passionate.   If you’re not the type of person who just can’t sleep when you don’t understand something, or don’t think it’s unusual to be in the lab at two in the morning happy because everything in the lab is finally working right at the same time, you have no business being in graduate school in physics.  Get a 9-5 job instead of going to grad school.  It’ll pay well, you’ll enjoy using the skills you’ve learned, and you’ll have time (and money) for an outside life.  That’s also why I disagree with the idea that everyone needs to go to college straight from high school (or at all), but that’s a blog for a different website.

A few years ago, Jack Roush brought in partners – the Fenway Sports Group.  They provided capital, but (aside from giving drivers the opportunity to embarass themselves throwing out first pitches) pretty much had the wisdom to let Roush run the business the way he always had.  Roush Fenway has been struggling this year, but Jack Roush was trained as a scientist.  He’s told us that he thinks he’s found the problem and they’re in the process of fixing it.  I’ll detail that issue in a future post.

When I started The Physics of NASCAR, I was working with a team called Evernham Motorsports.  The subject of the book was ostensibly the #19 team, but I found myself in a front-row seat watching the company changing.  I saw in Ray Evernham the Small Business Owner Syndrome I was starting to recognize in myself.  Being a professor at a research university is running a small business.  I raise capital for my research by writing grants, I buy and maintain equipment, I hire people and have to figure out how to pay them, and I have loads of paperwork.

I suspect Ray had the same kinds of internal conversations I did – sitting at my desk late at night struggling with a proposal, thinking “I chose this job because I love doing physics research.  Did I even get into the lab today, or did I spend it all working on grant proposals, going to meetings and dealing with dumb administrative issues?”  I went into physics research because I like doing physics research, not because I have a desire to make money or become intimately familiar with six sigma theory.

Ray must have been thinking along the same lines.  By the time the book came out, Evernham Motorsports had become Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Ray having taken on a partner in George Gillet, Jr. Gillett’s  business started out buying television stations, including leveraged buyouts financed by junk bonds.  He also bought ski resorts and filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy after the junk bond crash.  In the 90’s, he formed a company whose purpose is to manage family assets, including ski resorts and meat-producing companies.

In the 2000s, he decided he wanted to own some sports teams.  He tried to buy buy the NBA Denver Nuggets, NHL Colorado Avalanche and Pepsi Center.  When that didn’t work out, he bought 80% interest in the Montreal Canadien hockey team.  He bought part of Liverpool FC in 2007 for (reportedly 435 M pounds), bought controlling interest in Evernham Motorsports in 2007, tried to found a soccer team in Montreal in 2008 that never came about due to financing) issues, and sold his interest in the Canadiens in 2009 reportedly for $550 M Canadian dollars.  His spats with Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks (another multi-team owner in financial distress now trying to sell the Texas Rangers) led to dissent and disaster on and off the field.

Wikipedia says that the deal to bring in Gillett to Evernham Motorsports “was similar to” the Roush-Fenway deal, but there’s very few similarities.  Evernham looked at it as an opportunity to bring in someone who could focus on the business side of the operations, allowing him to return more to the competition side.  It started off well, and in July 2008, things were looking up for GEM.  I visited with the #19 team at Daytona and there was new energy and optimism.

That clearly didn’t last. The Nationwide team shut down after losing sponsorship to JR Motorsports.  Evernham got increasingly shut out of team operations.  In Jan 2009, Gillett merged the team with Richard Petty Enterprises and the team is now called RPM.  Evernham is entirely out of the picture.  I haven’t talked with him in some time, but I suspect that he is a much happier man these days racing Sprint Cars with his wife out of the direct glare of the spotlights.

RPM and Roush have both been struggling, but the futures are very different for the two teams.  I don’t know Jack Roush personally, but I wager he jumps out of bed at 3 a.m. with some idea about a setup.  I bet Robbie Reiser has gotten phone calls from Jack at really odd hours.  Jack Roush is in NASCAR because he loves racing cars.

George Gillett is in NASCAR because he loves owning things.  He likes NASCAR, but I suspect that RPM is just one more entry on the list of assets.  This gets at the heart of the troubles the country is experiencing now.  (No, I’m not blaming the economic meltdown on Gillett, but he could be a poster boy for it.)  America has a ‘service economy’.  I had to look that up.  Basically, it means that our economy is based on mostly doing things for other people rather than making things.  Most of the “making things” part of our economy is overseas now.  What built America was people with ideas and motivation, people who had dreams and followed them.  Now the country is littered with people whose job is making their company look good instead of actually making the company good.  See this  great article in Wired about a Radio Shack franchisee struggling to keep Radio Shack a place for hobbyists, tinkerers and people like me who break things in the lab a lot, despite the efforts of management to make a uniform, polished — and to many, useless — store.

There are an inordinate number of people whose sole job is to make money without making anything else.  There have always been people like this, but never so many.  There’s nothing wrong with making money, but compare how Jack Roush makes money and how someone like Gillett makes money.  Jack’s focused on the things for which he has a passion.

It’s something else entirely to make money by juggling companies, and even worse by juggling companies poorly because people’s livelihoods depend on those companies.  NASCAR believes there is still value in a handshake.  The people who have come to NASCAR without learning the culture have failed spectacularly (Bobby Ginn).  Their downfall usually doesn’t affect them so much, but it have an awful impact on the people working for them.

RPM is in steady downfall.  Kasey Kahne publicy voiced disapproval with the management and announced abnormally early in the year his move to Hendrick Motorsports for 2012.  Elliott Sadler had to threaten to sue to get his seat back this year and now he’s struggling with poor equipment.  The #19 is clearly no longer a priority to the company.  Some of his problems are of his own making (he has never been very good at providing usable feedback about the car and he needs a crew chief that can deal constructively with his in-car mood swings), but others are indicative of larger problems in the corporate structure.  Ironically, the person who was best at dealing with Elliott in the car was Ray Evernham. Elliott seemed to be challenging Robby Gordon for going through crew chiefs, but the biggest downfall for the #19 was letting Rodney Childers get away.  Rodney was a really good crew chief match for Elliott – a former racer who understands cars, could communicate with Elliott well, and who could take abuse on the radio without letting it affect his next move.

Last fall, RPM merged with Yates Racing and moved to Ford.  After assuring the people working at Evernham Engines (making Dodge engines) that their jobs were safe, about 60 people were fired.  That prompted a public shouting match between then-VP for Competition Mark McArdle and George Gillett at Richmond in September that ended with McArdle leaving the company.  He was the one person I thought was in a position to change things and had the skills to do it, but:

“I’ve always advised those who work under me that if the bus is going somewhere you don’t want to go, then maybe you need to get off the bus,” McArdle said.  Mark is now with Front Row Motorsports.

Most of the people who were with GEM when I started the book in 2007 have gotten off the bus.  Without passion, there is nothing.  The Roushes, Hendricks, Childresses and Gibbs of the NASCAR world are there because they are 100% committed to the sport.  If you aren’t, you have no business being in the garage.

And speaking of passion, I have a new one since the Ford Mustang will race Friday night in Daytona.  I never quite understood manufacturer allegiance, but you have to remember that I got into the sport just as the COT was being introduced.  Since I bought my Mustang, I’ve paid a lot more attention to the look of the car and its characteristic features.   The NASCAR Mustang really does look like Murphey slimmed down and glammed up.

I had been really curious how they would handle the indents on the doors.  Aerodynamics would prefer that those indents not be there.   And they’re not!  I know, it looks identical, but that’s all done with decals.  Trompe L’Oeil is fancy French for “fool the eye” and they’ve done a great job with this.  The actual surface is smooth as can be.

The Nationwide pony cars use the same COT chassis as the Cup car, which was done in hopes some teams will buy hand-me-downs from Cup teams and not have to construct the chassis from scratch.  There’s a lot similar with the Cup car (splitter, spoiler), but some modifications on the design that I think we’ll see in Cup soon.  For example, there are no braces on the splitter. I’ll have a post on the science of the new Nationwide car, but I wanted to wait to see how it ran first.

I understand now how a fan can be pulling for a car because “I drive that brand”.  Often, you can’t appreciate something until you actually experience it.  We’ve been joking around the house that Murphey needs some racing stripes.   (It is a joke – I didn’t want the “Mustang” name decal on the side door.  I know what car I’m driving, thanks.)  But it might impress that banana yellow Mustang convertible we alway run into at Starbucks…

The only downside of Jack Roush’s visit is that the dealership offered to have him sign your ‘special’ Mustang.  Well, my stock Mustang apparently wasn’t good enough to make the cut.  When the cup series returns to Texas, I’ll have to lure Jack out to the parking lot and get him to swipe a silver Sharpie on Murphey’s glovebox.  As far as I’m concerned, Murphey is plenty special.

Murpey isn’t going racing, but I’ll be content watching Murphey’s bulked-up brothers banging fenders at Daytona.  And if I hear a little noise in the garage during the race, I’ll assume that Murphey has turned on his Sirius satellite radio because he wants to cheer for the Fords a little, too.


  1. Wonderful post; you raise many interesting points. I too am glad to see Ray getting back to his true passion (building and driving his own creation at Pikes Peak) recently. I often think back to the days when guys like Frank Stoddard would jump off the pit box and service the car, and chuckle at mega money teams that try to win with dollars and business plans alone (red bull). As someone who’s always been more interested in the technical side of the sport, rather than rooting for a favorite driver, your work to me is invalueable. If you ever find yourself in northern Oregon, I’ll have to break out a silver sharpie of my own.

    • Thanks for the comments, Rob. You had good timing, as I am at a point where I’m wondering if what I do is really useful to anyone. I saw Ray about this time last year when we toured the Goodyear plant. He showed me the dash cam video of his last Pike’s Peak outing and I saw a happiness and excitement I hadn’t seen when he was running his own team.

      So thanks again for commenting. It was perfect timing. DLP

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