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BK Racing trying to carve Cup niche
On Feb. 1, most teams had tested their cars for the Daytona 500 and were just putting the finishing touches on their effort.
BK Racing team members work on a car at the shop.David Ramirez
BK Racing was getting the keys to its new shop – the one that didn’t have its new cars and equipment in it yet.
Yes, things happen quickly in racing.
Most of the lead people involved knew that this team was a possibility well before it became an established entity. But it wasn’t until less than two weeks before teams were set to report to Daytona that things really started coming together.
And then organized chaos took over the lives of the men trying to launch the new NASCAR Sprint Cup team.
They had a few things working in their favor: First, several of the key players had been together at TRG Motorsports, which folded in 2011. Second, they bought assets from Red Bull Racing.
But it would be easy to overstate the impact of that purchase. While they did have cars, they were not set up to meet the 2012 rules package.
At the time, some might have viewed it as impossible. Not the men involved – they went to work, got things together and managed to get to Daytona and race with Landon Cassill. Since then, they’ve raced every week with both Cassill and Travis Kvapil.
A small, start-up operation without the funding and resources of NASCAR’s megateams, they’ve set realistic goals and work to get a little better week after week. Slowly, they are making a name for themselves – and from time to time running head-to-head with those elite, long-established organizations.
In February, though, that might have looked a little more like a dream than potential.
Team co-owner Ron Devine offers no regrets for the process, though. He combined his passion for NASCAR and sponsor Burger King, of which he owns franchises – and made the leap.
Why? Some might have asked in those early days.
“Well, Sprint Cup racing is the pinnacle, it’s the top of motorsports racing,” he said. “Everybody wants to be in that. That’s easy. To be competitive at that level, it’s so hard to challenge it just energizes me. NASCAR, I’ve been messing around that from the local track at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Virginia. My father loved NASCAR and from the time I could remember we were attached to some form of the track and I kind of got away from it for a while.
“I went back out there a year ago, we started in February but I had actually been messing around in NASCAR for a year before that just trying to get a feel for where NASCAR was. To be able to put that Burger King logo on the track is really the other piece of the driving force behind me. I think the Burger King logo belongs in NASCAR and I think it’s a good relationship both ways.”
Still, pulling it off wasn’t easy.
General manager Harry McMullen still seems a bit awed by the task they attempted.
“It’s the craziest thing a person can do, but you wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said. “It’s very rarely in a person’s life, and especially in a racer’s life, that you get to have such a clean sheet of paper. When you start, it’s almost completely overwhelming, because all you need is everything. ...
“This deal here was kind of like catching lightning in a bottle. We got keys to the building on Feb. 1 and all through January, a lot of people, a lot of knowledgeable, experienced people in the sport were saying, ‘Boy it’s impossible. You guys waited too long to do it.’ Very fortunate here between the ownership group and the crew that we have assembled, the quickest way to get them to do something is to tell them they can’t. ‘Well OK, we’ll show you.’ And the next thing you know, you’re in Daytona.”
Now they just shake their heads and gently laugh about what those opening months were like.
At the time, though, the stress level must have been high.
Crew chief Doug Richert brought veteran experience to the organization and his role with Cassill and some of the group had already worked together. But getting ready for Daytona, with drivers Cassill and David Reutimann (Kvapil, with former car chief turned crew chief Todd Anderson – who also worked with Reutimann - debuted the second race of the season).
At the time, though, the effort was epic.
“There was a lot of phone calling in the beginning,” Richert said.
The speedway package for the Daytona race had changed so modifications were needed.
“Not only did we have to modify the cars, we also had to get radiators that everybody in the world had been trying to get already because it gives you a core size and it also gives you a gallon of water amount,” Richert said.
And then there was the shift to electronic fuel injection, something the cars purchased were not equipped for at all.
“We had nothing,” Richert said. “... The harnesses and stuff that was really hard to get at the beginning of the year, we were begging and borrowing. ‘Hey can I get a spare?’ One time, can we just find two, one for each car to go to Daytona. Realistically, we went to Daytona with just two – one in each car. And it was just enough to get there. Luckily we didn’t have any problems.”
Landon Cassill's car is ready to roll out of the BK Racing shop.David Ramirez
The scramble was on, but within this group, a unique bond was building.
Everyone stepped up to help. Roles weren’t defined as fabricators and mechanics and engineers, employees traditionally working in specialized areas with larger teams, pitched in to help one another get things done.
"I don’t think I’ve ever missed a race because of not having a car ready to go … to say I can’t get my car to the track, that’s never happened, and it didn’t happen this year either,” Richert says.
McMullen says that he likes to keep expressions and guidelines in the back of his mind and use them when fitting. When the team was faced with coming together so quickly, his thought process was succinct: “This simply can’t be a hard job because we don’t have time for one.”
Still, though he looks back on that opening with a fond tone now, one feels the sense of urgency as members of the team relive those opening weeks.
“We not only had to get cars ready, we had to move in, set up equipment, run electrical wires … fix the lights, set up the phone system, get the desks in order,” McMullen says. “We had a group of guys picking up cars in Mooresville and bringing them here and a group of guys taking them apart because you had to convert to fuel injection … I don’t think any one person knows all the things that occurred.”
All too soon, they were headed to Daytona “at the last minute,” he says. “It was like, ‘OK, the garage opens at 7, it’s a 12-hour ride, so I guess we have to leave by 7 tonight and make sure we make all the lights.’”
Since then, things have just picked up speed. Rain delayed Daytona, putting the team in a pinch to get cars ready for Phoenix as well.
Soon, though, things slipped into a rhythm. Unlike the 200-400 employee teams they compete against, BK Racing now races with two full-time teams with 45 employees in house. Men still crossover into one another’s roles, people come to McMullen outlining things they’ve done for the future in order to make sure they don’t get forgotten.
The shop looks cozy now. Pictures in the lobby seem to speak of a history that runs more than a few months. Cars line the floor. Crews are now working on cars for a week out – with multiple ones to choose from – instead of rushing to get the coming race’s entries onto the truck.
And the drivers and crews now have their own notebooks to rely on each weekend.
They’re reaching their modest goals of earning top-25 finishes on a regular basis and gaining ground from there. Everyone on the team brought a realistic approach to the year, something that has probably helped them through the sometimes trying times any new team must certainly face.
Yet, as they look around the organized shop, as they unload off the transporter each week feeling more competitive in the opening practices, they find signs of just how far things have come.
Anderson, who refers to himself as a “pure rookie” as he navigates the waters as a crew chief for the first time, has forged a solid relationship with Kvapil. They finished season-best eighth at Talladega Superspeedway and are 29th in the standings. Cassill is 31st.
“Still kind of a whirlwind,” Anderson said. “… We’re competitive enough right now that it feels like we’ve made some pretty big accomplishments. We still need bodies and people but it’s coming along. It’s slowly progressing … We think we’re going to be really competitive this last part of the season going into next year and it’s been a challenge but it’s starting to pay off a little bit now, finally.”
The drivers feel so as well.
Kvapil said that he knew about the team’s potential in the offseason. In the middle of January, his talks with them started to gain traction and then he was offered what he calls “kind of a part-time role in the No. 93.” He has also driven the organization’s No. 73, at Darlington, competing in 30 of the 31 races for BK Racing this year.
“Our goals at the beginning of the year were, ‘Let’s not tear up cars, let’s get solid finishes, kind of build a foundation, keep the cars in the top 35 … and be prepared down the road. We were able to do that.”
He worked with Anderson helping with the setup of the car, based on Kvapil’s experience, in those opening races.
“For me, I really loved it,” Kvapil said. “It was exciting. It was an opportunity to take something from nothing and try to build it and try to be successful. I like to be hands on, I like to spend time at the shop and be involved in the race team and have input so I enjoyed that time. I still do.”
Cassill, 23, comes at it from another perspective. He’s a young driver getting his shot – and trying to take full advantage of that.
“It’s been a great experience,” he says. “It’s a hard sport, it’s tough and for a team to come in and try to build from the group up is not an easy task. These guys, our owners of BK Racing, they’ve shown their committed to the sport and it’s been a learning experience for sure.”
As they look back over the season, these men must continually remind themselves of just how young this BK Racing operation is – and of how much each step toward success really means.
There’s a special vibe among the men working to make this team a success, one that doesn’t necessarily exist in larger operations.
“We’re just kind of old-school racers with a pen and paper and you’re setting the car up out on the shop floor,” Kvapil says. “We didn’t have a lot of the tools in place to really science setups out.”
Teams make sure that Travis Kvapil's car meets specifications.David Ramirez
So they bonded together – men and women facing an uphill battle and determined to beat the odds.
They look out for one another and guardedly protect what they are building.
They truly work as one.
“It really comes down to that family atmosphere,” Devine says. “... We talk about that. We’re all in this together and it’s really been a lot of fun in a lot of ways to build that team atmosphere. I really think that’s a big part of whatever successes people think we’ve had, whether it’s the qualifying well or the running well here and there, it’s all a result of having that team or family feel.”
And pride. No matter what happens going forward, this group is extremely proud of what it has built at this point – and the way that it all came together so quickly.
“I’ve worked at the big super-mega teams and I’ve worked with the different groups and I’ve been fortunate to be on several championship teams and numerous wins and all … and I swear it’s the Gods honest truth and it comes from the deep of my heart – I’ve never been with a better group,” McMullen said. “…The sense of accomplishment from not having 400 people and 27 wind tunnel dates and everything else, just having a group of guys who are saying, ‘Don’t worry, I think I can make this a little better’ and digging in like they do here, I can’t even express the sense of accomplishment and pride I have in this group.”