As 2021 NASCAR season begins, what awaits Michael Jordan and Pitbull?
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR reporter
Welcome, Michael Jordan, and welcome, Pitbull.
Two global celebrities are entering NASCAR as team co-owners. They both know some NASCAR – Jordan from growing up in North Carolina and Pitbull from watching "Days of Thunder" – but they have a lot to learn.
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What do they need to know?
They need to know that winning isn’t easy and that many others like them, who have invested in teams or done partnerships based on sponsorship, no longer have involvement in the sport (see Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw).
They need to know that what works in other entertainment or sports businesses doesn’t always correlate to NASCAR (see former Canadiens/Liverpool owner George Gillett).
They need to know that there is no salary cap, though there has been a moratorium on most parts of development as NASCAR transitions to a new car in 2022.
They need to know that there are no trade deadlines and that people will try to work out an agreement (sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not so much) to break a contract.
And they should know that they can complain about the referees (NASCAR officials) as long as they don’t imply that the races are fixed or that the fans shouldn’t attend. Oh, about that previous sentence: NASCAR rules interpretations can change, sometimes without notice, as two of NASCAR’s favorite officiating philosophies are "Don’t cross the line — we’ll know the line when we see it" and "EIRI: Except In Rare Instances."
One good thing for Pitbull and Jordan is that they have seasoned drivers as their business partners. Justin Marks doesn’t have the wins of Denny Hamlin, but he spent several seasons racing partial schedules in NASCAR and has competed for teams such as Chip Ganassi Racing.
With 44 career Cup victories, Hamlin’s résumé doesn’t need any padding, though it still misses a championship.
Jordan has had a more than decade-long friendship with Hamlin, which has now turned into their co-owning 23XI Racing.
"I would say that we've talked more in the last couple of weeks, but he's just excited," Hamlin said Friday. "The involvement on the race team, he's got a great team of people that I work with and really gives us a lot of autonomy to make sure that we're doing stuff the way that we see fit. So it's working well."
Pitbull (also known as Armando Christian Perez) got in touch with Marks after talking to a documentary producer who commented on how Pitbull’s dedication to education through his charter schools and his popularity with the Hispanic community aligned with Marks, the Trackhouse Racing team owner whose family foundation is creating a STEM outreach program for students and whose driver is Daniel Suarez.
Suarez’s name was familiar to Pitbull because Suarez has had the backing of companies operated by Carlos Slim Jr., son of the wealthy Mexican billionaire.
"When all this came together, we sat down, and it wasn't just we have to have a winning team – we got to do the sponsorship, got to create this," Pitbull said. "I was like, ‘Look, we're going to do that, OK? Really what this is about is this: How do we make this something more powerful?’
"How do we make this so it's historic, and how do we make this so we break barriers, boundaries, limits, bringing everybody together through this?"
Jordan has similar interests with his driver, Bubba Wallace, who is the only full-time Black driver in NASCAR’s three national divisions and the only full-time Black driver in Cup since 1971. Wallace advocated in June that NASCAR ban the Confederate flag, and NASCAR quickly decided last summer that it was time to finally change its policy.
"At the end of the day, his stance is no different than my stance," Jordan said in September. "He made a stance before me, and I support that. It adds to the uniqueness of this whole process.
"I hope for everybody’s sake it works out for the good of everyone. He’s going to represent us, Denny and myself, but he’s going to represent himself, as a Black man and as a Black driver. He made that stance well before me."
The competitive Jordan and the businessman Jordan will have to live with the NASCAR fan Jordan during his co-ownership of 23XI Racing.
"The financials are part of the process," Jordan said. "But my passion drives me more than the financials.
"So if I invest or not invest, I’m going to call Denny each and every Sunday to ask him, ‘What the hell is he doing? Is he going to win today? What happened on that turn 1?’"
Pitbull might not be as interested in Turn 1, though he will get the Daytona 500 started as the grand marshal who delivers the command to start engines.
He likely will bring a little more flash, while Jordan will ooze greatness with his presence.
"We have a driver who moved to America, whose dream it was to be a NASCAR driver in a sport where there had never been a Latino champion ever," Marks said. "He did it. You have Armando [Pitbull], who grew up with very humbling beginnings in Miami, wanted to be a global icon, transcend his community, take his message to the world. Against great odds, he did that.
"That's just kind of who we are, the story we're trying to tell."
Both of these new owners plan to tell stories of winning races. Hopefully, they understand that building teams from the ground up takes time. Most teams don’t win right away. The good thing is it appears that neither of these deals is one in which the celebrity is there solely to generate sponsorship, getting paid either at the outset or a percentage based on the deals that require personal appearances.
Jordan and Pitbull have teams that will benefit from strong alliances. 23XI Racing will get its cars from Joe Gibbs Racing. Trackhouse is pretty much a third car in the Richard Childress Racing shop.
"Once we dive in, we dive in as a family, as a team, as a support group," Jordan said. "I will attend the races.
"I’m not looking to overshadow Bubba at any point in time because at the end of the day, he’s going to have to stand up on his own two legs. He’s going to have to race. I’ve always supported NASCAR physically. Will I support it even more so now? I’m pretty sure I will."
Bob’s hot take
When NASCAR decided to move the second points race of the season to the Daytona road course (replacing Auto Club Speedway, which was originally the third race of the year), it gave a huge advantage to those 21 teams that will compete Tuesday in the Busch Clash.
Those teams get 35 laps of practice in the form of an exhibition race on the track with the same aerodynamic package they will use 12 days later for the points race (and a different aerodynamic package than used at the track in August). Those 15-19 teams that didn’t make the Busch Clash don’t get any laps, as there is no practice for the Daytona road course event.
That is blatantly unfair. You can say those teams in the Clash earned the benefit, but let’s face it: Those in the Clash typically are the "haves," and those not in the Clash are the "have-nots." NASCAR could have altered the aero package for the Clash to at least even the playing field a little bit or had a practice session for the Daytona road course. Instead, the teams that could most use time on the track will end up being on it the least.
Stat of note
Six times a driver has won the Clash and gone on to win the Daytona 500, but it has happened only once in the previous 23 years. Clash/Daytona 500 winners in the same year: Bobby Allison (1982), Bill Elliott (1987), Dale Jarrett (1996, 2000), Jeff Gordon (1997) and Denny Hamlin (2016).
They said it
"I’ll get pretty frustrated if [my crewmen] want to sit and dwell on what happened last year when we’re already into just over a week away from the Daytona 500. They better have moved on. If they haven’t, they don’t talk to me about it." – Kevin Harvick