|Christopher Bell's team owner calls it quits|
Bob Leavine announced Tuesday morning that he sold his family-owned racing team, indicating that Leavine Family Racing will cease operations at the end of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Leavine has fielded cars in NASCAR’s top division since 2011, when it embarked on a four-race stint with veteran David Starr. The team currently campaigns the No. 95 Toyota for Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Christopher Bell, who ranks 23rd in Cup Series points.
In a teleconference with reporters, LFR team president Jeremy Lange did not identify the buyer(s), saying “it’s their news, and we’re going to let them make their announcement." [that buyer is likely to be Spire Motorsports, which currently operates the uncompetitive No. 77 car.]
Leavine indicated that the COVID-19 epidemic’s impact on the economy was an insurmountable hurdle. The coronavirus outbreak shut the sport down from mid-March to mid-May and also delayed the projected 2021 debut of the Cup Series’ Next Gen car, which forced LFR to shift its inventory and focus. That development — combined with the economic impact on Leavine’s Texas-based construction business, WRL General Contractors — factored into the team owner’s decision in what he called “a perfect storm in the wrong direction."
“This decision has not been made lightly," Leavine said in a statement. “Family has always been a part of the team’s name and this is how we view every member of our race team — as our family. There is no good time to make this announcement, but doing it earlier allows our people to explore employment opportunities, for next season, to provide for their families. There will be opportunities with the new owners which was important to our decision."
Leavine Family Racing flew the banners of all three manufacturers during its time in the sport, transitioning from Ford (2011-2015) to Chevrolet (2016-2018) to Toyota (2019-2020). Its final shift to Toyota Racing Development included a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, which will regain some assets from LFR after the sale.
“Everything that we own — charter, building, inventory — we sold," Leavine said. “The things that were not were no chassis, no bodies, anything that came from JGR goes back to JGR."
Other drivers who suited up for LFR’s No. 95 entry include Michael McDowell, Kasey Kahne, Matt DiBenedetto, Ty Dillon and Scott Speed. It was DiBenedetto who delivered the team’s best finish, a spirited second-place effort in Bristol’s annual night race last season.
Toyota Racing Statement from Paul Doleshal, Group Manager for Motorsports, Toyota Motor North America (TMNA)
“We want to thank Bob and Sharon Leavine, Matt DiLiberto, Jeremy Lange and everyone at Leavine Family Racing (LFR) for a successful partnership. We entered this 2020 racing season with high hopes for LFR and the team has not disappointed. While the season may not have started out as everyone wanted, after returning from the shutdown due to COVID-19, LFR rebounded with some very strong on-track performances. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the world and more closely, the entire NASCAR family in so many ways and for LFR, that has forced the sale of the race team. We’re certainly disappointed and saddened by the news, but most importantly, we want to wish Bob, Sharon, Matt, Jeremy and everyone impacted the best of luck in their future endeavors."
BOB LEAVINE, owner, Leavine Family Racing
Can you explain what assets were sold?
“No, no cars involved. Everything that we own – charter, building, inventory, we sold. Everything that we did not – were chassis, bodies, anything that came from JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) goes back to JGR."
How much did the pandemic contribute to this?
“Percentage wise it’s probably really difficult to say. Our biggest sponsor over the last 10 years has been WRL, our construction firm. That obviously has been impacted and will continue to be impacted for the next several years. That was a big factor and the business model of NASCAR, sponsorship, obviously when the pandemic hit, we shut down. That in itself, we looked at our marketing people and we are going to be lucky to sell $50,000 worth for the rest of the year. Big companies are going bankrupt. They can’t invest in something that has no more return than what they are going to get – during a pandemic. The business model itself hurt. It was the perfect storm. With that coming, NASCAR shutting down and the business model, and our biggest sponsor – ourselves – so all of those things, combined. Matt (DiLiberto, co-owner), my partner, the largest real estate firm in New York, they were hit very hard. It was a perfect storm from the wrong direction."
What does this say about the NASCAR ownership model?
“I think I’ve probably said enough. LFR has to race and wants to race for the rest of the year. Yes, over the years I have had my personal beliefs and thought we could overcome obstacles, obviously, we didn’t. The pandemic contributed to that. I probably ought to stop there."
What did it mean to have a charter as part of this deal?
“Well, if we had been one of the recipients of a free charter, it would have probably been more impactful. But we were one of the ones who had to buy our charter. We definitely did not get out of our charter, what we put into our charter. So, from our standpoint, it is very difficult to say that it was a great investment. It just allowed us to run full time for the five years after we bought it. That’s the best thing I can say for the charter system."
Is it about the financial challenges for this year or next year?
“We are putting in the same amount of money we had anticipated for this year. In fact, probably more so, because we anticipated selling the 11 races that we hadn’t with Christopher (Bell) before the pandemic hit. So, the reality, that assured us of what our downside was going to be. We haven’t really sold anything and probably won’t sell anything going forward this year. But we are committed. We are going to continue to run just the way we have been, but we had a whole lot of things banking on the Next Gen coming in. Our deal with JGR, our affiliation required us to do certain things. We were looking forward to being a standalone team with one or two cars. So, the pandemic, and sponsorship and how it affected WRL, our major sponsor, and then having to come back and buy all the cars again for next year, because we had planned on not needing cars next year. It was a snowball effect on multiple things. We saw no way out. We could not afford the affiliation, and what we did this year, next year. That’s what we banked on. Okay, we will do this one year, run good, get our charter value up, and we had a plan. That plan came tumbling down with the pandemic. Then you take a bad business model; it doesn’t work for us."
Can you give us a range on what you sold the charter for?
What are your emotions today?
“When NASCAR came out and gave our marching orders going forward. I think that was in early May, before we started back racing. I had lobbied for a lot of things to change in NASCAR with a lot of owners and was very disappointed in what came out of that meeting. I knew that was probably going to be the straw that broke our back. I had to start looking for how best do we protect our team. How best do we keep people employed. A lot of things went into that decision. Knowing after we started getting into it, and I knew that I was coming up here today to talk to the team. It’s probably one of the most difficult things I’ve encountered and had to do because of our 10 years. I really gave it all I had for the 10 years and the last five primarily when we went full-time, and I committed, and I thought we could make a difference and be a good team. A responsible and respected team in NASCAR. To walk away and not have completed that, I’ve never had to do that before and give up on anything. But I could not let it destroy our business – a 41-year old business – in Texas during these times, so you have to protect something and that’s a profitable organization and I cannot rape, pillage and plunder. It’s like having two kids, and you have to decide which one lives, and which one doesn’t. It’s gut wrenching. Everybody here, from our partners, Matt, Sharon, Michael, the family, Jeremy’s family, everybody in here is family. To have to stand in front this morning and tell them what we were doing and how we want to go out – with our heads held high – that sounds real good and reads really good, but it’s difficult to do."
What are your frustrations with what happened, and you used the words, ‘bad business model,’ are you advising against buying into a NASCAR charter?
“No sir, can’t say that. From us, my personal business that I have in Texas, is not a national B2B first so we really can’t use the race team for gathering partners. There are a lot of people and the people that are actually coming in here have great ties with large companies, B2B and so it can work for those folks. It just didn’t fit what I was able to bring, which was some money, but living off of that money just didn’t work. Mine and Matt’s (DiLiberto). Particularly when that side of the business falls considerably, we just can’t continue to put money in an operation and run. The secret is to run competitively and the way we want to run. We collectively made a decision. Can we run next year and just get on the track and do some things and prolong the agony? Yes, we could have. Did we want to do that? Total agreement from us, no, I didn’t get in here just to run. We wanted to be a competitor, competitive and I think we’ve done that pretty decently for essentially a five-year-old team. Things just came up that we can’t overcome. It works for some and it didn’t work for us."
Can you give us an idea of what you went to NASCAR to lobby for as a team owner?
“No. I don’t think – being candid, I always have been. I don’t think throwing that out in NASCAR’s face essentially is a good thing for us to do. Politically correct – that seems to be the word for the year, politically correct. I don’t think for LFR and finishing out this year that it would be politically correct to do that."
How will you view your time with NASCAR when you step away?
“Today, it’s a bad taste in my mouth to be perfectly candid and that’s the only thing I’ve ever told you all. It’s not something I’m used to of not being able to control what we do and what we spend. Right now, I’m happy for what we’ve done. Our growth in five years as a full-time team, the people we have here in our shop I would not swap for anyone, anywhere. I’m sorry for Michael (Leavine) that I can’t leave it for him and Jeremy (Lange) and Matt (DiLiberto, co-owner) will be back in the sport. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the family owned a big percentage of the team and we just couldn’t continue to commit to put money into it. I don’t see a whole lot of things that I’ve succeeded at. Today isn’t necessarily one of the happier days that I’ve ever had in this sport. Made a lot of really good acquaintances, but I’m not happy with our accomplishments."
What is the most gut-wrenching part of this decision and what does this say about the industry now? Will you ever be back in the sport?
“Never is a long time. I don’t know if this says anything about anything other than I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to get done. I’m not sure throwing stones and those type of things are the thing to do now so it’s easier just to say that I wasn’t able to get it done. Didn’t have enough money and I’m not sure if I had all the money in the world, I could have gotten it done the way it’s setup right now and with the pandemic. Was it a waste of time in 10 years? No. I enjoyed the competition. I am a very competitive person, so I enjoyed that. Enjoyed it being our family and the families that we made that worked for us. Jeremy (Lange, president) worked for me for seven years and Michael (Leavine) since he got out of college and Matt (DiLiberto, co-owner) for the last five years, my partner. He’s the only partner I’ve ever had, well I had another one and I didn’t get along with him, so I never had one until Matt. I’m not saying I got along really well with Matt, just kidding, he’s sitting here listening. Matt is a great partner and I told him, he’s the only partner I’ve ever had that I really got along with and enjoyed. He will probably be back in the business, he’s younger than I am. Will I be back in it? Probably not. I like making decisions and I can live with them and accept them but having the way it’s setup with the sanctioning body just doesn’t necessarily fit with my personality."
JEREMY LANGE, president, Leavine Family Racing
What can you tell us about who purchased the team?
“At this time, we are not going to speak their news and we are going to let them make their announcement."
What does this say about the NASCAR ownership model?
“Bob (Leavine) has mentioned on Twitter, and here in the past. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, the world, all industries and businesses alike. Teams and companies, all affiliated with the sport have been impacted by it, and we are no different than anyone else. It just comes down to, like Bob said, our biggest sponsorships can’t help us sustain what we have been doing, and we have had to make a decision to go another way."