The Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour will have new ownership when the green flag waves on its 2023 season in March. Today, NASCAR icons Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Justin Marks announced their acquisition of the Southeast’s premier asphalt late model series.
Q&A: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Justin Marks
What was the driving force behind the ownership group?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “We’ve been a team owner in the Series for a long time and really love what Jack (McNelly) is doing and Keeley (Dubensky) has been a part of it for several years now. They’ve done a great job with the Series. Jack talked to me about the future of the Series and wanting it to continue. I wanted to make sure that he can feel confident in the future of the Series and that it is in good hands going forward, long term. I told him that I would be interested in supporting it and becoming an investor and that started the conversation initially.
“I don’t remember the order it all went. I reached out to Jeff (Burton) a little bit and I think Jeff might have suggested I talk to Kevin (Harvick). Then talked to Kevin and he was excited to be a part of it right from the get go and so was Jeff. Kevin thought that bringing Justin (Marks) in would be an amazing opportunity for all of us as well because of the business man and visionary that he is.
“My passion is just trying to help short-track racing, much like Kevin said – just trying to help things continue – the identity of the Series won’t change. We just want to give it the opportunity to continue to grow and be successful and I think we have an incredible team put together with everyone here.”
From your perspective, how important is a strong and vibrant CARS Tour for the future of stock car racing?
Jeff Burton: “Short-track racing is the heartbeat of motorsports in North America. It’s so important for the success of short tracks and having that energy and that excitement, that makes the entire sport better. Giving the young drivers a chance to understand how to race with some more experienced drivers is really important – that’s part of this process, too. Having some older drivers and even part of this group being able to say to younger drivers, ‘we aren’t going to do that here. That’s not how we race,’ and having a chance to mentor some of those drivers.
“I raced in the CARS Tour with my son (Harrison), we ran many races with Jack (McNelly) and that group. They built this great foundation that we hope to be able to make him proud and improve, where we can, in the areas that he’s done such a great job in. You have to have organized, stable, great rules, great organization, simple for the drivers, simple for the teams to understand. That keeps cost down, that keeps competition better and all of that is really important. We are really going to have to lean on Jack and his team to understand the experiences that they’ve had. Helping short-track racing in general, helping the race teams – it all starts with the race teams and the drivers. We have to have an environment in which a team can come and compete at a high level without having that ridiculously high checkbook. That can’t be the determination of success or failure. Figuring out how to juggle that is really important for short-track racing. People short-track racing are there because it’s their passion, not their job, and we have to give them an opportunity to have a place to do that passion. It’s the very beginning of developing drivers, crew members, owners, officials, all that stuff. This is the very beginning of that and having a solid structure only makes that better for everybody.”
Who’s brainchild was this new venture?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.:“At North Wilkesboro last year Jack mentioned to me that he was interested in having some people become involved in the Series. Jack is going to continue to manage, with Keeley, the day-to-day going forward. None of that is going to change, but he wanted some assurance that the Series would be in good hands and that started the conversation with me and the rest of the group.”
Goals of the CARS Tour
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I think that having followed the Series closely for the last decade or more and watching Josh (Berry) grow as a driver and watching the way Jack and Keeley have managed the Series, manage the conduct of the drivers. My biggest anxiety over the whole thing is to not disturb the momentum they already have and not change the course of the Series or alter anything about the identity of the Series and what it is capable of doing going forward.
“We obviously want to shine as big of a light as we can and I think we can do that going forward, but that’s a great point by Kevin. As you watch the drivers and the conduct on the race track and how it’s managed by Jack, Keeley, and everyone at the CARS Tour. There are some very critical lessons learned by these young drivers when they compete in this Series. We experienced it this year with Carson Kvapil, he intentionally wrecked a driver post-race after they crossed the checkered flag. I had to help him through understanding the repercussions of a mistake like that.
“Jack and his team do a great job of helping the drivers understand how to move forward beyond that, how to correct it, and how to change as a driver and change your mentality. That does carry on for them wherever they go – into the Truck Series, Xfinity Series, and we hope that this series is looked at as a place where you can get that recognition to get those future opportunities. It’s already happening and we just want to make that light a little bit brighter.”
Could there be part of your stewardship of the series to help drivers (young and old) established, whether in the series or beyond?
Jeff Burton: “I think there is a lot we can learn from the successes of dirt track racing. They’ve done a great job of having shows and programs that are somewhat affordable or sellable to sponsorship – there is something we can learn from that. When I grew up, I raced against grown men and they didn’t take any crap from me. They taught me that we’re going to race this way. If you went to move Wayne Patterson, you had your hands full – he was going to make your life miserable and that’s how I learned to race. We’ve seen this even in the Xfinity and Truck Series that we don’t have the Jack Ingrams. There aren’t a whole lot of those guys that have been racing for 30 years that are in those series and teaching these young drivers how you do it. Jack Ingram picked me up one night because I called him an old man and I deserved to get my ass whipped.
“We need some of that mentoring in short-track racing. I think there is an opportunity to grow asphalt and short-track racing. This is a unique group of people, still including Jack and Keeley. Us all sitting down with completely different perspectives that we all have might generate some new ideas and some new concepts that don’t just help the CARS Tour, but all of short-track racing. Ultimately, that’s what we want. We want every series to be successful and how can we all work together and learn from each other to create better opportunities for the competitors and the fans. How do we do that? It’s not going to be easy. If it was easy, it would’ve already been done. We’re going to have to think out of the box, which is why I love this group so much because when we all do sit down and talk there is a lot of stuff coming from a lot of different angles. I think that’s what it’s going to take to make that next step in short-track racing. Not even the next step, almost taking it back to what it was in the 80s. How do we get back to that. The answer is probably not doing it how it was in the 80s. We have to find a way to do it the way it gets done in modern times to have the success of short-track racing of the 80s.”
How do you keep the CARS Tour from getting too big?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “That is a great challenge and a good problem to have, to be honest with you. If you have people coming and interested in being a part of your series, then they are going to want to come, compete, and succeed. I think there’s a couple key things that are important and that’s leaning on Jack, Keeley, and their experience and what works and doesn’t work for the series. They’re going to have the same amount of control going forward that they’ve had in the past, and I don’t think it’s in our interest or my interest to dive into the nuts and bolts of rules and so forth or how to govern the series. I think we can offer advice, when needed, but out of the gate we really don’t want to change much about how the engine runs – metaphorically.
“I think that the car itself, now there is the pro late model, but the late model stock car is kind of the core nucleus of the series, in my opinion. That car has always been a very basic, common, parts and pieces type of machine that’s easy to understand and work on. You will find the majority of them in someone’s garage out behind their house. They are just rather affordable cars to race. Trying to be good stewards of that car and what that car represents. The economical challenges for engine and chassis builders going forward, trying to manage all of that and help everybody succeed is always important. I’m sure Jack knows a lot of the ins and outs of that. I think for Jack and the CARS Tour that has always been an ongoing challenge is making it affordable. I think travel, location, where you race, Jack and Keeley can speak to that. That’s important to the owner, to the driver, to the fan. This has always been a Mid-Atlantic region vehicle. It doesn’t race in Florida. It doesn’t race up in the northeast. It doesn’t race in the mid-west. I could guess that the average travel for our events is probably under three hours from Charlotte. We’re not going to come in and send the racers and the teams all over the country trying to race in these big giant events and change the identity of the series. We really want to be a part of what Jack has and what he is already doing with the tour. If we can bring monetary value for the teams, the drivers, the people involved, and continue to offer the great content that the fans come to expect with the CARS Tour, that’s what we want to do.”
Does this investment impact other projects?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Yes, I hope it does impact my other investments in a great positive way. That will be the great thing about the four of us, we can find ways to weave in what we are already doing into the CARS Tour. It just creates a lot more opportunities to introduce some of our current partners to the brand and to the CARS Tour, short-track racing, grassroots racing. I already have a bunch of text messages from partners and connections I have about interest in being involved and how they can support. I will go ahead and answer the question, I don’t think it impacts other business ventures that I have, but it also doesn’t impact my ability to compete in the series. Harvick already mentioned that he wants to race in the CARS Tour. I think running once or twice a year gives us a great opportunity to experience the series as a competitor, or as an owner, and get a real look behind the curtain at what the challenges are for those individuals. It may give us a better understanding of how to be good stewards of the series as owners. I couldn’t be more excited. I really love the opportunity here to work with everybody and can’t wait to see what we can do to move forward. The other things I have going on in my life should continue on successfully. We like all these opportunities to complement each other. All these different things we get ourselves involved in, we like for them to support and complement each other.
On streaming the races/series with own production company
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I really have enjoyed the streaming service and what Tony Stevens and everybody has done on pit row to be able to provide an opportunity and a way to see the CARS Tour races as they happen live from the comfort of your own home. We kind of take that for granted now. That invention of being able to watch a short-track race on your tablet has not been around that long. That is something I’m even amazed at today, how convenient that is for us and we want to be able to continue to provide what people expect for the CARS Tour fans. We want to provide them with a great broadcast and those conversations are ongoing. Hopefully we will have something to announce soon on who our partner will be for this season and going forward.”
Have you broached this concept with NASCAR?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “We haven’t really discussed any long-term plans or how we could come together in any sense. There is communication with NASCAR, for sure, about our plans and our involvement in the CARS Tour and why we would want to become involved. NASCAR has been extremely supportive to what we are doing. They understand how important grassroots racing is. I think they too have a new focus on the health of grassroots racing and short-track racing in general – I’m thankful for that. Everyone that I’ve talked to at NASCAR, I am thankful for their excitement and their support on what we are doing. The CARS Tour would love to work with NASCAR in any way, shape or form going forward. There is positive momentum across the board for short-track racing right now and I think everyone from the top down recognizes how important that is and keeping that momentum going.”
On being asked to join the group in acquiring the CARS Tour:
Kevin Harvick: “When Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) asked, it didn’t take long. I was basically asking to be part of this by the time we got to that part of the conversation. The first thing I want to say is how excited I am to be part of this group. It really is going to be fun because we all sort of look at things from a little bit different perspective. The thing that we all share is, the fact that short-track racing is really the root that feeds everything that we do. For me, growing up racing Late Models on the West Coast and being a part of my career path to the ladder system is something that I have a passion for. I can sit on the fence or in the stands and watch practice–I do it at the go-kart track as well. I love watching people drive around in race cars. I love the interaction from the competitors. What seems so simple to us, because we have been around it our whole lives, is not so simple to the weekly competitor who is struggling to get to the track or has a question about what is right or wrong or what he should or shouldn’t do. I want to be in the car, the pits, the grandstands and want to know what these competitors are struggling with and what they need and to make it better. I can’t wait to be part of it and I’m looking forward to every minute of it.”
On the goals of the CARS Tour:
Kevin Harvick: “A lot of the goals of everything you want to do is going to evolve. When I started, you could always measure yourself when you went to a different track and raced against the guy who had raced there for 15-20 years. That was the measuring stick. All of us want to see the Josh Berry’s of the world get as much recognition as possible and giving good feedback on who is coming up through the ranks. That’s important. You need to have a healthy series with veterans who want to teach the young kids how to race. That story is going to be told as much as anything, what’s right and wrong from the short-track side of things. Being able to be part of that process is something that is needed.
“The CARS Tour already has that reputation where you can come and race without getting wrecked. We want to build on that and make that as recognizable.”
What his role is in the partnership:
Kevin Harvick: “For us, it really fits in nicely with the KHI management side of things. We have a lot of partners that would be interested in becoming part of the Tour. There’s a car that is sitting in our shop because I like to race and I want to be part of it. As Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) has been doing the last couple of years, I’m kind of sitting here jealous because he’s been having fun, smiling and being in there with the competitors. It’s important to be in the car to understand the cost, what they’re like to drive and to have a better understanding of it. Also, it’s to get an idea of the different perspectives. There’s a respect here with the general idea that we want to take asphalt short-track racing to another level. Why is it not like it was in the 1980s? Why is dirt racing so successful? We believe it can be just as successful.”
On being asked to be a participant in the acquisition of the CARS Tour:
Justin Marks: “When I learned that this conversation was happening and the people involved, starting with Dale (Earnhardt Jr.), it was very apparent very quickly that it was going to be a tremendous opportunity. It’s very humbling and exciting for me to be part of this group. It’s going to be a huge learning experience for me, understanding how this series and short-track racing operates, what’s important to the competitors and what’s important to the fans and really leaning on the experience of the other three. I didn’t really come up through short-track racing, but I did start at the grassroots level. I understand how important that is and how much it serves as the foundation. It’s where the passion for racing really started for me. I was more nervous showing up for my first grassroots race at 16 than I was for my one Daytona 500. It was intimidating, but it was exciting. Being able to get in a race car at that level and experience the amazing things that happen at that level is something that’s stuck with me for a long time. It’s an incredible opportunity and there’s a lot of learning to be done. There are so many amazing things happening in short-track racing, and the work that we can do to put the CARS Tour on a stage that creates a valuable series and one where the economics work for all the teams and all the competitors. It’s going to be exciting, because it truly is some of the most amazing racing we have in all of North America.”
On his role with the new organization:
Justin Marks: “From the Trackhouse side, one of the things we’re spending a lot of time on now is growing a brand that can truly amplify the incredible stories and storylines of the people in this sport. We have made and continue to make big investments in a brand development and content division. There are so many great opportunities that are undiscovered. There are fans of short-track racing that don’t even know they are fans yet because they haven’t been exposed to it. I look forward to personally working with this group to learn about the competitors, the stories, the history…try to amplify the CARS Tour to grow the fan base and get people emotionally invested in it. If we can do that, it’s going to be the rising tide that lifts all ships. I look forward to being a part of that.”
Jeff Burton: “This opportunity is just so unique. I’ve worked with Dale for the last five years or so. I worked with Kevin Harvick as a teammate. Justin and I have had some very detailed conversations over breakfast and lunch about the sport, prior to this coming together. It’s just an amazing opportunity for me. I’m just completely humbled to be a part of this group. It’s such a unique group and working with such a great foundation. There are a lot of challenges ahead and that’s what is great about having partners you respect so much. Having partners, you trust is really important. Challenges can be fun with the right people. Excited about the impact, hopefully a positive impact, we can make for short-track racing. It means something to every one of us for different reasons, but it means something to every one of us and it’s just a responsibility that we raised our hands saying we want to do this. Now, we have the responsibility to bring the return and make the impact on short-track racing. We can no longer talk about it; we have to do it. It’s easy to sit back and say they should do this and they should do that. We are the they now so we have to figure out how to do the right things. It’s going to be fun and exciting working with the teams to help figure that out. It’s a challenge, but that’s what is great about life, waking up in the morning and not knowing what is coming at you and rolling with it. It’s just going to be a lot of fun.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.:“I’m excited to join Jack, Keeley, and everything they have going on with this group. Hopefully when they open up the tool box, there’s more tools in there to work with in the future. Jack’s done an amazing job to create an incredible series that we all want to be a part of. Keeley is doing an amazing job understanding the way the team works and how to manage it. She’s a rockstar and getting to know her more and more has been a lot of fun for me and my sister Kelley. I’m also excited to work with Justin, Jeff and Kevin on a project. We all kind of think a little differently and have different strengths and I think we have a lot of ways to complement what is already going on here. Looking forward to this season, I can’t wait to get to the race track, talk to competitors, owners and fans. It’s going to be an amazing year. See y’all at a race track soon.”