Friday, March 24, 2023

Christie: Island of Misfits Dedicated to Building Spire Motorsports into Something Special

Spire Motorsports team NASCAR Hendrick 2023
Corey LaJoie and Ty Dillon will pilot the two Spire Motorsports entries during the 2023 NASCAR Cup season, and based on the mood at the announcement, it feels the team is really starting to head in a positive direction. Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett, NKP.

It was a constant theme at Tuesday’s Spire Motorsports 2023 NASCAR Cup Series driver announcement at their humble race shop in Concord, North Carolina. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

The organization, which is comprised of a rag-tag group of discarded employees from other organizations, their two NASCAR Cup Series drivers for 2023 included, continues to build toward a competitive future in the sport.

For the team’s co-owner Jeff Dickerson, NASCAR Cup Series team ownership is something that has been a learning process for himself and Spire Motorsports co-owner T.J. Puchyr, but he feels the pieces of the puzzle are finally starting to come together.

“T.J. and I are obviously not your prototypical NASCAR owners, sometimes your opportunities choose you. This was one of them that we knew we had to learn this,” Dickerson admitted on Tuesday. “We had not done this at this level. We kind of had to learn how to walk in this garage and maybe finally we’re jogging. I don’t know, but it’s been quite the journey.”

As 31-year-old Corey LaJoie nears entering his third season driving for the team, where he’ll be joined by new teammate Ty Dillon, LaJoie feels that, much like his race team, he has reached the jogging stage of his personal development as a race car driver.

“Coming to Spire, my Cup career was walking before that,” LaJoie stated. “Right now, we are jogging every week.”

LaJoie and Dillon have each bounced around from opportunity to opportunity throughout the course of their careers, and Ryan Sparks, who serves as LaJoie’s crew chief and was also promoted to director of competition on Tuesday, sees a lot of the same characteristics in both drivers.

“Honestly, you put [Ty] and Corey beside each other on paper, they have a lot of the same statistics and I would almost call them the same driver,” Sparks stated. “They’ve had different opportunities to get there, but they have the same wants and same goals.”

For Sparks, seeing the hunger that burns inside of LaJoie, Dillon, and his fellow Spire Motorsports crew chief Ryan Bellicourt just continues to fuel the fire within the team.

“It makes us hungry and makes us want it even more,” Sparks said.

While Spire Motorsports hasn’t quite learned how to run just yet, they are a long way from not being able to walk just a few years ago.

As Maya Angelou famously said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

Where Have Spire Motorsports Come From?

In 2019, Spire Motorsports was a fledgling upstart team that many were upset had taken a Charter from Furniture Row Racing, which had won a NASCAR Cup Series championship with Martin Truex Jr. in 2017 and had become a year-after-year bonafide championship contender from their own humble beginnings.

Spire, who swooped in and purchased FRR’s Charter as the No. 78 team began to close its doors due to funding issues, was a team that many called a money grab, and when the team scored its first, and to date only, NASCAR Cup Series win in a weather-impacted conclusion at Daytona International Speedway in the summer of 2019, it was potentially the biggest upset in NASCAR history, but there was upheaval on social media.

NASCAR fans were livid that a team, which in their eyes didn’t intend to legitimately compete in the sport, was able to steal a win by staying out of the pits when the weather hit, ending the race.

Aside from six laps led by Jamie McMurray in a Chip Ganassi Racing car with Spire Motorsports’ name attached to it on the entry list during the 2019 season-opening Daytona 500, Haley’s one-lap led that day at Daytona under caution due to staying on the racetrack was the only lap led by the organization that year.

In 2020, the team led a grand total of just one lap and their one-lap led came during a pit cycle under yellow flag conditions, not a competitive pass under green flag conditions.

By the end of year two of the team’s existence, Spire still had just one top-10 finish to their credit, which was their very fortunate first NASCAR Cup Series win.

No doubt these were rough times for a team that was founded when Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr borrowed $6 million to be able to afford the Furniture Row Racing Charter.

Where is Spire Motorsports going?

Fast forward to the 2022 season from that rainy day at Daytona in 2019, and you’ll see that things have changed for the organization.

The Next Gen car was installed in the NASCAR Cup Series heading into the season, and it was expected to be the great equalizer for the field. Everyone was expected to have chances to compete for wins.

And what do you know?

LaJoie, a hard-working journeyman racer, in his second season with Spire found himself in a position to win a race on legitimate performance at Atlanta Motor Speedway in July.

LaJoie took the lead on three different occasions in the Quaker State 400 and he led a career-high 19 laps on the day, which was ultra-impressive as the Spire Motorsports team had a grand total of 22 laps led in their entire existence heading into the day.

In the closing laps, it looked like Cinderella had found the metaphorical glass slipper, as LaJoie had control of the field with two laps to go.

Then, Chase Elliott — the sport’s most popular driver — knifed around LaJoie for the lead of the race. The crowd erupted as Elliott, the hometown hero, took the lead from the underdog racer. But then LaJoie sliced his car to the high lane in Turn 1 on the final lap in an effort to pull off the improbable victory.

Elliott saw the move and turned his car to the right in an effort to block LaJoie. The two made contact and LaJoie was sent crashing to a 21st-place finish, while Elliott scored his first win at his hometown track.

But something interesting happened on social media following that race. Spire Motorsports, which had been raked over the coals since they began racing in 2019, all of a sudden had gained respect, and fans actually questioned if Elliott’s race-winning block, which resulted in LaJoie crashing was a dirty move.

Fans, who had voiced frustrations about Spire Motorsports just three years prior, when the team lucked into their first win on a strategy call to not pit when a perfectly timed lightning strike hit, were all of a sudden feeling bad that Spire and their driver LaJoie, who had scratched and clawed all day long at Atlanta, didn’t win the race.

It was a unique turn of public opinion, one that would make the writers who come up with the storylines for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), a sponsor of Spire this season, jealous.

For anyone still on the fence that is calling the four-year-old, going on five-year-old, team a money grab, Bellicourt, the crew chief of the No. 77 Spire team and one of the first people hired by Spire Motorsports, says that he heard the rumors a couple of years ago, but that anyone thinking that the team is around to turn a quick profit and exit the sport is simply misguided.

“You’re right. There were a lot of misconceived notions about what this team was doing two years ago,” Bellicourt admitted. “But I can tell you Ryan [Sparks] and I were the first two in the building and there was never any question from our ownership what our plan was. We needed to be patient. They had a plan and sometimes they moved things around and did things differently, but they always had a plan to get to this point and give us the resources and people to do what we believe we can do on Sundays.”

Where Does Spire Go From Here?

It’s an interesting question, for sure. But in speaking with all of the parties involved during Tuesday’s event at the Spire campus, which is Alan Kulwicki’s former race shop, you get a genuine sense that the team does intend to compete.

From team owners Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr, to the guys driving the cars, to the folks turning the wrenches, to the folks hammering out press releases, everyone seems hell-bent on proving the doubters wrong.

Everyone in the room on Tuesday seemed passionate about what is being built inside the 24,620 square-foot race shop and the moves that the team, which is home to around 30 employees, is making in the public eye echo those intentions.

LaJoie says the difference between what the team looked like when he first signed on at Spire Motorsports and what the organization looks like now couldn’t be any starker of a difference.

“It’s been a fricken roll, man. There were zero employees here two years ago when I signed up to do this deal and keep building this thing and we’re going to get there,” LaJoie stated with confidence. “We’re going to get there.”

In addition to adding employees, the team has also been utilizing Hendrick engines, a partnership that will continue for the 2023 season.

The decision to fill their No. 77 car with one driver, instead of a myriad of drivers that have strung together sponsorship is a step in the right direction for the organization.

While nobody will question that Landon Cassill and Josh Bilicki are capable and respectful drivers that care about their equipment, when you have multiple drivers in your car throughout the year it can be tough to weigh feedback and data from multiple parties.

“[I’m] Very selfishly excited,” Bellicourt stated with enthusiasm about having one driver to work with next season. “I’m excited about that. The consistency of one driver just does a lot. We’ve kind of harped on a little bit, Landon [Cassill] has done a great job for us and this organization, helping us get our footing towards the end of the year.”

While having consistent information coming from the single driver in the No. 77 car will be beneficial, Dillon feeling like he has finally found a team that truly wants him will more than likely raise his confidence and overall results, as well.

“I think that’s all I need after the years I’ve had the last few years,” Dillon said. “Just a team that builds confidence in me and that they know I can get the job done.”

If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, “Yeah right,” there is potentially something to Dillon thriving when he feels a team truly believes in him. While he has underperformed in the No. 42 car at Petty GMS, when compared to Erik Jones in the No. 43 car, this season, Dillon certainly surpassed expectations in his last long-sustained run with an organization — Germain Racing.

The Germain team was a fixture in the NASCAR Cup Series from 2009 until 2020. At the time of the team closing its doors, Dillon, who had driven four full-time seasons for the organization, had scored two of the team’s three top-five finishes and he had six of their 12 top-10 finishes.

Nobody put up better numbers at Germain Racing than Dillon.

Dillon wore his heart on his sleeve a little bit on Tuesday when talking about how things shook out for him at Petty GMS and how he feels everything that Petty GMS was from a negative standpoint, Spire is completely the opposite and he is hopeful he’s found his true home.

“I feel like there is everything here at Spire for me to be here long term,” Dillon said. “We’ve had those conversations. I’ve had those conversations with other teams too, and it hasn’t worked out. But I just feel a genuine push in the right direction of how to build this. The last place I was at, I was told I was going to be there for a long time and be a part of the organization for a long time.

“We didn’t even get halfway through the season and they made a change. That was unfortunate because of the approach and way we were going to build the team and so many things have changed. The conversations here have already been more genuine and upfront and honest about the expectation of where we want to go and where they want to go. And you also look at the loyalty they’ve had with their drivers and crew chiefs over the years. Continuity.”

Different people thrive in different situations and it’s looking like Dillon will be given a chance to see how he does in a situation that is not a lame-duck season.

While Dillon is just moving into the fold at Spire, LaJoie says the team isn’t where they ultimately want to be ranking-wise, but he sees them being able to really start to rise up the ladder next season if they can simply cure a few of the mechanical gremlins that have plagued them this season.

“We have some work to do for sure to get where we ultimately want to go. But if we clean up all of the mechanical failures we’ve had, we’re a 21st, 22nd place team in points,” LaJoie explained. “Then, you’re talking about contending for wins on occasion. I think that’s what we’re capable of.”

LaJoie feels they are capable of more than they’ve achieved, and it feels as if the rest of the group has the same confidence in their abilities. The entire group seems to truly be pulling in the same direction, and they all seemed to be in sync with each other’s thoughts at their event on Tuesday.

When asked where he expects the team to be in five years, Bellicourt said, “I think that five years from now, you’ll have hopefully a few win banners and be a Playoffs contending team. It’s so hard to race on Sunday and to make the Playoffs. You had to win to make the Playoffs this year, just about. That’s how hard it is. Even Denny Hamlin is saying it’s hard to win on Sunday, and he’s won however many. It’s a big number. It is not easy.”

Spire Motorsports appears to be making the right moves. They have passionate team owners, drivers, and crew chiefs. The key players within the team are all saying the right things. Now, it’s just up to them all to execute. But one thing is for sure; Spire Motorsports is dedicated to turning itself into a team that is respected throughout the industry.

Toby Christie
Toby Christie
Toby is the Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Toby is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, he is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award-winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.

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