Smith's Darlington win a huge step for Furniture Row Racing
Joe Garone grew up in Denver, Colo., and began his NASCAR career as a crew chief for Rick Carelli in the Southwest Tour and Winston West Series.
But eventually Garone headed off to the greener, more NASCAR-laden pastures of Charlotte, N.C.
Garone spent a decade in Charlotte, working for Bill Elliott Racing, Cal Wells' PPI Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing and NASCAR, setting up and running its research and development center and heading up its officials division. In 2006, furniture store magnate Barney Visser decided to start a Sprint Cup team and he was going to do it his way, a maverick operation based in his hometown of Denver. He asked Garone to become Furniture Row Racing's first crew chief.
"I can tell you a lot of people, and I can't say I wasn't with them when Barney Visser wanted to run it out of Colorado, that we might just be crazy," Garone said.
The advantages to having a team in the Charlotte area are numerous, led by a deep pool of talent from executives to fabricators to crew members to hire. It's superior from a logistical standpoint, too, particularly for a one-car team, with engine, chassis and other component suppliers. But the major obstacle in setting up shop away from Charlotte is convincing people to sell their homes, pack up and move to Denver, where they're putting all their eggs in one basket. Lose your job and you want to stay in NASCAR, you've got to repeat the moving process in reverse.
"In the beginning as we were building [the team], it was an issue," Garone said. "You have to prove yourself. But not everybody wants to live in the same place, Colorado is an option, a different environment and state, and as performance comes to a race team, it gets easier and easier. The better you perform, the more people knock on your door."
Garone became Furniture Row's general manger in 2007. It's been funded by Visser's unique dual role as owner and sponsor, but it's primarily Garone's baby. He's guided it through those first steps and nurtured it. At Darlington on Saturday night, in FRR's second full season,
"For our organization, obviously, it means everything," Garone said. "We've been [for] six years building this team and literally started from scratch. It's been a long road. After the second or third year, we started realizing we can compete in Cup, we can do a good job, get ourselves in position to win races."
Smith joined the team in 2009. He'd started his Cup career in 2007 with Bobby Ginn's team, running seven races, and was part of the package when Ginn merged with DEI. He drove in 34 races in 2008 for DEI and was Cup's Rookie of the Year, but further downsizing by the team left him unemployed at the end of the season.
Smith didn't have a top-10 in 41 starts at that point, but Garone and Visser saw something in him and signed him in January. Smith drove in 18 races in 2009 and all 36 last year, finishing 28th in points.
Smith had his first top-10 at the Daytona 500 in February and Darlington was his first top-5.
"There's been so many ups and downs for my career, so many points where you think, 'Man, what am I doing? What's the next move?' I think it's obvious now the best thing that happened to me was the end of '08 season [when] I didn't have a ride ... got hooked up with Barney and Joe and Furniture Row Racing."
Smith had an apparent victory taken away by NASCAR at Talladega in the 2008 fall race for passing
"I didn't know if I was every going to get it back," Smith said. "To get it back at Darlington, absolutely it's vindication. Winning here means more to me than that win could have ever meant. With this team, with the hard work, racing out of Colorado, the things that have gone on, everybody said for how long [would Furniture Row last in Cup]? You can't race outside of Charlotte, the 20-mile radius where all the teams are, you can't do it. We've been doing it every week.
"We've been doing it good for a while, but now everybody is going to notice how good we're doing it."
Furniture Row operates in the same manner as other one- or two-car teams, buying chassis and leasing engines from larger organizations.
"As a single-car team, there's no question we're running at top level and you need a partner, or a second car," Garone said. "What we did with RCR, to make the program work, you've got to get yourself on the same equipment. We purchase the chassis from Childress and after they're inspected at the [NASCAR] R&D center, we bring them to Colorado and we build the cars ourselves.
"Our engine program switched from Hendricks to ECR this year. That put us in the loop to put us on the same platform to understand the race car from simulation and other areas.
Visser has invested several million dollars in a seven-post shaker rig, which is in the team's Denver shop, and the team also purchases wind tunnel time with Childress and shares information. They also share some testing data.
"If we run into something that works well, it's something they're welcome to it," Garone said. "The information flow between us is second to none. There's a huge amount of trust. The seven post was a huge investment and we've configured it exactly like RCR's. Apples are apples."
The team would like to get to a second car by next year.
"We would like to get a second car going," Garone said. "Our car is fully funded by our team owner's businesses. We're in a unique position, we can move sponsorships around. We're actively seeking partners to get us to the next level, a two-car team."
Furniture Row can now offer Smith, a Cup race winner, to drive for a new sponsor and switch Visser's companies to hired driver. It opens up options and flexibility that enhances the prospect of funding a second car.
"I don't know how much winning will [help find sponsorship], but it certainly will," Garone said. "The biggest thing about Darling was winning the race answered the question, 'Can you win race outside the North Carolina area?'"