On a hot Saturday night last May, a major upset was brewing on the famed Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. A team that had never won in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series was leading late in the race. Furniture Row Racing driver Regan Smith was in first. But breathing down his neck was Carl Edwards, a driver for one of NASCAR’s mega teams, Roush Fenway Racing. Here was the call from Fox Sports.
Regan Smith looking for his first Sprint Cup win. Edwards two car lengths back! SMITH GETS THE FLAG! And this time he’ll get to keep it! How about that!
It was one of the biggest upsets of the year because the team that won wasn’t from just up the road in Charlotte. Among those in South Carolina celebrating was Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone.
“I think maybe our whole race team realized that history was just made. A team out of Denver, Colorado had just won a Cup race,” Garone said.
For Garone and team owner Barney Visser, the owner of the Denver-based Furniture Row chain, the win was a product of a vision that had started several years earlier. Visser called Garone, a Colorado native working in NASCAR in Charlotte, and asked if he’d be interested in building a team in Denver. Garone agreed. So, they built a team and immediately went to work on logistics. The biggest obstacle was just getting racing parts from manufacturers in North Carolina to Denver–1,600 miles away.
“I remember the conversation with Barney,” Garone said. “Look we’ve got to do something here. He said, ‘Joe, I have a truck that goes to and from North Carolina every week, picking up material.’ And we took the 53-foot tractor and got him to let us use the back part of it, and we built some specialty crates. And it actually works really, really well.”
As the logistical kinks got worked out, the team began to improve. But the local talent pool was an issue. To win in NASCAR, it takes a specialized group of employees trained to build fast race cars. Charlotte is full of those workers. Denver is not. Garone says the team then got lucky four years ago.
“When the economy tipped over in 2008, some of the race teams made major cut backs,” he said. ”And I found myself getting ready to hire new people when the teams in North Carolina were getting rid of people. And we really took advantage of that at that point. I was able to hire some really good guys.”
Now, those employees build cars in an east Denver shop that was once a factory that made pillow furniture and water beds. The gritty industrial area around the shop, full of warehouses, grain silos and train tracks, is very different from the fancy campuses many Charlotte teams call home. But Mark McArdle, Furniture Row’s Director of Competition, said the team’s isolation does have some assets.
“I think the biggest that we constantly speak of among ourselves is the lack of what I refer to as the white noise,” McArdle said. “There’s no dram, there’s no politics. There’s no soap opera-type situations going on around us.”
McArdle said in Charlotte, chatter between NASCAR workers–what team’s paying what, who has an opening for this position–leads to high turnover. That’s not the case at Furniture Row.
“It’s just refreshing,” he said. “We come in, we work on the programs and plans that we have in front of us. We go home to our families and we enjoy our time away. And we come back in fresh and ready to go each day, not beaten down.”
McArdle thought the biggest hurdle has been staying connected to all the latest racing technology and information that’s generated in North Carolina. To overcome that, Furniture Row has formed a partnership with multi-car operation Richard Childress Racing. Still, there’s a mindset in NASCAR that if you want to win, you’ve got to be in Charlotte. So can a team consistently win from Colorado?
“Umm…I hear it’s a great ski location,” said Todd Parrott, a NASCAR champion crew chief. He doesn’t mean to sound flippant. It’s just that Colorado is not known for stock car racing. That’s why he’s been impressed with the Furniture Row team.
“They’re competitive,” he said. “ They’ve got good cars. If you look at their equipment, their race cars are immaculate. They’re very nice. It’s just a long way from Charlotte, North Carolina.”
Parrott is skeptical. He doesn’t think he could have won a championship with a team based outside of Charlotte. And despite a rash of bad luck and disappointing performances that have them 26th in points this year, those at Furniture Row say that’s exactly their next challenge. They want to make NASCAR’s playoffs and then compete for a title. They’ve got a long way to go. But then again, that’s something they’re used to.