Phoenix international raceway, built into the base of the Estrella Mountains in the southern Arizona desert, doesn’t get a lot of rain. But on an unusually cool, overcast Sunday this past fall, a stubborn drizzle persisted for several hours and postponed the start of the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500—the penultimate event on NASCAR’s 2015 schedule. To fill time during the delay, NBC’s on-track reporters circulated among the drivers. One of the men they interviewed was Martin Truex Jr., one of eight drivers still vying to become champion of the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s top circuit. During the interview, the reporter likened the fact that Truex was even in contention to the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team and its “Miracle on Ice.”
When the rain finally stopped, 43 cars filed onto the track. The best NASCAR teams boost their odds by entering four cars in each race. Truex, however, drives the only car (number 78) fielded by the Furniture Row Racing team.
At the end of the Heroes 500, the eight cars in contention for the championship trophy would be cut to four. For Truex, the math was simple: Finish no worse than six places behind Carl Edwards, a driver for the Joe Gibbs Racing team, and Furniture Row would qualify for the title-deciding race the following week in Miami.
The commander of the Air Force’s 56th Fighter Wing made the ceremonial announcement for the drivers to start their engines. The pack of race cars, sounding like a swarm of bees, casually circled the track; then, a split second before reaching the starting line, the cars accelerated. Not long after the frenzied start settled into a hypnotic series of left turns, Edwards’ crew chief radioed his driver with good news: The 78 car had begun to fade.
Luckily for Furniture Row, the rain returned and forced an early end to the race before Edwards could get far enough ahead of Truex to overtake him in the standings. Holding an umbrella in pit row, Edwards flinched when he learned the news: Although he was a member of a powerful four-car conglomerate from North Carolina, he’d just lost his spot in the final race of the season to a single-car underdog from Denver.
Legend has it Southerners invented stock car racing in the 1940s as a way to combine their favorite pastimes: souping up cars and evading the liquor police. When NASCAR was founded in 1948, it held most of its races at tracks in the Southeast, and up until the 1980s, teams tended to call places like Bristol, Virginia, and Greenville, South Carolina, home. Eventually, though, engine- and parts-makers settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, the closest big city with convenient access to Dixie’s most popular tracks. Race teams followed. In 2015, 50 of 51 cars that participated in the Sprint Cup had race shops based within a few hours of Charlotte.
That 51st car resides in, of all places, a large warehouse in the middle of Northeast Park Hill, which is where Furniture Row has built its race cars since the team’s birth in 2005. One morning this past October, a mechanic was craned over the hood of a car; the vehicle was black and had a white Furniture Row decal spread across the hood. About 10 other cars were scattered around the shop in various stages of completion. One without tires was being measured on a giant scale. Another with a bare, silver body awaited its black wrap. Surrounding the cars were 3-D printers, a million-dollar driving simulator, and Kevlar gas tanks. “Every part and piece is measured,” says Joe Garone, Furniture Row Racing’s president and general manager. “All that information is put into a database, and you build a car in the computer.” Each car costs about $275,000 to make.
Garone has been with Furniture Row since the beginning, when this garage was just an old, empty waterbed factory. Garone started racing in the 1980s; back then, he and some buddies would spend their nights at his dad’s auto shop in Westminster, fixing up cars so they could race at Colorado National Speedway, a dirt track in Dacono. In 1990, he became a crew chief for local legend Rick Carelli, who mostly competed at small tracks around the West. But Garone made connections “back East” (the phrase Colorado racers use to refer to the Charlotte establishment) and moved to North Carolina in 1995. There, he graduated from working as a low-level tire-changer to serving as crew chief for Bill Elliott, a former Sprint Cup champion. Next, Garone helped organize a new team, trained officials for NASCAR, and by 2004 was back to being a crew chief. That year, he began getting calls from Jerry Robertson, a driver he knew from his racing days at Colorado National. Robertson was part of a group putting together a NASCAR team in Denver and wanted to know if Garone would run it.
Robertson was one of the most accomplished drivers at Colorado National, with more than 120 victories, but he dreamed of competing on the national NASCAR circuit. The year before Robertson called Garone, he’d met a man named Barney Visser, who had the financial means to make his fantasy race team a reality. Visser owned Denver-based Furniture Row, a home furnishings chain with 75 locations in 31 states. He’d also purchased a race car as a retirement gift to himself, and Furniture Row’s marketing department had been pushing Visser to sponsor a NASCAR team. The sport’s TV ratings were skyrocketing, and the department thought the company could benefit from the visibility. In 2004, Visser agreed to fund a team with Robertson in a Furniture Row–sponsored car. But it would be a boutique operation: They’d only compete in about a third of the 36 annual races in the Busch Series—now known as the Xfinity Series— the NASCAR equivalent of AAA baseball.
Garone says he didn’t take the idea of a Denver NASCAR team all that seriously. He accepted the offer because it would allow him and his wife to spend time with their parents in Colorado. Garone figured he’d spearhead Visser’s hobby for three years and then move back to North Carolina and resume his career.
Furniture Row qualified for 10 races that first year; Robertson only completed six. But Furniture Row’s disappointing start didn’t dampen the ambition of its owner. In September, Garone convinced Visser to enter a Sprint Cup race with veteran Kenny Wallace, not Robertson, driving the 78 car. Wallace finished a mediocre 34th—but he did so in front of 150,000 fans in the stands and six million watching on TV. If Furniture Row Racing was first and foremost a marketing plan, it had been in the wrong market. A few weeks later, Visser announced the team would enter all 36 races in the Sprint Cup schedule. (Visser made a significant investment to do so; fielding a competitive Sprint Cup team costs at least $20 million a year.) Furniture Row hired Wallace to drive and fired Robertson. Says Garone: “It wasn’t a hobby anymore.”
In an effort to ensure the best driver wins, NASCAR regulates design specifications so cars operate equally. But that just makes minor tweaks all the more important: Adding half a pound of tire pressure could cut your time per lap by two-tenths of a second, often the sliver of difference between victory and 25th place. The difficulty—and craft—lies in discovering which tweaks work best at which tracks. Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s most successful franchise, has four crews that collect data on aerodynamics, tires, and engines, and they share that information with the other crews on the team.
At first, Furniture Row, operating a single car out of Denver, simply couldn’t keep up. The team employed one engineer; Charlotte’s superpowers had dozens. So it’s not surprising Furniture Row was among the worst full-time Sprint Cup teams during its first six years.
Visser didn’t mind being a NASCAR outsider, but he hated losing. In 2010, Furniture Row entered into a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, an iconic North Carolina organization. Essentially, Visser bought Childress’ secrets—the data gathered by the organization’s three race teams and 50-plus engineers. Despite the investment, Furniture Row’s 78 continued to finish in the middle of the pack, so the team made another move. Furniture Row hired Kurt Busch, a talented driver and former NASCAR champion who couldn’t get a ride from a major team because of his personality quirks. (There’s a video on YouTube called “Kurt Busch: Rageaholic” that documents his various spats; it’s an hour and 15 minutes long.) But you don’t need people skills to pilot a rocket on wheels around an oval: In 2013, Busch’s first full year with the team, Furniture Row qualified for what’s called the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. His image repaired, Busch ditched Furniture Row at the end of 2013 for more money from a North Carolina power.
Visser replaced Busch with Martin Truex Jr., who finished 24th his first year. Toward the end of 2014, Furniture Row constructed a new version of the 78 car that Truex felt more comfortable with. The move paid off. Furniture Row began the 2015 season with 14 top-10 finishes in 15 races, a feat equaled only by Richard Petty, generally regarded as the best NASCAR driver of all time. In June, Truex won a race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania and cruised into the Sprint Cup chase. Nine weeks later, on that rainy night in the Arizona desert, he became one of four drivers to qualify for the championship in Miami.
For Furniture Row, there was more at stake in Florida than just the championship. If the team finished ahead of the other three title contenders, it would become the first single-car organization to win the championship since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s team did it in 1994. There was reason to be optimistic: The track was one of Truex’s favorites. But despite the adjustments they made, Truex couldn’t coax a high-enough top speed out of the vehicle. Furniture Row finished fourth among the four cars in contention.
Nevertheless, last year’s success has led to some positive changes for the 2016 NASCAR season, which begins this month at Daytona International Speedway. The most noticeable difference is that the 78 car will be emblazoned with Bass Pro Shop’s logo for nine of the season’s 36 competitions. Visser’s company has long been the team’s most prominent sponsor, but after Furniture Row’s 2015 title push, other advertisers started calling. For the first time, at least one other company—they’re still searching for additional sponsors—will share part of the financial burden of operating the team.
A more subtle change, though arguably more significant, is the make of car number 78. For the past decade, Furniture Row has used Chevrolet cars. But General Motors had other teams it considered more important than Furniture Row, which meant the team received minimal support. This year, Toyota will make the Furniture Row cars. The move ended Furniture Row’s deal with Chevy-backed Childress, the partner that helped turn the team into a contender. Furniture Row is now aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing, a switch that has the potential to transform the team from an upstart into a power: Not only did Gibbs’ race cars win more than a third of the Sprint Cup races last season, but the organization also ran the car that won the Sprint Cup title in Miami. And Visser believes Furniture Row will be more important to Toyota than it was to Chevy and that the Japanese automaker will push its partners to sponsor Furniture Row Racing. New advertisers could fund the addition of a second and third car within five years.
All of which might explain why neither Visser nor Garone expresses much satisfaction when asked about the 2015 campaign; looking back isn’t what got them to the final Sprint Cup race. It took nine years of incremental progress to take Furniture Row from a waterbed factory in Denver to the cusp of a championship in Miami. “That progression,” Visser says, “is what I get a buzz out of.”