Friday, November 16, 2018

INTERVIEWS: Victor Obaika and Tanner Berryhill return to NASCAR in a big way

Victor Obaika on race morning at ISM
PHOTOS: Brock Beard
In February 2015, Bixby, Oklahoma driver Tanner Berryhill was entering his fourth season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. His father Adrian founded Berryhill Estates, a company specializing in building custom luxury homes. Adrian formed Vision Racing, which by 2012 made the jump from ARCA to the XFINITY Series, and Tanner earned his NASCAR license to drive their #17 Dodges and Toyotas. National Cash Lenders backed most of the younger Berryhill’s starts along with companies like BWP Bats and Excel Therapy. Matt DiBenedetto became Berryhill’s teammate in a “start-and-park” #37, ultimately leading to a full-time effort for the #17 in 2014. That year, Berryhill earned a season-best 17th at Mid-Ohio, and ranked 22nd in driver points.

But in SpeedWeeks 2015, disaster struck during the controversial group qualifying session at Daytona. As time expired in Round 1, Berryhill was trailing a pack of nine cars entering the tri-oval. A slowing Carlos Contreras forced Daniel Suarez to move to the middle line, where he crossed the nose of Blake Koch’s Toyota, triggering a crash. Berryhill slowed and managed to pull to the high lane, avoiding two cars, but not a third. The contact damaged Vision Racing’s only car at the track, and ultimately forced the team to suspend operations. Berryhill made a pair of runs at Cup with Premium Motorsports, failing to qualify at Phoenix and running 22nd in the Sprint Showdown, before he returned to late model racing.


The same 2015 XFINITY opener marked the debut of a brand-new single-car team, Obaika Racing. African entrepreneur Victor Obaika, who had a law degree and companies founded in four different countries, started the team the previous December. The learning curve proved steep, as even his advisors were unsure where to start. “When I came in 2015, we bought assets – we just kind of collided assets together, which was the wrong thing to do,” said Obaika in an interview last week. “We should’ve just bought another team. But I guess my advisors at the time didn’t know what they were doing. So they collided assets together. That formed the bedrock of what we have, and I think in 2017 we bought out the assets of another team that was leaving XFINITY, so I added to that.”

Nevertheless, by SpeedWeeks 2015, Obaika Racing had a #97 Chevrolet ready in their Mooresville shop and signed current Truck Series owner-driver Josh Reaume to drive. Despite a complete lack of Owner Points on a list of 48 entrants for just 40 spots, Reaume advanced through the crash-marred Round 1 of qualifying and settled on the 24th starting spot for the Alert Today Florida 300. Reaume steered his machine to a 23rd-place finish, worth a much-needed $50,590. The team ended up qualifying for all but one race that season – Las Vegas – and Peyton Sellers gave Obaika a season-best run of 16th in their July return to Daytona.

“Honestly, it was a situation of too much time and money once upon a time, which racing has cured me of,” Obaika said with a laugh. “It wasn’t a reckless decision, but it was a more spontaneous one. But the thing with racing is that because it is a very serious discipline – not just the engineering, the technology, the people, the expense – you very quickly have to make a decision about what you are doing. So, while maybe I didn’t necessarily think it through, as soon as we got involved, it took on a life of its own.”

Obaika’s fascination with racing began in 2014, when he listened to a radio show about Formula One. He briefly considered starting a racing team in F1, whose closest race to the African continent was in Abu Dhabi. But beyond the expense, Obaika was turned-off by the culture of Grand Prix racing. “I just thought it was too elitist, while NASCAR was more ubiquitous,” he said. “When the guys win in Formula One, they’re popping champagne. When the guys win in NASCAR, they’re popping Gatorade and Coke. And that’s suited more to the demographics of my country and where I thought we would be.”

Through 2017, Obaika Racing had made 78 starts in the NASCAR XFINITY Series with 18 different drivers. Along the way, Obaika had formed Vroom! Brands, a company intended to bring others from outside the country into NASCAR. “It was meant to be a company built around NASCAR. NASCAR is quintessentially very itinerant – it moves from city to city, race to race. The people are traveling. So, the intent initially at the beginning was that since we were getting involved and were international, our desire was to bring in people from outside the country to participate in NASCAR. That was really why we set up Vroom! Brands. To bring more spectators, more people to the sport, and introduce them to it.”


It wasn’t long ago that start-up teams like Obaika Racing were common in NASCAR. Entrepreneurs looking to give team ownership a try, bringing in new drivers, sponsors, and sometimes car manufacturers into the sport. Such was the case for Team Red Bull, the two-car operation Dietrich Mateschitz built from the ground up in 2007. The team’s brand-new Toyotas, sponsored almost entirely by the Austrian energy drink, brought open-wheel champion A.J. Allmendinger to NASCAR.

After five seasons and a pair of wins, one each with Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne, Red Bull and Mateschitz left at the end of the 2011 season. The team’s assets were then acquired by Burger King franchisee Ron Devine and his partners, who reincorporated the two-car effort as BK Racing. Though BK never visited victory lane and scored just three top-ten finishes in 520 combined starts over seven seasons, Devine helped launch the careers of several drivers still active full-time in the Cup Series, including Landon Cassill, Alex Bowman, and former Vision Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto.

As the ISM track opened on Friday, J.J. Yeley's #23 from Texas
in the final stages of becoming the Obaika #97.
When BK Racing arrived in Florida for this year’s Daytona 500, the car was flat white, the only entered machine without primary sponsorship. Gray Gaulding wasn’t even named the driver until later in the week. Persistent rumors of the team’s insolvency continued as the team had scaled back from three cars to two Chartered entries to just the one. Earthwater sponsored the car for what was reportedly little more than a barter arrangement for free product. Gaulding remained positive of the team’s prospects, but by May, the car was again without primary sponsorship.

Obaika watched the BK Racing saga with keen interest. His own XFINITY team had all but disappeared from NASCAR after they withdrew from the spring Bristol race in 2017. He had put Vroom! Brands on the back burner to try and stabilize his team. He understood what BK Racing was going through.

“I know that there are a lot of stories around about what BK did or did not do,” said Obaika, “but I have a lot of respect for what the gentleman put together, even though it didn’t turn out well. The equipment BK Racing had, relative to the position the teams were, was top-notch. That’s Red Bull equipment. Red Bull came in and spent a lot of money in the sport. It wasn’t just Ron Devine. And Ron Devine added to that…I have a lot of respect for that team. They operated under very difficult circumstances. They often get bashed a lot. I think they should get more credit. It’s very difficult to operate when you’re not certain what’s happening the next day, and they stayed the course.”

“My personal opinion – if they didn’t work through the winter and get to Daytona, there would’ve been no team to sell. So, those guys on BK Racing deserve a lot of credit, as in they don’t get the credit they deserve. That’s very unfair. It’s very easy for people to sit on their couches and write articles or post snide comments on social media, but that was their life, and they stayed the course. And I benefitted from it, Front Row benefitted from it. So, I have a lot of respect for the team members of BK Racing. It was not a walk in the park. It was very difficult.”

The August 2018 auction of BK Racing also presented an opportunity for Obaika Racing – a chance to reinvigorate his team by moving to the Monster Energy Cup Series.

J.J. Yeley's backup loaded on the Obaika hauler on Sunday.
“So, when we decided to go Cup racing, we looked around, checked around, and really the best opportunity was the BK Racing situation,” said Obaika, when asked about the auction. “So, we had to be deliberate about it and just calm down and go through the process. It took us six months, almost seven – I mean, we’ve been working this since February, and we came together at the end of August. So, we just had to bide our time, work through the trustee, work through the process, not get distracted. I mean, the temptation was there to take resources elsewhere and go XFINITY racing, or just buy what I could call haphazard Cup stuff, but fortunately we were able to stay the course, and I think we got what we needed. We got the assets to go Cup racing – everything from cars to pull-down rig, to truck and trailer – everything minus a Charter. So, we think we have a very very good opportunity, and we’re very happy with it.”

While Front Row Motorsports (FRM) acquired BK Racing’s Charter and most of its assets, fending off bids from GMS Racing, Obaika managed to acquire one of BK’s haulers and some of its cars. It was also revealed at the ISM Raceway that Front Row and Obaika continued to work together after the assets were distributed. At ISM, Obaika’s primary car was the BK/FRM #23 Maximum Elevation Off-Road Toyota that J.J. Yeley ran to a 36th-place finish at Texas the week before, still with a scratch on the passenger side. This car was itself a re-wrap of the #23 that Gray Gaulding ran for BK in this year’s Coca-Cola 600, the patriotic colors still visible. During our interview with Tanner Berryhill during the ISM weekend, BK’s #23 hauler unloaded its backup, the #23 Steakhouse Elite Toyota that Yeley drove earlier this year, and put it onto Obaika’s #97 hauler, likely a similar swap to make it Obaika’s Homestead car.

The ISM Raceway marked Obaika Racing’s third Cup attempt of 2018. The previous two came with XFINITY Series regular David Starr. After ending up the only driver who failed to qualify for the fall race at Talladega, Starr qualified at Texas. This time, he benefitted from the misfortune of Carl Long’s team Motorsports Business Management, which was forced to withdraw their #66 Toyota since they didn’t have a sealed engine on-hand. Starr finished 39th after several trips to the garage area. For the following week, Obaika picked Tanner Berryhill, giving the driver his long-awaited Cup debut.

Berryhill on the grid Sunday.
“We’re building some XFINITY cars to go and run some of that,” said Berryhill of the deal, “and then when the BK Racing deal went up for sale, team owner Victor (Obaika) was like ‘let’s go Cup racing.’ And I’m like ‘well, let’s do it, sure – why not?’ So, he called me up and said ‘hey, do you want to drive Phoenix’ And I said ‘yeah, sure.’”

Berryhill had been planning his return to NASCAR for nearly two years, and had been working with Obaika for much of that time. It was Berryhill who brought Obaika back to the XFINITY Series at the Roval in September, but ended up missing the cut when his brakes failed in qualifying. One phone call later, Berryhill was offered a ride to drive Yeley’s Texas car for Obaika at the ISM Raceway. Unlike in 2015, when Berryhill had failed to qualify for Premium Motorsports, his was only the 39th entry on the list, meaning he was guaranteed a starting spot. By Berryhill’s estimate, just eight or nine people worked for Obaika Racing, but the team would have their second Cup start.

At ISM, the #97 team made quick work rearranging the decals on Berryhill’s car. While the car numbers had already been updated, the Maximum Elevation stickers were still on the hood and quarter-panels, and had to be removed. Excel Therapy, which backed Berryhill’s XFINITY efforts, had rejoined the team and paid the Obaika effort’s tire bills. A small decal for Berryhill Estates was also added on either side. “We’re still getting worked out,” said Berryhill of the team’s plans. “Obviously, I’d love to race Homestead next weekend, the last race of the year. It just kind of depends how the day goes. I think if I do a good job, keep the car in one piece, he’ll be happy. And hopefully I’ll get another call.” Berryhill would get that call the following Wednesday.

In practice, Berryhill achieved some moderately impressive results in practice, outpacing both D.J. Kennington’s #7, Timmy Hill’s #66, and Cody Ware’s wrecked #51 in the first practice, then backing that up by qualifying ahead of all three to take 36th on the grid. He was again ahead of Hill in Saturday’s first session, then outpaced Hill and Ware’s backup car in Happy Hour.

On race day, Obaika was beaming. “To say that it’s been a lot of work would be an understatement,” he said. “It’s been more than I anticipated, but I think it’s been worthwhile. Just to see the progress we’ve made and the steps that we have been privileged to take. So, it’s been rough. But, where we stand this morning, it’s been worth it.”

The Obaika Racing #97 after Berryhill's late crash at ISM.
The race proved a more significant challenge as the championship cutoff race was marred by several tire failures. Berryhill slipped to last on Lap 11, was the first to be lapped three circuits later, and spun at the entrance to pit road on Lap 230. In the final laps, the ball joint in the right-front failed, sending Berryhill hard into the Turn 2 wall. As the driver was checked and released from the infield care center, the #97 was towed behind the wall, where crews took the jigsaws to the right-front fender. “Just being respectful to the leaders,” said Berryhill as the crew did their work. “That was our plan all day just to keep it in one piece and respect the leaders.”

Looking ahead, Obaika Racing will close out the 2018 season at Homestead, where Berryhill will again drive the #97 Toyota. According to Delana, in charge of Obaika Racing’s PR and social media, the team plans to run one Cup and one XFINITY car full-time in 2019. They’re also open to acquiring a Charter, she said, “if the price is right.”

“Obviously, I want to drive full-time,” said Berryhill, “and especially being in the Cup Series is unbelievable. So, that’s what I’m working toward right now.”

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