Friday, February 28, 2020

INTERVIEWS: A difficult Friday at Fontana for team owners Shepherd and Martins

PHOTO: Brock Beard
At the far end of the XFINITY Series garage area at Auto Club Speedway closest to Turn 1, two haulers sat by themselves, practically isolated from the rest of the field. They belonged to the #44 of Martins Motorsports, the start-up single-car operation by Tommy Joe Martins, and Shepherd Racing Ventures, Landon Cassill’s current ride in the #89 Chevrolet. At the start of Friday’s opening practice, both cars were still on the scales, and each would only make a brief appearance.

Last Sunday in Las Vegas, Martins was on his way to a solid finish, bouncing back from a disappointing DNQ in the Daytona opener, when the engine let go, sparking a fire behind the left-front wheel. A 32nd-place finish was the result. Martins followed his team’s hard work through the week in Vegas as they took parts off the backup car and swapped out the motor, getting it ready for the trip to Fontana. The team pulled through, and on Friday afternoon, Martins’ second of four laps put him 20th on the speed charts out of 32.

Then, a plume of smoke in Turn 4, and Martins pulled down pit road. The flames returned – this time behind the right-front wheel – and the car returned to the garage area. By the time I arrived at the garage, the team had the wheels off and were crawling all over the engine compartment. The underside of the hood was badly burned, the right edge warped. Fortunately, Martins was uninjured.

“We think it was an oil line or something that came loose and caught fire,” said Martins. “Guys are out there cleaning it up right now, so we’ll kind of assess the damage. Good thing we didn’t hit anything. I know we didn’t hurt the motor because we shut the motor off and the motor was only probably 200 on the water temps, so didn’t hurt the motor it just probably burned up a lot of other stuff in there, and we’ll have to figure out what it is.”

Martins had a backup car ready – the car he’d set aside to close out the West Coast Swing next week in Phoenix – but his quick decision to shut off the motor perhaps saved their weekend. The team didn’t have another engine on hand.

Among those stopping by the Martins hauler was B.J. McLeod, who currently drives for JD Motorsports. One year after Jimmy Means Racing provided a backup car for Caesar Bacarella at DGM Racing, I asked if Martins had been working out a similar arrangement. “No,” said Martins. “He was just offering us some help if we needed to replace some parts or anything on the car, so it was really nice of him. He and I have a really good relationship. There’s a lot of mutual respect there. It was nice of him to offer, but right now we don’t even know what’s messed-up yet. We’ve gotta get in there and take a look at it.”

Landon Cassill didn’t share the same engine troubles as Martins. In fact, Cassill’s single lap in practice ranked him 27th, besting five other teams, and another single-lap run in Happy Hour put him 15th of 33. For him and team owner Morgan Shepherd, the biggest challenge for the #89 team remains sponsorship. While the car carried a few more small sponsors on the rear quarter-panels compared to the team’s season debut at Las Vegas, where Cassill finished last, their financial situation has not yet been solved.

“Those are just small sponsors – some of them are only $100,” said Shepherd. We can’t do much with just a couple hundred dollars, everybody’s helping a little bit. . .We just need some corporate company to come on board.”

Last fall at Homestead, Cassill and Homestead enjoyed a breakout 15th-place finish thanks to the support of longtime backers Dale and Sandra Dietrich: “That was a friend of ours that called me and said ‘would you like to run the last race?’ and I said ‘well sure.’ He said ‘will $10,000 do it?’ I said ‘no – not hardly. The tires will be more than that.’ He said ‘what will it take?’ I said ‘$15,000.’ And so he got up $15,000. Was able to hire a pit crew and also buy the tires we needed. I think the tires was a little over $12,000.” Unfortunately, no major sponsors took notice after Cassill’s run, and the team will continue to “start-and-park” until that changes.

Like other owner-driver operations, Shepherd says he can run competitively for much less than other teams. “We could probably do it for two-and-a-half million and have a team and all of the things we need.” Among the team’s needs is a new superspeedway car, which is why the team didn’t run the opener in Daytona – and why they will likely skip Talladega. “I’ve gotta come up with a car, because it takes a complete different race car.” Shepherd indicated they will have to skip other races this season, but that could change if the sponsorship forecast improves.

1 comment:

ItsAllLuck said...

Thank you! Found the info I needed on Landon Cassill. I appreciate you taking the time to research a couple of then underfunded teams! Good work!