By Summer Bedgood – Don’t you just love a good underdog story? I know I do. There is a reason that some of the most beloved, successful movies involve an underdog beating the big guns and becoming the hero. Sports are especially good at providing underdogs to cheer for and underdog movies involving sports are especially enjoyable. Think Rudy, Rocky, and The Karate Kid. You’ve probably seen all three and love them for that very reason.
If you’re reading this, you are one of two things: A NASCAR fan or a lover of underdog stories. Most likely, you are probably both. You were excited for Jamie McMurray to win at Talladega because he hasn’t been in Victory Lane for a while. When David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2 at Talladega in the spring, you smiled at their fortune.
However, underdogs don’t always have a happy ending. They don’t always get their moment to shine in victory lane. Some just show up at the racetrack, barely noticeable and hardly worthy of some sappy music underneath the credits.
Meet Danny Efland. If you’re a diehard NASCAR viewer, you’ve probably heard of him. You probably know he’s been around a while. Efland has made at least two starts in one of NASCAR’s three national series every year since 2007. So why don’t you know very much about him?
Despite 73 NASCAR national series starts, Efland has never had a top 10 finish. In fact, he has never finished higher than 13th in any race and has an average finish of 30.2 across both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
That’s because the team he drives for—MAKE Motorsports—is largely underfunded. Though he only considers himself to be a part-time employee of the organization, he still spends enough time at the shop that he could be considered full-time.
“I find myself at the shop trying to meet deadlines enough to where I’ll go ahead and consider myself the second full-time employee,” he said.
That’s right. Two full-time employees at a NASCAR level race shop. Compare that to the likes of Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing where their employees stack into the hundreds.
This season, he has also raced for Johnny Davis Motorsports and Mike Harmon Racing in the Nationwide Series. He has run in additional races for MAKE Motorsports in the Truck Series this year, along with Eddie Sharp Racing and Chris Fontaine’s team.
Not exactly high profile race teams. In fact, they are underdogs of the highest definition.
2013 has not been an easy year, either. One DNQ in Trucks and four in the Nationwide Series shows the lack of speed that teams like this have in the series, despite the fact that Efland has success in other racing series.
Efland, for example, has six South Carolina State Championships, five National World Karting Association championships, and has won many other races, championships, and recognitions that match that of probably any other driver you can name. He’s no slouch in racing and he attributes much of his racing success to some wise decisions made by his father in the early stages of his career.
“My dad brought a lot of experience with him into the early years of my racing,” said Efland. “He made better decisions even when I was five or six years old, he made good decisions of which karts we needed to buy or race, which engines, who to buy tires from and that sort of thing. He led me in the right direction and it didn’t cost us a lot of money. In other words, being a middle class family, we made it affordable to race and to win.”
So why the struggle in NASCAR?
“Unfortunately, everything boils down to money these days,” said Efland. “Racing is no different. It’s a business. You’ve got to watch your cash flow and sponsorship has a lot to do with that.”
Efland made his debut in NASCAR with underfunded teams, and has struggled to get out of that rut with his team.
Sponsorship and funding have been a problem for Efland, MAKE Motorsports, and the other race teams for a while now, as the gap between larger and small teams seems insurmountable. Though the teams have had companies like Flex Seal, Defiant Whiskey, and A-1 Bail Bonds on their cars this season, they aren’t the full-fledged sponsorship deals that you will see on the cars of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, or Brad Keselowski. Those sponsorships range into the millions of dollars, with merchandise, appearances, and various other tie-ins to maximize the exposure for the company.
For Efland’s teams, it is much, much different.
“Right now, we’re trying to sell primary sponsorship on our car at a cheaper rate, hoping that we can evolve that into one day having a quality team that has the value of $100,000 a race,” said Efland. “I guess what I’m comparing it to, if you look at Joe Gibbs Racing, we’re asking about 25 percent the value that they’re asking their sponsors for per race. That’s kind of cheap right now. We’re selling ourselves cheap.”
As Efland explains, there are certain steps you have to take to get that kind of sponsorship that also lends itself to a “can’t win” situation. A catch-22 if you will. In order to bring a sponsor to the table, you want to have good results. But those good results aren’t going to come unless you have the right amount of money to buy speed.
“It really is a catch 22 and that’s been my biggest struggle in the seven years that I’ve been in the Nationwide Series,” Efland said. “I’ve been with a few different teams this year and been fortunate enough to work with MAKE Motorsports, and they’re no different than me. They face the same challenges that I have over the last seven years.”
Still, Efland shows up at the shop every day, working on the cars and trucks with any of the volunteers and team owners who show up on a given day. And, oftentimes, he’s right alongside his team when it comes to the “other” business in racing: selling.
“You’ll find me turning wrenches as much, if not more, than anybody else on the team, so that’s the kind of guy I am,” said Efland. “But sometimes you’ve gotta throw on the tie and the suit and go out and be a salesman and convince these guys that by bringing them on board, we’re going to improve the quality of our race team.”
Selling a team is not any piece of cake, though.
“Bringing in a sponsor involves a couple of different things,” he explained. “One, you’ve gotta make a contact. You can’t just write an e-mail and then send it to the marketing division of any old company. You have to have a contact established within the company. You have to make sure they know who you are, what you’re doing. Then, the most difficult thing is to tell them is, hey, the reason we’re out here struggling to run 20th to 25th each and every week is strictly because of the finances. By bringing you on board, we’re going to make sure we prove the quality of our race team to get you maximum exposure for the value that you’re putting into this sponsorship. It’s difficult. It takes a salesman. Mark Beaver (team owner) does a really good job with the sales side of things. At times, I feel like I do pretty good at it, and at times I don’t.”
Still, the team’s end goal is to go racing. It goes without saying they want to be as successful as possible, which is difficult with the way things are in NASCAR. After all, how are they going to compete with teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing when they don’t have the speed or funding to do so?
Sometimes the question is raised as to whether or not NASCAR can do anything to help these teams. If they are the sanctioning body and want a competitive, even playing field, people like Efland must want them to step in and help out.
Then again, perhaps they already have.
“If anything, I would say, looking at the history of the sport, NASCAR has constantly improved the playing field,” said Efland. “In other words, look at your finishing results, just pick any year, say Darlington, this year’s Darlington race and then look at it 35 years ago, and tell me how many laps the leader won the race. He probably had at least two or three laps on second place. This year, you could probably count it in seconds. Less than ten. So, the playing field has leveled out. It’s given smaller teams more opportunity to run up front. And it’s put more driver into it. I think it takes more talent of the driver nowadays than it used to. And some people would argue that, but of course I’m a driver and I see it one way and some other people might see it another way.”
With that said, Efland doesn’t expect NASCAR to do the work for him nor does he expect a sponsor to just fork out the money. He expects to have to earn it and hopes that one day all of this hard work will pay off.
“I don’t see things happening overnight, but I’ve always wondered, ‘Hey, what if I got a chance to go and drive Kevin Harvick’s Nationwide car or Kyle Busch’s Nationwide car?’” he wondered. “Would I be able to run as fast as they do? No, not right off the bat. But I think that if you gave me a few races, I don’t know how many it will take, but I know you’ve got to have experience. You’ve got to learn how to drive one of those cars because they’re going to drive different than what I’m used to. But I think I could adapt and eventually run just as well. Of course I think I could beat them. I wouldn’t be a racecar driver if I didn’t. But I also am realistic about it and I know it would take time.”
For now, his underdog status remains in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series. They’re scraping by for lead lap finishes and will take whatever the sport throws at them. Meetings continue behind closed doors, those wrenches keep turning at the shop and, for the foreseeable future, those engines will continue firing.
And, maybe one day, the ultimate underdog story will finally come to fruition with Danny Efland in the winner’s circle.
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