By Matt Weaver — Front Row Motorsports is the little engine that could in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series but its current conductor, general manager Jerry Freeze, believes the right set of circumstances could eventually transform the locomotive into one of the premiere convoys in all of motorsports.
Make no mistake, the current FRM little resembles one of the elite organizations in NASCAR, like a Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing but it has steadily risen up the grid since making its debut in 2005. In the process, the team has earned both a reputation and a well-defined organizational personality as a winner and beacon of hope for the “little guy.”
Freeze has been with the team since 2009, having just come off a lengthy stint at Petty Enterprises, and has been able to oversee the biggest leap in prominence yet with the additions of drivers @DavidGilliland and @DavidRagan in 2010 and 2012 respectively.
During their combined tenure at Front Row Motorsports, Ragan and Gilliland were able to bring home the first race victory in team history, finishing 1-2 at Talladega Superspeedway in May 2013. Ragan recently achieved another organizational milestone in October, scoring the first non-restrictor plate top-10 finish for FRM at Martinsville Speedway.
While the achievements would not have been possible without dedicated engineers and mechanics, Freeze believes that Ragan and Gilliland, who previously competed for Jack Roush and Robert Yates, played a pivotal role in their recent success by adding an element of big team experience to their humble shop in Statesville, N.C.
“We were able to offer them an opportunity — that while we weren’t ready to win races or make the Chase — we were willing to make steps to work towards that,” Freeze told Popular Speed on Wednesday afternoon. “They’ve added a lot to our organization, and coming from someone who often deals with the business side of the sport, I can tell you that they are capable drivers both on and off the track.
“They’ve seen how a big team operates. They’ve done the off-track stuff with sponsors, partners and the media. They know how to go test and evaluate parts and pieces and have brought a big team mentality to us when their opportunities at Roush and Yates were downsized.”
READ MORE: Ragan Working Towards Front Row Return in 2015
The current roster at Front Row has enjoyed a lot of success in recent seasons but there have been struggles in equal abundance. The team does not have an affiliation with a major Ford powerhouse like Penske or Roush and the multitude of rule changes have often left them behind the proverbial eight-ball.
Ragan says he believes the team has reached a competitive peak of sorts under the status quo, without the aid of a partnership with an elite team.
“I do feel like we have peaked as an organization with what we have right now,” Ragan said. “I don’t think a lot of people remember that we don’t have a partnership with a bigger organization. We have a great relationship with Ford and they provide us a lot of feedback but we build our own parts and don’t get a lot of information from other Ford teams.”
A self-made millionaire and Yum! Foods franchisee from Tennessee, Front Row Motorsports owner Bob Jenkins prefers to maintain the in-house approach for the time being. With that said, Freeze maintains that it is not an inflexible policy. Front Row is open to establishing partnerships with other teams but it has to be something that makes sense. In fact, it may be more viable for several smaller teams to form an alliance to stretch their limited resources, an option that Freeze says has been discussed.
“We’re not totally closed to aligning with other teams,” Freeze said. “What I think would work for us at Front Row, is if we looked to teams that were on a similar platform as we are, some of the smaller teams that haven’t lined up with a bigger team, and then worked with them…
“As it stands, I don’t see us outsourcing or eliminating our own production of parts and chassis. We’re not totally against it but I don’t know if there are a lot of opportunities because everyone appears lined up with a dancing partner and our owner, Bob Jenkins, believes we’ll be better for it in the long run.”
Even with a budget that is roughly a third of each of the major contenders in the sport, Freeze and Ragan believe the future is bright for Front Row Motorsports. Ragan says that his current team has set itself up to potentially become a major player over the next decade as established team owners retire or diminish their presence, allowing owners like Jenkins to rotate into the forefront.
“I think the outlook is bright,” Ragan said. “You look at the ownership situation in the Sprint Cup Series right now and you have a lot of owners who are likely going to retire over the next several years — and would likely agree that they won’t be around forever.
“So I believe that this presents an opportunity down the line for a team like ours.”
Ragan’s sentiment is one that Freeze says has a degree of logical merit, adding that it all depends on the commitment level of the heirs in place at Penske, Hendrick, Gibbs and Richard Childress Racing.
“We think about it, Bob thinks about it and so do our partners,” Freeze said. “I know NASCAR has really worked to open itself up to more owners entering the mix but it is such a huge undertaking, This takes the right person to take the flagpole, put it into the ground and commit to going after it. That someone has to be passionate about the sport.
“Jack, Richard and Rick are just so passionate. It takes the right guy and I believe Bob is the right guy. He’s very involved in the day-to-day in his (other companies) so as a race team, we have to become more established and get more partners so we are no as reliant on Bob with the operations and the like. But yeah, I think we all feel that way and time will tell when it comes to looking at the current crop of powerful owners.”
In the meanwhile, Front Row will continue to battle the adversity associated with life as the underdogs. Freeze believes the private testing ban enforced against NASCAR teams next season will actually help them bridge the gap to the rest of the field.
Front Row did not test as much as the established organization to begin with and Freeze believes this could gain them at least 0.3 of a second on the rest of the field.
All in all, Freeze likes the position his team is in right now. They have a talented core of engineers, two hungry drivers and an owner committed to the sport. There will be peaks and valleys but the team is continuing to work towards excellence and could someday be a face of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
“I can’t really see a downside to a team like ours,” Freeze said. “We get to go do the 7-posts and wind tunnels. We have a great relationship with Ford and they have time allocated for us so we can go to those places and continue to learn. We just can’t take it to the next step and track test as often. Now the same rules apply to the rest of the field.
“I like the opportunity that presents.”