How an underdog NASCAR team flipped the script for success

They say if opportunity doesn’t come knocking, build a door. Instead, Trackhouse Racing boss Justin Marks built a house around the Next Gen car that rocked NASCAR’s establishment and came closest to denying Team Penske the first title of the Cup Series' new era. Here's how he did it

How an underdog NASCAR team flipped the script for success

America’s biggest form of motorsport, NASCAR, is very traditional. There’s a staid way of doing things and, even if the unexpected occurs every now and then, the rule of thumb is that the powerhouse teams always win.

What doesn’t happen is a start-up operation arrives at its top level, bragging a co-owner who’s a Grammy Award-winning megastar. It then buys an entire team from one of American racing’s most successful owners, just a matter of months into its debut NASCAR Cup season, and puts both its cars into the Playoffs at the first proper attempt a year later.

Subsequently, it makes the Championship 4 decider thanks to its driver Ross Chastain deliberately driving into a wall at top speed and creating an internet sensation that even Formula 1 champions were wowed by – and it found time to run Kimi Raikkonen in a one-off third car! None of this should happen. But, as they say at Trackhouse Racing, ‘Why not us?’

Its leader is Justin Marks, the son of a tech company guru who was an early investor in GoPro digital cameras. Marks Jr is a decent road racer – he scored a win for Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series at Mid-Ohio in 2016, and he was a winner too in IMSA Sportscars with Meyer Shank Racing’s Acura NSX GTD squad in 2019.

But his business calling is sports marketing, which Marks studied at California State University, and his passion project has quickly taken NASCAR’s Cup Series by storm. He brought music star Pitbull (Armando Perez, aka Mr Worldwide) on board to join industry veteran Ty Norris, and together they’ve played the NASCAR game like nobody else.

“I love it,” eulogises Marks. “I love this company, I love Trackhouse, and I want it to be successful. The story that we’ve been writing this year, we’ve had great moments. We’ve had dramatic moments. We’ve brought great partners on. We’ve got two great race car drivers sitting in our race cars.

“I wanted this more than I’ve wanted anything professionally in my life ever, and I’ve taken massive personal risk to start this company. I believe in it more than I’ve believed in anything.”

Justin Marks bought his team from Chip Ganassi and has turned it into a regular winner

Justin Marks bought his team from Chip Ganassi and has turned it into a regular winner

Photo by: Trackhouse Racing Team

It’s clear from talking to leading lights around the sport that newcomer Marks, 41, is highly regarded. Rick Hendrick says he’s “done an unbelievable job”; Joe Gibbs believes Trackhouse’s rise has been “fantastic”; perhaps the most telling commendation came from Roger Penske’s trusted lieutenant, Walt Czarnecki: “I’ve never seen a team come into the sport as well prepared as Trackhouse. When I listen to [Marks], he’s all about business. I think he’s not unlike us in that respect.”

Trackhouse made its debut in the 2021 Daytona 500 as a single-car effort run out of a corner of Richard Childress Racing’s shop. Its driver, Daniel Suarez (the former Xfinity champion and only non-American regular in the series), ended his race after just 13 laps with the front of his Chevrolet Camaro torn up by the muddy infield after he couldn’t avoid the first big wreck of the day. Marks shrugged it off as “the first step of a thousand-mile journey”.

Mexican Suarez, who previously drove with powerhouse teams Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, admits his career had “hit rock bottom” before Trackhouse came calling. But he immediately connected with Marks’s ambition.

"Having a four-car team, being a part of a powerhouse, has disadvantages as well as advantages. In those teams, there are four steps of cars, and if you’re not in one of the best ones in terms of people pushing in the same direction, it can be tough" Daniel Suarez

“In reality, it doesn’t matter about the team you’re with – if you don’t have the right people pushing you to be competitive, and having your best interests [at heart], it’s very tough to be successful in NASCAR,” says Suarez. “Having a four-car team, being a part of a powerhouse, has disadvantages as well as advantages.

“In those teams, there are four steps of cars, and if you’re not in one of the best ones in terms of people pushing in the same direction, it can be tough. But from the outside, people only see the banner of the big-team name.

“When I came to Trackhouse, everything was just a piece of paper. Justin has been successful as a racing driver and a businessman, and he said, ‘We’re going to bring this to the next level and we’re going to be the new strong racing generation in NASCAR.’ When he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You have to trust me on this’, I got a gut feeling that it was the way to go.”

Early-season results were as expected for a satellite RCR car – “It’s no secret, we were their third priority,” says Suarez – with regular top-20 results but nothing special. Then came the first-ever Bristol dirt race in March 2021, and opportunity knocked: Suarez led 58 laps and finished fourth. The NASCAR world was put on notice.

Suarez led laps on his way to fourth in the 2021 Bristol dirt race, the first emergence of Trackhouse as a player

Suarez led laps on his way to fourth in the 2021 Bristol dirt race, the first emergence of Trackhouse as a player

Photo by: NASCAR Media

Despite his wealthy family background, Marks was taking a huge financial risk. He didn’t have a NASCAR ‘charter’ – the ticket to an automatic starting spot at every Cup race within its franchise system. Marks reflects that time was “scary… I mean, uncomfortable, just not knowing if it was going to work”.

“I don’t have a big corporation, a big business behind me to where my race team can be kind of my fun project or anything like that,” he explains. “I come from a place where I have an opportunity, a very successful family, and I have a dream that I can chase. Just about everything that is available to me in my life because of those circumstances, I pushed into Trackhouse.

“This was it. This was all the chips in. If this didn’t work, to be honest with you, there wasn’t a ton to fall back on. We didn’t have much sponsorship. I didn’t know where I was going to get my charter from or how I was going to make this work.”

What he did have was a smart plan: NASCAR was bringing its all-new car, the Next Gen, on stream in 2022 – and this was the true target for Marks. It promised to level the playing field, forcing the big teams (and their manufacturers) to throw away their years of notes and data, while bringing cost containment to help with the business model of fielding cars.

This was spawned by the failure of NASCAR’s last small hero story: Furniture Row Racing. Against the odds, it won the title as a Gibbs satellite team, with Martin Truex, in 2017. But this fairytale had a nightmare ending: Gibbs ratcheted the price tag for its equipment and, as the bills piled high, owner Barney Visser fell ill and shuttered the team just a year later.

It sent shockwaves around NASCAR HQ – the sport’s costs were out of control and FRR’s death was a very public one. Next Gen was its legacy, so it’s fitting that Trackhouse has jumped into that underdog role.

PLUS: The early benefits and challenges of NASCAR's Next Gen car

“Honestly, Trackhouse is a thing because of this Next Gen car,” says Marks. “I know that obviously we’ve got some growing pains. But the parity that it’s allowed in this sport is why Trackhouse has this opportunity. So if I go back to the day that I decided to start this thing, it was really because of this race car, because if we’re all playing with the same ball, then it truly becomes about the team.

“I believed in my ability and the management of Trackhouse’s ability to cultivate a workforce culture where we could take advantage of a car that is the same as everybody else’s and go compete with teams that have more money than us, that have more depth than us, that have more people than us, and this is proof of concept for the whole vision of the Next Gen car.

The arrival of the Next Gen car has turned Trackhouse into a regular contender, with both Suarez and Chastain winning races in 2022

The arrival of the Next Gen car has turned Trackhouse into a regular contender, with both Suarez and Chastain winning races in 2022

Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images

“NASCAR deserves a tremendous amount of credit, because there’s no denying that it has added an element of uncertainty, drama and excitement that I think this sport hasn’t seen in a long time, and Trackhouse is here for all of it.”

As well as Next Gen, Marks grabbed another opportunity after he baulked at the cost of NASCAR charters – which topped eight figures each. Heck, for huge numbers like that he could… buy an entire team! He called Chip Ganassi, his old team boss, and they struck a deal. Trackhouse now had a home, the two charters that came with it, plus an extra hundred or so staff to play its hand properly as a two-car effort.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Chip,” says Marks. “There’s a tremendous element within Trackhouse that was built under his leadership. We have 65% of our workforce [that] was at Chip Ganassi Racing. Chip built this building that we’re in. So he’s taken the ride with us.”

"I wouldn’t want to be doing this with anybody else. Trackhouse is exactly where I’ve wanted to be. I feel like we hit our stride early with the speed, but it just didn’t falter" Ross Chastain

And what a ride it was this year: Chastain, who Trackhouse retained from Ganassi, took the team’s first Cup win at COTA after a typically ballsy and contact-packed last-lap pass, and repeated at Talledega in another thrilling last-gasp finish. Suarez scored his first career win at the top level at Sonoma, and both qualified for the Playoffs, exceeding Marks’s target of one car making it.

Insight: How Trackhouse and Suarez played the mavericks of NASCAR

Between them they scored 21 top-five finishes. While Suarez dropped out in agonising fashion at Charlotte, due to a power- steering failure when well placed to transfer, Chastain made the Championship 4 with his wild Martinsville divebomb that went viral. Third place in the season finale at Phoenix was good for second in points, with both cars inside the top 10 – the only non-powerhouse team to do so.

Opinion: Should NASCAR ban Chastain’s wild last-corner Martinsville move?

“I wouldn’t want to be doing this with anybody else,” says Chastain. “Trackhouse is exactly where I’ve wanted to be. I feel like we hit our stride early with the speed, but it just didn’t falter. This is just the beginning. I’m genuinely happy – for some reason, it’s not that I’m complacent in second, but I feel good.”

It’s been the feel-good story that NASCAR was looking for. Now Trackhouse’s sustained challenge at the very top of the sport will be the next real test.

Suarez's victory at Sonoma meant both he and Chastain made it into the Playoffs, with the latter finishing second after making the Championship 4

Suarez's victory at Sonoma meant both he and Chastain made it into the Playoffs, with the latter finishing second after making the Championship 4

Photo by: Lesley Ann Miller / Motorsport Images

Will the Iceman return?

Trackhouse Racing made more headlines in the summer when it gave Kimi Raikkonen his Cup Series debut in its ‘Project 91’ third car at Watkins Glen.

Raikkonen, who raced almost 100,000km in Formula 1, hadn’t driven a racing car in anger in the 251 days since the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The 2007 F1 world champion only got a couple of hours in a Next Gen test car at Virginia International Raceway beforehand, so the fact that he qualified back in 27th was no surprise. In a wet/dry race, however, he charged up to 14th before pitting for slicks.

In the second stage, he peaked in eighth before pitting again, which put him back in the pack but on a promising fuel strategy to contend for a top 10. Sadly, he got caught up in someone else’s crash and whacked the tyre wall, ending his day and injuring his wrist.

“I was very impressed with Kimi,” says team-mate Daniel Suarez, who helped him through the testing process. “I wasn’t surprised. I was actually expecting him to do well, but it was good to see how disciplined he was.

“He didn’t come here in vacation mode to have fun; he came here to be competitive as well as having a good time. He studied hard, we spent some good time together in the simulator, he was getting bold with the car. He’s a very talented race car driver, I knew he’d get up to speed, but that takes a little bit of time with these cars. For the amount of time that he did in the car, he did a very good job.”

Justin Marks has gone on record as saying the ride is Raikkonen’s “until he tells me otherwise”. After his debut, the Finn said “we’ll see”.

“I hope he comes back,” adds Suarez. “I think he will, just for the challenge. He didn’t finish the race the way he wanted to, or how he deserved to. If I was him, I’d do it again.”

Insight: What next for Raikkonen after his NASCAR Cup debut?

Raikkonen impressed many on his Cup debut at Watkins Glen despite a DNF

Raikkonen impressed many on his Cup debut at Watkins Glen despite a DNF

Photo by: Jasen Vinlove / NKP / Motorsport Images

shares
comments
Castroneves still working on Daytona 500 NASCAR opportunity
Previous article

Castroneves still working on Daytona 500 NASCAR opportunity

Next article

Autosport 2022 Top 50: #11 Joey Logano

Autosport 2022 Top 50: #11 Joey Logano
The ex-F1 driver taking on NASCAR with a new team Plus

The ex-F1 driver taking on NASCAR with a new team

Saddled with uncompetitive Minardi machinery, Tarso Marques didn't manage to score points in his three partial seasons of Formula 1. But now the Brazilian has the chance to show what he can do in NASCAR, and explains the story of his comeback with new Cup Series entrant Team Stange

Formula 1
Apr 13, 2022
The early benefits and challenges of NASCAR's Next Gen car Plus

The early benefits and challenges of NASCAR's Next Gen car

NASCAR’s new stock car generation is encouraging an influx of fresh blood into its top tier. But there are concerns that parts are in short supply as the entire paddock tries to build up stocks at the same time

NASCAR
Feb 22, 2022
How Penske's rookie sensation opened NASCAR's new era in style Plus

How Penske's rookie sensation opened NASCAR's new era in style

After holding his nerve and hip-checking his team-mate on the run to the line, Austin Cindric made a perfect start to life as a full-timer in the NASCAR Cup Series by winning the Daytona 500. Here's how the Penske Ford man emerged first across the line in the first points-scoring race for the much-anticipated Next Generation cars

NASCAR
Feb 21, 2022
Six key themes to follow in the 2022 NASCAR Cup season Plus

Six key themes to follow in the 2022 NASCAR Cup season

There are plenty of uncertainties ahead of the 2022 NASCAR Cup season as an all-new fleet of cars take to the track for the first time. Ahead of this weekend's Daytona 500, our experts explain what you need to know

NASCAR
Feb 17, 2022
How NASCAR had to learn a harsh lesson ahead of its Next Gen arrival Plus

How NASCAR had to learn a harsh lesson ahead of its Next Gen arrival

The NASCAR Cup kicks off with the Daytona 500 this weekend, but a major overhaul and a subsequent mountain of work has been required to be ready for the arrival of the Next Gen cars

NASCAR Cup
Feb 16, 2022
How Larson took the long way round to NASCAR Cup glory Plus

How Larson took the long way round to NASCAR Cup glory

From villain to hero, Kyle Larson’s journey to the 2021 NASCAR Cup title comes straight from the Hollywood blockbuster scripts. While Larson had to reach his lifelong goal the hard way and go through a very public shaming after a ban for using a racial slur, his talents shone long before his name grabbed the headlines for both the right and the wrong reasons

NASCAR
Nov 10, 2021
How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022 Plus

How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022

It’s not just Formula 1 that’s set for upheaval in 2022, as the NASCAR Cup Series adopts its Next Gen cars that will cast any in-built advantages aside and require teams to adopt a totally new way of operating. Far more than just a change of machinery, the new cars amount to a shift in NASCAR's core philosophy

NASCAR
Oct 12, 2021
Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR Plus

Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR

Bubba Wallace claimed his maiden NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega on Monday to become the first Black victor in the category since Wendell Scott in 1963. Both Wallace and Scott had faced obstacles and racism in their paths to their breakthrough wins, and NASCAR is trying to put it right with its range of diversity programmes

NASCAR
Oct 5, 2021