Front Row Motorsports is looking for the right partner to take to prom.
Jerry Freeze, the general manager of FRM, used the analogy when discussing the progress of the search for the next driver of the No. 38 Ford Mustang. David Ragan informed the organization over the summer that he wanted to retire, and Freeze tells RACER that right now everyone in the garage – teams and available drivers – are positioning themselves on who might be the best fit.
“I think it’s always a challenge no matter who you are to try to fill that seat, and for us, we’ve got partners that we’ve sold in on the 38 program around David Ragan, and his deciding to retire was not something we anticipated,” says Freeze. “So, we’re having to keep them in mind, and certainly get their thoughts on whoever those parties are that could drive the car.
“Then number two, [there are] some guys who have some partnerships that have been with them awhile, but they may be able to possibly bring over if they got the opportunity, so you got to weigh that out. Then we also have to evaluate how marketable that driver is, and do we feel confident that we could sell additional races; how their partnerships might line up with ours culturally. And then we also want to get the best race car driver we can get. That probably outweighs everything, but the business side is what takes time.”
Throughout his time in racing, this is the first time Freeze can remember being involved in a situation where a driver decided to up and walk away. To Ragan’s credit, he gave Front Row enough notice to get a head start on their driver search. Plus, Freeze pointed out that the organization is mostly year-to-year with drivers and sponsors anyway, so around August FRM generally begins talking to its partners and getting a sense of where everyone is for the future.
“So really, the timing kind of lined up with where we would normally be,” said Freeze. “I can’t say that it really threw us for a curve, but it was certainly different.”
What drivers might be in the running for the car? Freeze didn’t want to offer any names, but noted it’s easy to see which drivers have recently lost their opportunities. A few weeks ago, Michael McDowell expressed his hope that a veteran would get the job.
With the exception of Matt Tifft, who is a Rookie of the Year contender this season, the majority of drivers who have competed for Front Row have had a few years of experience. They also most of the drivers Front Row has been speaking with, although Freeze won’t commit to suggesting that they will ultimately be the ones who wind up in the seat beyond confirming that it won’t be a complete rookie.
“Guys like that have been a really good fit for us,” he says. “They’ve got some experience, they’re not as wild and tearing up a lot of stuff, but they’re still hungry, and they want to get back to where they were. I don’t know that’s who we end up getting. Michael, I think he’s probably selfishly looking at who’s going to bring the most to help me, and if I was in his shoes, I’d feel the same way because candidly, Matt Tifft, this was new for him this year. So how much is Matt Tifft really helping Michael McDowell with his race car? I think he [will] more and more as weeks go on and we go to tracks [for] the second time.”
“We feel like our cars have had more speed on the racetrack than we’ve ever had this year,” continues Freeze. “But we also feel like this is a year we probably haven’t executed anywhere near what we should have to get the results – the results have been really disappointing. The speed has been there, though. If we can just clean up the self-inflicted stuff – it’s not just one area; you can spread it around from speeding on pit road, to whacking the right side, to a bad pit stop, or just crazy stuff that’s happened – that we feel like we would really be onto maybe our best season ever at Front Row.”
What has been a pleasant surprise in that regard is the drivers who have reached out to Front Row saying they want to be the team’s next driver.
“That’s where I talked about the speed in the cars; some guys have said, ‘Man, if I could be in your car, I really feel like I’d really be stepping up – you guys really haul butt out there,’” says Freeze. “I’m like, really, you outrun us every week, [or] not outrun us, but out-finish us. So it’s a little demoralizing when you look at where we’re at in points, but then have somebody call [and say something like that feels good].”
There is no timetable for when Front Row will announce its ’20 plans. In a situation like this, Freeze acknowledges that it all comes together whenever it comes together.
“Your timeline is as soon as possible, and so whether that means October 1st or October 15th or September 20th,” he says. “The driver’s obviously the quarterback, and so the team that’s around them, they will either get excited or maybe not excited about it, and you want to start putting those pieces of the puzzle together for next year – ‘this driver would be good with this crew chief’ – and just the sooner you can get that together, the better.”