In September of 2021, Steve Lauletta was named president of 23XI Racing after serving in an interim role. A former key decision maker at Chip Ganassi Racing for over a decade, Lauletta was intrigued by what the startup NASCAR outfit had going on, and showed up to throw his wisdom and experience into the mix.
“When they came looking for me, I told Denny [Hamlin, co-owner] and I told everyone in the [co-owner Michael] Jordan camp, ‘I ran a race team for 10 and a half years, why would I do that again?'” he recalls. “And when I thought about it, I was like, ‘Well, I’d do it again because this is entirely different. This is a new opportunity, it’s a clean sheet of paper. Absolutely everything was new to us. That’s what makes it fun.’”
So with the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series now at the halfway mark, Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace are 15th and 25th respectively in the Cup Series points ahead of this weekend’s visit to Atlanta. RACER caught up with Lauletta to get his thoughts on how the year is playing out.
Q: I wanted to start by getting a 23XI status report from you?
STEVE LAULETTA: Sure. I think all of us feel that getting the win in Kansas was a big step forward for another new team. We were all pretty happy about that win. Obviously, we are still working hard to get Bubba that win this year like we did last year. Overall, I think we’ve had good speed in our cars. We’ve just got to execute at every race and we haven’t quite done that.
Q: You and I spoke a ways back and you said to me of the team: “We are building a brand that happens to be a race team, not a race team brand.” How has all that been going for both you and the team?
SL: I think we’ve made a lot of progress in a year and 19 races, or a season and 19 races. To grow to a second car and to get both cars to win and to continue to have partners that are really excited to be a part of the team and who work with us on and off the track has all been very good. We’re working on the future and what does that look like in terms of a potential new shop. Again, it is another step in our growth. We’ve got to do a lot of things still. This is a long-term business and a long-term project to become a consistent race-winning team battling for championships and delivering value to our partners off the track. It’s a journey, not a destination, that’s for sure.
Q And everything you guys do or are about to do is still relatively new for the organization, isn’t it?
SL: Yes, it sure is. We are still hiring people, both on the competition side and the business side. So with all of those new positions with new people joining the organization, it’s new thinking, allowing us to do more than we could the day before. I believe we are finally catching up from just the rush of what it was like just to get ready and execute last year. And then obviously throw in the second car and Kurt into the mix.
We had a little bit more time to do that and we feel like we incorporated that team and that growth better than we did when we were getting the team started, but it is still a lot of people coming together for the first time and building a culture and learning how to work together and then racing week-in and week-out. It has been challenging, it has been rewarding, it has been fun, but there is a lot of work to do.
Q: Right from the start you wanted to have your partners heavily involved with the team and its collective vision. You’ve spoken quite a bit about the team being a brand. How has all of that gone? Are you guys hitting your marks?
SL: I think the programs we’ve done, learning each of our partners and them learning 23XI so that we can collectively build our brands in a way that impacts their business and helps more people understand what 23XI is all about, has been great. We’ve got point-of-sale at retail with Monster Energy. We’ve got scholarships that we’re giving away with Dr. Pepper. We’ve got great content and programs and contests with MoneyLion and Columbia and with DoorDash and with McDonald’s. Every one of our partners is as active as I’ve seen a group of partners be in many, many years in this sport.
Even having Bubba Wallace in a Super Bowl commercial has been a great thing. You know, those are the kind of things that really help brand the team and show that this a platform that can be used in a lot of different ways and that allows us to keep growing the partners we have, and see if there are additional opportunities to bring new ones into the mix.
If you come to the racetrack and you stand around our hauler and you stand around our car on the grid, there is just a different vibe around 23XI. And it is not just me saying this. It’s people who have been in the industry a long time. There is kind of this excitement and there are other influencers and celebrities and fans that are new to the sport want to be around what we are trying to do, and that’s a great feeling and something that we want to keep building on.
Like I said earlier, we’re still just scratching the surface and just getting started, but the stuff that we have done so far has seemed to bring attention to us from new fans and more casual sports fans and not just that core NASCAR fan. We love them, too. Kurt Busch was a big step for us for bringing that core fan to us with his following and his history in the sport. We’re trying to do it all, and to do it all you have got to give yourself a little bit of time to make sure you don’t force things and try to do it all too quickly.
Q: How does Denny feel about his race team this far in?
SL: I think he’s pretty happy. He sees the fact that over the last six, seven weeks we’ve been really, really strong on the track with speed. Yes, we’ve had our challenges in the pits. Everybody has seen that with the 23. We’re working hard with Joe Gibbs Racing to fix those. It’s not just our team. We’ve just had more of our share with issues there and we’ve got to execute. A lot of different things have to go well to win one of these races and we’ve got to continue to focus on doing all of those things, not just some of them.
Q: Kurt is 15th in Cup points while Bubba is in 25th. Onward and upwards to Atlanta Motor Speedway?
SL: Yes, I think having the win with Kurt and hopefully having at least one 23XI team is the playoffs for the first time is going to be an interesting thing to watch, because you know if you give him a fast car, he’s dangerous. We want him to continue on the path he and the 45 team have been on. All of us will now help the 23 and try to get that win and get them in the playoffs. We get our pit stops cleaned up and we’ll be rocking and rolling.