Q&A with Tommy Baldwin Racing Driver Regan Smith, Experiencing the Highs and Lows of 2016
After finishing eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500 the team has struggled. The organization has shown speed, but haven't quite put the finishes together to compete with the top teams.
After 12 races, Smith sits 32nd in Sprint Cup points after a blown engine in Dover. However, the 32-year-old is happy with where the team is at, knowing that there are good days right around the corner.
Dustin Albino: How do you feel the season has gone so far?
Regan Smith: I feel like we’ve done some things really good. I think the best thing is we haven’t left a racetrack with a notebook that is considerably bigger than what we’ve got. We’ve had some speed at a lot of the racetracks and if we could just clean some things up then we should legitimately be running 20th to 24th every week in the races. We’ve got to get better at qualifying and a couple of little things here and there. The short tracks are something that we’ve kind of highlighted as more of a struggle for us. I think we’ve come along quick and I think we are only a couple of small mistakes and a couple of cleaning up different areas away from really being happy with where we are at.
Albino: How do you improve on that?
Smith: Qualifying is going to help. We’ve had a little bit of an issue in traffic on restarts with our car having a bigger balance shift than what we need. We’ve got to look at that and work on that a little bit and outside of that it’s just continuing to build that notebook. We’re going back to places for a second time and say ‘this is what we did last time.’ Coming to places for the second time around we should be better. We should be able to say ‘hey this is what we learned and this is what we need to improve on.’ We will have a whole other set of things the second time around that we will need to highlight and say these are the next things we’ve got to work on. Its constant building and addressing different issues that arrive until you get through all of the things that maybe are the quick ones that you can adjust and then you go to the things that are a little more fine detailed and fine tuned.
Albino: How has the new aero package affected you?
Smith: Well, it hasn’t really affected me much at all because I don’t know what the old one felt like that much. From that standpoint I don’t know. I know what the cars felt like at the beginning of last year because I did a couple of races, but to me they don’t feel a whole lot different. It might be because of the tire at the time or because the teams adjusted and adapted. I don’t think it’s been a huge change. I do think what has happened is you can run closer together, which has allowed more passing because now we have a softer tire. You keep hearing the drivers be happy about the racetrack. You can pass a little bit easier than you could in the past. There are some tracks that it’s been a little bit of a similar struggle. Kansas, for example, was a similar struggle, where it was hard to pass and you could run up next to the wall and we can move around because the tire is different. That’s because of the aero package.
Albino: How much does it put back into the drivers hands versus the COT or even last year?
Smith: It’s a lot different. You can’t even really compare it to that now. With that said there are a lot of advancements that have been made to the racecar itself and safety and different areas with that particular car are still there. The chassis is still the same. There are a lot of things that are really similar. There are a lot of things that are very similar other than what it looks like on the outside of the car. It’s a tough comparison to make. That particular part of our racecar was a little bit of a mistake and that’s been acknowledged at this point. It’s been corrected and we’ve moved on.
Albino: Do you feel like the team has overachieved at all following your Daytona run?
Smith: I think there’s weeks that we have and I think there’s weeks that we walk away thinking we should have done better. We are capable of more than that. The thing that’s really tough to put on a piece of paper is where we should or shouldn’t be as a small team. There’s areas where there are some weaknesses. We don’t have four teams in the same shop that are comparing stuff. We’re relatively a small group in terms of people and numbers. I think that what we do a particularly good job of is we pull on the rope equally as hard. Everybody is racers and we dig in. It’s not like we have to work crazy hours because we have less people. We get more done and we need to be productive because of that.
Albino: How many employees are on the team?
Smith: It fluctuates between 25 and 30, To put it in comparison I would say the next smallest team is 50. I know of other one-car teams that are upward of 60 people and I guess that’s the compliment to our people. We run as good as some of those same teams and we compete with them with that many less people so that shows you how well everyone is doing.
Albino: Is running for Tommy Baldwin Racing everything you thought it would be when you got the phone call in January?
Smith: Quite honestly when we fired off I thought ‘okay we’re ahead of where I anticipated us being at this particular point.’ Even right now we’ll go a week like Kansas and legitimately should have finished around 19th. Unfortunately, there was a late race restart that kind of cost us some spots, but you look at a race like that and you say ‘okay, that’s a good day.’ For us as a small team that’s where we need to be and that’s how we continue to build more partners and grow it on this team. Occasionally, we’ll have a race that we know we are better than that. We know we are better than what we are on that day. As a whole the speed we’ve shown in the races I’ve been pretty happy about that.
Albino: How involved is Tommy on the team?
Smith: He’s very valuable. I mean he’s the car owner. He’s our head sales guy when it comes to going out and getting different partners and companies on the car. He’s the one that has to go to owners meetings. He’s the crew chief. He wears a lot of different hats. There’s not a lot of guys in the garage area that would be capable of doing that and still understanding it, being able to hop in the racecar, work on it our come over here and work on something on the computer, or call Golden Corral and talk to their CEO. It’s a rarity and he’s extremely valuable to us because of that. Not just that stuff, but other stuff as well.
Albino: Everyone always talks about low budgets and needing sponsorship to perform at a high level. How hard is it?
Smith: When your budget is not like a Hendrick is you need to be smarter. Every decision needs to be a little more precise because making a wrong decision and changing it in a two day period takes a little bit longer. If we go the wrong direction in something, whether it’s because I gave bad feedback, or because we thought something would work and it didn’t, or whatever, it takes a little more time to correct that, especially on the bigger stuff. With that said, I think we are doing a pretty good job of showing that these teams need to step up what they are doing as well.
Albino: What’s the pressure like to keep this ride?
Smith: There’s always pressure. This is my livelihood so I take it personal. Every time you go on the racetrack you want to win, you want to run up front, you want to do better than the time you were on the racetrack before. If there is no pressure than you probably don’t need to be doing this.
Albino: Is it comparable to last season when you had to virtually race every race like it was your last because you didn’t know what your plans were?
Smith: I don’t know if the pressure last year when I didn’t know what I was going to do this year was different that what it is now. I don’t think that changes. For me it doesn’t change what I do in the racecar. I’m going to go out there and you get the same thing on the racetrack that you get no matter what the circumstances are.
Albino: Is this just a one-year deal?
Smith: Yeah. Our focus is how do we go faster and what do we do better for the next race. That’s what we do and that’s how that stuff needs to be.
Albino: You also appear weekly on RaceHub. How did that come about?
Smith: I did a couple of them last year and they inquired me into doing some this year and I started doing some more and it’s been kind of slowly growing to where they have me on there more and more often. I don’t know if I’m doing good or bad, but I enjoy it. I have fun kind of giving different feedback on some things and just getting to talk about the sport. I love racecars so if you can talk about it the way you are at the track it might show someone who wasn’t at the track before then it’s great.
Albino: Do you ever think of anything post-NASCAR, such as broadcasting?
Smith: You always think about post-NASCAR because I can only race for so long. Whether you get on a different side of the sport, or get out of the sport all together or whatever comes after this. I’m not an engineer by trade or anything like that so that’s not in my cards to get in that part of the sport. I guess as I get older I think about that stuff a little more, but at the same time you’ve got to focus on what your tasks are at that moment and at the moment right now is to drive this car as fast as I can.
Albino: What’s your main goal for the rest of the year?
Smith: Our main goal is we want to get that consistency. We want to say ‘okay consistently here for three straight weeks, now we’ve got to figure out how to consistently be here for three straight weeks.’ Just keep making gains. I think that’s going to be the goal going on is to make gains. There are going to be more opportunity for top 10s throughout the course of the year and when that happens we needs to capitalize on that. We’ve got to get all of those that we can. We’ve got to continue growing this thing and to get it to the point where we get more resources and more of the stuff we need to go out there and keep getting better.
Follow Albino on Twitter at @DustinAlbino
Bobby Labonte Returns to Indianapolis with Tommy Baldwin Racing
His career has been spectacular. It’s highlighted with 21 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins, and a pair of NASCAR championships in each of the sport’s top-two divisions.
After ending his consecutive starts streak last season that last since 1993, Bobby Labonte’s career is slowly winding down. Last year, Labonte ended his stint with JTG Daugherty Racing. Since then, he has raced just twice this season – both events being restrictor plate races at Daytona. However, the 50-year-old is not calling it quits just yet.
Tommy Baldwin Racing gave Labonte a call – asking for him to drive a third car for them at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in this weekend’s event. TBR usually races two Chevrolet’s on a weekly basis with Michael Annett and Reed Sorenson behind the wheel. But this weekend will be different as they will have a veteran behind the wheel.
“The big thing for Tommy (Baldwin) is - he's wanting to start a third team. Anytime you start a team or you want to accelerate your program, as you're moving forward, hopefully moving up, you put people in positions that they might not have been in before,” Labonte said on a NASCAR teleconference Wednesday afternoon. “It's just building his operation up. Anyway, I'm trying to help him out, get to that point. Hopefully he can get to that point one day with a third team like he wants to get to. If it works out for him, I wish him all the luck.”
As he will be helping Baldwin, Labonte will also be getting to experience the yard of bricks for possibly the final team in his career. Along with four-time champion, Jeff Gordon, Labonte is the only other driver to race in every single race at the Brickyard.
In order for Labonte’s No. 37 Accell Construction car to race on Sunday, he will need to qualify inside of the top-36 as the car has no previous attempts this season. There is no word on who the team is looking at to fill the seat for the third car next year, but Labonte might just get a call from Baldwin again this year – putting him in the seat a few more times.
Previously, Circle Sport Racing team owner, Joe Falk, stated that he was open to putting Labonte back into the seat of the No. 33 Chevrolet several more times this year if sponsorship is found.
Trying to be Mr. Consistency: Michael Annett
Michael Annett entered this season as an underdog. Annett, 28, is the oldest of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year class in 2014, but he also has the most experience in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series.
After starting out his career with Germain Racing, Annett landed at Richard Petty Motorsports after a year with Rusty Wallace Incorporated. It was at RPM where Annett started to contend for top-10s on a weekly basis, and arguably ran better than the equipment he was in. Last year, however, Annett suffered a major setback as he was severely injured in the season-opener at Daytona – sidelining him for nine races.
Annett came back, but did not run as strong as 2012 – earning just four top-10s in 25 races. Though he never truly contended for wins in the Nationwide Series, Annett showed that it was time to make the jump to the sport’s top-tier division, and that he did.
This year, Annett has been racing with Tommy Baldwin Racing – a team that started in 2009 as a start and park organization that was trying to piece together the right sponsorship package. Now that the team has grown, it was all but perfect timing for Annett.
Through 15 races in 2014, Annett has outrun the drivers he needs to outrun. No, he has not been stunning, but he has surely done better than initially thought. With his sponsor, Pilot/Flying J, following him to the Sprint Cup Series, he has the financial backing that might enable him to join a more established team in the future. But for now – the Iowa native is in the perfect setting where he doesn’t have to worry about having more pressure than needed along with unrealistic expectations.
However, the No. 7 team has begun to gain momentum. Tommy Baldwin Racing expanded their alliance with Richard Childress Racing over the off-season. No, it is not as heavy of an alliance compared to the likes of Furniture Row Racing and Germain Racing, but it is a partnership that has begun to help this underdog team.
Annett has three lead lap finishes this year. Although it doesn’t seem like a lot, all of those have been recorded at larger tracks – something that has been a weak point for this small team in the past. Over the past two weeks, Annett finished 20th and 21st, respectively. There is still room for improvement, but TBR has come a long way in a short time this year after running multiple laps down every single race to start the year. And so far this season, Annett has run slightly better than Dave Blaney did in the same car last year, as well as out running his teammate, Reed Sorenson.