It’s taken 10 years for Gaunt Brothers Racing (GBR) to become a full-time team in the NASCAR Cup Series, and in the nearly two months since the NASCAR industry and entire sports world went on hiatus to stop the spread of COVID-19, team owner Mart Gaunt has used the time to bolster his organization’s competitiveness for the next 10 years.
Up until North Carolina’s stay-at-home order began on March 30, Gaunt instituted a work schedule that made sense for his employees and allowed the team to get caught up after a frenzied lead up to the start of the season.
“Mark Chambers (general manager), Dave Winston (crew chief) and I got input from our staff and we came up with a plan that made sense for us and followed all of the guidelines issued by the CDC,” said Gaunt. “We set up staggered shifts, keeping the amount of people on the shop floor under 10, with everyone averaging about 25 hours a week. Social distancing was enforced, and we increased our cleaning service to where they disinfected the shop several times a week.”
The time in the shop was necessary. GBR announced on Jan. 28 it would compete full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series, having signed 28-year-old Daniel Suárez as the driver for its No. 96 Toyota Camry. The first day of on-track activity for the 2020 season was 11 days away at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
“Personnel was our biggest challenge,” Gaunt said. “We had a lot of equipment – trucks, trailers, cars and all the equipment to work on cars – and we were lucky to have a lot of long-term employees who have been with us for 10 years, but scaling up from running a part-time schedule to a full schedule meant bringing in more people to build a fleet of racecars for an entire 36-race schedule.
“It’s the people who make the cars go. It’s about getting the right people and making sure the culture is right and everybody can work together to make this thing go. That’s the hardest part, and that’s true for small teams like us and the big teams – coming up with the recipe of having all the right people in all the right places.”
GBR ran a part-time NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2018 and 2019, making a total of 37 starts with a handful of drivers. Adding Suárez, the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion who has competed in the Cup Series since 2017, gave GBR a young, but experienced, driver who had won in each of the divisions he had competed in before arriving in Cup.
“Daniel said he likes going to all the racetracks, and that stood out for me,” Gaunt said. “There are some drivers who don’t like certain tracks, and I get that. But for us, where we’re building this race team, every time we race, we have an opportunity to better ourselves, and we can’t afford to have a driver who’s mentally beat before we even turn a lap.”
Gaunt’s eponymous team started out in the Canada-based NASCAR Pinty’s Series and the U.S.-based NASCAR K&N Pro Series. Its first driver, Jason Bowles, scored GBR’s maiden victory in the 2011 Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale Speedway in California, with the precursor to that win being the pole position in track-record time at the 2011 Streets of Toronto 100. After seven years competing in NASCAR’s development divisions, Gaunt stepped up to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2017, entering the Daytona 500 with driver D.J. Kennington.
Those were the stepping stones Gaunt used to make GBR a full-time NASCAR Cup Series team in 2020.
“When you’re racing, you’re racing, right? Even if you look back at your Saturday-night racing, you’re still learning how to race and what goes into doing that. It’s you and your buddies unloading a car and going out and racing it. You’ve got a driver, you’ve got somebody to drive the car there, you’ve got a crew chief, and even as you drive from race to race across the country racing from track to track, somebody’s managing it. So you’re learning that in your younger days about how all that works. Then as you move up the ladder – K&N, Trucks, racing 25 times a year – you’re learning, you’re building relationships with people, you’re encountering obstacles that you have to overcome, you’re facilitating partnerships with people who see value in what you’re doing, you’re learning all these things as you go. Any time you can base your career on previous experiences, it’s a benefit. I’ve been doing this since I was 13, so more than 40 years.”
The NASCAR Cup Series was able to complete four races before COVID-19 forced the sport into lockdown. GBR is 31st in owners’ points, and while Gaunt and all of his employees would have preferred being at the racetrack instead of self-isolating at home, valuable prep time has proven to be a gleaming silver lining.
“We’ve got a world crisis on our hands, and within our sport and how we navigate it, we’ve got the right people working on it,” Gaunt said. “The decision we made almost four months ago was based on experience. If we didn’t have the experience to do this, it might be a different answer but, collectively, we’ll get through it. When it’s time to go back racing, we’ll just turn it on and go.”
That time is May 17 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, when NASCAR becomes one of the first major North American sports to return to action with a 400-mile race at the venerable 1.366-mile oval.
“We’re ready. In fact, I’m sure the entire industry is ready,” Gaunt said. “As difficult and uncertain as this shutdown has been, we made it work for us. We’re committed to our sport and committed to our partners – Toyota, CommScope and Coca-Cola – and we plan to come out of this better than we were going into it.”