Name: Travis Carter
Hometown: Ellerbe, NC
Resides: Denver, NC
Marital status: Married, wife Linda; son Matthew, daughter Kim
Racing Involvement: Co-owner, with Carl Haas, of Haas-Carter Motorsports in NASCAR Winston Cup Series; crew chief for Benny Parsons' 1973 Winston Cup championship; worked as crew chief for legendary car owner Junior Johnson; helped Hal Needham form Skoal Bandit team in 1980s before becoming a team owner in 1989.
Travis Carter entered 2002 prepared to field the No. 26 and No. 66 Fords for drivers Joe Nemechek and Todd Bodine. But Haas-Carter Motorsports was sent into a tailspin when sponsor Kmart filed for bankruptcy in January and discontinued sponsorship of the two cars. Here Carter talks about the new sponsor that brought new life to his racing career.
SCR: How tough has this year been on you personally, with everything that has gone on?
Carter: Given the last few years when we've been in pretty good shape and been able to move forward, then all of a sudden to have the rug pulled out from under us before the first race, that turns everything upside down. We had a new driver on board and had brought in new people to try and improve the quality of the team and the quality of the people here. It was a big setback. It's not the first time I've faced that situation, and for me it's just created the desire to rise to the challenge and overcome it and beat it. That's the biggest thing for me personally-to try and survive and overcome that adversity.
SCR: Were you totally blindsided by the situation with Kmart?
Carter: Pretty much. I think, realistically, there were some indicators by the end of last year that raised concern for us. Obviously our questions were answered that there was no reason for concern, no reason to change; but still you're skeptical. You can't ignore what you hear on the national news.
Although its workforce had been trimmed from approximately 70 to 25 people, Haas-Carter Mo
SCR: In midsummer you landed a deal with Discover, but how does that program look for next season?
Carter: Obviously, we would like to continue with Discover, but we don't know that we'll be able to. I think there's realistically some opportunity to do that. They've set forth a test plan and what we do is a big part of that plan, and what they can do with the associated programs is a big piece of the puzzle. I think they're in a perfect position to keep this thing moving forward, and certainly we want to help them enhance that opportunity.
SCR: Considering the many components that go into a team, how tough is it to make it in Winston Cup?
Carter: Well, running a racing business is not really a widely profitable situation. I mean, you can have good sponsors and you can keep the thing in the black. From my observation, the people who make the most money are the people who do additional marketing, the bigger merchandise sellers, and things like that. Those are the ways where a lot more of the revenue is made. Those teams that aren't big merchandisers aren't going to make a lot of money. But with the whole thing you're vulnerable to the point that you're depending on that commercial sponsorship dollar, and you're only as good as your existing contract.
SCR: You've worked with some of the biggest names in the sport. Who has had the most influence on you, personally and professionally?
Carter: That's a hard question. A lot of people have influenced me. Roger Penske had a real strong influence. Junior Johnson did also, and I think as highly of Hal Needham as anyone I've ever been associated with, for a lot of reasons. He was a competitor, and he's really a good person. Driver-wise, I was young enough at the time that I learned a lot from Benny Parsons, but I also learned a lot from Bobby Allison just in a short period of time. People like that are big influences.
SCR: You've been racing for 31 years. During that time, what has been the biggest development in the sport, discounting RJR coming into NASCAR?
Carter: Obviously, R.J. Reynolds' involvement is the biggest thing. Discounting that, the biggest development has been commercial sponsors in general coming in, with the change that has brought in the sport. What you see happen a lot is typical with any growth, in that it's like fighting wars, with the grunts coming in and doing the work. You look through the history of this thing and see people who invested everything they had into it, and a lot of them didn't leave with very much. But the business has grown, and as the business grows you see stronger, more affluent people want to step in and take advantage of what the other people have built. That's not in a negative way, but I see it that way a little bit. Those people weren't there to help build it. They didn't invest in it to get it going, but now they can come in and take advantage of it because it's bigger, it's popular, and revenues are up. It makes for a great opportunity.
A midsummer sponsorship package gave Haas-Carter Motorsports hope for next season.
SCR: In that same vein, are team owners like yourself, Richard Childress, and Andy Petree-guys who worked their way up in the sport-a vanishing breed?
Carter: I hope not. I think it's important for the sport to maintain that. There's no loyalty in this industry, in my opinion. But I think the people who run the organization-the France family-still like to see some of their worker bees strive for the top and maintain strong roots for the thing.
SCR: That's good for the health of the sport, isn't it?
Carter: I think it probably is, because there's a relationship and camaraderie there that they've developed over the years. People just coming in fresh from the outside and starting at the top have a different view of things. It's harder to be a part of the family, so to speak. There are some great people coming in. I'm not knocking them, because some have been a strong asset to the sport. Take Joe Gibbs-I mean, this guy has been tremendous for this sport, and you like to see people like that.
SCR: The bottom line is, if you have good character, you're going to be an asset anywhere. Would you agree?
Carter: If you're good people, in my opinion you're welcome here.
SCR: Compare winning the Winston Cup title in 1973 with Benny Parsons to what it means to a team to win it today.
Carter: That's a hard comparison for me. From a personal level, I've got to think that it was probably worth a lot more in 1973 for our group than it would be for a group that wins it today. It's probably harder to win it today than it was then. Sometimes I think you're just lucky; there's a lot of luck in this thing. But luck comes from hard work and being prepared and not making mistakes. I tell you, when the green flag flies to start the Daytona 500 until the checkered flag falls on that last event, that is a strained and stressful situation, every day and every week, and not only at the track. When you go to the shop you have to be preparing for, and your thoughts and focus have to be on, that championship. Everybody in that place has got to have that focus and say, 'Hey, we've got to do this.' Your mindset is 'we've got to have that perfect weekend,' and you have to expect that every week.
SCR: You had your first full season as an owner in 1990. How has the sport changed in those 12 years?
Carter: Well, it takes probably six to seven times as much money as it did. Things have changed. The competition level has driven that up some. Some teams are capable of raising the technology to a CART level or beyond, but not at a Formula 1 level. I think controlling that end of it is something NASCAR has done. I think it's a wise thing, that they've kept their business affordable. Yeah, we can talk about how expensive it is and make it sound like it's not affordable, but it's still affordable compared to other forms of motorsports. They've managed the growth, they've managed the competition, and they've managed the construction and the development and the running of the cars, all to control costs.
SCR: What does it take to run a full season today?
Carter: These things range anywhere from $8 million to $12 million.
SCR: What would you change about the sport if given the power to change something?
Carter: It's easy to sit here and think maybe I would want to change something, but when you get down to it and analyze it thoroughly, I'm not sure that I could recommend changing anything. I would only say that (I would make changes) if it was something personal, and I've always tried not to look at this thing from a personal view. I try to look at it from a business view and how it affects everybody across the board. Yeah, it's easy to be selfish, but I don't think it's wise to be selfish in that regard.
Lights out. Losing the Kmart sponsorship was a setback to Haas-Carter's progress of recent
SCR: Are the cars significantly safer than they were 10-15 years ago?
Carter: I think some things about them are safer. There are several factors. The cars are a little bit smaller inside and smaller overall. That might contribute some, although there are those who don't believe it does. Some things concern me a little. To me, as a racer, the biggest difference is they're going a lot faster. The faster you go, the harder you hit. The turn speeds, if you measured them, are so much greater than they've ever been, and I think that's really the issue of safety, from my view. These cars are going so fast through the turns.
SCR: That's a function of what improvements?
Carter: That's a function of grip, aerodynamics, downforce, better tires-better everything that makes the car grip better where they can drive it faster through the turns.
SCR: Is NASCAR doing a good job managing the growth or does it appear to you to be a runaway train sometimes?
Carter: I don't think it is [a runaway train]. I think they've done a pretty good job, given all the circumstances. We have to realize they're there as decision makers but, if we stop and take into account all the people who are trying to influence them, that's a tough situation they face every day. They have to filter through all the advice they're getting from every direction, from car owners, manufacturers, and drivers-and oftentimes each one has their own little hidden agenda. That's a tough job, to look at that whole scope and make the best decision for all concerned. And I've got to tell you, even though it's easy to be critical from time to time, overall I think they've done a tremendous job.
SCR: Recently there have been complaints about the way the younger drivers are being marketed, that they are being built up at the expense of older drivers. Are those legitimate complaints?
Carter: I don't think so. I think these guys are earning it. Anything new tends to get more attention. It gets more attention from the press corps, gets more attention from the fans. The fans like to see new, upstart, competitive people. Yeah, they've got their long-time favorites that they've been with if the guy's been here 20 years. He started out as their favorite and they grew with him, but I think they welcome the new ones. People like to see competition. I think the hard-core fans like to see competition and they like the young guys. They like to see these young guys upset these old guys once in a while. And I've got to tell you, I think it's healthy. I think it's healthy for this industry.
SCR: So, obviously, you think the young guys are paying their dues?
Carter: Let me tell you something: When they get out there and drive one of those things around 500 miles at the level of competition and the speeds they're running, with the physical demands and mental stress, yeah, they're paying their dues.
SCR: What drivers out there today could have held their own against Petty, Pearson, Yarborough and Allison in the '70s?
Carter: I'm not sure you're comparing apples to apples, but from what I see that really marks today's racing, separates it from those days, is those guys had about 5-10 competitive cars and now you've got 30. You take a race from those old days, a filmed race, and watch the competition, how close and tight they raced all day, and then look at today's races and see how tight they race all day. These guys are busy. I mean, they're busy every lap. They don't just ride around; they race somebody every lap. That's the tough part to me. Now, those guys drove hard. It's not that either one is not driving hard. They're going a lot faster today, but the car is capable of that. Those guys drove hard too, but they just didn't have that door-to-door, wheel-to-wheel-racing somebody every darn corner and every straightaway like they're doing today.
SCR: Is the game, so to speak, getting away from older drivers?
Carter: I don't think so. You've got older guys who are intelligent and they've got good cars and they get up on that thing and race with these guys. They do it week after week.