RPM Owner, Long Interested In Improving NASCAR’s Diversity, Eyes Replacements For Bubba Wallace

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 12: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #96 Toyota Certified Used

When Andrew Murstein established his sports fund years ago, with the intent of buying into a professional team, his focus was on partnering with a owner from an underrepresented group and consisted of talks with Michael Jordan. The fund ultimately led to his purchasing a share in Richard Petty Motorsports, an organization within the predominately white sport of auto racing.

Murstein sought to shift that decades-long perception, signing Cuban-American driver Aric Almirola in 2012, followed by African-American rookie Bubba Wallace in 2018. Wallace, who confirmed today he’s leaving RPM at the end of the 2020 season despite being offered an ownership stake, takes with him a portfolio of recently acquired sponsors, including Columbia Sportswear
, DoorDash and Cash App. This leaves RPM, a team small in stature compared to the majority of NASCAR heavyweights, in the lurch.

Firstly, the organization needs sponsor partners to press forward in a racing series fueled almost entirely by sponsor revenue, and all of the recent interest — up to five meetings a week with prospective sponsors from one, according to Murstein — were centered around Wallace. In addition to survival, a cash infusion, regardless of its origin, is something Murstein believes can expedite the growth of the team.

“The nice thing about this sport is that you can do better quickly if you spend the money,” said Murstein. “It’s not like other sports where you only have so much talent. Here, the technology on the car is part of the talent.”

Secondly, Murstein still has interest in providing an opportunity for a driver from an underrepresented group, identifying Japanese-American driver Kyle Larson, a winner of six NASCAR Cup Series races, and Hailie Deegan, the daughter of X Games legend Brian Deegan, in an exclusive interview with me in July.

“There’s different options for us if we want to continue our drive for diversity,” said Murstein on the possibility of replacing Wallace. “I’m looking at drivers like Hailie Deegan, coming up through the ranks. I would have a heart to heart with Kyle Larson to see if he’s worthy of a second chance.”

Deegan is an 19-year-old driver popular among fans, currently matriculating in NASCAR’s fourth-tier ARCA Series, but she profiles as a talent ill prepared for the significant competitive leap the Cup Series would offer. After finishing second at Daytona in February, she’s scored just one other podium finish in 13 tries this season. She ranked 27th in Production in Equal Equipment Rating out of 29 drivers with four or more ARCA starts in 2019. She’s also contracted with Ford as part of the OEM’s driver development initiative.

Larson, fired from Chip Ganassi Racing in April after using a racial slur during an online racing event, is currently suspended from NASCAR and, per sources, persona non grata with Chevrolet, currently the OEM partner of Richard Petty Motorsports. The optics of replacing an African American with Larson aren’t lost on Murstein who, like most, can’t deny the 28-year-old’s driving talent that’s now available for a song, but such a move would indicate RPM moving away from its Chevrolet partnership and seems unlikely to happen without a financial guarantee emanating from manufacturer support.

The news of Wallace’s departure, potentially for Hendrick Motorsports or Chip Ganassi Racing, comes as he’s carrying the 25th-fastest car to a 20th-place average finish. His brand of production is worth an estimated $973,000 annually on the open market — he’ll likely fetch a seven-figure sum – but the chance at joining a program with deeper and more competitive resources is ultimately too much to forgo.

RPM’s options among non-white and non-male drivers or those bringing with them personal sponsorship are slim, but not barren. I’ve identified three realistic candidates to fill the seat of the famed No. 43 car in 2021:

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Daniel Suárez

Monterrey, Mexico’s Suárez won the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship and was dropped during last off-season’s eleventh hour by Stewart-Haas Racing after ranking as the 13th-most productive driver of the 2019 season and missing the playoffs by a mere four points. Scrambling to find a suitable Cup Series ride for this year, Suárez and personal sponsor CommScope
settled on startup Gaunt Brothers Racing. At the time of Suárez’s hiring, GBR had just three cars in its shop.

While Suárez’s sponsorship is substantial enough to warrant heavy consideration by RPM, he’s struggled this season adjusting to a team fielding the 31st-fastest car in the Cup Series. Ranked 27th in PEER, his best efforts in saving track position have come when attempting to mitigate losses on restarts from inside the top 14 (he’s made nine attempts); outside of that, he’s been unable to showcase any semblance of a singular peripheral strength. RPM provides an equipment upgrade, but it’ll still be an uphill battle for both parties.

Ty Dillon

Germain Racing’s longtime sponsor GEICO is leaving at the end of 2020, potentially teeing up the organization for a sale and forcing Dillon to pound the pavement in search of a new home. RPM presently has a technical affiliation with Richard Childress Racing, and the addition of Dillon, the grandson of company namesake Childress, could either solidify or improve the preexisting relationship.

But Dillon doesn’t offer much beyond the family bond. He ranks 31st in PEER, behind the wheel of the 29th-fastest car, showing a few flashes of his defensive capabilities when restarting from within the first seven rows, a category in which he ranks in the 52nd percentile.

Brandon Jones

The 23-year-old Atlanta native seems a bit of an outside choice to enter the Cup Series, but such a move could mean an increase in sponsorship and manufacturer-supported resources.

Jones’ father is the president of Rheem, currently a Toyota-affiliated sponsor, prominent in recent years on entries driven by Christopher Bell. Despite Jones’ three wins this season in the second-tier Xfinity Series, he lacks the profile of a driver coveted by Joe Gibbs Racing, the OEM’s stalwart organization and ever-present blockade against Toyota’s development driver pipeline; thus, in order to keep Jones (and Rheem) in the fold, a relationship with a new race team could prove beneficial.

Per sources, Toyota had interest in taking on RPM as a new team in advance of 2021, but that was on the promise that Wallace would remain the driver. Though Jones’ appointment wouldn’t be ideal from a competitive standpoint, it’d offer RPM a lifeline for years to come. The single-car team could grow around a driver who’s made strides in his track position procurement habits, albeit against an Xfinity field that saw four of last year’s best drivers graduate to the Cup Series level prior to the start of this season.

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