Carter Give Up? Never

Travis Carter is all but tired of talking about it, tired of answering the questions. He’d rather focus on other things, like getting his race cars going faster.

Instead, he has to wonder about simply getting his race cars to the track. Without sponsorship for his team – which used to consist of two cars – Carter is playing the “Great Sponsorship Hunt.”

And the search for a replacement sponsor has worn on him.

“It’s devastating,” Carter said. “It’s kind of frightening, humbling, all those things.”

Having to talk about it doesn’t help. But when your team races on a week-to-week basis, there are always questions: Is Carter going to be here this weekend? Who is going to drive the car? Who is going to be the sponsor? What about next week? What about next month?

“In my 30-year career as a manager/owner, this is the third time I’ve been in this situation,” Carter said. “The thing that gives me hope is that the majority of the world, the press or whoever probably says, ‘Man, that guy has no chance. They’re done for.’

“But I’ve overcome it twice before. That gives me some encouragement. Right about the time of the Bristol race, we were to the point in negotiating with a sponsor that (they) had gained our bank account information to transfer money. The thing kind of came unraveled.

“The fact that we actually had someone that was that close to doing something is very encouraging. When Kmart dropped the bomb, I said, ‘Gee, whiz, this time of the year, this environment, we won’t even get a nibble.’ But it gives you some hope when you did have somebody interested.”

Carter actually does have a sponsor now. But it’s not for a full season, and it’s only for one car. It doesn’t even involve one of his drivers currently under contract, Joe Nemechek or Todd Bodine.

But it is money coming in. So ARCA champion Frank Kimmel gets to show what he can do in Carter’s No. 26 Ford.

“We’ve got a deal for him to run Talladega and Richmond,” Carter said. “We don’t have anything to do after that. That’s what we’re working desperately to try to locate and pin down.”

Carter said he had talked to Kimmel and sponsors Advance Auto Parts and the National Pork Board for about a year, and after Kmart left the team after the season’s second race, the talk got more serious.

So far, though, there’s nothing brewing for a full season.

“I don’t know,” Carter said. “One thing about Kimmel, he’s committed to the ARCA series. That puts the California race out of reach for him. We’re going to try to find some other sponsors on a one-race basis to run there.”

Nemechek, who raced in the season’s first six races and qualified the car at Martinsville, will be in the No. 26 at California with sponsorship from Checker Auto Parts, the same company who backed Bodine in the Las Vegas race after Bodine won the pole.

“Joe’s going to drive the 26,” Carter said. “If he’s available, he’s the first guy we’ll put in a car if we get a deal. Todd’s still under contract with us. If Joe had other opportunities, Todd would be our next choice.”

Bodine has since signed with Herzog Jackson Motorsports to race the full Busch Series schedule.

Nemechek, meanwhile, is eligible for The Winston at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on May 18, having won with Andy Petree Racing last year. But Carter and Nemechek may not enter the winner’s only event.

“I am a gambler,” Carter said, but “the odds are too far against you doing that. … If I could get enough sponsors to pay for the engine or something, it would make sense. You don’t have a lot of travel costs. Tires would be the biggest expense.”

Kimmel will be back in the car for the Coca-Cola 600 the week after The Winston in a deal announced this week.

After that … the “what-if” game comes back.

“That’s kind of what it’s going to be,” Carter said. “Between now and then, we’re going to work feverishly to try to dig something up. We might find another deal to do five races, but who knows? We’re just not quitting until we have to. That’s what it boils down to.

“There’s a lot of reasons why I don’t want to quit. Don’t need to quit, first of all; don’t want to, secondly.”

Carter’s a realist, though, and he doesn’t want to go bankrupt by funding his team from his own pocket.

“That’s not going to happen any more,” Carter said. “It can’t happen any more. The situation is going to dictate what I do. I won’t dictate the situation.

“We’ve spent some. I don’t know how much. Sometimes, you’re going to knock yourself around and say, ‘Why am I doing that?’ If I were a guy who had enough money to stop, I wouldn’t have done all this. I’m just deep enough in it to be in trouble, that’s what it boils down to. You have to try to continue.”

And he’ll continue as Travis Carter Enterprises, for the time being, not as Haas-Carter Motorsports. In a move that Carter has understandably kept quiet, Carter and partner Carl Haas have gone their separate ways. Haas could rejoin the team in the future, but to keep things simple, it’s Travis Carter Enterprises for now.

“We’ve kind of separated what we’re doing with Haas-Carter,” Carter said. “One reason we did that is just to keep it simple and clean. There’s not advantage to him to be involved in that. The door’s open. We’re kind of still pursuing things jointly. Maybe the opportunity will arise and we can continue to operate as partners, as a group, as a team.”

His team has been hampered by a lack of funds, obviously. Carter said 20-25 crewmen and other employees remain in the shop in Statesville, N.C., but that’s not nearly enough to do a full Winston Cup effort.

“We’ve still got a pretty good group of people to run week-to-week with,” Carter said. “The thing that we really aren’t capable of doing, and quite frankly it’s hurting us, is we don’t have the people preparing us for down the road. That’s part of a race team is, to be prepared down the road. We’re just kind of working week-to-week, and eventually that will take its toll.

“If a sponsor walked in and said, ‘I want to complete the season with you,’ we’d have to step it up quick to really get ourselves in a position to be competitive for the remainder of the year. But we can do that.

“That is a better option than never running again. One thing I’ve battled myself is, ‘Is it better to not run or go and run not as well as you know you can?’ We’ve concluded we’re better off to run and not run as well as you should. I firmly believe that’s still the best position to be in.

“We’re lacking a lot of things. We haven’t done any testing. We’re not doing the development things we need to be doing to grow and expand and be more competitive. Those things tell the tale. It shows in the performance.”

It might be enough to get Carter down, but after 30 years in racing, he understands the roller-coaster ride that is NASCAR. In fact, he’s been through similar situations before. He was crew chief for Mach 1 Racing in 1988 when Harry Gant and Skoal left for another team. And in the early 1990s, Banquet Foods left his team, and Carter had to search for another sponsor.

But this is different, and Carter admits it. There aren’t sponsors lining up to get into Winston Cup like there used to be.

“We don’t have that luxury right now,” Carter said. “There’s not a sponsor available to us that we know about that’s ready to be here. That makes it even harder.”

Carter has several people working on it and has even sought help from NASCAR. Carter himself has decided to take a more active role.

“There’s just something about knowing it first-hand,” Carter said. “One thing, I’m not a very optimistic individual. People will call you, and if you believe what they say, it can be very encouraging. Then the next day or the next week, the reality hits you, and it’s demoralizing. Doing it yourself, you won’t get that.

“Experience tells me how difficult it is. I went through this before 10 years ago. People would call me, and I had a lot of hope and encouragement from a phone conversation or something of that nature. Now, I know to be a lot more cautious. There’s a lot more to it than what appears to be to gain these sponsors. It takes a lot of time. You’re very lucky to make a deal in a quick time.”

After the Coca-Cola 600, Carter faces the prospect of shutting down again. There’s even a possibility of giving up on 2002 to get ready for 2003. NASCAR has told Carter there are potentially more sponsors available for next year.

So Carter will keep working, will keep his head above water. Winston Cup racing is a big part of his life, and he doesn’t want to go away.

“I don’t spend a lot of worry, but I spend a lot of work on it,” Carter said. “I’m past the worrying stage. When all of these things start happening around you, you kind of go into a panic mode. I’ve told people, it’s almost a numbing experience. But then you realize, I’ve got one of two options: I can just run and hide or I can say, ‘The only hope we have is to stand up and fight and work,’ and that’s what we’ve chosen to do.’

“We’ve got people that still work there for us, have stayed with it and will stay with it until it either succeeds or it’s over. That’s a tremendous commitment.

“As bad as it is, there could be something a lot worse. You have to remind yourself every day: This is just a job and a business. On the personal side, I’ve been very fortunate. I’m not complaining.”

And he’ll keep telling his story, as long as people want to listen.

“I still feel privileged that there’s enough interest for people to come and sit and ask me about it,” Carter said. “If I said it 10 times to 10 different people every day, I still feel better that you came in here and asked me about it rather than walk by and never looked.”

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