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ThorSport's third Truck Series team took commitment

Michael Truax • Jul 17, 2011 at 12:39 AM

Before adding a new Truck Series team, the ThorSport leadership asked itself a basic question: Should they?

Though the question was simple, the answer was not. It just raised more difficult questions.

Can they do it? Do they want to do it? Are they prepared to do it? Is it possible to insert that third full-time team without affecting the first two? Will they be able to find the right people?

ThorSport's concerns were compounded by the timing. It was the middle of the season, and they were already running two successful NASCAR Camping World Truck Series teams.

The leadership at ThorSport went back and forth daily for a month. In the end, team owner Duke Thorson committed to building the team.

"We started burning up the phone," ThorSport general manager David Pepper said. "Getting a transporter, buying trucks, getting parts. It's been a nonstop UPS truck drop-off of pieces and parts."

And there were a lot of parts that go into running a NASCAR team. The largest piece of equipment, though not always the most obvious, was the hauler -- The massive transporter that carries two trucks, the main and the backup, to each race.

Not only does it carry the trucks, the hauler is a workshop on wheels. It carries everything needed to do serious triage when necessary, nearly every part that goes into a racing truck. It also serves as a home base for the teams, with a sizable, comfortable lounge toward the front of the trailer.

Lay out $320,000 for the trailer, $120,000 for the rig to haul it, plus the specialized cabinetry for the equipment, and the price tag comes close to half a million dollars before a nut or bolt is put in the drawers or diesel in the tank.

In the first month, Pepper said, the team spent nearly $1 million on parts to field the new team.

ThorSport chose their people carefully. They would only work with a driver and sponsor that would field a competitive team full-time.

"If it was just to have one ride around in the back we wouldn't do it," Pepper said. "We've had a lot of drivers and sponsors and teams approach us about running a third race team part time or full time, but when you look at it, it wasn't a driver or sponsor or a situation that was going to be long-term, and it wasn't a situation where they were going to be competitive and help bring information and a chance to win to our existing program."

They were fortunate to find Dakoda Armstrong, a quiet, lanky 19-year-old from New Castle, Ind., who would look just as appropriate wandering the halls of Perkins High School, just down Campbell Street from ThorSport.

"The first thought when you meet him is, 'Is this the race car driver?'" Pepper said. "Then he gets in the car and you watch the car go around the racetrack, whether it be sprint cars or (United States Auto Club) stuff or ARCA stuff, and you quickly recognize, 'Wow, this young man is pretty good.'"

Though he is still young, Armstrong has proven his skill on the track. He has over 200 feature victories in smaller series, starting with a 1998 World Karting Association national championship. In 2009 he paired up with Kerry Scherer and Penske Racing, for whom he won the 2010 ARCA Rookie of the Year award, including trips to victory lane at Talladega and Salem, Ind.

Armstrong had another major advantage: He came to ThorSport with sponsorship by propane giant Ferrellgas and Agrisure Viptera 3111, a specialized corn seed produced by Syngenta. The Agrisure partnership fit with Armstrong, whose family owns 7,800 acres of land growing corn for ethanol and soybeans.

With sponsorship in hand, Armstrong was searching the market himself for the right team.

"Finding sponsorship midseason is nearly impossible," said ThorSport's Matt LaNeve, in charge of managing the teams' sponsorships. "The good news is (the team) picked us. That's the important part of the story. They could have went anywhere, taken their money anywhere they wanted."

ThorSport also had to assemble a crew for the No. 98 team, finding specialists in body fabrication, wiring, engines for the new team.

The crew, with only a few weeks working together so far, won't be going over the wall for the first few races -- ThorSport has hired a pit crew put together by D.J. Copp, a NASCAR pit specialist. The No. 98 crew just hasn't had the practice time yet to be truly competitive.

"Those guys do practice like two-a-days, just like football, every day," Pepper said. "Clearly, we haven't had that time with building this new team up for this group of 8-10 guys to be able to practice together. I don't want to handicap them at the race, because they're going to have a fast truck."

But as of Thursday, ThorSport had one major piece still missing: the crew chief. They were being selective.

"We've obviously got two outstanding crew chiefs here, two really good race teams with the No. 13 and the No. 88, and we want to find that mix where we've got a guy that comes in and doesn't need to reinvent the wheel. We're doing pretty well," Pepper said. "We want a guy that makes the commitment to move to northern Ohio, is going to stay here, grow with the team. This is not a short-term 'stay here, work for six months and be gone' kind of program. It's just taking a little time to find that right guy."

ThorSport had another concern with a temporary crew chief: They didn't want to share their race notes with someone who would possibly join another team weeks later, but it wouldn't be fair to withhold that information from the No. 98 team as it prepared for the first few races.

They brought in Lance Hooper, who worked with ThorSport and Willie Allen a few years ago. Hooper was out of the racing business and could be trusted with the team's secrets. For the setup, the No. 98 team is getting help from the crew chiefs from the Nos. 13 and 88 teams, Joe Shear Jr. and Bud Haefle.

And the three ThorSport teams had another challenge running concurrently -- They were still in the process of renovating a dilapidated former slaughterhouse into their new 100,000-square-foot state-of-the-art garage and moving everything into the new place.

"You tell these guys, like (Monday) night, when it's 10 o'clock at night and we're moving the race shops ... It's hot, it's humid, and we're not used to that in this part of the country," Pepper said. "We've worked all day and we're on our 17th hour of the day of work. There's two kinds of race teams: The ones that are dying, and the ones that are growing. We're on one that's growing. We can be part of something very special here."

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