#63 TEAM SUSPENDS OPERATIONS, PYLE SIDELINED By Mike Twist
WalTom Owners Make Tough Decision to Focus on Leicht's Team
The uncertainty surrounding the future of the ASA National Tour has forced one of the tour’s most prominent teams to scale back their racing operations. The WalTom Racing #63 entry, driven by Robbie Pyle, has been parked for now. The team finished off their season on Friday night at the Atlanta Motor Speedway (GA).
“Right now we are suspending the operations of the #63 team,” said John Mulvenna, General Manager of WalTom Racing. “We can always start things right up again if ASA comes back and a sponsor can be found, but for now, we’ve had to lay off some crew members and we are looking to liquidate some equipment. Like a lot of other people in the series, we’ve needed to cut our costs right down to the bone.”
MAKING THE DECISION
The decision was an agonizing one to make, especially when thinking of the impact that closing shop would have on his employees
“This is really a sad day for WalTom Racing,” said Tom Gleitsman, who owns the team along with his brother Wally. “It’s not fun for Wally and I to make this decision.
“Our #1 concern with this team has always been our people. The safety of our drivers and our crew members was the first priority and winning was our second one. We’ve notified our shop personnel and crew chief of what we are doing and it’s very hard to do. We’re very grateful to our employees and how they stood by us. We feel that our organization is our people. This was a very tough decision, but with the state of ASA as it is right now, we didn’t have any alternative.”
The driver of the #63 fully knows that.
“We had nothing going on,” said Pyle. “There were no plans and we were waiting to see what would happen. We had no choice.”
The #63 team won at Mansfield Motorsports Speedway (OH) this season and finished eighth in the 2004 ASA point standings. Pyle was a championship contender for much of the year, but a late season run of bad luck, that started with getting into a wreck with a lapped car at Jennerstown Speedway (PA) in August, dropped him back in the standings.
“I was a tough year in several ways,” added Pyle. “I was actually pretty glad to get the season over with.”
The #63 team of Robbie Pyle faces an uncertain future.
ASA’S PROBLEMS (AND STRENGTHS) THROUGH THE YEAR
Whether changes in the ASA National Tour will force more teams to change racing divisions or close up altogether is not clear at this point. Two-time ASA Champion Gary St. Amant jumped ship to the USAR ProCup Series before the season started. The second Country Joe Racing team with driver Joey Miller left ASA full-time early in the summer after the series’ problems surfaced and they have since formed an alliance with Hagans Racing to compete full-time in ARCA for 2005. Mike Cope gave up a top five points perch in June to retreat to Florida and compete in several big Super Late Model shows. Travis Kittleson and Todd Kluever also skipped single events due in part to the troubles.
ASA Owner Steve Dale told Speed 51’s Bob Dillner last week at Atlanta that although ASA is still looking for a title sponsor, their plans are up in the air at this point.
“It’s tough. We can’t do next year what we did this year and we all know that,” said Dale. “We are going to have to find a permanent solution and then move on. We are going to have to do this quickly because others are going to have to make their decisions based on that.”
At this point, it is not even clear if there will be an ASA next season.
“I will go on the record and say that in the next 30 days, I need to make it all come together or be on the beach,” said Dale. “It is about that simple for me.”
This comes after what has been a trying season for the teams of ASA’s flagship series, the National Tour.
Purse cuts, cancellation of the Speed Channel television schedule and two dropped races (Oxford, Maine and Pikes Peak, Colorado) from the schedule took its toll on teams throughout the season.
...While a season ending wreck at Atlanta was one of the low points.
“This wasn’t a very fun year for any of the teams,” said Mulvenna. “It has not been a pleasurable experience not knowing if you are going racing or not, not knowing if you will be getting paid or not, having the races get shortened and the rules changing. Nothing positive has happened in 2004 except for Humpy Wheeler stepping forward and making sure that the teams would get paid for the last few races. He showed that he’s a man of good character to us all.”
“It was definitely a really hard year because of what was going on,” said Pyle. “It was hard to keep the sponsors happy because ASA was a television-based series and
and losing that leads to lost interest from owners and sponsors. We had to work really hard to keep our sponsors happy and it was frustrating.”
Without TV exposure and with fewer races on the schedule, the team needed to find creative ways to give their sponsors their money’s worth.
“We expanded our sponsorship with Citgo to the #4 car (after losing the televised events) and we added show car appearances and personal appearances to help make things up for them,” said Gleitsman. “We also stepped up our fund raising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association with Citgo. We tried to raise $100,000 and then match that and we’ve almost reached our goal there.”
In fact, even continuing in the series was more of an emotional decision that a dollars and cents one for WalTom’s owners.
“I have been in this sport for many years as an owner, spectator and sponsor. This series has great venues to develop drivers and to give veterans a great place to race. We had the best crew out there and a steady and smooth driver in Robbie. Financially, we should have closed the team down as a business decision during the season. We probably should have only run one team. But we love this series and had a meeting with our teams and decided to continue on. We didn’t want to lose the great people that we had, so we were hoping for the best.”
Another key member of the WalTom organization also points out the bonds that were formed by competitors as a bright spot in the stormy season.
“The series has gotten a lot of bad press and lost respect this year,” said Howie Lettow, a veteran in the series and current crew chief of WalTom’s #4 car of Stephen Leicht. “That’s too bad. I’ve been around ASA for over 20 years and I’ve seen a lot of growth and change. Even when things were bad this year, the car owners stuck together and tried to make it work. The car counts stayed high even went the purses weren’t getting paid. I can’t blame Steve Dale 100 percent. Some things were out of his control and he counted on things that didn’t end up happening. I do think that he should have been more above the board with us though.”
The events of the year has eroded much of the respect that Dale has had from his competitors.
“Whether we can trust the current management of ASA, I don’t know,” said Gleitsman. “We were promised many things that never happened. I’m disappointed in Steve Dale. I know that he put his heart and soul into this, but how things ended up like they did is a mystery to me.
WALTOM STANDS BY ROBBIE, HAS BIG
PLANS FOR LEICHT
WalTom is standing by their drivers. Pyle might not have a ride for the moment, but he does have the support of his owners.
“We are helping Robbie take over the sign business that he runs,” said Mulvenna. “That is technically part of the race team right now. We are helping him build his business so that he has a primary income outside of racing. He’s been doing that for a long time and we are helping him grow.”
“For the next couple of months, my main priority is going to be the sign business,” said Pyle. “I don’t have any racing plans for next year yet. I’ll see what happens and I’m sure that I’ll be something.”
The hiatus that the #63 team is now on will not directly affect the other WalTom entry. The #4 car is driven by 17-year-old Stephen Leicht under the banner of WalTom Racing Development. Leicht finished 10th in points during his rookie 2004 campaign.
Even though the #4 team is still in operation, they are not sure where they will be racing in 2005. Part of this is due to the ASA changes and part of it is because of negotiations between Leicht and a major NASCAR team.
“We are committed to developing Stephen,” said Gleitsman. “He is very close to having a potential affiliation with a major team and we are hoping to be including in continuing his development as a driver. We would like to be involved in giving him more seat time. We have experienced people involved and good seasoned guys working with him.
“Robbie has helped Stephen a lot. He has expressed an interest in continuing to help him out and his involvement would be a great help to Stephen being able to further his racing career.”
The process of Leicht aligning himself with a NASCAR organization is well underway.
“The lawyers are working on the paperwork (with Stephen and his future team) right now,” said Mulvenna. “We’ll be running Stephen in a car as well next year and the hardest part is trying to figure out where that will be. USAR ProCup and ARCA cost more money to run than ASA. So that’s what we are looking at right now.”
“We’ll have a driver development program,” said Gleitsman. “We would sure like for it to be in ASA, but we are looking at USAR Pro Cup and ARCA as well.”
Not knowing where the team will race next makes planning for 2005 a challenge.
“There is so much up in the air this time of year normally,” said Lettow. “The problems with ASA right now make that even more so. We don’t know yet if we are going to be running ASA again next season or some other series. We are committed to running Stephen another year, but we don’t have any firm plans yet on where that will be yet. That will be the owners’ decision to make. I know that they are talking with a few sponsors and we’ll just have to have a wait and see attitude.
“I wish that we did know something. I'd like to get a jump on the season if we could.”
Despite the tough 2004 season, Lettow was impressed with how the teams of the series continued to try and make the most of things in negative environments during the year.
“Even after the purse cuts and all of that happened, ASA was still the best deal in town,” said Lettow. “I think that is why so many people stuck with it. The loyalty of these owners is great. They want to see it succeed.”
GETTING THROUGH A TOUGH TIME AND WHAT’S NEXT?
Since Lettow has been around the series for so long, it is especially painful for him to watch what is now happening.
“Rex and Brian (Robbins) both put a lot into this series and I hate to see it get torn down,” said Lettow of the former ASA Series owners.
“(Wally and Tom) are committed to this though. They could have pulled the plug on both teams when the purses weren’t paid this year and they didn’t. I know that nobody feels worse about closing down the #63 team than they do. When I joined with them before the beginning of the season, I knew that they had a great reputation and I’ve seen why this year. They’ve stood behind us; they don’t meddle or second guess us at all. I couldn’t think of any better owners to work with.”
What happens next with the #63 team is up in the air. Altogether, WalTom has five ASA National Tour cars, an ASA Late Model and seven to eight engines.
“That equipment is very ASA specific,” said Gleitsman. “We sure would like to be able to use it.”
One thing that is certain however is who will be in the driver’s seat if and when the team can regroup.
“If there is going to be a #63 team, Robbie will be our pilot,” said Gleitsman. “I hope that we can stay in business and just take some time to regroup.”
Winning at Mansfield was a highlight of Pyle's season...
The #63 has been a fixture of ASA for several seasons.
Pyle talks with John Andretti at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Right now, the #4 team of Leicht is the future of WalTom Racing.
The management of WalTom hopes to have both team running again as soon as circumstances allow that to happen.