DENVER — If you hunt for the address, be ready to tap the brakes when the GPS says you’re close. There is no sign that offers a hint of what’s inside, but look carefully, the outlier is wedged right in there, in between so many workaday lives, the punched timecards and rolled-up sleeves.
The trains rumble by with watch-setting regularity, down the street from the tent and canvas outfit, a coffee stop or two. It’s a don’t-mind-me white building with, fitting it seems, two red racing stripes of sorts across the front.
Inside are the Colorado yankees in King Richard’s Court, your Monster Energy NASCAR Cup points leaders, a mile above sea level, 850 miles west of the Mississippi River and with a postcard view of the Rocky Mountains out the front windshield on every drive home. Furniture Row Racing has Martin Truex Jr. at the top of the playoffs as November approaches with his teammate Erik Jones out of the playoffs but running well, also, and the team has done it with a quick-witted mix of NASCAR veterans and Colorado natives and by, as they say, learning their lessons along the way.
“If you would have asked me 15 years ago if I could be standing in a shop in Denver, Colorado, with this many good people all working so hard with a team doing so well in NASCAR? I’ll be honest, I would have said ‘no way in hell’,” said shop chief Johnny Roten. “But live and learn, I guess. And I want to tell you I’ve learned this is a great place to be.”
After Truex’s win in Charlotte on Sunday, six races remain in the season to decide a champion. Here’s a look at how the only top-level NASCAR team to west of North Carolina has made it all work:
We get the last 12 feet of the truck
Stick the pins in a map of which teams are where and it’s abundantly clear the hub of the NASCAR wheel is in, and around, Charlotte, North Carolina.
The pin in Denver reveals a substantial gap between that one and the rest — something called the rest of the country. While the bulk of Furniture Row Racing’s employees work in Denver, the race-day crew works out of Joe Gibbs Racing back in North Carolina. The team also gets its chassis from JGR.
So, there are times — as in a lot — when they need to ship things, everything from documents to parts, from Colorado to North Carolina.
“And by times I think you could say we discovered we needed to every week,” said competition director Pete Rondeau. “So we tried some things, talked about some things, kicked around some ideas and we came to the conclusion our owner runs a large furniture company with a truck on a route from Denver to North Carolina every week. So, we get the last 12 feet of the truck, out to North Carolina every week and then back here.”
That’s where the “black boxes” come in. The two, indeed painted black and each about the size of a compact car, are loaded on a tractor-trailer with a variety of furniture destined for a variety of homes. Two black boxes are shipped from Denver each week and two more come back from North Carolina.
“It seems to work just fine for us,” Rondeau said. “It’s all part of the trial and error. Not every idea we’ve had works, but we’ve found some that work for us.”
We checked the Facebook page
A team in NASCAR that is two time zones away from most of the rest of NASCAR is simply not going to be entirely populated by those with experience in somebody else’s shop or who have dreamed of helping to build a car that can turn the fastest lap at Bristol Motor Speedway because they were in the stands at Bristol as a teenager.
Sprinkled throughout the Furniture Row Racing shop are certainly those who have moved west to be with the team, but there are also those who joined because it is in Colorado. Tyra Pry went to Smoky Hill High School in suburban Denver and graduated from Metro State in downtown Denver.
She is one of the team’s engineers, a car lover who, as an aspiring, shall we say determined hopeful, never let a chance slip by to send the team’s decision-makers an email to say how interested she would be to work for them. Over and over again, Rondeau said, “I kept seeing these emails.”
Then Pry got herself on the weekly Thursday morning tour the team offers to those in the general public who sign up. Pry went patiently through the tour with a plan and was prepared.
“I had my résumé, what I called my portfolio, some of the things I thought I could do,” Pry said. “And when the tour ended, I gave it all to them thinking that was that … at that point I thought it was a pipe dream.”
Her qualifications gave them pause, they remembered the emails and then team engineer Matt Faulkner said “we checked the Facebook page.”
And there, among the photos Pry had posted for public view was a shot of her standing inside a car frame, changing out the engine in a Nissan Altima.
“The funny thing was I had interviewed for a job at an auto parts company at the same time and was kind of prepared to do that while I continued to try to get something like this,” Pry said. “So, I kind of ended up holding them off a bit after I got an interview here and then ended up calling them saying, ‘I don’t think I can start there because I just got a job with a NASCAR team.'”
Right when I walked the grid at Daytona
Chad Krauch loves cars, always has, for as long as he can remember growing up in Loveland, Colorado. He graduated from Loveland High School and finished out his college degree at Colorado State.
“I worked short track at Colorado National (Speedway) and sure you dream of NASCAR in that situation,” said Krauch, who is an engine technician. “But I started college at UNLV and just decided I wanted to be back in Colorado. I love it here, I want to stay here and when you’re looking at kind of what you’re going to do for a living, I guess I was at a point that my desire to live here outweighed any dream of NASCAR.”
Then Furniture Row Racing opened its doors and Krauch found his way through them, first “just sweeping floors, whatever,” then on the team’s road crew that travels from Denver to the race site each week to his current job on the engine crew.
“You always wonder if your job you want the most is going to be where you want to live the most,” Krauch said. “Here I am, but it didn’t seem real, really real, until right when I walked the grid at Daytona. Unbelievable.”
Tuesday’s my new Thursday
Roten is old-school NASCAR with stops along the way that include Evernham Racing as well as a stint with NASCAR Hall of Fame member Junior Johnson. In the end his job, like everyone’s in the shop, is to make fast cars.
Those cars also have to get to where the races are. The geography is, well, undeniable.
“We usually have farther to go than everybody else does,” Roten said. “Other than Vegas, or Sonoma, we have to get our car on the truck sooner than everybody else does. So, you adjust. That’s why Tuesday’s my new Thursday.”
That’s why no ifs, ands or — yeah — buts, the team has to have the cars Truex and Jones will drive that weekend ready to go before the last minute of Tuesday has turned into the first minutes of Wednesday.
That’s how they live, it’s all there on the screens scattered through the garage. The ones with each car — 12 for each team — marked for the date it has to be ready, where it is right now in the shop and what kind of track it will race on.
They are all designated “SS” for superspeedway, “DF” for down force or “RC” for road course.
“That’s our life right there,” Rondeau said.
“If I was back in North Carolina, I knew I could put the car on the truck on Thursday and go racing,” Roten said. “We don’t have that, but we built our weeks different. We’re all OK with that, we like it and we just know how we need to do it. Granted, if I want to put the car in a wind tunnel, that’s 1,500 miles from here.
“So we plan, we work and we do it the way we need to. Why not? Hell, maybe a few years from now more people will see it can be done and do it someplace else. We can be like explorers, maybe. Or we can be the only team out here doing it this way with our people. We’re OK with that, too.”