Bob Leavine of Tyler joked that after an initial sip of NASCAR at a Driver Experience at Texas Motor Speedway in the early 2000s, he immediately developed an addiction. But rather than hit rock bottom, he merely took out his shovel and dug the hole deeper.
Instead of getting out, five years ago he started his own team on NASCAR’s premier tour, the Sprint Cup Series.
“Along the way, stupidity got involved, not knowing when to say ‘uncle,’” cracked Leavine, 71, founder of GRL, a general contracting business in East Texas. “People say ‘why didn’t you kind of work up?’ I go back to the stupidity issue. I said, ‘hey, why not Sprint Cup? It’s the elite series.’
“I don’t know, maybe it’s us guys and testosterone. I go back to that meeting with Roush Fenway [to buy cars and engines]. I was walking out of their office and I said, ‘oh, by the way, I think I need a crew chief, too.’”
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He’s learned quite a bit since that January of 2011. Leavine Family Racing made eight races that season, the first at TMS in April. Leavine’s first taste of ownership was in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, sponsoring David Starr in a few races.
The team, with driver Michael McDowell and crew chief Wally Rogers, will do 20 this year in the No. 95 Ford Fusion, boosted by sponsorships with Thrivent Financial and K-Love, a Christian radio station. McDowell, a 30-year-old Arizona native, started 39th in Saturday’s Duck Commander 500.
Is it fair to call you a mom-and-pop business, considering the behemoths of NASCAR, such as Hendrick and Gibbs, et al.? From Day One, it was important — the way we run our construction company — to be professional. We wanted NASCAR to see us and believe these guys are going to attempt to do it right. Yes, in essence, it’s a mom-and-pop because it started as a family operation. We watch over it like mom and pop do. It maybe represents the independent Texas spirit. ‘Let us do our thing. We’ll do it right. Trust us.’
How were you accepted by the big guys? Let me share this with you, it’s intimidating. New guys, small team. We had seven on our team, total. And you have these mega-million organizations … it’s intimidating. I’m not so sure it’s that they didn’t accept us. It was me being comfortable where we were.
Yet, you had a good informal meeting with Chad Knaus? One of the cool things, go back to that very first race in Texas in 2011 in April. I was in the workout room at the Speedway Club and Chad Knaus is in there. I introduced myself and told him what I was doing. In the five years now, he stops by and comes by the hauler. After that very first meeting, he said, ‘Anything I can do, let me know.’ I really appreciated that.
Why did you hire Michael McDowell? Scott Speed was a Formula One driver looking to get into NASCAR and he did a really good job for us for two years. Last year, we decided to make a change. We interviewed four drivers. I had met Michael three years ago. We chatted about mutual things, about our faith. Our family had watched Michael in the garage, the way he was around fans — he stops, talks, visits, signs autographs — that just melded with what we wanted to do. It was unanimous that this young man would be good for our team.
What has surprised you the most? The technology. Even fans who have watched for 20 years, they don’t really understand the technology in this sport and I didn’t have a clue. [I thought] you put a big engine in a really cool car and go fast. It isn’t that way.