Big Machine Label Group President and CEO Scott Borchetta has been successful in nearly every aspect of life, so starting up a NASCAR Xfinity Series team on the fly shouldn’t be too difficult, right?
Thinking that would be one of the biggest misconceptions about Big Machine Racing, which debuted in the Xfinity Series in February at Daytona International Speedway. Just two months earlier, there was no glimmer the team would even exist.
“It started off like the Bad News Bears — you‘re standing on third base with a glove,” Borchetta, Big Machine Racing team owner and founder,told Jayski.com. “Everything came together quickly.”
In mid-December, Borchetta reached out to Patrick Donahue, who he met last year through mutual friend Ray Evernham, to see if he thought there was enough time to start a team. Last season, Donahue was the full-time crew chief for Joe Graf Jr. at SS GreenLight Racing, where road course racer Jade Buford made three starts for the team, with sponsorship through Big Machine Distillery.
The connection came naturally. Buford is Borchetta’s driver coach for the Trans Am TA2 series that he competes in. The duo met at Circuit of The Americas just three years ago, when Buford was hoping to hitch a ride to the airport. Little did he know that Borchetta was flying his private jet back to Nashville, which is where Buford also resided.
Buford cancelled his commercial flight home.
From there, Buford and Borchetta formed a relationship. Ultimately, the driver wanted to hop over to NASCAR because he’s experienced the rush of many forms of racing, having success in multiple series. But the thought of banging fenders, while slinging around a track at high speeds was appealing.
“The racing is the biggest attraction to me,” Buford said. “In sports cars, we have something called BOP (balance performance) and you can literally get punished for being fast.”
Borchetta crunched the numbers over the offseason and wasn’t sure he’d get the bang for his buck backing Buford with another team. So he made an investment and purchased RSS Racing’s entire second team: Cars, motors and points.
From there, it was heads down and grind it out in order to make it to Daytona.
“I was already going to sponsor Jade, so we had that piece of business put together,” Borchetta said. “We didn‘t have to scramble to find a sponsor. So looking at the assets and everything, it‘s like, ‘Guys, we know how to race. Let‘s figure out how to get our cars on the track and we‘ll work backwards for everything else.””
Borchetta leaned heavily on Donahue’s experience to get the team off the ground. Even Donahue questioned whether or not the team would be ready with less than two months until Daytona.
“Honest to God, on January 1, we had nothing,” Donahue said. “We didn‘t have racecars, bump stops, people, nothing. We had nothing that said we could go to Daytona in February.”
Quite honestly, Borchetta is too busy to give the No. 48 team his full attention. He needed someone like Donahue to pull the reins of the team in order for it to have success.
“I said, ‘Look, I don‘t have the time or the oxygen or the desire to come over and run the team,”” Borchetta said of his conversation with Donahue. “I want to make sure Jade is taken care of.
“There will be a time that I think I am more involved. But Patrick and I talk almost every day. I am engaged on a level — I know what‘s going on. It‘s not like I don‘t know what‘s going on. I‘m just not there to operate it, nor do I want to be.”
The team was able to gather together seven employees, which Donahue added was the most challenging part of starting a new team.
Even knowing that there was a team intact, that doesn’t account for Buford having no prior experience on oval racetracks. During Speedweeks, Donahue was able to put together a deal for Buford to run at New Smyrna Speedway in a late model, just to get a feel for oval racing.
But because Buford had no oval experience in NASCAR, he wasn’t qualified to run in the season opener at Daytona. Big Machine Racing elected to put Camping World Truck Series competitor Danny Bohn behind the wheel, making his series debut.
Buford made his 2021 debut one week later at the Daytona road course, which was in his element. The No. 48 team ran well, but had a truck arm break and finished a disappointing 36th. But the real test was at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Buford’s first shot on an oval — a tricky one at that.
Having to run the wall, Buford was able to keep all his fenders on the car and finish 20th. Not too shabby for his first time on an oval.
“He‘s figured it out pretty quick,” Donahue said of Buford. “At the end of the day, he‘s a racecar driver and we put a plan together before the race and know where we want to be through the different stages of the race and he learns and then we go racing at the end.”
By not having practice nor qualifying at the majority of the races, Buford is oftentimes entering these races blind. He prepares for each event by watching videos and looking at SMT data. He’s also leaned heavily on Austin Cindric, who was his co-driver in 2015 running sports cars in IMSA, picking up their first win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park .
“That‘s a deep end of the pool to get into,” Cindric said of Buford moving to the Xfinity Series with no prior oval experience. “He helped me a lot when I was a lot younger, and now the shoe is on the other foot, given my experience level. It‘s been fun to hear the questions because it‘s not like a guy who has short track experience or someone that‘s come from late models or ARCA, it‘s a guy who has a background similar to mine and some of the questions he asks are questions I feel like only I can answer for him because it wouldn‘t make sense to anyone else.”
The transition to racing ovals hasn’t been easy, though.
“It‘s probably, no lie, the hardest thing I‘ve ever done,” Buford said. “I come from a background of sports car racing and have done that for over a decade.
“I‘m just trying to do what I‘ve done over the last 10 years and trying to learn new tracks and learning how to go fast, then applying the same thing every weekend. It‘s definitely been the biggest challenge ever.”
Through 19 races, Buford sits 23rd in the championship standings, 37 points outside the top 20. Big Machine Racing sits 24th in the owner standings, and can taste the top 20 (32 points below).
— Big Machine Racing (@bigmchnracing) July 11, 2021
Overall, it’s been a successful opening half of the season.
“I think it‘s turned a couple of heads with how well we‘ve done with all things considered,” Buford added. “This team has a lot to be proud of for giving me a good car, going out there and learning with it. And when I do learn, I can actually go fast and start making passes.”
The team owner is pleased as well, knowing the No. 48 team is only going to improve.
“We‘re right where we‘re supposed to be and we‘re only going to get better,” Borchetta said. “I wouldn‘t be surprised if we‘re in the top 20 by the end of the season. I think we‘re beating all the cars we‘re supposed to be beating.
“As we go back to these tracks, we‘re going to be a top-15 contender every time out and we‘re going to get a couple of top 10s. I feel confident that that will happen.”
Donahue has been happy to see the progression as well. But being involved in racing since he was 13, he tends to look at what could have gone better. He points to the road courses, where the team has two DNFs due to part failures.
At the same time, he thinks back to races like Texas Motor Speedway in June, where the team had a flawless day and finished with a 16th-place finish. At Nashville Superspeedway, the No. 48 Chevrolet qualified ninth, which was another high spot. But Donahue says the team is building blocks, proving to each other the team can have success.
— Big Machine Racing (@bigmchnracing) June 19, 2021
“The day didn‘t end really well, but it didn‘t matter,” Donahue said of Nashville. “It‘s just one of those things of, ‘We can do this.‘ I‘m proud of where we‘ve built this.”
As for the future of Big Machine Racing, Borchetta is excited by what it could build into. Despite being based out of Nashville, he’s aiming for his team to stay in the Charlotte area, currently renting a race shop out of Mooresville. Straight up, he thinks it would be a disservice to leave the NASCAR hub and be hours away.
Borchetta also doesn’t want to expand too quickly just to do it. He isn’t ruling out one day moving to the Cup Series, either, but wants to see how the Next Gen car plays out.
“If you were to have asked me two years ago if I thought we‘d have our own team, I wouldn‘t have said yes, but I also leave the door open,” he said. “I‘ve built all of my companies out of gut and when it felt like the right time. Right now, it feels like the right time for us to be in Xfinity.”
But he does expect to have more of a foundation next season, adding a general manager and other potential employees.
There’s also the possibility of forming an alliance with another race team.
Borchetta said, “We‘re working on another big deal to plug into a bigger team. So if we‘re able to pull off that opportunity, we‘ll be able to really have all of our backroom needs taken care of.”
For now, though, the focus is to finish the season strong. The potential, however, is limitless.
“We eventually want to be a top team,” Buford added. “There‘s no doubt in my mind that‘s the common goal from everybody that comes into this hauler, all the way up to Scott. We have aspirations of being able to beat the Kaulig [Racing] cars and being competitive against [Team] Penske and the Toyota teams. That‘s our goal.”
The Xfinity Series heads to consecutive events on road courses beginning this weekend at Watkins Glen International. Borchetta believes this stretch of racing is a prime opportunity for the team to earn its first top-10 finish.