Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice sat down at a LongHorn Steakhouse in Salisbury, N.C. Kaulig, who owns LeafFilter Gutter Protection, just started sponsoring Blake Koch in the Nascar Xfinity Series.
Koch, racing for a small TriStar Motorsports team that seldom broke the top 15, wanted more. So did Kaulig, who started pouring in a significant amount of money into his Nascar sponsorship. Koch facilitated the meeting with the two, knowing Rice’s history of developing young drivers into top prospects, including Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman.
“We hit it off,” Rice, who has earned one win as a crew chief, said. “It was like May, and he wasn’t ready to own a race team yet.”
Kaulig began meeting with Nascar team owners to get an idea of what it would take to start an organization. By early November, he picked up the phone and called Rice.
“Do you still want to start a race team?” Kaulig asked Rice.
“You know it’s the first of November, right?” Rice responded.
“So? Let’s make this happen,” Kaulig boldly said.
Just like that, Kaulig Racing was born prior to the 2016 season. Rice signed on to be the No. 11 car’s crew chief and the team’s general manager. By 2018, Kaulig promoted him to be the team president and since then, Kaulig Racing is one of the Xfinity Series’ strongest organizations.
The mentality at Kaulig Racing is as laidback as it gets. They are determined to win races, but Rice wants everyone to have fun at the same time. Every week, he’ll jump on the team radio and make his drivers laugh in the middle of a race just to keep them on their toes.
Kaulig is already expanding into the Cup Series, running a partial schedule in 2021 in preparation of going full-time racing in 2022. The Ohio native believes that not only will Kaulig Racing be a force to be reckoned with in Nascar’s premier division, but that his team will do things differently by giving people opportunities they can’t find at other organizations.
“It’s gratifying to see everything and everybody grow,” Kaulig said. “We want our guys to stay. We’d love to have an Xfinity program and then, when we do go Cup racing, feed them right up to the Cup team.”
Since Rice’s promotion, Kaulig Racing went from one Xfinity Series entry to three full-time teams this season, with Justin Haley, Jeb Burton and AJ Allmendinger competing for the 2021 championship. The Chevrolet-backed team works closely with Richard Childress Racing, with a shop just off of the major organization’s campus.
Kaulig purchased a second shop recently, specifically to focus on building a Cup Series team. They now have 59 employees, with most of the original eight team members staying on to be part of what they say is a historic jump.
The team’s cars are purchased from Richard Childress Racing, and the relationship between the two organizations will only help Kaulig Racing as the team prepares for the future.
“The reason we want to do these races is we need to get a presence in the Cup garage,” Rice said. “We have to let everybody know Kaulig Racing is for real. We want to understand Cup racing.”
Rookie Kaz Grala drove his way into the Daytona 500 for Kaulig Racing thanks to a partnership with Hyperice, a global recovery and movement enhancement technology company specializing in vibration, percussion and thermal technology.
Grala, piloting a Cup car for only the second time, led 10 laps under a caution period during the rain-delayed race. Though he cut a tire and finished in the garage in 28th, the solid performance is exactly what Kaulig and Rice wanted out of the 22-year-old.
“He’s young, energetic, excited and it’s contagious,” Kaulig said. “We really look forward to more races with Kaz. He’s been a great addition to the team.”
Hyperice is expanding its wings into the sports realm in a massive way, too, as of late. In late February, Hyperice partnered with the Los Angeles Lakers to become the official recovery technology sponsor for the team. Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs also uses Hyperice.
The Daytona 500 went so well for Kaulig and Hyperice that the firm signed on to back Allmendinger in the second Cup race of the year at Daytona’s road course. Hyperice is currently discussing a long-term plan with Kaulig Racing, a Hyperice spokesperson said.
The event, Allmendinger’s first Cup start since November of 2018, would be pressure packed. The veteran driver hung up his helmet for the TV booth and to run only a partial Xfinity Series schedule, but Kaulig convinced him to return for a full-time Xfinity slate in 2021.
“AJ feels like he’s part of us,” Rice said. “He’s part of the Kaulig family. He’s part of building a program that’s successful and was successful last year.”
Allmendinger shook the dust off and went right to work, soaring through the field from the 34th starting position to the front of the pack by lap 29. He ended the day in seventh, giving Kaulig Racing its first Cup Series top-10 finish in its third start.
The Pursuit Of A Cup Charter
Kaulig Racing wants to go full-time Cup Series racing in 2022. But in order to do so, they need to acquire a charter.
The process of doing so began last summer, when Rice and Kaulig spoke about the future of the team. As they started expanding and winning in the Xfinity Series more frequently, it only made sense to take the next step of elevating this program into one that can compete on Sundays.
“Charters are like NFL teams,” Rice said. “They’re not easy to buy. We’ve been talking about buying charters since Matt and I sat in Ohio by his fire. We said we’re going to have to go Cup racing at some point.”
The cost of a charter is increasing by year. With Michael Jordan’s entry into the sport, as well as Pitbull, the price tag is on the incline. Combine that with the startup of cost of the Next Gen car and future Cup owners are looking at a hefty fee to get started. But once the startup costs are covered, the amount it will cost to field a competitive Cup program will be significantly less than it is today.
That’s why Kaulig Racing is already getting its feet wet in Cup. The team’s two programs operate separately, with one shop for the Xfinity Series and one for the Cup car. This year, they’re running the superspeedways and road course events just to evaluate what they have so far and understand how different the Cup Series is from their past five years of existing in Xfinity.
“Chris Rice has done a great job of seeing the future and looking down the road,” Kaulig said. “He doesn’t just react to things. Chris has been very calculated of how we’re entering the Cup Series. When we go full-time Cup racing, it’ll feel like it didn’t take that many more resources.”
While there will be very few charters available entering 2022, Kaulig is determined to acquire one. The charter guarantees a starting spot into every race, a bigger piece of the prize money pie and other incentives for team owners.
It’s an investment that Kaulig firmly believes in. One of his three Xfinity Series cars boasts the LeafFilter colors week-in and week-out, and he’s seen the return-on-investment for his brand. Now, he wants to help other firms do the same by expanding into Cup.
“We added seven to 10 people, got a truck, trailer and more equipment,” Kaulig said of the team’s overall expansion. “When you have the ability to have the drivers that we have, it doesn’t take a lot more resources to go up to three cars from two.”
Kaulig believes his team will be around for years to come. He wants to compete for wins and championships, and giving Rice control is only pushing that forward.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him,” Kaulig said. “It’s all Chris Rice.”