Originally published by Nate Ryan on NBC Sports
No one knew Matt Kaulig was coming, yet many from his NASCAR team were unsurprised when he materialized unannounced at a Top Golf team outing in Charlotte, North Carolina.
On the day before AJ Allmendinger’s Xfinity Series victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Kaulig Racing closed its shop and paid for 100-plus employees (and their significant others and children) to celebrate its regular-season championship and all three of its Chevrolets making the playoffs.
Team president Chris Rice wasn’t expecting Kaulig, the entrepreneurial owner of a billion-dollar gutter protection business who was taking part in a tree-planting charity event that Friday morning in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I was on the phone with him, and he said, ‘I’ll see you in 15 minutes,’ and I didn’t really know what he was talking about,” Rice told NBC Sports. “Like, what? You’re coming here?’ ”
“I just showed up at 1 o’clock and said, ‘What bay am I in?’ ” Kaulig, 48, told NBC Sports with a laugh.
A few hours later, he commuted home via private plane for dinner … and then flew back to Concord, North Carolina, the next morning to watch Allmendinger’s fifth victory of the season. After staying over to watch the Cup race Sunday, Kaulig caught some of the Next Gen test Monday before making another round trip to Cleveland – his third in four days – to retrieve his golf clubs to play 18 holes Tuesday with Allmendinger.
“We honestly don’t know when and where Matt’s going to be when we do events like that, he just shows up out of the blue,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Like you turn around and, ‘Oh hey, Matt’s here!’ He’s like, ‘If everybody is here hanging out. I want to be with my people.’
“He’s got so many things going on, but if he can be there, he will. We do a victory team lunch on Wednesday, and he flies in for that just to hang out a bit and fly home again. He does this for fun. This is not a Richard Petty or Roger Penske to a certain extreme where (racing was) his original passion. So what makes it fun for him is all of his people. And he definitely tries to make sure he spends as much time as possible with them.”
Said Rice of Kaulig, who has become one of his best friends: “It is his M.O. He wants to show his support to the race team, and even though he lives in Ohio, that this is his main priority. He knows how hard it is to win and make playoffs. So when we do, he just wants to show everybody how much he cares for them. How much he loves the race team and how appreciative he is.”
Just like its namesake’s impromptu appearances, Kaulig Racing is becoming more and more ubiquitous in NASCAR.
Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, the team will attempt to reach the Xfinity Championship 4 for the second consecutive season and possibly with half the field. Allmendinger, the regular-season champion, is tied for the points lead and in a strong position to reach his first title round, and teammate Justin Haley is just below the cutline in bidding for his second championship berth in a row.
After needing three years to earn its first victory, Kaulig Racing now has 14 victories over the last three Xfinity seasons and scored its first Cup victory by Allmendinger at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in August. After successfully executing a five-year startup plan, the team is in the first of a 10-year blueprint that Rice and Kaulig discuss daily.
Next season will bring a two-car expansion into the Cup Series with Haley and likely a mix of drivers while also fielding two cars full time in Xfinity (for newcomer Daniel Hemric and Allmendinger). Through a $2 million renovation of a building purchased from Richard Childress Racing (its technical alliance partner/engine supplier), Kaulig Racing will add 80,000 square feet adjacent to its primary 90,000-square-foot shop in Welcome, North Carolina.
“We’ve done a really good job as an organization, even according to everyone else in the garage and NASCAR, we’ve built this thing the perfect way,” Kaulig said. “If you were going to do a textbook on ‘How do you build a NASCAR race team?’, they would use us. We’ve had other team owners ask us for our business plan. You can figure it out. It’s not hard to see how we do it.
“Philosophically, you either continue to grow or start to die. It’s true. It’s like everything. So we keep growing.”
Matt Kaulig’s first experience with exponential growth was in gutter protection.
Starting with a three-person staff in his basement 16 years ago, his LeafFilter dealership mushroomed from $350,000 in revenue to $1.75 million within its first three years. By 2015, Kaulig had acquired the company, which has since grown to more than 130 locations, $1.5 billion in revenue and nearly a million customers.
LeafFilter now is the flagship brand of Kaulig Companies, which has interests in financial services, consumer products, marketing, sports/entertainment and philanthropy (supporting more than 70 nonprofits through giving programs).
It’s helped turned Matt Kaulig, who was named a 2017 entrepreneur of the year by Ernst and Young, into a community pillar in Northeast Ohio. His LinkedIn bio has a background photo of Kaulig with NBA superstar LeBron James, whose foundation’s “I Promise School” is supported by Kaulig Companies’ media arm.
It was through his businesses that Kaulig took a cold call for a NASCAR sponsorship that led to bringing 60 employees to Charlotte Motor Speedway in October 2014, which ramped up to full-season sponsorship a year later and then team ownership in ’16.
After nearly six seasons, Kaulig still employs many business-to-business practices between his team and companies (whose brands often are on the cars driven by Allmendinger and Haley).
Kaulig Racing’s new shop is being wired by the IT department of Kaulig Companies, and Kaulig Media helps produce team content such as postrace video updates from the team owner that run on Cleveland’s NBC affiliate on Sunday nights (“We talked about being Northeast Ohio’s NASCAR team, so that’s helped with getting a big following.”).
But while his companies are heavily involved with the business of the team, Kaulig has stayed out of meddling in competition.
“The only question I really ever ask is, ‘Did we get through tech (inspection)?’ but that’s really the extent of me talking about the cars,” Kaulig said. “My role is just to be here and be supportive of Chris Rice, the drivers, the team. Showing up at Top Golf means a lot to them to know that I’m here. I’m in it. I’m not just sitting in Ohio writing checks. I actually am here and leading by example and help pump them up.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that Kaulig is all business – as Allmendinger learned shortly before his July 5, 2019 team debut at Daytona International Speedway.
“I knew I was at a different team when I walked into my lounge to get ready, and there were like 20 Coronas just sitting on the tables,” Allmendinger said. “Matt and his buddies were all there hanging out. He’s just enjoying this. If it’s not fun for him, there’s no reason for him to do it, so he’s going to have a good time.”
Racing has a history of independently wealthy team owners who have flamed out quickly, and there naturally were initial questions about Kaulig’s sustainability
Nearing the end of his first season at Kaulig, Allmendinger asked Rice “what the end game was” for his team owner.
“I knew nothing about him when I joined, and in a way, I was like, ‘How much money does he really got? It’s gutter protection,’ ” Allmendinger said. “It’s not like one of these many guys we’ve all seen that come into the sport like, ‘Hell yeah!’ and then say, “Well, shit, this is expensive. Never mind!” And Chris told me what the company and he was worth, and I was like, ‘Does he come from money?’ ‘No, he started the company,’ and I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Rice also didn’t know Kaulig before he began working with him and immediately tested the relationship by asking Kaulig for a sizable down payment to secure the team’s first deal with Richard Childress Racing. A cashier’s check was on Rice’s doorstep the next day.
“You always are going into it thinking, ‘Man, is this guy for real? Is he going to really go racing?’ and that got our alliance going with RCR,” Rice said. “It showed them that we were real, and it’s been blue skies ever since. It’s been amazing.”
A dichotomy exists between the team’s fun-loving and off-the-cuff image (its motto is “Trophy Hunting”) and its adherence to strict planning.
The team’s 2021 budget was set last year, and Kaulig reviews its financials weekly.
“It’s definitely all calculated,” Kaulig said. “It appears like hey, we’re just having fun, and we keep it light. But all the other teams ask, ‘Why is everybody so happy? And why are you having fun? You’re not supposed to do this.’
“It has become more serious because we are running for a championship in the Xfinity Series. For me, it’s racing. You’re looking for fun. But there is pressure to perform. Everybody is doing it to make a living, every single person is. If one of our tire guys is doing a bad job, he’s going to lose his job. Same with the drivers. They aren’t performing, there’s a lot of pressure, because we’ll bring someone else in. That’s the business of sports. If that means your buddy is doing a not good job changing tires and isn’t fast, we’ve got to get rid of him.”
Many point to the cornerstone of Kaulig’s success as the relationship between Kaulig and Rice, who handles day-to-day business as the team’s president and consigliere.
When Kaulig first was contemplating team ownership, he was introduced by Blake Koch (his first driver) to Rice, who gave him a price tag for the startup that drew a “hard no” from Kaulig.
“I sat down with him and told him the truth, and I’ve always told him the truth,” Rice said. “Never have once had to do any different, and we became best friends. We have great conversations about everything, not only racing related but personally related. We have some amazing conversations.
“He trusts me with anything, but also man, I hold nothing back. If something goes wrong or something’s haywire, I tell him.”
Rice’s initial cost estimate was within $100,00 of what Kaulig spent after changing his mind and deciding to start the team three months before the 2016 season.
“We were spending a good amount of money on sponsorship, even in the millions, and when you’re starting a race team, it’s different than having a race team for several years,” Kaulig said. “It was a little more than I was comfortable with, but then we’re talking several months later, LeafFilter is doing great. My business is doing really good. Better than expected. So we just decided let’s do it. We can do this.”
Said Allmendinger: “He gives us all the resources we need. But you counteract that with Chris’ overseeing of the team and making sure it’s just not money being blown and wasted. It’s a great dynamic that Matt and Chris have. It’s ultimately Matt’s decision, but it’s basically on Chris to tell him yes or no. If you tell him this is the right thing to do and is going to make us better, Matt’s going to do it because he wants to win.”
The team owner has strong relationships with his drivers, too. Allmendinger said it’s “probably the most friendship with a car owner I’ve ever had.” The bond grew out of impromptu trips for celebratory golf outings (such as a last-minute trip to play TPC Michigan) after starting during the early stages of the pandemic last year.
“I really got to understand what type of person he was,” Allmendinger said. “He would call me a lot. Just for no other reason than, ‘Hey man, how you doing? You good? Can I do anything for you? What do you need?’ And as a lot of teams started cutting down, whether it was cutting people’s salary or whatever, he was the first person to step up right away and said, ‘Everybody at this shop, don’t you worry about it. You’re getting paid normal, and we’ll all get through this, but I want to make sure that’s not even on your radar.’
“I know he’s my boss still, but I don’t even really look at it that way. And he makes sure that I never look at it that way. We’re just close friends, and I’m very fortunate that I drive his race car as well.”
Haley said he spends 30 minutes talking to Kaulig in his motorhome after every race and “most of the time it’s not even about racing, just about life and fun stuff.
“I’ve never seen Matt Kaulig down in the dumps,” Haley said. “He is always positive, no matter where he’s at in life, he’s always a leader. And he always is looking at the best in every situation. After every race, I go in his motorhome, and we sit for probably a half an hour and talk and most of the time it’s not even about racing. I think he’s really done a good job at leading the team and putting the right people in place. He’s just a fun, bubbly kind of guy, and he’s also super serious.”
Matt Kaulig said he made two promises to himself in becoming a NASCAR Xfinity team owner: “That I would have fun, and that it would not ruin my weekend or my life.”
But he recognizes the degree of difficulty in entering Cup next season will make the competition much more difficult – and more reminiscent of its first three Xfinity winless seasons that produced only one top five.
“When we started, and the team would talk about having a fast car and then you’re running 22nd all day, and that can dampen your spirits,” Kaulig said. “That’s tough to deal with, so it’ll be even bigger next year when we’re in the Cup Series. Now you’re running with the big boys, and now it means something. It’s not just going out to have fun and race. We’re trying to get better to do that. But I try to keep that in perspective. If we wreck, you’ll rarely see me just pissed or want to go fight somebody because they ran us off the track.
“That’s one of my jobs is just to make sure that everybody is in a good place, and it’s a great work environment where people are happy. Nobody wants to be around a team or if the crew chief is a jerk. It’s not fun.”
While Haley has been named the driver for one of its full-time chartered Cup cars next season, Kaulig Racing has yet to announce its plans for the second Camaro in NASCAR’s premier series, which will be moving to the revamped Next Gen model in 2022.
Kaulig said the team is leaning toward a lineup of multiple drivers sharing the car, but “we’re still talking to drivers and sponsors to see what the options are. I’m more than fine if we have to run it that way.
“The whole thing is we want to win Xfinity championships and build our Cup program the right way,” Kaulig said. “We just don’t want to throw a bunch of money at it, and we aren’t even used to Cup as an organization. It’s not just about the driver. It’s the equipment and figuring out the program, so it’s great timing for us as far as the Next Gen car because nobody has experience with it.”
Kaulig also will benefit from increased support by Chevrolet. A contingent of General Motors executives, including the president of its North American operations, visited with Matt Kaulig before and after Allmendinger’s recent victory at the Roval – another sign of the team’s growing stature.
“It’s kind of strange because Kaulig Racing went from, even in just the time I was here, from, ‘Oh yeah, this just is one of those little teams that could,’ to ‘No, it’s a big team now,’ ” Allmendinger said. “It’s a big organization now. I keep trying to work on Matt a little bit about, ‘Hey, remember what it was like to start Xfinity and how you guys ran back then? Times that by 10 now because it’s Cup. It’s the best of the best.’
“There’s definitely going to be struggles. I think you’re going to have competitive runs, but you’re definitely going to have days that are miserable, and that’s life in the Cup Series as a brand new team. But with Matt’s drive and what he wants to get out of the sport and how truly passionate he’s gotten over the last couple of years about the sport, I think the ultimate goal is to try to be a championship-caliber team, however long it takes.”