Originally Published by Douglas J. Guth on March 26, 2022 at 4:00 AM on Crain’s Cleveland

Matt Kaulig knows well the worlds of business and high-level athletics. As a current entrepreneur and former college quarterback, Kaulig is learning to successfully integrate these two highly competitive spaces while having some fun along the way.

Kaulig already has six years at the helm of Kaulig Racing — the Welcome, North Carolina-based sporting division of Hudson-headquartered Kaulig Cos. In 2021, Kaulig acquired a pair of NASCAR Cup Series charters that have zoomed his company into stock car racing’s most fiercely contested tier.

As Cup Series competition ramps up this spring, Kaulig is simultaneously thrilled and keeping his hopes in check. Through the year’s first five races, Kaulig drivers have qualified for all events and finished as high as 12th.

“It’s been great — we had no expectations headed into the season,” said Kaulig, who started his company’s racing arm in 2016. “Being a brand-new team at the highest level of motorsports, we’re happy with where we’ve started. We’ve come out of the gates and competed.”

The start of any new business is all about growth, an attitude that Kaulig is taking into the unnavigated waters of the Cup Series. Finding charters in NASCAR’s top division was a case of supply and demand, noted the sportsman-entrepreneur.

Only 36 charters were available for 2022, the first season for NASCAR’s Next Gen racer, which replaced the Gen 6 car used from 2013 to 2021. The new vehicle made its debut at the Busch Light Clash in Los Angeles, where one of Kaulig’s drivers finished first in a preliminary race.

The company announced its charter acquisitions last summer. Although Kaulig wouldn’t disclose terms, the value of a Cup Series team charter has been well above seven figures. Modeled after the professional sports franchise system, the charter program allows teams to sell charters privately at market rates.

Kaulig Racing struck its deal with Spire Motorsports as launch of the Next Gen car drew interest in the larger charter system. Kaulig views his charters as an investment, considering a TV renewal that NASCAR will likely strike with Fox and NBC after the 2024 season.

“That always adds a bit to everyone’s pot,” said Kaulig, 49. “I’m also a younger owner. Eventually, there will be a changing of the guard, so we want to put ourselves in the best position to take advantage of that.”

Kaulig Racing’s charters are split among two cars and four drivers. Justin Haley, a 22-year-old who already races for the company in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, made the full-time leap to the Cup Series this year. Three drivers are taking on the second charter, among them A.J. Allmendinger, another full-time Xfinity competitor now driving on a part-time Cup Series schedule. While Kaulig doesn’t expect a Cup Series championship run in 2022, he’s no less excited about the possibilities for this year and beyond.

“Our drivers are really good,” Kaulig said. “The goal is to get better, and to get our drivers better.”

The company’s charter aspirations will ideally build on past successes, as Kaulig Racing has 14 first-place finishes in the Xfinity Series since 2020. On the Cup Series side, team owner Kaulig manages business operations while company president Chris Rice runs the racing team.

Kaulig recognizes a clear delineation between the business and competitive aspects of his enterprise, a learning process that encompasses constant management of sponsors and partnerships. The company purchases its cars and engines from Richard Childress Racing, an alliance that also serves as a mentorship for the fledgling team owner.

Tapping the experience of Richard Childress, a former NASCAR driver, has shown Kaulig the intricacies of a successful and well-established operation.

“This is his 52nd year with his team,” Kaulig said of Childress. “It’s about watching and learning how his company does it. He was Dale Earnhardt’s owner when they won seven championships together. He’s a Hall of Famer who won Daytona with different drivers. It’s great to learn from his vast experience and knowledge as an owner and driver.”

Kaulig got the taste for racing in his formative years when his father’s business provided brake parts for open-wheel Indy cars. Years later, the onetime quarterback for the University of Akron sponsored a NASCAR vehicle through his LeafFilter gutter-protection business.

Becoming a Cup Series powerhouse will take years, but that hasn’t stopped Kaulig from enjoying the ride thus far. The racing community has been welcoming, with Kaulig bringing a motor home into the pits where crews guide drivers during events.

The electric pageantry of race day — from the flyover to fans cheering on their favorite drivers — is reminiscent of any football game, even as the business stakes for Kaulig have changed dramatically.

“It’s very patriotic, and you get this massive energy,” said Kaulig. “It’s just a really cool experience.”