Jack Roush, owner of Roush Fenway Racing, addressed the media Friday afternoon at Kentucky to discuss the announcement this week that Matt Kenseth would leave the organization at the end of this season and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would be promoted to a full time Cup car in 2013.
WELCOME BACK TO YOUR HOME STATE. YOU HAD SOME NEWS COME OUT OF YOUR RACE ORGANIZATION THIS WEEK, TALK ABOUT THAT. “I want to say a couple things about Kentucky. I was born just up the road here in Covington, just south of Cincinnati and probably within a stone’s throw from where most of you landed. I spent my life in and around Cincinnati and the southern Ohio and northern Kentucky regions that are close by. It is coming home for me. When I was going through high school the only race tracks that we had were in central and southern Kentucky and around Cincinnati which was about 60 miles from my home. I never went to a race track until I was 18 years old and a senior in high school. I took my car up to Raven Rock up at Portsmouth and watched the other guys race their cars. I didn’t even race my car. I was through college in Barrea before I went to my first big track which was Michigan after I went to work for Ford. This is home for me and I have a lot of relatives here and a lot of folks that think they know me or that remember me whose names I will have trouble recalling, so that will be a challenge for me. On the matter of what has happened the last week here with my race team, the 17 team, like many of you I am wondering what Jack is going to say today. I will give you a couple of opening comments. First and foremost I have enjoyed the 15 years with Matt and the success that he has had and the growth that has occurred to the team through his time as a driver. He, like Mark Martin and Greg and Carl, he is a cornerstone of what we do and his DNA is all over the things that we are known for and our success. I will say that I was as surprised as most of you must have been when I learned that he would not be signing with us to go forward. It was a surprise and I had no idea that we were at that point. I won’t comment on the negotiations, on any negotiations that might have occurred, because we have an agreement to not talk about that. His leaving the team creates a window, a hole if you like, that we have a very capable, able, ready, enthusiastic, motivated and ambitions drivers. We actually have two of them ready to fill voids. One of them is Ricky Stenhouse and of course the other is Trevor (Bayne). The plan is for Trevor to be in some kind of a full time ride next year and of course Ricky is the heir-apparent to the 17 program. There is not an understanding nor an impression that Robbie Reiser or I have that there will be a mass exodus. The key people are very committed to what we are doing and very committed to winning a championship for our sponsors and fans and for all the employees that stand behind our program with the 17 this year. If it works out that he has that opportunity. There will be no diminished effort to make the very most of what time we have left together. I want to make a comment that when I chose Mark Martin in 1998 he didn’t have a place in the NASCAR divers league. When we make a place for Matt Kenseth he was struggling to hang on to a Nationwide ride with Robbie Reiser as his team owner. Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards – we have had a lot of success with young drivers that were not established and have not made it our habit to go out and try to court somebody else’s driver to see if we could improve our prospects by gaining somebody else’s loss. This is a challenging time for sponsorships. It is tough for everybody. You find that there is hardly a car in the garage that runs one sponsor with the kind of singular support appearance that we had in the 80’s and 90’s. It is a reality that it takes multiple sponsors to make most of these programs work but it was the case that we did run Jeff Burton for a period of time when I had no sponsor for him. We ran Carl for a period of time with no sponsor for him. We did the same for Kurt Busch. There was no predisposition that we were limited to what we would do with Matt going forward based on the sponsorships that were there. We’ve been very much encouraged and had encouraging conversations with all the sponsors around the 17 team and the other programs we have sought sponsorships for. We think we have seen the bottom of the well as far as the shortage of sponsors. Certainly there was not a sponsorship reason why Matt’s future with Roush Fenway was in doubt, before or during negotiations.”
CERTAINLY YOU DON’T FEEL AT THIS POINT THAT YOU HAVE FAILED OR ARE THERE THINGS YOU FEEL YOU COULD HAVE DONE JUST THINKING THINGS WERE PEACHY KEEN IN THAT AREA WITH MATT? “You know what, in regard to my interview with you; I was taking a look at things from the back side and thought maybe I shouldn’t have done that. What Claire is talking about is when Matt made his agreement three years ago with us he came to me and said, ‘Jack, relax.’ I said, ‘Why should I relax, I have all these problems.’ He said, ‘I have signed my contract.’ I said I didn’t even know we were in negotiation for the contract and asked, ‘Was it due?’ and he said, ‘Yes, we are good for three more years.’ I told him that if these guys don’t do for you what you need to let me know and maybe you and I walk out the door together. I hope nobody calls my bluff on that.”
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THERE IS SOMETHING YOU COULD HAVE DONE TO STOP HIM FROM LEAVING? “If I had been as vigilant and diligent and interested in that side of the business as I am on finding why a fuel pump broke or why a connection rod bearing failed or how we could get the next pound of downforce – if I had been taking care of the business side of the business as hard as I tried to take care of the technical side I might have been able to stop that.”
HOW HARD IS IT TO DIVORCE THE PERSONAL FROM THE PROFESSIONAL SIDE BECAUSE YOU GUYS HAVE THESE PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIPS. “Matt and I and I think everybody on the team the friendship part will survive. I have not lost respect for Matt and I hope he hasn’t for me. I won’t have the same sense of wishing for his success on the race track next year that I will for the balance of this year and have in the past, he will from my point of view be moving to the dark side. We will get through that. Personally we will be fine.”
ARE YOU CONFIDENT AT THIS POINT THAT SPONSORSHIP WILL BE IN PLACE FOR RICKY NEXT YEAR AND WHAT IS THE SCENARIO FOR CREW CHIEF FOR HIM? “Let me say that the primary focus of our sponsorship efforts had been around Matt and the 17 car. The determination and decision to run Matt and the 17 and carry on as usual was not dependant on any level of sponsorship. If no sponsorship was there at all, which of course is not and would not be the case, we still would have run the 17 car for an indeterminate period of time. As far as crew chiefs are concerned – and by the way the initial conversations we have had with sponsors has been all positive in terms of their understanding and commitment to the program – as far as crew chiefs go, the 17 program is a championship level program and for Ricky to have all the guidance and expertise and support that Jimmy Fennig and the guys can provide is essential. We will have a full time Nationwide program next year and the plan is now for Trevor to be the driver for that program although that has not been announced and I am not announcing it here today, but that is our plan. In the same vein, we have a championship level Nationwide program in place with Mike Kelly and my hope is to keep that together so that we can compete effectively toward a championship with Ricky this year but also be able to do the same thing with Trevor next year.”
DO YOU WANT TO KEEP THE 17 OR WOULD YOU GO TO THE 6 FOR RICKY AND ALSO WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT TO SELL A GUY THAT IS A NASCAR CHAMPION, HAS TWO DAYTONA 500s, NUMEROUS WINS, FAMILY BACKGROUND TYPE OF GUY. IS IT THAT HE IS 40-SOMETHING? ARE SPONSORS LOOKING FOR SOMETHING MORE YOUTHFUL? WHAT SEEMS TO BE THE PROBLEM THERE? “The 17, Jimmy Fennig and that group are the 17 and that group will run under the 17’s banner. The 6 is a cornerstone that for the time being we have set aside but the fact is I haven’t been told so I am really out there on an edge. I see Steve Newmark over there and he isn’t close enough to kick me or whisper something in my ear but to the best of my knowledge the sponsor interest we have and the image for that team and that group is 17. I would expect that will continue although if a sponsor insisted on the 6, that would be an option but I don’t see that being a possibility. You know, the sponsorship business ebbs and flows. The economy certainly caught us in a bad position with all our programs maturing and reaching termination right when the economy went in the tank or within a year after that. That put us in a bad situation. If we’d had, as we have had something in the last 24 years – this not the first economic downturn we have had although it is the worst one we’ve had – in the past we have been able to bridge those and our agreements haven’t come to conclusion when the future was not certain. It was bad timing, nobody’s fault and I don’t think the problem we’ve had with Matt would have been worse if Greg’s situation had matured at the same time. We were happy to have folks with 3M that saw the future relationship being important and they were willing and able to negotiate new contracts before the old ones were concluded. That was a happy situation there. Matt is a champion and certainly there has been interest and we’ve got Fifth Third and Best Buy on board this year and a number of other sponsors that I am not able to mention because the conversations are ongoing for that team that were very interested in Matt. I guess I tend to differ that Matt has been a great challenge to sell sponsorship based on his image. I think the challenges we had were predicated and caused by the economy and the timing.”