Leavine Family Racing announced earlier today that Christopher Bell will drive the No. 95 Toyota Camry in the 2020 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Bell, Leavine Family Racing’s founding owner, Bob Leavine, and Toyota Racing Development (TRD, U.S.A.) president, David Wilson, spoke with media on a teleconference.
Talk about the relief of having this announcement made and the fact that you’ll have crew chief Jason Ratcliff coming with you next year.
"I’m really, really excited about making the next step here at LFR (Leavine Family Racing) and I’m hoping that we can get it kicked off on the right foot. I think having Jason along beside me is going to be a huge; it’s going to be a really big advantage having Jason with me. He’s a great crew chief. He’s got a lot of experience with veteran drivers and we got to start our communication process in the Xfinity Series together, so there’s nobody else I’d rather go with than him."
How long will it take you to ease on into the Cup Series?
"I think a lot of it will have to do with how well I adapt to the rules package in the Cup Series. The Xfinity cars, for whatever reason, fit me pretty well, so there wasn’t that much of a learning curve in the Xfinity cars, but the Cup Series cars right now are drastically different than the Xfinity Series cars, so I think a lot of it will depend on how quickly I can pick that up."
What does it means to you to race in the Cup Series?
"It’s the pinnacle of motorsports in the United States of America. If you talk to anybody, any kid, their dream, if they dream of racing, is to run in the Cup Series in NASCAR. It’s a dream come true for me. I say it’s a dream come true for me, but whenever I was a kid in Oklahoma and I started dirt track racing, I didn’t see how it was possible to get there just because I was a dirt track driver and that’s all I knew. I honestly didn’t think it was possible to get to the Cup Series and now here I am today and it’s just, it’s pretty surreal."
Are there any limitations to your sprint car racing next year and do you have any plans to do any Xfinity Series races next year?
"I don’t know about the Xfinity side of things. We don’t – we haven’t even really talked about it. I think Bob (Leavine) can explain a little bit more on the sprint car side of things."
Will you cut back on your sprint car racing schedule now that you’re in the Cup Series next year?
"I understand that my dirt racing is going to have to slow down a little bit. With the Cup Series, the schedule is a lot more, it’s a little bit bigger than what the Xfinity cars are and it’s going to be a huge learning curve moving into the Cup Series, so as Bob (Leavine) alluded to, I’m going to be allowed some races, but I understand that the schedule won’t be near what it has been the last several years."
You started with Toyota in 2013 in the driver development program. When you started with Toyota, did you think you’d ever make it to the Cup Series?
"I remember back whenever we first got together and I actually met with Jack Irving (Senior Manager, Commercial Director, TRD) and Tyler Gibbs (Vice President and General Manager, TRD) and we talked about the plan. I remember they sent me a bubble chart and that was back at the very beginning of best-case scenario, after this we go late model racing, best-case scenario we go Truck (Series) racing, worst-case scenario, we stay Truck racing. It would be really cool to see that bubble chart, I’m sure it’s floating around in an email somewhere, to see how true it all came six years later down the road here. I thought it was realistic that I could get to Cup whenever I started in the USAC ranks with them, as long as I performed, but then as you make every step, it gets harder and harder and harder. Back in 20– I guess it would have been last year in the Xfinity Series, we had a very successful year and there was still no way to get to Cup so that was a very, very big road block and I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen there for a while, but David Wilson, Tyler Gibbs and Jack Irving and those are the people from the TRD side that made it happen and then obviously there’s countless people at the Toyota side that made it happen as well. Whenever I started out on the midget (racing) side, I felt like I could definitely make it to Cup if I performed well enough. I felt like there was a clear path, but like I said, each step that I took, the path became more and more fuzzy because the number of seats, they just keep dwindling down. I think that’s the best answer I can give you."
BOB LEAVINE, founding owner, Leavine Family Racing
Are there any limitations to how many sprint car races Christopher can run next year?
"I’m excited for Christopher to continue sprint car racing. We did that for Kasey (Kahne). In fact, Sharon (Leavine) and I got to our first one because of going to see Kasey race. He enjoyed that and to take that away from someone who started like Christopher did and enjoys it so much, I can’t imagine – there’s not a plan for him to stop that. I know he will be prudent in races he goes to because he understands the commitment that we’re going to ask of him in the Cup Series of getting familiar, the time spent like David (Wilson) said, in the simulator and those things. He knows he’s going to have to readjust his time and readjust his schedule and he’s a smart enough young man to do that. I don’t have to tell him. I’m sure he will invite me to a race here and there, but it’s like have fun, now let’s go Cup racing and that’s his job, that’s his primary job and so as intense as he is, knowing what his focus is and having visited with him a lot about what he likes to do, he likes to race. What do you do in your spare time? I like to race. What do you do on vacations? I don’t take any. It’s had to tell somebody that does that as a "hobby", not to do it. We’re excited that he still wants to and excited to see him win there. I think it’ll be contagious with his confidence level. It just absolutely does, when you win, you’re confident and he will win in the sprint car series and we expect him to carry that forward in the Cup Series."
What does this do to elevate your team moving forward?
"Probably that word you used, it elevates it. With the talent, character and experience that Christopher has and has gotten as he moved up through a very solid foundation with the people surrounding him, with Jason (Ratcliff) coming over, (Mike) "Wheels" (Wheeler) still being here and our total people on the car will be the same, which was really built on this year. Then the, for lack of a better term, enhance with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) is all going to come together very well. It’s our next step that we’ve been working on for about five years, so really pleased that Christopher is a part of it. Obviously Toyota being a part of it is huge, TRD and JGR being a part of it, it’s a great family and we all elevate together."
What does it mean to have this enhanced alliance and what’s your journey been like since you first started Leavine Family Racing?
"I’ll use the word that Christopher (Bell) used, surreal. Just go back to when the charter came into being, I can remember Jeremy (Lange, president of LFR) and I coming out of a TOC meeting and wondering how in the world we were going to continue to race. We didn’t, we weren’t given a charter. It’s been a long haul and a difficult one. Our biggest step and our biggest improvement was going to Toyota and the relationship base from David (Wilson), Tyler (Gibbs) and Jack (Irving) and all the people at Toyota and TRD and then Coach (Joe Gibbs) and JGR and all of the support over there, that really was a breath of fresh air because it really was getting difficult to compete and try to get better. We did. We were able to take steps, getting Kasey (Kahne) over here, although it wasn’t for a full year, it was a big step of credibility. That helped our racing program, but with him getting sick and we had a transition of crew chiefs and so that wasn’t a stellar year and we knew going into this year with (Mike) "Wheels" (Wheeler) coming over, we had an opportunity to step up and show what we could do to get better because it would’ve just been unrealistic financially as well as information-wise for us to start off as the Furniture Row program because I didn’t think we could handle it. I think what we did slowly learning JGR’s way, TRD’s way, and being ingrained in that and building a relationship was the right way to go. Then the fact that it did provide an opportunity for us to you know get Christopher and go to the program for next year, it’s kind of like Christmas early. It’s a pretty special time for LFR. Everyone here from Jeremy (Lange) down, Sharon (Leavine), is all excited about our possibilities, but yet, and I’m sure just like we expect Christopher, he’s got a job to do in 2019. We’ve got a job to do with Matt (DiBenedetto) because Matt has done an exceptional job this year, Wheels, we’re still building on that. We’ve got work to do, but it’s really cool. To think about it, it’s almost like I don’t want to think about it, because we followed Furniture Row to RCR (Richard Childress Racing). They went on and did those things and all along it’s like I would like to be – we’re even smaller than Furniture Row – I would like to be that next model team that steps up and says hey, you can do this. Only with the help of TRD and Toyota and Coach Gibbs and JGR and the good Lord, we have that opportunity."
With Rheem and Procore as sponsors for next year, does that fill your primary sponsorship inventory for next year?
"We still have a handful of races, inventory to sell, so obviously and hopefully with the announcement where we can now go out, I hate to say this word, but peddle Christopher and his talent and what he’s done I think will help us. It just took time. There’s a lot of parts and pieces, moving parts and pieces, in this, what we have just accomplished and put together. We would like to have done it sooner, but it just wasn’t ready. So now we get an opportunity and Jeremy, our sales group, are on top of it. I’m sure they’re relieved, for lack of a better term, of having something to sell for 2020."
Are you already in better shape next year than at the beginning of this season in terms of sponsorship?
DAVID WILSON, president, Toyota Racing Development (TRD, U.S.A.)
What type of enhancements have been made to the alliance with LFR?
"The easiest way to characterize the alliance is it’s akin to what we had between TRD, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing a couple of years ago. Certainly not going to get into the detail of it, but enhanced hardware, enhanced communication, sharing of information, the tools that TRD provide will be further enhanced, time available on our sim and again, everything that TRD brings to the table is going to be the same as what it has been with Joe Gibbs Racing."
So will Christopher get more simulator time than Matt DiBenedetto did?
"We certainly try and accommodate all of our partners and drivers. Again, it is a huge priority for us to make sure Christopher has what he needs to succeed, to be confident and this is a complete package. It is not being done piecemeal and you can tell that by the names – having Jason (Ratcliff) follow Christopher over, etc. – all of those things are designed to give him the best opportunity to succeed and continue to meet and exceed our expectations."
What will you take from what you learned with the Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing relationship in 2016-2018 and apply moving forward?
"That’s a great question because when we rolled out that program, it was the first time we’d ever contemplated that. It was a very challenging alliance and it’s no different than what’s happened in the garage in other places where these alliances, the alliance partner begins to have a degree of success that perhaps was unexpected. This time around, we’re being much more intentional about it. The conversations that we’ve had between ourselves, Bob (Leavine), Joe (Gibbs), in understanding exactly what it is that we are going to be doing, what it is that we’re going to be sharing, again those conversations are a lot more specific and intentional such that we don’t have any misunderstandings as we go down this path. Again, by its very nature, it’s somewhat counterintuitive because of just the competitiveness of this sport, so that’s why it is – it only succeeds as a three-legged stool with Toyota / TRD, Leavine Family Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing participating collectively."
Do you anticipate being able to give Christopher Bell any opportunity in a Cup Series seat this year or are you strictly going to wait until next year?
"The priority this year is for Christopher to win an Xfinity championship. We need to be respectful of that. We need to be respectful of not only Christopher, but Joe Gibbs Racing, in that regard. Obviously, we can’t just go out and put Christopher in a Cup car as much as we’d love to, and go out testing. That’s not the way it works in our spot. We do have tools that will be made available to him once he finishes his business this year. And let me just add, the flip side of that is that Matt DiBenedetto and Bob (Leavine) and the family still have unfinished business as well and we certainly want to finish out our season strong and hopefully give Matt an opportunity to get up there in the winner’s circle before the end of this season is over."
Have there been any plans to finalize the Xfinity Series lineup next year now that Christopher is moving up to the Cup Series?
"Well that’s really a JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) question. Certainly, we work hand-in-hand with Joe (Gibbs) and the family over there, but we’re not prepared to discuss the 2020 lineup yet. I imagine it will be shortly though."
With a young driver, how do you manage expectations and allow him a chance to transition into the next level without too much pressure to perform right off the bat?
"It starts with making sure that all of the pieces are in place. I know for the general public, this alliance, this announcement today looked like a no-brainer, worst-kept secret. The reality is this was one of the most challenging deals we’ve ever put together. Christopher alluded to the fact that he was ready to race Cup this year, but the opportunity didn’t present itself. Again, sometimes the hardest thing in this sport is to say no, we’re not ready, we don’t have all of the pieces in place to do the best possible job and I harp on this all the time. We use a tremendous amount of discipline to make good decisions because we’re dealing with people, we’re dealing with a young man who has done a tremendous job at every level that he’s raced. Christopher has been extremely gracious today and that’s just his character, but make no mistake he has earned this opportunity. It’s incumbent upon Bob (Leavine) and I to make sure that he has the tools, the people, the sponsorship, to succeed. Yes, there’s pressure, but by the same token, the step between Xfinity and Cup is the biggest step – I think it’s one of the biggest steps in all of motorsports. It’s not just the hardware. It’s the people that he’s racing against. He is going to be racing against Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones. Just within the Toyota family he’s going to have his hands full, so again, we’re circumspect about that and yet we’re confident that Christopher will continue to do well in this sport."
— Toyota —