Auto racing and baseball: two sports that couldn’t be more different in structure.
But as an owner in both professional leagues, Jeff Moorad is thriving in the similarities.
“There’s a closeness in NASCAR that in some ways I didn’t expect because of the separation between the governing body and the teams themselves,” said Moorad, part of the ownership group of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the No. 96 Hall of Fame Racing entry in NASCAR’s top series.
“But there’s a camaraderie that exists in the industry that I liken to my time in Major League Baseball, or even the NFL.”
Moorad will bring both sides together this weekend when NASCAR races at Phoenix International Raceway. It began Wednesday when J.J. Yeley drove his race car out of the right field bullpen along the warning track at Chase Field, then threw out the first pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Yeley’s car will also sport the Diamondbacks’ 10th anniversary logo on its wheel well during Saturday night’s race as the ownership group strives to link its two products together. Diamondbacks COO Tom Garfinkel is Moorad’s partner on the NASCAR team.
Members of at least eight NASCAR teams will attend games this weekend as guests of the Diamondbacks.
“I consider it our local obligation to play host to those from the industry,” Moorad said.
For Yeley, a Phoenix native, it’s a tremendous opportunity to show a stick-and-ball sport community how one of its local kids has made it big. “Phoenix is not known for a racing town, and going through all the different paths that I’ve had to get here, for everything to turn around and my team, my NASCAR team, be owned by someone here from the Valley of the Sun – it’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s going to be fun coming back and have that relationship to really try to build something for the Phoenix-based fans, to give them something to root for.”
But all this synergy was definitely not planned, and almost accidental.
Moorad and Garfinkel bought controlling interest in the racing team last September from its original owners, Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. The Hall of Fame quarterbacks formed the team with three other partners in 2003 and entered their car in NASCAR’s top series in 2006.
But the quarterbacks handed over control to a new ownership group that included Moorad, a former sports agent who had a lengthy relationship with Aikman. New to NASCAR, Moorad has relied heavily on Garfinkel and his extensive racing background.
As the former executive vice president of Chip Ganassi Racing, Garfinkel spent five years managing NASCAR and open-wheel organizations for the team owner. He left in 2006 to join the Diamondbacks, but yearned to return to NASCAR in some capacity.
Buying majority interest in the strong single-car team gave him the opportunity, and he’s introduced Moorad to a new sport. It’s been an eye-opener to a racing outsider whose experience in sports had been more traditional.
“The most unique difference is the focus on the on-track performance and how it stands separately from the business of NASCAR,” Moorad said. “Unlike my baseball experience, it’s been interesting to not focus on ticket sales, sponsorship sales as an industry as a whole. To not worry about prepping a venue.
“NASCAR allows an opportunity to – in a baseball sense – to focus on the team in the field alone and ignore all else. It’s a very, very different business that exists in team sports. It’s more focused, more intense, and ultimately more rewarding from an ownership standpoint because of the hyper-focus on the competition itself.”
The new owners inherited driver Tony Raines, who had done a decent job of keeping the single-car team ranked inside the top 35 in points. But wanting to put their own stamp on the team, they scoured the free agent market and brought Yeley in for an interview.
The 31-year-old had shown improvement from his first to second season with Joe Gibbs Racing, and Garfinkel’s statistics showed that it typically takes a NASCAR newcomer at least three years to hit his full potential.
That he was also from Phoenix was an added bonus.
“It was completely by accident,” Moorad said. “I didn’t know until I sat and talked to him, so it was purely by chance that he has Phoenix roots. But it has been fun to see him in bold print on the stats page of the paper each week as the local guy.”
But the new owners’ first full season has not gotten off to the start the team would have liked. HoF is still adjusting to a new driver and new manufacturer with Toyota, and it made a major personnel change two races ago when engineer Steve Boyer was promoted to crew chief.
It will take time for Yeley and Boyer to gel, and their race in Texas last weekend was cut short by an accident that led to a 42nd-place finish.
The team heads into Phoenix ranked 33rd in the standings.
Sponsor DLP HDTV remains committed, announcing a contract extension last week through next season. It’s a financial boon at a time when a weak economy has made funding for second-tier teams next to impossible to secure. Even the top teams are struggling in sponsorship spots, but DLP’s sponsorship marketing manager, Dave Duncan, said the company has been pleased with the race team.
“It’s been a really good return on our investment, and from our exposure standpoint, in ’06, our brand awareness doubled among the avid fans. The preference for a DLP TV almost tripled at its peak in year one,” Duncan said. “Now working with Jeff and Tom, they brought a lot of experience and expertise that we think will bring it to the next level. We believe they are doing everything they are doing to build a first-class organization.”
Still, there’s a long way to go for the No. 96 team, which will always struggle to compete as a single-car organization battling the NASCAR heavyweights. But Moorad and Garfinkel have thrived in the underdog role before, transforming the Diamondbacks from a 111-loss team four years ago to tying for the National League lead in wins last season with baseball’s fifth-lowest payroll.
Although Staubach is expected to bow out at the end of this season, Moorad believes Aikman will stay involved in some capacity and be around to see the No. 96 team hit its peak.
“When our group got involved, we never assumed it would be easy,” Moorad said. “We knew there would be challenges, and also knew we’re going to have to be patient and pay our dues as we build on the foundation that others have created in the race team.”