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ON A TYPICALLY SUNNY SOUTH FLORIDA AFTERNOON IN NOVEMBER 2005, JOE GARONE WAS lounging with his wife in their powerboat just above a reef off the coast of Key Largo while their three daughters snorkeled nearby. The family was taking a much-deserved vacation. It had been a big year for Garone, who 11 months earlier had become the general manager and crew chief of Furniture Row Racing, a single-car Busch Series team based in his native Denver. He had gambled by moving his family more than 1,500 miles from its home in Hickory, N.C.—and the center of the racing world—to work for Denver businessman and team owner Barney Visser. Garone had gotten the Furniture Row Racing car to 15 Busch races and qualified for 10 of those. "I had really fallen in love with our owner and his ideas," says Garone of his decision to seek his fortune back in his hometown. That season Garone and Visser had even tried to qualify for two fall Cup races, at Dover (with driver Kenny Wallace) and then at Phoenix (with Jerry Robertson). The team finished 34th and 41st, respectively, disappointing Garone but hardly devastating him. After all, Furniture Row Racing was a Busch operation, and Garone could sense that year two would be a vast improvement over year one. Then, a few days after the final race at Homestead, as Garone relaxed with his family on their boat, his cellphone rang.
It was Visser, and he had an idea. Why not run a full Cup schedule? "I thought, Well, heck, [Cup racing] is not much different from Busch racing," recalls Visser. "The exposure is three to five times what the Busch exposure is. Let's just do this instead."
Garone was stunned. "I thought, There's no way," he says. "But I'll never forget walking up out of the cabin and telling my wife, 'We're going Cup racing.' She looked at me like I had six eyes."
It wasn't an easy proposition. Running a Busch team would cost around $6 million, while operating a Cup outfit would require at least $10 million. Furniture Row was manufacturing its own engines and would be racing against organizations that were pouring $15 million to $20 million into their engine-development programs. At the time there were six Cup teams attempting a full schedule with a single car, five of which were within 60 miles of Charlotte and the other in Virginia. Operating out of Colorado would present hardships because the best people and resources were concentrated on the East Coast, but it was a challenge for which Garone, who had been a crew chief for a Truck series team in Denver a decade before, was well suited.
One week after getting that call from Visser, Garone was back in Denver, drawing up plans, modifying budgets, making inquiries about new hires. It took time, an inordinate amount of elbow grease and a willingness to work with other teams, but by 2010 Furniture Row was running all 36 races with driver Regan Smith. Last year Smith drove the number 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet to 10 top 15s (six more than the previous year), including the team's first victory, at Darlington last May.
Now Furniture Row is one of only four teams competing full time with a single car and the only team running that is based outside the Carolinas. "Two years ago if somebody had told me they were going to do that out of Denver, I would have said, There ain't no way they can make all the races," says Waddell Wilson, who won the Daytona 500 seven times as an engine builder for North Carolina--based teams from 1965 to '84. "It's amazing what they've been able to do."
Garone, who believes Smith can compete for a position in the Chase this year, doesn't think the organization has reached its full potential, and he's looking for a second sponsor that might ultimately lead to a second team. "It was a big decision," acknowledges Visser of his pursuit. "It was one of those jumps that got to be a whole lot bigger than I thought it would be."
BARNEY VISSER REMEMBERS BEING BITTEN BY THE RACING bug. He had taken his oldest son to the Bondurant racing school in Chandler, Ariz., in the early 1990s and spent four days driving cars at 100 miles per hour. Says Visser, "I pumped more adrenaline in four days than I had in my whole life." Yet it wasn't until 2004 when Visser "semiretired," as he calls it, from running Furniture Row, the national retail chain he had founded in 1972, that racing really became a part of his life. ("I didn't want to play golf," he says. "I hate it.") One morning he was reading the newspaper at his home in Denver and saw a Grand American modified car for sale. "I didn't know what it was, and I didn't know where it raced," he says. "I went out, and [the guy] started it up, and I just fell in love with it."
Over the next several months Visser got to know Jerry Robertson, a local racer who worked on his own cars. Recalls Robertson of modifying the car to fit the 6' 5" Visser, "We had to cut and lengthen the driver's compartment so his legs wouldn't be up in his chin." Visser, then 55, began turning laps at Colorado National Speedway, a three-eighths-of-a-mile paved oval just north of Denver, and he observed races there with Robertson's team, which was in contention for a national title in NASCAR's premier short-track series. Finally Visser himself began racing in Grand American modified and late-model events at CNS—about 30 in all—and even took first in three events in one night. "The highlight," says Visser, "of my little driving career."