Sam Hunt’s rise to Xfinity ownership came from humble beginnings
When you think of powerhouse teams in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, you probably think of Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing.
The last couple of seasons have seen a new challenger emerge – Sam Hunt Racing. No, the organization hasn’t won races and has only led a total of 11 laps and earned two top-five finishes in its 55 entries. But the upstart team headed by 28-year-old owner Sam Hunt is fielding top-20 caliber cars on a week-to-week basis.
The program seemed to come onto the NASCAR scene from nowhere. Hunt’s family had no prior racing ties, nor was there a pile of cash sitting around waiting to be burnt on racing. Instead, after a year of living in his van at the Robert Yates Racing Engines shop, Hunt gambled on an opportunity to leap into Xfinity ownership and was rewarded, thanks in large part to his character and the relationships forged at key moments along the way.
“You’ll learn as cool as a lot of this seems, there’s a lot of leaps of faith that I’ve taken kind of each step,” Hunt told NBC Sports.
The thread to JGR
The fall semester at Virginia Commonwealth University was drawing to a close in 2017, meaning Hunt was about to graduate with his Bachelor’s degree in Finance.
There was plenty on his mind already. Hunt had competed in the ARCA Menards Series East prior to college, running a full season in 2012 before partial schedules in each of the next five years, making occasional starts during college.
But it was during that senior year when the idea to start his own race team began to flourish. With a hand-me-down car from Joe Gibbs Racing’s old Xfinity Series fleet and one other on hand, Hunt began fielding cars of his own in what was then known as the K&N Pro Series East.
Not often does somebody get their hands on equipment from Joe Gibbs Racing, an elite program in NASCAR’s top two series. So how did a kid from Williamsburg, Virginia find a connection?
Hunt’s father, Michael, played collegiately at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he was a free safety alongside teammate and strong safety Russ Huesman. Huesman went on to become an assistant coach at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, where Michael Hunt moved as well.
Michael Hunt helped Huesman’s teams by hosting player mentorship dinners every week. Eventually, one of the players Michael Hunt hosted happened to be J.D. Gibbs, a defensive back and quarterback at William & Mary who was also the son of Pro Football and NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs.
J.D. Gibbs and the senior Hunt grew apart as both parties pursued their respective careers, with Gibbs becoming a co-founder, co-chairman and eventual president of his father’s Joe Gibbs Racing program.
Born in 1993, Sam Hunt began his racing career by age 6, moving from karts to dirt oval racing to late model stocks, which were built by his small, family-owned team. But as Sam Hunt progressed and started to take racing more seriously, Huesman helped rekindle the relationship between Gibbs and the Hunts. That connection provided a wealth of information, but perhaps no piece of the relationship was as valuable as the guidance Gibbs offered.
“I was able to go down to JGR a couple times pre-college and just walk and talk with J.D. about what I should do with my life,” Hunt said. “I was at a crossroads as a race car driver because I didn’t quite have what it took talent-wise. I didn’t really have the funding to do it the way we needed to, and that was a really hard crossroads for me. … And he was kind of the one that encouraged college more than anything, which was kind of the last thing I wanted to do as a racer. But kind of took his advice there and went and studied finance.”
Hunt said Gibbs offered hand-me-down Xfinity cars to start racing in the East Series. Gibbs died from a degenerative neurological disease in January 2019, but the relationship between the Hunt and Gibbs families continues today, particularly with J.D.’s brother, Coy Gibbs, who is JGR’s vice chairman.
“Coy and I are friends now and we talk probably once a week,” Hunt said. “That whole place has really looked after me as I’ve kind of built this small program and obviously, we’ve got a relationship with their engine shop, the logos behind us.
“Now those guys are like family to us. We’re an independent team. There’s not like a paid alliance, or there’s not really anything formal. It’s just a personal relationship I’ve got with those guys, and they’ve just been really gracious to kind of help get me up on my feet.”
Taking the team seriously
As Sam Hunt neared his college graduation, the idea to legitimize his race team began to blossom.
He and his small group of mechanics, including Clinton Cram and Brandon Cavitch, were working out of late model stock racer Peyton Sellers’ shop in Danville, Virginia. But Hunt knew if he wanted his team to compete at a higher level, that would require a move to North Carolina.
That triggered a call to David Lewis, the general manager at Robert Yates Engines in Mooresville, from whom Hunt had been buying engines. Lewis oversaw the company’s spec engine program and worked closely with Robert Yates, a NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner and engine builder.
“We’d had a lot of conversations about him being up in Virginia versus being down in North Carolina where there’s such a large talent pool of people to draw from,” Lewis told NBC Sports. ”And one day he called and decided that it was time to move and give it a shot.”
Hunt asked if Lewis knew of any open shops in the area for rent. Lewis said no but had an idea.
“I went to Robert and I talked to Robert about it and said, ‘I have this young kid. He’s a great, great person, has a heart of gold,’ and (asked) if Robert knew of anywhere that had a building. And he said no. And Robert just asked me, ‘Is he a good person?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, he’s a great person.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you want, give him the back corner of the shop.’
“I said, ‘Okay, well what are we charging them for rent? I’ve never done anything like this before.’ He said, ‘If he’s a good person, don’t charge him anything.’”
Suddenly, Hunt had the green light to move his cars into an area where he and his crew – no matter how limited – could compete in the right environment.
The legend of the van
While much of this journey is rendered impossible without the help of people, there was one vehicle that shares a brunt of the responsibility, too – a blue 2005 Dodge Sprinter.
That van took Hunt, his crew and the cars everywhere. It had to. It was all Hunt had.
“There wasn’t a savings account or there wasn’t really anywhere to stay and we’d gotten that blue van because when we started with the K&N team, we drove to every race,” Hunt said.
“So what we did is we took all the seats out of the back, and we had like five or six beanbag chairs that we piled into that thing, and the original cast of characters, including myself, we’d pile in, and we’d drive to Watkins Glen or Thompson or wherever the schedule took us.”
Upon Hunt’s arrival to Mooresville in late 2017, he had offers to sleep at friends’ houses, including Lewis’ house. But as is Hunt’s character, he had no intentions of utilizing anything more than he needed.
“I have a ton of friends that offered a couch and guest room, but I’m very much non-intrusive,” Hunt said. “I hate to be that guy, and I can be very much a minimalist, so there was no thought into it. It was just, you know, ‘Hey, I’m taking everything down. We’ve got this shop space. I’ve got a van that I can sleep in.’”
After working on the cars all day with Cram, the first crew chief on the K&N car, Hunt would go to a Gold’s Gym. He used his membership to exercise and shower before heading back to the shop, where he would sleep in the van in the parking lot.
At first, Lewis had no idea Hunt was staying at the shop.
“I still give him a hard time about that,” Lewis said. “I don’t condone that and I didn’t want to see that. I had an extra room in my house and he would’ve been more than (welcome in) the room at my house. I had no idea he was doing it. I just thought he was beating me to work every day.”
Hunt’s journey was always about the grind of racing, but he and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Noelle, made the most of what they could.
“I remember if we ran top five or top three, there’s a Microtel off Exit 28 (of Interstate 77) in Cornelius and it was like $40 rooms,” Hunt said of the hotel less than 20 miles from Charlotte. “And it wasn’t terrible, but that was kind of like our vacation or our getaway spot if we had a good weekend. But again, both Noelle and I, we don’t really need a lot tangibly to be happy, so we never thought anything of it and we just kind of grinded it out. And luckily at the end of that first year down here, an apartment became reality and we moved in there.”
After two full seasons of ARCA East racing, Hunt wanted a bigger challenge.
“Competitively and professionally, (I) was like, ‘Alright, I really want to keep pushing myself. I want to keep pushing the company,’” Hunt said. “I want to see how far we can take this thing.”
Not everyone agreed with the idea. Hunt pitched the idea sporadically throughout the 2019 season and was met with some less than encouraging responses.
Hunt was at a hotel near Bristol Motor Speedway when he met then-JR Motorsports crew chief Dave Elenz and JRM engineer Allen Hart while both the East and Xfinity series overlapped. The trio sat for a drink along with Hart’s girlfriend and JRM’s Director of Marketing, Kristen Bauer. That was when Hunt asked them for their opinions.
“Here I am, dumb kid with bad ideas,” Hunt said. “I actually went up to Dave like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about going Xfinity racing. Where can I get a car?’ And they all just told me, ‘Don’t do it. Like, whatever you do, don’t do it. It’ll never work out. Just throw that idea away because it’s just way too hard and there’s too much to it.’”
Hunt, determined as ever, didn’t listen. He and his crew built an Xfinity car, had small sponsorship from Kraken Skulls and Beard Oil, and showed up at Homestead-Miami Speedway with driver Colin Garrett for the Xfinity season finale in 2019.
“It was like one of those all-in moments where I just kind of put everything in to build that first Xfinity car,” Hunt said.
In this case, “everything” included the Dodge Sprinter van he previously called home. Hunt sold the van, and the money from that sale paid for the pit crew he used at Homestead.
It paid off. The No. 26 Toyota needed to qualify 31st or better on speed to make the show. Garrett posted the 15th-fastest lap and wheeled the car to a 21st-place finish in the team’s debut race.
That was the make-or-break moment for Sam Hunt Racing.
“I had to make that race for this company to keep going,” Hunt said. “I mean, financially in qualifying, it was like, I put everything into those two laps. And If we made the show, then the show went on at Sam Hunt Racing. And if we didn’t, it was gonna be probably a tough ending to a short story. But we took that leap of faith and it paid off.”
Conversations began with Toyota shortly thereafter, but it wasn’t just the manufacturer. Hunt caught the attention of the entire garage.
“Everybody was like, ‘What’s the deal? Who are you? What do you have behind you? What’s going on?’” Hunt said.
Hunt returned for nine races in a fragmented 2020 schedule impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Not all nine went as well as the first, but the No. 26 car earned four top-20 finishes in that span, utilizing Garrett, Brandon Gdovic and Mason Diaz behind the wheel.
“I think that first year in 2020, that first part-time year, it was, ‘Let me get better at this before there’s any formal relationships or there’s anything on the table,’” Hunt said. “Let me just work on figuring it out because I’m not ready for that step yet.”
By the end of the season, he was ready and spoke with Jack Irving, the executive commercial director at Toyota Racing Development. Irving works closely with teams outside of the Cup Series, from Xfinity to grassroots-level racing.
“We sat down towards the end of 2020 and had a really long, open, heart-to-heart conversation about who I was, what my goals were, how I wanted to go about doing it,” Hunt said. “And I really went in there not thinking anything would come out of it, any sort of partnership there.
“And he really took me under his wing, and that whole Toyota family has really embraced me, my team, what we’re working for, why we’re doing it. And now it’s like family, and I’m just so grateful every day for Toyota and everything they’ve done for us.”
The most common thread through Hunt’s story is that people want to help Hunt.
Whether it be J.D. Gibbs helping supply ARCA East cars, David Lewis and Robert Yates granting him a place to work (and sleep, unknowingly), or Toyota agreeing to help a team that virtually came from nowhere, Hunt has been granted significant, unique opportunities and maximized each one.
But why are people so willing to lend him a hand? The answer is simple: They like him.
“It really starts and ends with his character,” David Wilson, president of TRD, told NBC Sports. “I say this all the time: Our jobs are so difficult that you really appreciate working with people that you like, people that are like-minded and share your values.
“And Sam is just a good dude. And we see what he has done, how he’s kind of pulled himself up from his bootstraps. We have no qualms about giving him some help and seeing what he can build. The odds are stacked if you consider a fairly modest resource base, but it’s certainly worth throwing some support his way.”
That sentiment is shared by seemingly everyone that Hunt has come across.
“Sam is a true genuine person,” said Lewis, who has worked at the Yates engine shop for 22 years. “He’s not asking for handouts. He’s not taking what’s not his. He’s working for it. And I saw that with his driving. And I saw that with him and wanting to be an owner. He started at the bottom with nothing. And he’s just slowly worked, grinded it out to get where he’s at today. And I’m just so happy to see his success.”
Allen Hart was one of the folks who told Hunt to avoid the Xfinity ownership path. Now, Hart works for Hunt in his first season as an Xfinity crew chief after more than 15 years in the sport, the last eight of which were spent at JRM.
“It’s funny to me to even think about, but yeah, I couldn’t believe Sam was going to go do that,” Hart said. “And then, here we are doing it together. I had just had basically met him that night. Then over the years, we’ve kind of gotten to know each other, and I’ve helped them out a little bit here and there when I could. I almost bought his team van from him two years ago when he was selling that.
“And it was just like, we just got to know each other and developed a good relationship. But yeah ... I still think he’s crazy. I still think he’s crazy for doing this. But yeah, this is what we’re doing.”
Irving likens Toyota’s partnership with Sam Hunt Racing akin to driver development. While Hunt’s car offers other TRD prospects an Xfinity opportunity, TRD’s support to the team provides an opportunity to develop another competitive program under the Toyota umbrella.
“You get a limited amount of opportunities to make a splash, and when you get your chance to get a shot, you’ve got to show what you can do,” Irving said. “And Sam did that early.”
Where things stand
Through 10 races, the No. 26 Toyota sits 18th in owner’s points and has already seen six different drivers behind the wheel.
The program led its first laps at Phoenix Raceway in March with John Hunter Nemechek behind the wheel, notching the team’s second career top-five finish that day. Nemechek owns both. Others behind the wheel this year include Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ryan Truex, Parker Chase, Derek Griffith and Chandler Smith, who drove the car to a 21st-place finish at Dover Saturday after making his debut at Talladega.
Hunt and TRD are already thinking about the future and hope to have a full-time driver as soon as 2023.
“I think that right full-time guy is going to come through when the timing is perfect,” Hunt said. “And I think he’s gonna have a lot of success here. So I definitely think that’s something we’re working toward long-term. We’re just not going to do it unless it’s the perfect situation.”
So far, Hunt’s crazy idea has paid off. Atop the pit box, Hart believes this team can win and said he wouldn’t have come to Sam Hunt Racing if he didn’t.
The roots of the team are strong, even with just 12 full-time employees. All 12 are driven by the same motivation -- a passion for racing and holding each person accountable.
“My goals here are not tangible,” Hunt said. “There’s not a financial goal. There’s not a series goal. It’s just to get to where I’ve got a platform to give opportunity back to where I can help someone like so many have helped me work with people I love every day and compete.”