On a recent Sunday Matt Kaulig stood at the start-finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Along with his driver and crew he knelt and planted a ceremonial kiss on the “Yard of Bricks”, the short stretch of track devoid of pavement exposing the track’s original brick surface that marks the line.
It was a somewhat surreal moment for the successful entrepreneur who attended several Indianapolis 500s in his youth. Growing up he hadn’t planned to be a team owner in NASCAR, yet there he was, celebrating his team’s first ever NASCAR Cup series win.
Historically NASCAR team owners run the gambit from former drivers to car dealers, and even NFL coaches. Matt Kaulig doesn’t exactly fit that mold. He didn’t grow up around NASCAR, didn’t race himself, nor work on a team. In fact, in his youth, Kaulig’s sport of choice was football.
Kaulig was born in Columbus, Ohio and raised in Cincinnati. His family moved to Chicago when he was in 8th grade. Football was his passion, and he became a nationally recognized quarterback in high school. He was recruited by the University of Akron and quarterbacked that school’s Division 1 football team before graduating with a business degree in 1996.
Living close to Indy, he attended several Indianapolis 500s, but his first real (and only) exposure to the innerworkings of the sport came as a young adult. His dad worked in marketing for Raybestos Brakes which supplied the brakes for many racecars, and in NASCAR sponsored Bobby Allison in the early 1990s.
After graduating college, motorsports wasn’t something on the budding entrepreneur’s radar.
While NASCAR was rising in popularity, Kaulig was busy building a business. His first job after college was selling home remodeling products. Like many successful entrepreneurs however, after nearly a decade of working for others, Kaulig saw an opportunity.
“In 2005, I came across this product, LeafFilter, which was brand new technology,” Kaulig said recently while working at one of his many events for his charity. “It’s a surgical grade stainless steel screen that doesn’t allow anything in the gutters except water…it was a newer product and an amazing product. As weird as that sounds, it’s gutter screens, but it was just new technology and the best thing on the market.”
Originally one of 91 dealers of the new product, Kaulig saw the potential for the product and took over the distribution and marketing for LeafFilter eventually buying bought the entire company including the patent and the manufacturing rights.
By 2014, LeafFilter was continuing to grow and Kaulig got a phone call.
“It was probably a Friday afternoon,” Kaulig said. “Somebody called me and said, ‘Hey, would you want to put your company’s logo on a NASCAR racecar in the Cup series?’
“I was like, well, ‘I’m sure it’s too expensive for us to’, and he told me a number and it wasn’t expensive at all. So, I said, ‘okay, well tell me more’. And he ended up upselling me to what it should have cost, but we ran our very first race in 2014 with Go Fas Racing.”
Kaulig took advantage of the opportunity and brought 60 people from LeafFilter to Charlotte in October of 2014 for the company’s first race as a sponsor.
“I just figured it would be a really good marketing opportunity for us at LeafFilter,” he said. “We were growing more national… we weren’t anywhere on the West Coast. We were just really in the Midwest and the East Coast. And we were moving farther down South, like Texas and North Carolina.”
LeafFilter would sign on for a second Cup race later in the year and returned as a primary sponsor in the NASCAR Xfinity series for 2015.
But there was a problem.
“Probably halfway through 2015,” Kaulig said. “Being entrepreneurial, talking to all the other owners there, seeing how the other owners operate are really kind of learning the business of NASCAR and then getting to know some of the executives at NASCAR. You know, I really started to think like, ‘Hey, I think I can do this better than these guys’. And so, I started to talk to manufacturers and started talking to some of the people in the garage about what it would take to start our own team.”
For Kaulig the tipping point came as he realized that the team he was sponsoring in the Xfinity series was what was known as a “start and park.” A team that would start a race, and never finish it.
“The expectations weren’t high,” he said. “I mean, the expectations weren’t to go try to win a championship. We were with a team back then TriStar Motorsports, which isn’t around anymore. They weren’t spending the money, whether that’s fair to say or not, but they weren’t spending the money.
“My whole thing is I’m really competitive. I want to be competitive. The fact that some of these teams just go out there every week and run 25th or 30th or 35th. And I just, wasn’t interested in sponsoring a race car anymore that was just going to run 25th. And we just really had no shot at even sniffing of victory. I mean, we’d be four or five laps down every week.”
Kaulig knew that he didn’t want to be a part of a team that never even finished a race. And he knew that in order to even compete, he’d have to spend money.
“If I was going to spend the money with another team, I might as well try to figure out how to do it myself. And so that’s what we did,” he said. “From the beginning, we were just trying, it was a situation in NASCAR where it’s like, all right we have the opportunity to start a team. Maybe we can just start our own team if it works out great. If it doesn’t work out great, but at least we tried it. You know what I’m saying? I mean, a lot, a lot of times in life, it’s just about trying things.”
So in 2016, Matt Kaulig became a NASCAR team owner. But there was no pressure on his new team, at least from the new owner.
“It wasn’t a life-or-death situation,” Kaulig said. “I already was really successful with LeafFilter and making my money there. And I don’t want to say it was almost like a hobby type thing. But you know, there, wasn’t the massive pressure on, ‘we have to perform.’ A lot of teams, as you know, are under that pressure, man, if they don’t win soon or if they don’t finish in the top five soon then they’re going to have to close up shop’”.
That “no pressure” culture within the team paid off nicely. In the five years since the team began competing in the Xfinity series the team’s drivers have scored 11 wins.
And it’s that same “no pressure” culture that Kaulig will bring as he moves the team up to the top-tier Cup series fulltime in 2022. The team has already “made some noise” with the first Cup victory at Indy with driver Allmendinger. The win came in just the seventh outing in the Cup series, the shortest number of races any team has run before scoring their first Cup win.
“Hey, somebody has to win these races,” he said. “I mean, somebody’s gonna win them. And whether, it’s speed or luck or both…we’ve got a whole lot of talented people in an organization.”
His Xfinity team added another win to its total Saturday at Michigan International Speedway, validating what Kaulig already knows; that the team can win against the powerhouse teams in NASCAR who race in the Xfinity and Cup series like Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing.
“The biggest of the big,” he said. “We’ve shown that we can compete, and we do compete with them.
“We plan to kind of take that attitude into Cup, our expectation level. Like I was saying, when we started the Xfinity team our expectation level wasn’t to win right away. Our expectation level going into Cup isn’t to go win a championship.
“Our goal really is to get our feet wet, figure out our program in these cars…these guys have been running Cup for decades. We’re seven races in. And you know, as you get better, we get better and better.
“That’s our attitude; figuring it out, doing the best we can and figuring it out and try to work with these cars and then see what happens a year in a few years. What did it take us? I think we won our first Xfinity race in our fourth year. It took four years to get a win so it, it takes time.”
Matt Kaulig and his team’s move up to the NASCAR Cup series for 2022 demonstrates a sort of transition from old to new ownership models.
The new Cup team won’t be like some of the newer ones such as Michael Jordan, whose friendship with driver Denny Hamlin sparked a love of the sport that led to the formation, and co-ownership of 23XI Racing, and Grammy award winning entertainer Pitbull who became co-owner of Trackhouse Racing in order to help spread a positive message to the world.
For Kaulig it’s all business, but one that might not make business sense to everyone. The former football star turned successful entrepreneur, turned NASCAR team owner has some advice for anyone thinking about trying.
“Well, it depends on who you are,” Kaulig said. “There are a lot of people that buy NASCAR teams that have no business buying a NASCAR team. The reason that it makes sense, the reason that it made sense for me originally is for LeafFilter as a marketing tool. You know, if we were going to market anyway, we would be controlled. So, I would be in control of how the team looked, the way we performed without having to ask or do it for you really with anybody else. I think that’s really important.
“I’m definitely unique in the sport. I think I’m unique, more unique than anybody else, because I’m not a racer. Right. You know, all these guys that just loved racing grew up with racing were racers.
“They were race car drivers. and so different from a business standpoint… I’m running it like a business and look at it like a business; it’s super fun and super competitive. And I do, I obviously love racing, but I think we come at it from a different angle than these other teams.”
And that different angle, driven by a “no pressure” attitude could have Matt Kaulig and his team celebrating in Victory Lane in NASCAR’s Cup series several times in 2022, or not. If they don’t it won’t be too disappointing, after all they have already “Kissed the Bricks” and know exactly how winning feels.