Gene Haas Going Rogue Shouldn't Surprise Anyone
To many NASCAR fans, Gene Haas is a virtually unknown quantity. They know he's the “Haas” in Stewart Haas Racing. They know he's been around the sport for a while and many remember he spent time in the pen a few years back. Since his release in 2009, Haas has stepped back and allowed Tony Stewart to be the public face of the organization. His move to sign Kurt Busch came out of left field to both NASCAR fans and insiders alike- particularly those inside SHR. But if you know the history of Gene Haas, his going rogue shouldn't be a surprise at all.
Haas began his professional career as a machine shop employee, designing improvements on some of the shop tools to help his own work. He launched his own business in the mid-1980s selling those improvements on the open market. His business grew and provided him the assets to start a Sprint Cup team in 2002, purchasing assets from Hendrick Motorsports (the beginning of a long relationship between the two). The team spent its first six years as a perennial back-marker, scoring no wins and only one top five finish during that time. In part, that history of futility led Haas to make a deal with Tony Stewart in the first place.
Sample Haas Automation product from Amazon
It wasn't the only reason. In 2005, Federal prosecutors announced charges against Haas for tax evasion. The company had lost a prior patent lawsuit and Haas blamed the judge involved for the loss according to the indictment. The charges stated Haas and a pair of associates designed a scheme to recoup the money lost in that lawsuit by creating bogus expenses the company would then claim against taxes. A plea agreement reached in 2007 saw Haas sentenced to 24 months in prison (of which 16 months were served) and $75M in restitution and fines. He left prison in May 2009, three months after Stewart ran his first race as a team co-owner.
In other words, Haas is a very smart man with the guts to take chances- even at significant risk to himself and those around him. It really shouldn't come as a surprise that the guy who tried to do an end-run on Uncle Sam would use Stewart's injury to his own personal advantage. He's been a part of NASCAR for a decade now and yet the only success his team has had came once Stewart came aboard in 2009. Haas is a proud man and it has to gall him that he gets virtually no credit for the organization he built. The fact that he had to hand over half of it while in prison can't help either.
Contrast that history and attitude with the driver Haas worked so hard to bring aboard. Kurt Busch has a long history of bucking NASCAR tradition and blazing his own path. He's from Las Vegas in a sport that still reveres its Southern roots. He's been unafraid to go toe-to-toe with much bigger drivers (including a celebrated feud with Jimmy Spencer that culminated in Spencer punching Busch). He won a championship running for Jack Roush in 2004 yet walked away from that organization a year later so he could be “The Guy” at smaller Penske Racing. Busch has little patience for mistakes by his team- he's berated all involved over the radio for the car's performance or a sub-par pit stop. That attitude carried over to interactions with the media and once such tirade put an end to his time with Penske in 2011.
There's no question that Haas seems plenty of himself in the driver he's hired. Like Busch, Haas came from virtually nothing and rose to the pinnacle of his profession. Like Busch, he hasn't cared who he angered along the way. Both never forget when they feel wronged and don't mind taking a risk to right that wrong. Most of all, both are all-in every day and take a Ricky Bobby-like approach to life and racing; second place is just the first loser.
Over an hour of Kurt Busch's less-than-stellar moments
Haas made what had to be a difficult choice in giving Tony Stewart half of the race team to come aboard. The man who worked for no one other than himself for 30 years would give up control to a neophyte owner in Stewart. Would he overspend SHR's capabilities in a vain search for speed? Would he dictate where the organization went because he was behind the wheel? Those were very real questions going into the deal and ones only time could answer. Four plus years later the decision looks like a no-brainer. While difficult, it was a smart business decision from a smart business man. Unlike Teresa Earnhardt (who refused a similar arrangement with Dale Earnhardt Jr, the very lifeblood of DEI), Haas recognized the value Stewart's name could bring to the organization. And the on-track results speak for themselves; the team has a championship, 19 wins and 78 top five finishes since 2009.
Yet the question remained; how did Gene Haas feel about becoming a secondary figure in Stewart Haas Racing? It's a question few asked before this week because SHR seemed a smoothly-oiled machine from the outside. Haas provided the framework and Stewart provided the results. The press conference Tuesday exploded that belief as Haas freely admitted the signing of Busch was his baby and that it took place while Stewart was essentially unable to interfere. Haas must have known Tony's opinion about expansion; after all, they likely explored that option prior to announcing Newman's departure.
Time will tell if this is something that Haas can financially support over the long term. Haas Automation is a private company that does not report its earnings or financial results to Wall Street. He's under no obligation to publicly disclose what kind of impact spending $20M plus on a NASCAR team will have on the company's bottom line. The fact that they've announced plans to expand in Europe, India, and China over the past year seem to indicate the business is booming. Return on investment isn't as important here as it might be for other sponsors as Haas has an estimated net worth of $250M.
In this case as with many others, Haas did what Haas wanted to do. He wanted to put his own stamp on an organization that once held his name alone. He wants to see his car in victory lane with his company's logo plastered on a driver that he hand-picked. That driver is the embodiment of the way Haas himself has lived his life. If Haas was going to make a long-term investment in a driver he couldn't find a more appropriate one than Kurt Busch. The fact that Tony Stewart stood in his way meant little; in fact, his opposition may well have made the signing that much sweeter. That's how Haas has lived his life and it's an attitude that's made him fantastically rich and successful. But no one should be surprised.