For Popular Driver Johanna Long, It's A Long Road Back To NASCAR
The Pro Late Models points leader at Five Flags Speedway in Florida is familiar. Local Pensacola kid, that Johanna Long. Ran NASCAR for a couple of years. At 22, she wasn't supposed to be back yet, not after using a win in the prestigious Snowball Derby in 2010 to propel herself to a job in the Nationwide Series.
But Long is there, reinvigorating her affection for grassroots racing while working diligently to put herself back in stock car racing's big leagues. And in arguably the most crucial month of the racing business calendar, when driver lineups and sponsor commitments are sealed for the ensuing year, Long's predicament for 2015 is already precarious: no sponsorship commitments, no NASCAR commitments and the serious prospect of another year away from the series.
"It's been very depressing, I guess," Long said in a phone interview. "I don't know if that's the right word, but it's been very hard on me. I don't think it gets any easier because it's something I've worked for my whole entire life, just to be in NASCAR. I got to do it for four years, and it was the best four years of my life.
"Being in a car was what I looked forward to every week, and when it gets taken away from you, it's not always the best thing."
Long made 24 combined truck series starts for her family team in 2010 and 2011, and her apparent NASCAR break came in 2012 when she joined ML Motorsports, based in Warsaw, Indiana. Long ran 41 of 66 Nationwide races for MLM during two seasons -- finishing 12th at Daytona in 2012 and the same at Iowa in 2013 -- but the team folded abruptly before the start of this season, leaving Long no time to acquire a NASCAR seat.
She had earned the respect of her peers during her short stint and is regarded as talented by several teams, although none has backed that regard with a job offer. Affable and popular, Long dealt diplomatically with an unwitting conscription as the mascot for an anti-Danica Patrick fan faction when the polarizing former open-wheel driver transitioned to NASCAR. But for Long, popularity has not translated into the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to finance even a threadbare Nationwide bid.
We're working hard and we're trying to find sponsorship. We're doing everything possible to knock down doors and try to get somebody to take a chance on me.Johanna Long
"It is frustrating because we worked very hard," she said. "It's crazy to get on Twitter or Facebook and see all the awesome fans that want to see me. People want to see me succeed as much as I do, and it means so much to me. It gives me hope.
"But we're working hard and we're trying to find sponsorship. We're doing everything possible to knock down doors and try to get somebody to take a chance on me."
That's a difficult task in modern racing, where verifiable talent and marketable surnames seem to be decreasingly advantageous. Hendrick Motorsports has juggled several sponsors -- losing the National Guard two weeks ago -- to fill out races for two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in NASCAR. Jeb Burton, the first member of the "NASCAR Next" developmental and promotional program to win a national series race, and son of former Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, nearly lost his chance at a second truck season when his sponsor balked at the last minute. Long, for all of her popularity, has neither the statistics nor the lineage at stock car racing's highest levels.
"The economy, the way businesses make financial decisions in sports has just changed that much," Ward Burton said after his son secured full-season sponsorship in May. "There's just not that many car owners in the truck series that's going to see a talent and the phone rings, 'Hey, would you drive my truck?' And there's not that many in the Nationwide or the Cup series.
"Had it been like this when I was coming up, I never would have had a chance. It would have never happened. I didn't have financial backing to bring with me. Now, there's a few exceptions that's had real easy roads, but for most of the kids it's not that way."
Long's race cars in two series at Five Flags are sponsored by locals ventures, but she otherwise has "no money," she said, for a NASCAR effort. She has not explored crowd-funding, which yielded more than $11,000 for driver Shannon McIntosh's testing program with Cunningham Motorsports and led to an ARCA start this season. Long would need exponentially more to entice a NASCAR team but said she has been more encouraged recently that she can find a sponsor. And she tries not to remember that it's August. Late August.
"I try not to put a timeline on it," she said. "If something great is going to happen, it's going to happen. You would want it to start now to get things rolling, but if it doesn't happen until a month before Daytona, I will just be happy. When I sign my name on something to say I am racing in 2015, that's when I will be happy.
"I would love a full season in the Nationwide Series or any season -- one race, two races. I don't want to be greedy. I just want to be in the series."