IN 2005, SMITH attempted to establish a foothold in the wildly popular National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) by providing transportation services through his company Helinex Aviation Group to Competitive Edge Motorsports, a fledgling NASCAR Nextel (now Sprint) Cup team founded by former Miami Dolphins running back Joe Auer. But after Smith invested in Competitive Edge, the team folded due to lack of sponsorship and auctioned off its equipment on eBay. Smith’s subsequent attempt to launch a NASCAR Busch Series (now the Nationwide Series) team also failed to get traction. “NASCAR is such a huge monster,” Smith says. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
He found the entry barriers to IndyCar racing much less cumbersome. While fielding a championship-caliber car in NASCAR demands resources in excess of $30 million per season, successful IndyCar teams can be nurtured on as little as $8 million.
IndyCar racing also presented other advantages. For a dozen years, IndyCar racing had been beset by oppositional forces of its own making. Then, in 1994, the American open-wheel racing series fractured into two sanctioning bodies: Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the Indy Racing League. The resulting acrimony drove away fans, crippled TV ratings until phenomenon Danica Patrick hit, and was blamed for an overall loss of interest in open-wheel racing in North America.
Smith smelled juicy opportunity in those ruins. His senses were prescient. Last year, just as Smith was getting his Harding Road racing team off the ground, Champ Car (the successor of CART) and the Indy Racing League cast their differences aside and merged into a single entity. Smith believes that with this alignment, open-wheel racing could once again return to prominence and potentially rival NASCAR. “American open-wheel racing is a value property,” Smith insists. “There is nothing like getting in on the ground floor and riding the rocket ship to the top.” The erosion of NASCAR’s rich corporate sponsorship streams is also presenting Smith with opportunities among NASCAR’s smaller, undercapitalized racing teams. Harding Road may very well be fielding cars in both series in 2009.
It doesn’t surprise Flavious Smith that his son is poised to exploit such a potentially rich opportunity. “He likes things that make a lot of sound and go round and round,” he says. “He’s always looking for a niche.”
Flavious says his son discovered one such niche when he was just eight years old: a rent-a-pet business. Smith doled out hamsters, hermit crabs, and goldfish, complete with habitats, for $1 to $5 per day to his classmates, earning a sizable return on his allowance.