Each week, I ask someone in the racing industry to explain how they reached their current position. Up next: IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye sheds some light on his career path. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
When I first knew of you, it was in the MB2 days. Can you take me back to the start? Did you grow up as a race fan or anything along those lines?
I’m originally from Rock Island, Illinois. My family, we owned a small garbage trucking company. It’s funny — I basically learned how to drive by driving a garbage truck, which is kind of unusual. I was always around mechanical things. I really liked cars and motorsports.
My dad’s company would bring stuff back to our shop — pedal cars and bicycles — and they’d fix them up and send them home. So at a very young age, I always had these cool toys. You know, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. So it was kind of neat to have that stuff. I wish I still had some of it, because there was some cool old metal pedal cars.
I got very heavy into stick-and-ball sports and played basketball, baseball and football all through high school and then went to college on a football scholarship. I played football at the University of Missouri and it was a great time there.
My first job out of college was at Anheuser-Busch and I was a special event manager for the city of Chicago. That’s where I started actually meeting some people in motorsports. Through that, I met some people with Valvoline. And when I left Anheuser-Busch, they thought I was crazy — because things were going really good at A-B. But I wanted to go do this motorsport thing.
So when I went to Valvoline, I ran the NASCAR and the World of Outlaws program.
Was it tough for you to give up the football days, since you’d made it so far?
No. It was a great experience and I’ve got a lot of great friends still in college sports. I’m proud we were able to do that, but it’s a whole other level to go from there to the next level, just like it was to go from high school to (college). I got my degree and met a lot of lifelong friends, and that was enough.
So all along, were you thinking you wanted to do something in sports as a career?
Well certainly going to the University of Missouri, obviously Anheuser-Busch being in St. Louis at the time had a lot of influence on what was happening. A lot of Missouri alumni worked at Anheuser-Busch. So I got to meet a lot of friends there. And obviously A-B was a huge supporter and advertiser of sports. So doing the events in Chicago, you’d have everything from local street festivals to when the Rolling Stones came to town, you’d manage that type of stuff. So it was very unique and a pretty cool job for a 22-year-old coming right out of college. It was a great experience.
So you get to Valvoline and you’re working for them. How did the transition to the team side take place?
I started with Valvoline at the end of ’91, and that was right when they started sponsoring Mark Martin at Roush. And right after that, we put together the deal with Hendrick, which was Jeff (Gordon’s) rookie year (in 1993). That’s when we started the relationship. At that time, I would say it was one of the first B-to-B deals. Not that there weren’t others, but it was a pretty high-profile B-to-B deal.
My office ended up being at Hendrick Motorsports. I was based out of Lexington, Kentucky my first year with Valvoline, but I was never in Lexington, Kentucky. Where the old 25 shop used to be, there was a small building next to it and was called the “Bug Barn.” And the Bug Barn was where Harry Hyde used to work on his Volkswagens. It was pretty cool. So I took the Bug Barn and fixed it up and cleaned it up, and that became Valvoline Racing South back then.
I worked out of there for two or three years. It was very unique being around Rick all the time and being around Jack Roush all the time. Two completely different approaches to the way they do things, but two hugely successful people. So here I am, a 26-year-old who is learning through osmosis from two of the best in the business world and the motorsports world. So that was a really cool experience.
M&M Mars wanted Rick to start what back then would have been a fourth team. Or they were asking about a fourth team. And I don’t think there was much interest in it during that time (from Hendrick). Rick had some friends who were interested in starting a team, and obviously they had never done anything like that.
So he got me with them, and that’s how MB2 was started. We partnered with Hendrick Motorsports for the engines. I think at that time, people thought it was going to last for two or three years and it’d be something else, and we ended up lasting for 12. Which, to me, part of our success was our survival.
There were a lot of things happening at that time, and I look back at being 30 years old-ish around that time and basically starting a Cup team from scratch and hiring a 24- or 25-year-old crew chief — whatever Ryan Pemberton was at the time — and running it out of an 8,000-square-foot building with maybe 13 people at the time. And to think that team went and sat on the pole at the Brickyard in 1998 (with Ernie Irvan), it was the little team that could.
Really proud that @KyleBusch is running our scheme from 1998 @TooToughToTame this weekend. When we started the team in 1996 was a very young group that didn’t know what we didn’t know. Pretty obvious by these hats! Ha! Very proud of what we accomplished. pic.twitter.com/EJb55YaELq
— Jay Frye (@JayRFrye) August 31, 2018
It was a great experience. You speak of lifelong friends, and the guys on that team, a lot of them were with us for the whole 12 years, which is pretty cool. A lot of them had opportunities to go do something else and they stuck with us, and I’m forever grateful for that.
So as MB2 evolved, I can’t remember all that led into…
Yeah, the demise. I was trying to put that nicely.
The year before that, two of the partners I had in the team had sold to the other partners. And then the last original partner — the sport was getting bigger and bigger, and we were able to bring in Bobby Ginn. Remember, that last year it was called Ginn Racing. Same team, same people, just different name on the door.
A lot of things happened there that, looking back, it was good intentions, I believe, but it just didn’t work out. At that point in the industry, there was a lot of consolidation. So if you think about MB2 basically merged with DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007) who merged with Ganassi. So there’s probably still some MB2 DNA in Ganassi’s Cup team at some point.
But that was tough. That was a really bad time, because you were with this group for 12 years, and there were a lot of people who were with us from Day 1. I took their livelihoods and their families very, very seriously. I mean, I would go without before I let any of those guys or girls go without. So when DEI merged (with Ginn), I had the opportunity to continue — but there was no way I was going to without (everyone). If we all couldn’t, I wasn’t going to be one to stay. So I didn’t.
So then the Red Bull opportunity came up from there?
It was in August (2007) when everything happened. At that point, I did help transition it out. There was a lot of loose ends that needed to be tied up. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. At that point, I really thought I might go do something with Hendrick. And then I got a call out of the blue from Lee White at Toyota and he was wondering what I was going to do next. We talked for a long time, and he introduced me to the Red Bull folks.
With Red Bull, if Toyota had been where Toyota was now, things would have turned out differently. Was Red Bull ahed of its time? What happened in those years?
So their first full season was ’07. MB2, we merged with DEI in 2007, because I started with Red Bull at the end of 2007. Like you said, Toyota was in their infancy. Red Bull was just starting and expectations were pretty high. There was a lot of changeover at Red Bull, because Red Bull North America was involved and some things happened before I got there and next thing you know, Red Bull Austria is overseeing the team. So that was a unique experience.
It was amazing how I got started. I had this meeting with Lee (White) and the next thing you know, I get this call from Red Bull. They’re like, “We’d like you to come see us.” I’m like, “Sure. That’d be great. When do you want me to come?” They said, “How about today?” (Laughs) “Today?” Basically it was, “Come to Austria now.” It was cool.
So I got on a flight the next day, landed and went and met with them. This was a pretty cool, up-and-coming great company that one guy founded with an amazing story how he did it, and to meet them was a really unique experience.
So we talked, I get back to the hotel (after just having arrived) and they call me at the hotel and they’re like, “We want to do it.” It was like, “OK!” We started going through what could happen, I got home the next day, talked about it, we put it together and started about a week later.
I’m proud of what we accomplished there. They struggled a lot, obviously, in 2007. A lot. The next year, I think we got the thing pointed in the right direction. The following year (2009), we made the Chase and won a race. Then Brian (Vickers) got sick; that was for sure a setback when that type of thing happens. Getting Kasey (Kahne) that year was a great thing, a great experience.
But it was cool. The international business thing, I’d never dealt with that much and we got to be good friends with the Formula One team, which was cool. Those guys are still good friends. I would have to go to Austria two or three times a year, and we’d have meetings with Dietrich Mateschitz. It’d be Christian Horner, Franz Tost — and we’d go individually, but we’d kind of be in the bullpen waiting on our turn. There was a lot of lot of good collaboration with Christian and Jonathan Wheatley, the team manager, is a good friend.
You look back and it was a great experience. The only thing I’m disappointed in is I think we really could have made something of it. Red Bull Austria’s passion is Formula One, and rightfully so. That’s what they do. The NASCAR thing to them, they didn’t understand what we were going to need to do to take it to the next level.
They expected Formula One level results right away?
Well when we got there, our results were better than that team. If you think about it, this was before the championships. When I was at Red Bull Racing, the first year, (Sebastian) Vettel was still at Toro Rosso. I remember being in one of those meetings and they’re talking about Vettel going to Red Bull Racing, and there are guys on Toro Rosso he wants to bring with him and they’re asking how that works and is that OK? They’re asking me, and I’m like, “Absolutely. You want the driver to be comfortable, and if he’s got some people he wants to bring with him, let him bring them.”
Again, looking back on it, it was pretty cool. The first time we went to visit Red Bull Racing in Milton Keynes (England), you expect F1 to be everything James Bond-ish. So we go to the factory, and part of it is very James Bond-ish and you’re overwhelmed.
But then you go to the back of the shop and there are guys bolting the car together. It’s like, “There are our guys.” It’s familiar. It’s just racing cars, right? A lot of those guys ended up coming to Homestead at the end of the year, and they were overwhelmed by how we did a lot of things. Like to them, they couldn’t wrap their head around 38 races a year. But think about it: They’re running about 20, but they’re going to countries. We were going from Charlotte to Martinsville. So I think that was something they didn’t quite understand.
How did the transition go from Red Bull ultimately to IndyCar? You had been in NASCAR over 20 years by that point. Was there any hesitation about trying that side?
It was exciting. When the Red Bull thing ended, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Remember, for a year, I did go to Hendrick and do what I could to help.
I had forgotten that.
They didn’t need my help in any way. But I had been around them for a long, long time and they’re great friends and I learned a lot of stuff from them and there’s great trust. They’re like family to me.
So it was a really cool gap year. It was like, “What do I want to do next? Do I want to keep doing the team thing?” The team thing is pretty tough. There’s no revenue sharing. You’ve got to perform on the track and off the track. And again, taking care of the families — I took that very seriously. So it was good to catch my breath.
Over that time period, I got a call from IndyCar wondering what I was going to do next. I talked to them and that’s kind of how it happened. So it was exciting. As with F1, I was very curious about this. A lot of the people in here I already knew — there’s crossover on teams and some manufacturer stuff. But it was also getting to meet Honda, getting to meet Firestone. I’d never really dealt with them. So I was very excited about the opportunity, and it’s been phenomenal to this point. If you think about every day, we’re able to do something to help it grow, to make it better. The approach we’ve taken seems to be well-received.
If you take into account what you’re doing with IndyCar now, how much do you draw from your NASCAR background? Is it more similar than different?
Oh, it’s way more similar. Again, what do we do? We race cars, right? Yeah, the cars look different. But there’s people involved, and at the end of the day, it’s all about the people who make the cars go fast. So it’s extremely similar.
The main thing is coming from a team perspective. Everything we do, we do to see how it affects the teams. When I first started in this role, one thing we tried real hard to do was to harness the power of the paddock. There’s a lot of really smart people here. Having them help us craft this direction, we came up with this five-year plan. So we know where we’re going, we know what we’re doing. The teams are all part of it. Now we’re just executing it.
Now the plan has actually expanded through 2026 with the engine program. So we know basically where we’re going between now and 2026. We’ve created this cadence with things. As soon as the season is over, we have a team manager meeting. At that meeting, it’s 20 percent about next year — and that’s more blocking and tackling stuff, procedural things — and the other 80 percent we talk about (two years from now).
So you always try to work a year ahead. You never want to obsolete parts, you never want to cost teams money that doesn’t need to be spent. Obviously there are things that happen throughout the course of a season you have to react to that might be expensive, but everybody gets it — a part failure or something.
But everybody was part of this plan starting in 2017 when we froze the manufacturer aero kits. This year, with the new aero kit, that car, everybody had input in it — even from a fan perspective, we put out drawings and renderings to get fans’ reactions and it came back very positive. So we’re like, “All right. Aesthetically, we’ve got our identity back. It looks like an IndyCar.” The manufacturer kits were great, but there was a whole different mindset to it. There was not an aesthetic thing to it, it was about downforce and performance.
This car is very much putting it back in the drivers’ hands, which is what we wanted. It has less downforce. We’ve got a new engine coming in 2021, which will be pushing over 900 horsepower. It’s funny, people ask: “What’s your niche?” Ours is “fast and loud.” And that’s OK — every motorsports series has its thing, and we’re going back to being fast and loud and these cars are hard to drive and cool to look at. And there we go.
You took quite an unusual path to your current job. But for people who would like to follow your footsteps someday, how would you recommend getting to where you are?
This wasn’t part of the plan, but if you look back, I’ve been on the sponsorship side, I’ve been on the racetrack side with IMS and IndyCar, I’ve been on the league side and then obviously the team side. So I think we’ve checked every box from a motorsports perspective.
We have interns who work for us who are phenomenal. They have the desire and the effort and they want to be part of it. You’ve got to be persistent. It’s amazing looking back — I never would have thought I’d be doing what I’m doing now. How does all this happen in your life? Things change, and I’m very excited to be where I’m at. We think we’ve got some good momentum, some good things happening. So just be persistent and don’t be afraid to do what you’re asked to do — and then do twice that. People will notice.