MOORESVILLE, N.C. — No one knows the ceiling of Spire Motorsports, which has expanded to three Cup teams and moved into a new shop, but the belief in the building is that the team is poised to reach greater heights than ever before..
“I think it's a legitimate goal for this company to win a race and to be a playoff contender,” Ryan Sparks, Corey LaJoie’s crew chief and Spire’s director of competition, told NBC Sports. “Does it happen this year? I sure hope so.
“I think we have the tools in place. It's just going to be up to people to execute the weekends. Right? It won't be from lacking in any other area but execution.”
The reason for the confidence is the amount of effort put in by co-owners Jeff Dickerson and TJ Puchyr. They have invested in Spire’s growth by purchasing Live Fast Motorsports’ charter, Kyle Busch Motorsports and the 77,000-square-foot facility that housed KBM and Rowdy Manufacturing. They brought in crew chiefs with engineering backgrounds and continued to build the Truck Series program.
The work continued with changes to the driver lineup. LaJoie remains the leader of the Cup program while rookies Carson Hocevar and Zane Smith join him as teammates. Smith is a member of Trackhouse Racing but will drive for Spire as part of an agreement between the two organizations.
Hocevar and Smith both have limited experience in Cup but impressed last season by keeping their cars clean and contending for top-10 finishes in starts for Legacy Motor Club and Front Row Motorsports, respectively. Hocevar also made one start for Spire while LaJoie replaced a suspended Chase Elliott.
“I think Carson Hocevar is a generational talent,” Sparks said. “People just haven't really seen it yet. They saw that 42 car change their performance instantly when he got in it. When he drove the 7 car at Gateway — we ended up having a brake failure — but he went from 26th to top 15 in the first stage. Just stuff that doesn't typically happen. It's kind of our job to manage him.
“Then Corey kind of coming in his later years, he's got all these experiences. How's he going to use them to his advantage? Then Zane with his connection here and then also ties to Trackhouse to lean on Ross (Chastain) and stuff like that. There's a lot of opportunity for all these drivers.”
For LaJoie, the current iteration of Spire is something several years in the making. He remembers sitting down at a conference table with Dickerson and Puchyr. There were no employees, just a dream.
LaJoie and the Spire co-owners used a whiteboard and built the team with a dry erase marker. They identified where they could get cars, engines and pit crews. They highlighted Sparks, an engineer at Richard Childress Racing at the time, as a key crew chief to target.
“To see how far it's come over the span of three years — acquiring KBM, having multiple Truck teams and a lot more personnel than what we've had ever — it's weird when an actual long-term plan comes to fruition,” LaJoie told NBC Sports.
“That’s usually not the case. You’re usually selling sunshine and rainbows.”
The 2023 season was a significant step in Spire’s journey. The team set to have the No. 7 team finish in the top 25 in points. LaJoie achieved this on the driver side as he improved his average finish to 20.8 and set career-highs with three top-10 finishes and two top fives.
LaJoie and Sparks both see the Gateway result — the only time the No. 7 car failed to finish a race — as a significant factor in falling five points short of the goal on the owner side.
LaJoie, who completed the season without a DNF, believes that this was only a glimpse of future success. He expects to be in the mix throughout 2024 while continuing to race his way to strong finishes.
“I think the next progression is running that 12th to 18th range as opposed to that 18th to 25th range,” LaJoie said. “Just start playing with those guys a bit more.
“I still think we're in a phase of walk before we can run. We'll certainly attack the speedways with the mindset to go try to go steal one.”
Simply pushing for top-10 finishes with LaJoie’s team is not the sole goal. Sparks will work with new crew chiefs Luke Lambert and Stephen Doran to ensure that all three teams are consistently competitive instead of having one outperform the others as in seasons past. Lambert will guide Hocevar and the No. 77 team while Doran will guide Smith and the No. 71 team.
The approach will continue to evolve as the season progresses. Sparks, Lambert and Doran will assess Spire’s progress after the West Coast swing and then make changes as needed. If they struggle at Phoenix, they will put more emphasis on the short track program. If Las Vegas is a trouble spot, they will turn their attention to intermediate tracks.
“I think the advantage in the hiring of the crew chiefs that we did with Luke Lambert and Stephen Doran, they have engineering backgrounds,” said Sparks, whose desk was next to Lambert's when they worked at Richard Childress Racing.
“I think for us to take the next step, we had to increase our engineering staff and what our approach is going to be to attack these race weekends. … We know that’s where the speed’s made, in the details and just being able to optimize the simulation tool.”
LaJoie has the goal of contending for a spot in the playoffs and potentially reaching the top 16 for the first time in his career. Sparks has the goal of showing consistent improvement across the board while trying to chase down JTG Daugherty Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Kaulig Racing and other organizations.
Whether Spire accomplishes these goals remains to be seen. Other teams in NASCAR will have new driver lineups, manufacturer alliances and car bodies that could play a role in whether Spire outperforms its competition.
The same can be said for the ability to avoid burnout during the grueling summer months as the Spire employees push for improved performance.
There are just too many unknowns entering 2024 for Sparks to set a specific goal focused on points or statistics.
“I still say after a couple of years of running this car, anybody that thinks they got it figured out is full of s---,” Sparks said. “Just when I think I do, I show up the next week and struggle. It's tough. And really, the Cup Series is gonna be tougher this year than it was last year.”
Despite the unknowns, the nearly 60 employees working on Spire’s Cup program have high expectations for this season. The same is true for the drivers and crew chiefs. There is a belief in the building that the teams can run consistently while competing against bigger teams in the series.
Of course, there will be skeptics as Spire continues to pursue top-10 finishes and wins. Dickerson acknowledged as much at Talladega last season when he discussed Spire’s purchase of KBM and said that “I don't know how many more of these deals we have to do before people know we are for real.”
LaJoie expects the skepticism to continue into this season. Not that he cares. His focus is on continuing to grind with the organization until he can take it to victory lane and pay off years of hard work.
“I've gotten pretty good at not listening to the nosebleed section, because the loudest voices are from the cheapest seats,” LaJoie said. “…Those people that have something to say, those guys are rarely the ones that are ahead of you doing what you're trying to do.
“They're always behind just wishing they were doing what you're doing.”