Trophy hunters with a heart

·12 min read

Quiet on the set!” a seventh-grade girl shouts, and her classmates fall silent. All eyes turn to the anchor desk, where another seventh-grader launches an interview with a grown-up pilot who waxes philosophical about the freedom he feels when he‘s thousands of feet in the air, high above his troubles.

Six cameras in the studio in LeBron James‘ I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, capture the interaction, which will air on Cleveland NBC affiliate WKYC in a series of segments called 3 Questions. Behind one of the cameras stands Kaulig Racing owner Matt Kaulig, his eyes peering through the viewfinder as the headphones smash his hair. His presence on set inside the I Promise Kaulig Media Lab shows that as much as he‘s a different kind of NASCAR team owner — more on that in a minute — he‘s a different kind of philanthropist, too.

While Kaulig Giving paid for the studio, Kaulig is passionate that his philanthropy involves more than just writing checks. He believes being hands-on is paramount, whether that means showing up to observe the interviews or assigning members of his team to design the studio and teach the kids how to use the equipment, which Kaulig Media did alongside WKYC.

Jay Crawford, a former ESPN personality who now hosts the 5 p.m. newscast on WKYC, bounds on set, radiating energy like he‘s Kaulig‘s brother from another mother. He‘s the second of three interviews today. The anchor asks Crawford what advice he would give to a young journalist. His answer sounds like Kaulig‘s life philosophy. “Never give up. There will be people who tell you you can‘t do it. Never listen to them.”

After the interview, Crawford marvels at the teenager‘s cool delivery and presence. “That‘s like your 50th interview, right?”

Told it was the boy‘s first, Crawford says, “There‘s no way. When I‘m out sick at Channel 3, can you come in?”

Crawford and Kaulig talk as the students prepare to interview a representative from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “This lab is so important,” Crawford says. “We‘re going to find kids who have that passion and didn‘t even know it.”

That mirrors Kaulig‘s journey as a NASCAR team owner: He had passion for it and didn‘t even know it.

2022june15 Matt Kaulig Studio
2022june15 Matt Kaulig Studio

• • •

Everything about NASCAR is new these last few years — new car, new schedule, new drivers, new owners. Kaulig has emerged as one of the faces of the new NASCAR … and an always smiling face at that.

He wears knife-flick dimples that cut deep when he laughs, spiky hair last seen in the 1990s, an enormous ring from Kaulig Racing‘s first Xfinity win and the confident gait of the former college quarterback that he is. He built his fortune growing a company called LeafFilter out of his house. Now he owns a portfolio of businesses — including his race team, a media company and a financial services company — many of which line both sides of one street in Hudson, Ohio.

Stacy Revere | Getty Images
Stacy Revere | Getty Images

On a sun-kissed April morning, sunlight streams into Kaulig Media headquarters and falls on the car AJ Allmendinger won with at the Brickyard last year, Kaulig Racing‘s first at the Cup level. Kaulig either owns or has invested in every sponsor on the car — Hyperice, LeafFilter, Kaulig Companies and Ellsworth Advisors.

That is not unheard of in NASCAR. HendrickCars.com sponsors Kyle Larson‘s car, which is owned by Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick. Driving for a team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, Kurt Busch won at Kansas in the Jordan Brand car. Red Bull, Valvoline and Furniture Row all owned teams that fielded cars. But it is unusual to have so many on one car.

Which is fitting because Kaulig took an unusual path to team ownership. In recent years, new owners have arrived by buying an existing team, either in whole (Justin Marks and Pitbull) or in part (Fenway, Robert Kauffman, Brad Keselowski). 23XI bought equipment from Joe Gibbs Racing and Germain Racing‘s charter and building. Kaulig‘s path to Cup more closely resembles that of a driver who works his way up through the ranks.

His dad worked for Raybestos, a brake company that once sponsored NASCAR‘s rookie of the year award. Kaulig attended the Indianapolis 500 several times as a boy with his father. Even with the benefit of hindsight, that seems more like a coincidence than foreshadowing. Kaulig never aspired to be standing in Victory Lane, dimples gaping, trophy held high, until he was well on his way to doing so.

Kaulig‘s first exposure to NASCAR came in the mid 2010s, when he bit on a cold sales pitch to put LeafFilter on the side of a car in the Xfinity Series. It appealed to him as a relatively inexpensive way to help push LeafFilter into a new market — the Southeast, not because NASCAR is a regional sport but because that‘s where the first races the LeafFilter car entered were (Charlotte and Miami).

He loved it, his employees loved it, and the access to potential customers for LeafFilter was huge. But as Kaulig‘s passion to be hands-on with philanthropy shows, he was not content to just write a check and let someone else build a car with his company‘s name on it.

He began asking questions. First among them: How much would it cost to make the car faster? That graduated to: How much would it cost to start my own team? Kaulig laughs at the old joke that the way to retire with a small fortune in NASCAR is to first amass a large one, then open a race team.

2022june15 Matt Kaulig Lebron
2022june15 Matt Kaulig Lebron

In a wide-ranging conversation over lunch not far from James‘ I Promise school, Kaulig says he‘s in racing because it‘s fun, and if it stops being fun, he won‘t do it anymore. He reconsiders that word, fun, and takes pains to explain himself. He‘s worried that “fun” will be misconstrued, which says more about the industry than it does about him, as if paying men and women to build fast cars to drive around in circles has to be serious business at all times.

For an industry that sometimes takes itself too seriously, Kaulig Racing winks and says, If we wanted to work, we‘d get real jobs. Kaulig calls racing trophy hunting. Sometimes fans shout that phrase out to him, and the line between branding and raison d‘etre has never been blurrier. As a unifying statement for why a race team exists, “trophy hunting” is just about perfect, or at least it is for Kaulig Racing.

It works for every engineer who sits down at their desk and every mechanic who grabs a wrench and imagines an end goal in mind to justify the work they will do in the next eight hours. “What are we doing today?” Kaulig asks as if he‘s perusing his calendar first thing in the morning. “We‘re trophy hunting.”

In his years as a NASCAR team owner, Kaulig has learned, or tried to learn, to balance his hyper-competitiveness with his have-fun mantra with the fact that winning is fun with the fact racing is a business. He doesn‘t want to let a bad race ruin his weekend, and at the same time he doesn‘t want to be so aloof as to not care if his teams have a bad race.

“Are you successful because you‘re having fun?” he says. “Or are you having fun because you‘re successful? I know that if you‘re not successful it‘s going to be hard to have fun. But I also know you‘re probably not going to be successful if you‘re not having fun, because it‘s such a grind and it‘s such a long season.”

He tells a story of his days as quarterback at the University of Akron. The team started 0-10 before a season finale with Ohio University, which was also 0-10. ESPN dubbed it The Toilet Bowl.

From that, he knows losing sucks. But he also knows it is not definitive and will marble into the rest of his life only if he lets it. So, he makes a conscious effort not to let it. The last thing Kaulig does before the start of every race is fist bump his drivers and say, “have fun.”

Sometimes he adds, “and go kick their asses.”

Stacy Revere | Getty Images
Stacy Revere | Getty Images

• • •

When Kaulig started Kaulig Racing in 2016, he formed a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. At first glance, they seem an unlikely pairing. And yet they have formed a tight bond. Kaulig and Kaulig Racing employees retell with awe and respect stories they have heard from Childress of his 50-plus years of team ownership, during which he has won 109 races and six championships with Dale Earnhardt.

Childress built his team deliberately. His first race was in 1969, his first top five was in 1978 and his first win in 1983. Kaulig, too, has been intentional about, as he says, “being slow on purpose.”

Not slow as in miles per hour but slow as in methodical. Kaulig Racing went winless in its first three seasons in Xfinity. Since then, it has amassed 15 wins and been a consistent championship contender.

That success prompted questions about when the team would graduate to Cup racing. After running 10 races combined the last two seasons, Kaulig Racing is fielding a full-time car for Justin Haley this year and a second car split between Allmendinger, Noah Gragson and Daniel Hemric. In a sign of Kaulig‘s competitiveness, he bought two charters, outbidding Michael Jordan.

Sean Gardner | Getty Images
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

While at the Xfinity level the expectations are high, at the Cup level there aren‘t any, Kaulig says. Haley could pick up a win or wins, or he could struggle. If there‘s one mistake teams and drivers make — and one Kaulig has avoided — it‘s trying to go Cup racing before they are ready and expecting to win.

To qualify for the Cup playoffs, Kaulig Racing will have to beat teams fielded by Roger Penske (three teams in 2022), Jack Roush (two), Joe Gibbs (four), Hendrick (four) and Childress (two). All of them are Hall of Famers and have entered cars for at least 30 years each. Penske and Childress fielded Cup cars before Kaulig, 49, was born.

Kaulig‘s businesses succeed in part because he creates a replicable and sustainable culture. That needs time to take root. At least as important as the cars Kaulig‘s mechanics build and his drivers race is the sense of place he has created.

At many multi-car operations, the teams work under one roof, share information and profess to be one. But they still operate separately. At the Kaulig shop, next door to Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, North Carolina, there is no distinction between car numbers. “We are all one team,” Kaulig says. “All the guys work on all the cars.”

Even crew chiefs work across car numbers during the week. The only time the teams are separated into distinct units is on race day. When a Kaulig team wins, the bonus is split across the entire company, not just the guys who worked on that car that weekend. “If one of us wins, we all win, and that makes a big difference,” Allmendinger says.

That all for-one-competitive attitude mirrors the culture at Kaulig‘s other businesses. The challenge is how to merge that “one wins, all win” mentality with the trophy-hunting mentality. Only one team bags its prey each weekend. What if one or two or even three Kaulig drivers has a kill shot lined up?

That happened at Daytona in 2020. Coming out of Turn 4 the final time, Allmendinger led, followed by teammates Ross Chastain and Justin Haley. Chastain dove low to try to pass Allmendinger. But he hit him, which sent both of them spinning into the wall. Haley drove by for the win. “Unbelievable,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on the NBC broadcast. “What just happened?”

As important as what just happened was what happened next. Kaulig — not content to just write checks to pay his drivers and let someone else manage bruised egos — knew he could not let ill-feelings fester. He told (as opposed to invited) all three drivers to join him on his boat off the coast of Florida. They filled glasses with adult beverages, emptied those glasses, and talked it out.

“He definitely doesn‘t want tension there. He doesn‘t want that conflict,” Allmendinger says. “He wanted to make sure you‘re all good, and you move forward.”

Enter Parallax Text

• • •

Kaulig Giving (the philanthropic arm of Kaulig Companies) supports the well-being of children and families through direct giving, community involvement, and partnership with like-minded organizations in Northeast Ohio and beyond. That made a collaboration with LeBron James — Northeast Ohio‘s most famous resident — and his I Promise school a perfect fit.

The final interview of the day is with a representative from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in nearby Canton. He rattles off interesting facts and talks about how fun it is to be immersed in football history all the time.

On his way out, Kaulig climbs the curving steps from the school‘s studio onto the main floor and emerges into a large atrium, flooded with warm spring light. Basketball shoes line the walls on the right and left, more than 100 of them, all size 16 Nikes worn by James in the 2015-2016 season, when he brought a championship to the NBA‘s Cleveland Cavaliers.

A mural on the wall reflects a series of promises the students make when they sign up to go to school here:

“I will work hard

I will never give up

I will do my best

I will dream big

I will stand tall

I will succeed

I will be strong”

Stephanie Myers-Bussan, who serves on the core leadership team of the LeBron James Family Foundation, follows Kaulig up the stairs. She is buzzing with excitement from what she witnessed in the TV studio.

“It‘s mind-blowing,” she says.