Wisconsin wheeler-dealer Josh Bilicki keeps looking for a shot to win in NASCAR

Josh Bilicki of Richfield will make his 11th start of the season Saturday in the Xfinity Series Road America 180.
Josh Bilicki of Richfield will make his 11th start of the season Saturday in the Xfinity Series Road America 180.

Josh Bilicki finds himself in a weird spot.

He started as a road racer, found an opportunity in NASCAR and for seven years has been trying to force his way into the club, selling himself to sponsors to piece together patchwork seasons in the top series.

Let’s be honest. He’s been more persistent than successful in terms of tangible results with a top finish of 10th, twice, in 184 races.

Now this weekend, the 28-year-old from Richfield is racing with the Xfinity Series at Road America just outside Elkhart Lake.

It’s Bilicki’s home track, not just because he grew up 50 miles away but because he truly has spent more time on that 4.048-mile ribbon of asphalt than he has at any other track and significantly more than anyone else in the field.

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Road America has a funny way of producing unexpected NASCAR winners too. So while Bilicki’s chances in the Road America 180 on Saturday are slim they may be the best of any race on the calendar.

“It would be amazing,” Bilicki said of converting the long shot. “It’d be the best day of my life.”

Yet in the big picture it would mean almost nothing.

“It's not gonna give me a free ride next year,” he continued. “A great example of that is Ryan Truex won the Xfinity race this year at Dover in a Joe Gibbs (Racing) car and honestly, I like Ryan Truex a lot, but I know behind the scenes it didn't really do much for him. The sponsorship dollars he needs to go full time next year hasn't changed.

“And I look at Jeremy Clements. He won two races now. He won Daytona (2022), he won Road America a couple of years ago (2017). Yeah, it’s great. … But it unfortunately hasn't changed his career either.

“So unfortunately, I think the only thing that does – which this can be a big piece – is it gets my sponsors excited.”

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Josh Bilicki’s biggest success in NASCAR has been selling himself

That’s what’s kept Bilicki in the game this long: selling himself to corporate partners, maintaining relationships and making sure the people who spend their money see a return on their investment in him and stay engaged.

In that regard, Bilicki has had some success, as he and an agent have put together a full season in the Xfinity Series in 2018, a full Cup Series season in 2021 and patchwork seasons of about 30 races or more in ’19 and ’20.

That Road America will be just Bilicki’s 11th overall race this season sheds some light on the state of the NASCAR business in 2023.

“The fact is I have more sponsorship dollars than I’ve ever had in my life,” Bilicki said. “(But) all three series cost more to run, the (Craftsman) Truck Series, the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series.

“The Cup Series cost triple what it does to run today than what it ran two years ago.”

Josh Bilicki sees a small window for NASCAR advancement

Even with that, Bilicki is convinced that to have any chance of actually making it to the competitive level, he needs to step up soon.

Bilicki always has raced for smaller, back-of-the-field teams whose budgets are a fraction of their winning counterparts’, which has meant skipping practice to save tires, reusing parts, being down on horsepower and losing time in the pits because the crewmen also work fulltime in the shop. The Cup team for which he has raced this year, B.J. McLeod Motorsports, has 12 people, Bilicki said, while Hendrick Motorsports has 500 for four cars.

“Realistically, I think I have still two or three years to prove that I can make it,” Bilicki said. “I don't want to be in a situation I'm in right now for the remainder of my career.

“It’s a good way to make a living. And if I’m 40 years old and I'm still driving race cars and haven't progressed, you know, I guess then maybe it’s time to hang it up because it definitely takes its toll on you mentally.”

Josh Bilicki picked up a local sponsor after being involved in an on-track incident last year at Road America.
Josh Bilicki picked up a local sponsor after being involved in an on-track incident last year at Road America.

Full time in a top Xfinity Series car is the best option

Much of what happens – over the next two years or the next 10 – will be dictated by sponsors.

Bilicki’s best chance to succeed in NASCAR is to get into an Xfinity car from the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing or JR Motorsports, but that could be a $5 million proposition. If a sponsor finds more value for running in the back of the pack in the Cup Series for less money, that’s what Bilicki probably will do.

“Right now with the Zeigler Auto Group and Insurance King – primarily Zeigler Auto Group – I think we have the right people behind me now to look at our options and then show that I can make it,” said Bilicki, who this weekend will wear the colors of Zeigler, a group of three dozen dealerships in the Upper Midwest.

“If I go take a step back to the Xfinity Series and drive a race-winning car, prove that I can be up front and win races, I think that's key. And I think that needs to happen next year or the year after. But these last two years, you know, basically I feel like we've just kind of stalled out. … So 2024, we definitely need to do something different.”

A former sports car racer turns to sprint cars

In an unconventional twist on progression in racing, Bilicki has taken to racing sprint cars to stay active, given his limited NASCAR schedule.

Bilicki was familiar with open wheel dirt track racing through a sponsor, and fell in love with it after entering the Chili Bowl in January. The indoor midget race draws about 300 drivers, and with no experience and limited practice, Bilicki was pleasantly surprised with his performance.

“I like to think of myself as a pretty versatile racer,” he said. “Not just on four wheels, but on two wheels too. And on snowmobiles, a little bit of everything. So dirt racing has really always been interesting to me.”

That led him to Randy Sippel’s open-wheel driving school and sprint car team out of Elkhart Lake.

He got his sprint car laps several weeks ago at Eagle River Speedway and is set on double duty Friday, racing in the IRA Sprint series’ Road America Challenge at the Plymouth Dirt Track after Xfinity qualifying.

Assuming a partial NASCAR schedule again next year, Bilicki hopes to fill in gaps by racing with IRA.

“Basically everything you're taught (in road racing), throw out the window,” Bilicki said. “I mean the way you drive these cars, the way you sit in the cars, the way you can use both pedals at the same time … it's just different.

“I don't see myself paying the bills with the sprint car racing. I see it as basically keeping my knifes sharpened and keeping me in a race car. I think it's important for me to try and be in a race car every single week.”

What if NASCAR doesn’t pan out for Josh Bilicki?

Although Bilicki remains fully committed to making it in NASCAR, to doing what’s necessary on the business side and to stay ready for an opportunity, he has given at least a little thought to the possibility that a driving career won’t work out long term. The reality is that it doesn’t for most.

If that time comes for Bilicki, whether it’s in two years or five years or 10, the behind-the-scenes work he has done to stay in the racing game could pay off.

“I’m good with people,” Bilicki said. “Some of the connections I've made within the racing industry or also even just my sponsorship group, there will definitely be an opportunity for me to lead a team. I think I'm a good leader. I'm a good salesman too. Obviously, I'm selling myself, which is a little bit unique.

“I'm not worried about it at all even if it happened next year. But right now primarily my main focus is just proving that I belong here in NASCAR.”

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: NASCAR's Josh Bilicki wants racing business success, Road America win