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Ford & Front Row: What Exactly is a “Tier One” Team?

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What’s Happening?

On Thursday, after qualifying on the front row for the Daytona 500, Front Row Motorsports announced that they would be in a technical alliance with Team Penske and that FRM is now a “Tier One” Ford team. What exactly does being a “Tier One” team mean? Well, we answer that question here today.

  • Even if race teams are all racing for the same manufacturer, that doesn’t mean they are all getting the same resources. Some race teams get more than others.
  • They are not the only team jumping up to Tier One status this year. Legacy Motor Club is also making the jump, and we will use their example to explain this question.
  • Fans oftentimes talk about or hear of teams talking about “Tier One” status, but, many do not know what exactly it means. This will explain what being a “Tier One” team means.

Who is in Tier One?

When fans think of “Tier One”, “Tier Two”, or “Tier Three” in NASCAR, they may immediately think of sponsorship. However, that is not the case here, well, sort of. Today, we are talking specifically about the relationship between race teams and manufacturers.

Contrary to what some may think, manufacturers do not give every race team they have exactly the same financial support and backing. Some race teams end up getting more than others, and being a “Tier One”, which may also be referred to as “Key Partner”, team is often the goal of a race team.

Well, Legacy Motor Club CEO Cal Wells talked to Autoweek back in January to break down how this system works amongst manufacturers. He said that Chevrolet and Ford each have their own “Tier One” teams.

For Chevrolet, they have Hendrick Motorsports in what Wells called Tier 1 “Plus” alongside Trackhouse and Richard Childress Racing in Tier 1. Ford had RFK Racing, Team Penske, and Stewart-Haas Racing. Everyone else is outside of “Tier One”, and Front Row Motorsports has been recently added.

If you noticed, Wells did not mention Toyota. That’s because Toyota has fewer race teams than any other manufacturer in NASCAR with only 8 full-time entrants in 2024. that plays a role in how things work, and Wells gets into that a bit later.

What Does it Mean to be a “Tier One” Team?

So, now that we know how teams are distributed throughout the manufacturers, what are the benefits of being in “Tier One”, and how do teams get there?

Wells did elaborate in Autoweek on what it was like for Legacy Motor Club to not be a Tier One program. He described their previous relationship with Chevy as a “Tier Three”.

[GM] left (LMC) at what I would consider a tier three, where the information was very limited and intentional. I mean, this isn’t to say that (Vice President, GM Performance and Motorsports) Jim Campbell and (Executive Director GM Motorsports) Eric Warren didn’t pay a lot of attention to Gallagher Motorsports and then Jimmie and then Richard Petty, and then how it continued to evolve into Legacy, because they did. But they had tier one teams that they had made huge investments in and they were wanting to appropriately support their other true key partner teams.

Cal Wells (Legacy Motor Club CEO)

So, a Tier Three organization receives “Limited and intentional” information from the manufacturer. Logically, a Tier One team would receive the exact opposite. Tier One organizations would receive the most information and support from the manufacturer.

Wells was also perfectly clear that this is not some dirty trick manufacturers are pulling to sabotage race teams. He later went on to explain that sharing technologies with so many race teams causes manufacturers to lose the “Tight Reign” on technology.

This is part of why LMC moving to Toyota made so much sense. Toyota has fewer cars to worry about, so they have the flexibility to spread some of those extra resources around.

It also calls FRM joining Ford’s “Tier One” status into question. Ford will now have 4 race teams in Tier One, which is more than any other race team. Will Ford be able to keep all of these race teams in Tier One?

To counteract this disadvantage that non-Tier One teams have over Tier One teams, teams in Tier Two or Tier Three will often form technical alliances with Tier One teams. Examples include Kaulig Racing with RCR, Spire Motorsports with Trackhouse, and The Wood Brothers with Team Penske amongst a slew of others. Technical alliances are not limited to that, but that’s often how they can shake out.

How to Get Into Tier One

Now, if teams want to get into Tier One, what do they have to do? There’s no exact blueprint or formula for a race team to become a “Tier One” organization. However, there are some interesting patterns that some Tier One teams tend to follow.

Many teams that have worked with a manufacturer for a while are in that tier. FRM has been with Ford since FRM’s debut. Both Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports have been partnered with Chevrolet consecutively since the mid-1980s. While Team Penske was with Dodge throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, they had a long history with Ford in the 1990s before rejoining the Blue Ovals.

Sometimes it’s at least partially about finding the open spot with the manufacturer. Legacy Motor Club is one example of that as they are moving to Toyota for this year, and both 23XI Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing are also “Tier One”. Stewart-Haas Racing was a similar story when they moved to Ford in 2017.

Another scenario that has played out is buying out another team. For example, Trackhouse Racing bought out Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021, a Tier One Chevy team. Trackhouse is now a Tier One partner.

Again, the waters are quite muddy on what makes a team a “Tier One” team. However, these are the patterns that have played out.

The Cost to Become a “Tier One” Team

Now, becoming a Tier One team is not just a present from the manufacturer. The teams are expected to add value in return and make sure they are using the resources the way the manufacturer wants it to be.

Again, this is a bit murky, but we do have some insight from Legacy Motor Club. Joey Cohen of Legacy Motor Club told RACER‘s Kelly Crandall that the team expanded from 70-75 staff to roughly 115. This included new, Toyota-specific staff members including aero, quality control, software development, and engineering.

The cost is potentially some new staff members to make sure that things are being done the way the manufacturer wants them to be done. Now, some of that in LMC’s case is due to the transition from one manufacturer to another, but, Cohen specifically mentioned that LMC has obligations to Toyota as a Tier One organization.

Again, there’s no exact blueprint on this, but, we can tell from context clues some of what being a Tier One team entails. It means that teams need to have the infrastructure either already in place or are able to expand to accommodate all that the manufacturer requires of them. This means an added cost for the race teams, but, the trade-off is better support from their manufacturer.

Being a Tier One NASCAR Cup Series team has a lot of advantages to it. A total of 33 of the 36 races run in 2023 were won by Key Partner teams, but, the path to get there is not always easy.

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