'One of a Kind': Kaulig Transitions from Sponsor to Car Owner
The secret of Kaulig Racing’s success emanates from the top with team owner Matt Kaulig.
Kaulig’s initial game plan did not include ownership when he tested the stock car waters as a sponsor with his blossoming LeafFilter Solutions brand in 2015. But the opportunity to redefine the current business model for NASCAR Xfinity Series teams was intriguing to Kaulig, as his interest in the sport went beyond simply writing a check.
He united his business acumen and passion for performance, and over the last five seasons he turned Kaulig Racing into a perennial contender.
“It’s been tremendous – like really, really, really tremendous,” Kaulig said. “Six years ago, we were just going to be a sponsor like everybody else. Just run on a car maybe one, two weekends. Based on cost, it’s not cheap to be on one of these cars. We were going to run a partial season the following year but ended up doing well with it.
“From a marketing standpoint with LeafFilter, we were growing our brand nationally – and it really was working. I’m not saying it was completely due to our NASCAR affiliation but our company really was growing. As we started making more money and growing our sponsorship opportunities with NASCAR, then being entrepreneurial and talking to some of the other owners, seeing how things operated in NASCAR, I thought, ‘Hey, we could do this ourselves.’”
Competition drove Kaulig long before he transitioned from sponsor to team owner. The 46-year-old Hudson, Ohio, native played baseball, basketball and football in high school but parlayed the latter into a scholarship as the quarterback at the University of Akron.
The four-year letterman became the Zips’ captain and balanced his time between business school and the gridiron. He took advantage of his education and fell in love with business. The lessons Kaulig learned on the field sharpened his leadership and team-building skills for real-world solutions.
“That’s what a quarterback does,” Kaulig said. “One of the things about being a quarterback is you have to know all the positions. You have to know what’s going on, all of your offensive players, what the line is doing, the running backs, the receivers and everyone’s assignments. Then you have to know what the defense is doing as well.
“I was brought up that way – or even from coaches saying you’re different. As the quarterback, you’re the leader. People look up to you. You’re not just one of the guys. You're not just part of the team, you’re the leader. So, I’ve always executed that way. It definitely helped being a quarterback and a team captain and just taking on that leadership role – which I love – and translating that to business.
“When you’re a business or starting to grow a business, like a race team, you need people to buy into what you’re doing and what you’re trying to accomplish. You have to be a great leader so they follow you. If you have bad ideas or bad leadership skills, that’s where businesses or race teams start to fail. That’s really why the emphasis at Kaulig Racing is on doing things the right way.”
That’s why Kaulig recruited veteran crew chief Chris Rice to oversee the operation. The native of South Boston, Virginia, incorporated practical racing knowledge with solid people skills to assemble a race-winning organization.
“When I met Chris, we talked about relationships, who we could get, manufacturers we could use and whether there was feasibility to start our own team,” Kaulig said. “We converted an old go-kart shop, really a parts shop, from scratch and added on to recreate the building we use today.”
After two mediocre seasons with Blake Koch and a transitional year with Ryan Truex, Kaulig Racing expanded to two cars in 2019.
“When you build an organization, you want to continue to get better,” Kaulig said. “You want to continuously improve everything. When you’re a small race team, a start-up, you can’t afford the great engineering, the great engineers or the big-time race car drivers or crew chiefs.
“But as you get bigger – as more sponsorship comes – and you have more money, you’re growing, and people want to be part of the organization. You definitely get better talent, but a lot of people have been here from the start.”
Justin Haley took over the No. 11 Chevrolet in 2019. That same year, a variety of seasoned racers competing in the No. 10 Chevy, including Ross Chastain, who scored the organization’s first win last year during the July race at Daytona.
The victory led to a full-time ride for Chastain this year.
“Matt Kaulig is one of a kind, that’s for sure,” Chastain said. “He’s a new owner in the sport. He’s young and he wants to do things his own way. He started as a sponsor and then started his own team up at RCR with an alliance right there on the facility. He did all the right things. It took a couple of years – longer than he wanted – to win. But he just wants to win.
“It’s crazy. He doesn’t care about second on back. The wins are the reason he’s here. It’s a performance-based sport, and he’s a performance-based owner.”
As the results have improved, so have the opportunities. Kaulig hired road racing ace A.J. Allmendinger to run five races last year and act as a driver-coach to improve the company’s road course program. When Allmendinger finished the 2019 season with a victory in the Drive for the Cure 250 at the Charlotte ROVAL™, Kaulig expanded his schedule for the No. 16 Chevy to eight races this season.
In June, Allmendinger scored his first victory on an oval in the Echo Park 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was en route to a second win – at the Daytona road course – when Chastain punted the No.16 and eliminated both cars. Fortunately, the evening wasn’t a total loss for Kaulig Racing. Haley seized the moment and scored his second win of the year.
The same principles that have guided Kaulig in his business life bleed over on the NASCAR side as well. Through Kaulig Charitable Giving Programs, he and wife Lisa have made a significant impact on the lives of people in northeastern Ohio. Their philanthropic initiatives have also extended to NASCAR.
With Ellsworth Advisors, Kaulig Capital and Kaulig Media, a full-service marketing and branding agency, he has a symbiotic platform to promote and develop his businesses – including the Xfinity Series operation.
Does the charismatic Kaulig have an interest in expanding to the Cup Series?
“You never know,” Kaulig said. “We’re looking to be as good as we can in the Xfinity Series and win trophies. We want to be a week-in and week-out winner with whatever car we have, and we want to win championships. I think we’re well on our way to achieving that but we have a long way to go.
“We had fun running the Daytona 500 (a one-off with Haley) for the first time. You will see us popping into the Cup Series from time to time, just to have fun, see what we can do and see if we can compete. But I don’t have a long-term goal right now of getting into the Cup Series full time and just going after that. Our goal is to just be as great as we can in the Xfinity Series and win championships and win races.”
About the Writer: Lee Spencer is an award-winning journalist who has distinguished herself in a variety of roles, including as the lead NASCAR writer for FoxSports.com, the first female beat writer for Sporting News and the senior NASCAR writer and editor for Motorsport.com. Currently, she is a regular contributor to RacinBoys.com and also serves as a guest host on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.