When Cal Wells uses the word “blessing” to describe the six months he’s been a part of the Legacy Motor Club organization, it’s far from a cliché.
Wells was named CEO in late July. The former NASCAR Cup Series team owner has come back to a sport he holds in high regard, which is not so random considering Wells was looking for an opportunity to do so.
There is also the life-long connection Wells has to co-owner Jimmie Johnson, whom he’s known since the womb. Johnson’s father, Gary, worked for PPI Motorsports when Wells was off-road racing. Johnson’s racing career then began in off-road racing.
Well also has ties to Toyota that date back to 1982 and has competed with them in many forms of motorsports. Legacy Motor Club is a new Toyota team.
“Worlds kind of collided,” Wells explains to RACER. “I was able to take my relationship with TRD and transition it to the relationship with Jimmie [Johnson] and Maury [Gallagher], and have another bite of the apple in Cup. I jumped on the opportunity.”
The last few months of have “been a lot of consuming of things” for Wells. The organization continues to make moves for the 2024 season, like transiting to Toyota and restructuring the race shop after GMS Racing, the Craftsman Truck Series operation, was shuttered.
“His [Gallagher] commitment to Cup, which is unwavering and Jimmie’s commitment to Cup, and what our journey is going to look like, I was just salivating over it,” Wells says. “I really enjoy these kinds of things that are fraught with unsolved opportunity. What can we do to make an impression that is good for the shareholders — Jimmie and Maury — good for Toyota, which I bleed Toyota red so I’ll work myself crazy to ensure that they cannot regret the partnership. And then other partners that we’ll be bringing on over time that I feel really committed to.
“It was just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
Wells fielded a NASCAR team from 2000 through ’06. The organization had two wins in 260 starts, both with Ricky Craven. But as much as Wells loved competing — and really loved competing with his own team — he also admits “we were not phenomenally successful.” Craven getting the best of Kurt Busch after trading blows in the final laps at Darlington Raceway and finishing door-to-door was the most memorable moment of Wells’s time as an owner.
Fender bumping between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch ended in a rare moment of celebration for Wells at Darlington in 2003. Robert LeSieur/Motorsport Images
There was also a stint at Michael Waltrip Racing, which Wells loved as he helped the organization get off the ground. Wells, who gave Waltrip his owner points to start the team in 2007, was there until 2011. A personal consulting firm followed, which gave Wells the chance to branch out into other areas besides just auto racing.
“I was blessed to touch a lot of different types of business, all in some sort of technology driven something,” Wells says. “And I barely made it out of high school, so it’s always fascinating to me. But whether it’s the military work I’ve done or all the manufacturer work with Toyota Racing Development, also the manufacturer work I’ve been blessed to do on the truck development side with the Tundra and Tacoma, a lot of different things I’ve been able to touch through Toyota. It’s all been a blessing.
“But I wanted that shot to see if I could get back in and compete in what I believe is the most competitive motorsport (NASCAR) in the world. And I’ve done a lot of it in a lot of different types of styles.”
It didn’t take long for Wells to be impressed by the people at Legacy Motor Club. Maybe, at first, the organization bit off more than it could chew but Wells brings a wealth of experience that is another piece of the puzzle.
“It’s been fascinating,” Wells says. “Do I wish we had another 90 days before Daytona? I do. There is a lot that goes into a manufacturer change and having the tools to really be able to do it. It’s fun because we’re going to be a tier one team without a technical alliance.
“We’re going through a lot of transition, in large part very positive. There’s been some disappointments, particularly with some people we’ve lost who don’t necessarily understand the vision of where we’re headed. The most fascinating (thing) is the human condition.”
It’s a tall task to convince employees they have an opportunity to be a part of something unique and special over time. To get them to take a deep breath and understand they won’t finish 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 but the journey can be rewarding. It will take leadership from the executives to the crew chiefs to get the organization to buy into the long haul and that “we have a plan that will get them to the promise land.”
Sooner rather than later, Wells believes there will be bright spots. In a recent talk with the drivers and others on the team, Wells stated the goal wasn’t to find an acorn every so often but make sure Legacy Motor Club has a bushel at the start of the year that they can deploy throughout the season. Another goal is to ensure everyone enjoys the journey because if not, it’ll be uncomfortable and made even more challenging.
There are certain goals for Legacy Motor Club that Wells is putting on himself. He, along with some of the organization’s other executives, need to figure out what angles there are to be competitive, find funding, and how to exploit the relationship with Toyota. The latter is one of the biggest reasons why the announcement of Wells joining Legacy Motor Club made sense, and he doesn’t shy away from the it being an advantage.
Wells feels his previous NASCAR stints with Toyota will help Legacy Motor Club find its feet quickly within the manufacturer’s program. Motorsport Images
Toyota doesn’t have a pecking order but Wells says Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing have earned their places as cornerstones of the manufacturer. Just because he’s been deeply connected to the manufacturer for decades isn’t going to change how Toyota dishes out its commitments.
But what Wells can do is bring inside knowledge and experience on how Toyota operates. It all comes down to knowing people and how to meet objectives.
“Case in point: when Michael [Waltrip] and Ty Norris did the deal with Toyota, they looked at Toyota’s accomplishments in every other form of motor sports and Ty did an exquisite job of selling that to the NAPAs of the world, Burger King, Aarons and their drivers,” Wells says. “But Toyota is very intentional about the way they go motor racing. They are much more of a technology contributor than other manufacturers that I’ve raced with in the past.
“It was tough for Ty and Michael because they didn’t understand the journey and with Toyota, when you partner with them, it is a journey. It’s not just flip the light switch, here’s 1,000 horsepower, here’s 8,000 pounds of downforce and everyone is going to want to drive your car. It’s very different than that and it takes time to understand that. Fortunately, under Dave Wilson’s leadership, Andy Graves, Tyler Gibbs, Jack Irving, and many others, they’ve done a phenomenal job of that transition from IndyCar and what it was like to NASCAR and what it is. But that journey takes patience and you have to be ready for it.”
Where Michael Waltrip Racing wasn’t ready for the time and effort that needs to come before results, Wells can help Legacy Motor Club be realistic in its partnership with Toyota. As Wells will also attest, Toyota is relentless in its pursuit of perfection and for Legacy Motor Club to be a true partner they will go through every part of what the journey offers.
“It’s a matter of contributing as much as extracting from the relationship, and that’s where I think I can help,” Wells says. “Even initially, with Maury and Jimmie, (to them) it was about, ‘Oh, now we’re going to get all this extra data and we’re going to get this and that and shoot right to the top.’ Oh, no, no, no. Here’s what a true manufacturer partnership looks like. And if you look at the journey and amount of time that you’re willing to invest, before you know it, you’re two years down the road and now you really are hitting on all eight cylinders.
“But it does take time. If you have the patience, the results, the benefits, the joys of the partnership will truly come true.”