Times are rapidly changing in the racing world. From technology, to costs, to rules packages, it seems like everything is evolving at a break-neck pace. Some of these changes are for the better, while others not-so-much.
One less-than-ideal change over the past decade is the undesirable trend of car owners departing from our sport. Across all divisions in all types of racing, these crucial figures are exiting stage left, at a worrisome rate.
I guess either it’s just the love for the sport or the fact that I might not be very smart. – Augie Burttram
While the national dirt scene still touts some notable car owners like Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Richards, Kyle Larson, Keith Kunz, Tony Stewart and a few others, the regional scene (car-owner wise), has all but dried up in most areas. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that apart from the Pennsylvania Posse scene, there just aren’t many concentrated areas with multiple car owners these days. Most teams are now family-fielded and funded by the driver.
With that said, there are still a few guys who financially stick their neck out for the love of the sport. One such team is Ocala, Florida’s Big Frog Motorsports, who fields Dirt Late Models in the Southeast. We thought it would be interesting to take a look behind the curtain to see what keeps a car owner going these days, when so many others are throwing in the towel.
“I guess either it’s just the love for the sport or the fact that I might not be very smart,” laughs Big Frog Motorsports team owner, Augie Burttram. “Sure, a lot of guys have ceased their operations in recent years, but racing is all that I’ve ever known, so I just continue to find a way to make it happen.”
For Burttram the situation is further complicated by the fact that Dirt Late Model racing has all but dried up in his home state.
“There’s some spec and crate engine [classes] here in Florida, but our team is now focused on the Super Late Model ranks. To do that, we have to drive about eight hours on any given weekend to compete in an event. That means we are looking at a cost of at least $800 or so on fuel every time that we roll out of the driveway. It sucks, but it is what it is.”
For the 43-year-old Burttram, racing has been entrenched in his veins since day one. “My dad raced Late Models until I was 12 years old or so. I grew up at the track, and I absolutely lived and breathed the sport.”
Further hooking Burttram on the sport were the running partners that his dad had as teammates. “My dad drove quite a bit for the Tri-City Aluminum team, and at the time they also fielded cars for Larry Moore and Buck Simmons [both now Dirt Late Model Hall of Famers],” Burttram noted. “Back then I don’t think I fully appreciated the greatness that I was being exposed to, but I do remember looking forward to going to the track every week.”
I didn’t even ‘almost’ have a driver’s license, but we just didn’t look at it as being a big deal. – Augie Burttram
As Burttram approached his 15th birthday, his dad made the tough decision to step away from racing to focus on the family business. The team would not cease operations though. Rather, the elder Burttram handed operation of the team over to his son. “I can remember being 15 years old and I’d drive our box van and open trailer up to Swainsboro, Georgia, to race,” Burttram laughs. “I didn’t even ‘almost’ have a driver’s license, but we just didn’t look at it as being a big deal. It was definitely different times back then.”
The team enjoyed success with home-state standouts Ivedent Lloyd Jr. and James Powell, as they focused mainly on the Limited Late Model scene. At the age of 16, Burttram welcomed best friend Craig Berry on board as a co-team owner. The duo focused primarily on the Hobby Stock and Thunder Stock divisions in Central Florida. Not only did they field cars, but Burttram also moonlighted as a driver winning some races for other car owners.
“I had a good time driving, but honestly I think I was always more cut out to be a team owner,” Burttram recounts. “I’ve always enjoyed finding a way to make impossible things work, and that’s still true today.”
I had a good time driving, but honestly I think I was always more cut out to be a team owner. -Augie Burttram
It was in 1991 that the team came to acquire its now signature name. “A friend joked one time that I was like a ‘Big Frog’… not sure if that a good thing or not, but it stuck, and I guess you could see the rest is history,” Burttram cynically recounts. “From that time on, this team has been known as Big Frog Motorsports.”
Fast forward to 2008, and Big Frog Motorsports was ready for a big change. The team had grown bored of the Thunder Stock ranks, so they traded their car for a used Limited Late Model. “That’s when things really started to click for us,” Burttram remembers. “We got a used Barry Wright Race Car and hired Shane Williams to drive for us. About that same time, we started getting help from veteran crew chief, Mike Rey. We went out and won the feature the fourth night out. It was then, that I knew Late Models were where I wanted to be.”
After battling the ups and downs of the Late Model world in their freshman campaign, the team made the pivotal decision to hire Florida racer, Mark Whitener, late in the 2009 season. The choice would pay major dividends. Over the course of the next six years, Big Frog Motorsports, crew chief Mike Rey, and Whitener ripped through the Florida racing scene with 72 feature wins and six championships.
“We had an amazing run with Mark [Whitener],” Burttram says. “We just clicked right off the bat and had almost immediate success. We learned a lot during that time and had a ton of fun. It still almost seems surreal that we were so dominant.”
As is the nature of racing, Burttram and Whitener would opt to go separate directions at the end of 2015. Big Frog Motorsports started the 2016 campaign with Austin Kirkpatrick behind the wheel of the team’s familiar No. 58, but the partnership would be short-lived. West Virginia native, Doug Horton moonlighted in the car early in the season and registered a few wins, before Floridian Devin Dixon ultimately took over sole driving duties in June of 2016.
Dixon’s arrival sparked another successful streak that included the 2017 Chevrolet Performance Super Late Model Series Championship and Rookie of the Year title. “After Mark [Whitener] left, we had a few months of transition before we ultimately landed on Devin Dixon to be our driver,” Burttram recounts. “With Devin we branched out a little more and got a championship with our CT525 aluminum crate engine. It was a nice stretch for us, where we tested the waters and learned new tracks.”
Change came afoot for Big Frog Motorsports once again in 2018. Newlywed Craig Berry opted to leave the fold as part-owner of the team. Meanwhile, Burttram and Rey made the decision to focus solely on open-engine competition.
“Since Mike [Rey] came on board as the full-time crew chief in 2009, we had talked about living the dream of running Super Late Models on a national basis,” Burttram notes. “With the help of some great new sponsors like M&W Transport, we were able to realize that dream for 2018. We knew we needed a driver, who had knowledge of Super Late Model racing at multiple tracks. That’s when Donald McIntosh joined the fold.” Dawsonville, Georgia’s McIntosh came on board as the Big Frog Motorsports driver in April 2018 after experiencing struggles with his own team to start the season.
With McIntosh in the driver’s seat of the Big Frog Motorsports Super Late Model, the new partnership paid immediate dividends with a win in their first event together on April 12 at North Carolina’s Tri-County Racetrack. “We just clicked with Donald immediately,” Burttram comments. “He brought a lot of knowledge to the team, and we brought a race-winning operation to the fold.”
Over the next two months, the team picked and chose events as they tested the waters with the Southern All Stars, World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series, and other tours. In July, they embarked on the full Schaeffer’s Oil Southern Nationals tour.
While they fell short of reaching Victory Lane, Burttram was pleased with the performances. “When you’re used to winning a lot of races on the local scene, it’s really humbling to go out and struggle on the national scene. However, when you step back and look at the caliber of guys you’re racing every night, it definitely puts things in perspective. We have had some struggles, but we also have had some great runs. Finishing second in our first appearance at Tazewell Speedway definitely was a high point.”
While Burttram has spent most of the 2018 season on the road with the team, he also has been balancing his time at home running his various businesses. In fact, Burttram now owns a shocks business, a setup business, a towing business, and an automotive garage. If all of that wasn’t enough he also has a family farm.
“People ask me all the time why I spread myself so thin with so many businesses, and I just reply, ‘I have to do all of this to afford my racing addiction’,” Burttram laughs. “Seriously though, it can be pretty trying at times. Most nights I work all day, half the night, get four hours of sleep, and then start over again. It’s just the price I pay to get to do the things I love.”
For the remainder of 2018, Big Frog Motorsports plans to continue to get all the track time they can. For 2019, they hope to follow a tour, such as the Southeast’s Ultimate Super Late Model Series. From there, the sky is the limit. “At this point, we plan to continue to learn, take our lumps, and progress in a manner that makes sense for us,” Burttram notes. “Hopefully, one day we can make a full run at the national scene. We’re not going to force it though. We are in this for the long-haul.”
When asked if he ever sees a day when he throws in the towel as a car owner, Burttram makes a thoughtful declaration. “Over the years, I’ve taken breaks from the sport, but I’ve never walked away. Racing is an addiction, and I’ve always come back. I expect as long as I’m alive and kicking that I’ll always be doing this.”