Allegiant Air’s Maury Gallagher joins Richard Petty on NASCAR team

The sky has not been a limit for Maury Gallagher when it comes to achieving success in the transportation business.

It’s coming back down to earth as a NASCAR Cup Series team owner that might provide a stiffer challenge.

It was announced this month that the longtime head and major stockholder of Las Vegas-based budget carrier Allegiant Air would be stepping down in June as chairman and CEO to become executive chairman of the board.

While more happenstance than by design, the move will allow Gallagher to devote more time to Petty GMS Motorsports, the racing team headed by NASCAR legend Richard Petty in which Gallagher has purchased a controlling interest.

During an interview at Allegiant headquarters, Gallagher was asked if it’s more difficult to win in NASCAR or in the airline business.

“Yes,” said the fit and trim 71-year-old businessman, whose team will compete March 6 in the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The airline and race team will operate independently, Gallagher said, though Allegiant might sponsor a car in selected races.

“Both of them require a lot of dedication,” he said in comparing the two businesses. “What I bring to the party is I’m willing to make investments, and I’m willing to let the people who can make it happen shine through. I use the inverted pyramid (of success). But I’m at the bottom, not at the top.”

Before joining forces with Petty, Gallagher Motorsports competed in the lower rung NASCAR Truck and Xfinity Series, capturing two series championships in the trucks with NASCAR veteran Mike Beam in charge of racing operations. The team propelled Gallagher’s son, Spencer, to one Xfinity victory in 59 starts before it began exploring moving up to the marquee Cup Series.

When Petty’s corporate backers were looking for a way out, it provided a way in for GMS with an established entity.

“He’s the face of the organization, as he should be, just keeping us out there (with) the Petty name and all of those things,” Gallagher said of his iconic 84-year-old partner, who won seven NASCAR driving titles but has struggled as a car owner. “So they were interested in getting a partner that could be competitive.”

That’s exactly what Petty said during the merger announcement.

“Maury (Gallagher) and Mike (Beam) have built a really solid organization at GMS,” said the seven-time winner of the Daytona 500 who accumulated more than 200 victories during a Hall of Fame career. “Maury’s commitment to competing and winning is obvious in everything he does. The opportunity to combine our two organizations makes a lot of sense.”

How it began

When he played high school baseball in the Chicago suburbs, Gallagher said he identified more with Cubs stars such as Ernie Banks and Ron Santo than with Richard Petty. “I grew up playing stick and ball (sports). I liked racing, but I liked it on TV,” he said of his aversion to crowds.

He would meet Spencer Clark and his father, T.J., through business partners who were weekend warriors at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring,

Spencer Clark and Kyle Busch were rivals at the Bullring, and after Busch launched a NASCAR career that has produced two Cup Series championships and make him a household name, Gallagher helped Clark break into the Xfinity Series at LVMS with a one-off sponsorship.

Not long after, Clark was killed in a highway accident. T.J. Clark, a former NASCAR Truck Series competitor, would serve as a de facto driving coach for Spencer Gallagher, who raced to a surprise victory at Talladega (Alabama) Superspeedway in 2018.

Four days later, Gallagher was suspended for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. He made his Cup debut at Watkins Glen, New York, later that year before retiring, though he’s still involved with the race team in North Carolina.

“He was pretty hard on himself, a lot of pressure, what’s he gonna be when he grows up type of thing,” his father said. “I’d love to have seen him drive. He could have been a player, especially in the situation we’re in now.”

To help facilitate his son’s career, Maury Gallagher had purchased a race shop in Statesville, North Carolina, once owned by renowned NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham.

“The other big move was we needed somebody to run the place, and one of the names we were given was Mike Beam,” Gallagher said. “He is one of the most impressive guys you’ll ever meet when it comes to focus and winning and taking care of business — Mike works 27 hours a day if need be.”

Taking care of business and working overtime were Beam’s credo during a long career turning wrenches for drivers Kyle Petty, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott, Ricky Craven and Carl Edwards as a NASCAR crew chief.

Gallagher used a culinary analogy to describe his and Beam’s relationship.

“I set the table. The cook has to bring the food in, then they have to keep upgrading the menu all the time. You (might) open a restaurant, but after that, you can’t say that guy is the reason it succeeds,” he said.

Gaining altitude

There’s a joke that suggests the quickest way to make a million dollars in auto racing is to begin with $5 million. In the airline business, Gallagher says if you want to make $5 million, you start with $20 million.

“Trying to go against United, American, Delta, Southwest — how you gonna compete with that?” he asked rhetorically.

In NASCAR, the high-volume carriers go by the names of Hendrick, Gibbs, Penske and Stewart-Haas — big budget teams and car owners who combined have won 18 of the past 20 championships and every one since 2004.

Gallagher said there are distinct cruising altitudes in NASCAR — the rarefied air where the big multicar teams frequently fly, a lower level for middle-of-the-road entities (such as the one he now owns) and a pocket of turbulence where teams on a shoestring budget try to avoid the treetops.

“But I think there’s a good chance that can get mixed up a little bit,” he said about new cars and other cost-containment rules adopted by NASCAR before he paid $19.1 million for a majority stake in Richard Petty Motorsports — a team that won only seven races in 900 Cup Series starts.

“The old joke is if you put all the money and everybody together in a circle and see who comes out with the money — who wins — it’s probably the same people. They’re just good at what they do,” Gallagher said about jumping up in class. “But I’d love to win a (Cup Series) championship. Why else do you do this?

He said he started Allegiant with one airplane. Now, the company name is affixed in bright lights to an NFL stadium in his adopted hometown. In NASCAR, he has two cars (driven by young lions Erik Jones and Ty Dillon), so perhaps he’s already ahead of the curve.

“I’ve been competing all my life,” Gallagher said. “I went to school so I could play sports and wound up with an education.”

He said he’s always competing against himself — in the board room, on the golf course or even at home after he takes off his shirts. Instead of tossing them in a laundry hamper, he tries to land them on a hook.

The anecdote about his shirts fluttering through the air might have sounded absurd to one less driven to succeed, but perhaps no less absurd than purchasing a race team with a winning percentage of .008.

Maury Gallagher smiled as he got up from his chair in the small cubicle where he was being interviewed because airline business was being conducted in the larger conference rooms.

“A guy’s gotta have something to do after work,” he said.

Contact Ron Kantowski at [email protected] or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.