HAMPTON, Ga. — When Travis Kvapil got the call Friday, he figured someone on his race team was playing a joke.
"They said there was trouble with the car," Kvapil said. "I thought we could figure it out when we got in the garage area. They're like, 'No, the car is gone.'"
The No. 44 NASCAR Sprint Cup car owned by small-budget Team XTREME was stolen from a hotel parking lot near Atlanta Motor Speedway, police said, forcing Kvapil to withdraw from this weekend's race before he even got a chance to qualify.
The $250,000 race car was still missing late in the afternoon, and police were hoping the public could assist in the search. The owner of one NASCAR sponsor offered a pit pass to every race the rest of the year to anyone who helped located the high-powered Chevrolet.
"It's insane," said team owner John Cohen, who didn't have a backup car to run in Atlanta.
For a few hours, the team held out hope of the car being found in time for qualifying Friday, but it was forced to withdraw when it missed NASCAR's mandatory inspection.
The Sprint Cup race is Sunday.
"It's really bizarre," Kvapil said. "You can handle maybe getting a flat tire, or getting caught up in a wreck, or a blown engine, something that actually happens on the race track. Or you don't qualify, because you don't have enough speed. But to not even get a chance ... that's pretty disheartening."
It was an especially tough blow for Team XTREME, which doesn't have the funding of major multi-car operations such as Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. Despite a wreck in qualifying, the team managed to make the field for the season-opening Daytona 500 with Reed Sorenson behind the wheel. He finished 32nd in the race.
Sorenson switched to a different team for the Atlanta race, prompting Team XTREME to hire Kvapil, a one-time Sprint Cup regular who had only five starts in the top NASCAR series last season and was looking to make his first appearance of 2015.
"I was excited to be part of a small team and trying to build up with them," Kvapil said. "Personally, it's a big setback."
A trailer with the red race car inside was hitched to a black 2004 Ford F-350 pickup truck parked outside a hotel in Morrow, Georgia, about 15 miles south of Atlanta and a short drive from the speedway, police said. Surveillance video showed the truck and trailer being driven out of the parking lot around 5:30 a.m., Morrow police Detective Sgt. Larry Oglesby said.
The team, which had been working 18-hour days to get the car ready for Atlanta, was scheduled to leave for the track at 5:45 a.m., and a crewman had been outside a few minutes before the theft, smoking a cigarette.
"I've been doing this since 1979," crew chief Peter Sospenzo said. "I've probably been to 1,200 hotels and 1,200 race tracks. Never once has this happened. It's crazy. But there's a first for everything, I guess."
The trailer is plain white with no markings. The person who stole it likely didn't realize the race car was inside, and may have thought it was lawn equipment or something else he could easily sell, Oglesby said.
"Hopefully they'll open this one up and say, 'Oh no, this isn't what we thought,' and will drop it off at the nearest vacant lot or apartment complex or somewhere," he said.
Normally, the car would have been transported using the team's hauler, an 18-wheel tractor trailer. But, with a winter storm moving through the Southeast this week, Cohen sent the hauler to Atlanta earlier in the week. Back at the shop, the team was still working on the car, a different version than the one that ran under restrictor-plate rules in Daytona. It was sent separately to Atlanta late Thursday after the storm cleared out, accompanied by Sospenzo and six other crew members.
"My whole plan backfired," said Cohen, who has been running a Sprint Cup car since 2012 and is one of the few African-Americans involved in NASCAR's top series.
In addition to the race car, the trailer also contained a spare engine valued at $100,000 and racing equipment valued at $17,500, according to a police report. Even so, Cohen vowed the team would return for next weekend's race in Las Vegas.
Kvapil said the thieves probably won't be able to cash in on their surprising haul.
"There's really no use for it out in the general public," he said. "I hope they realize that and will leave it somewhere where the police can find it."
The theft gave NASCAR star Jeff Gordon a new perspective.
When his crew chief was complaining about the way the No. 24 car was running before practice, Gordon told him, "It would be a lot worse. Our car could've been stolen."
Then Gordon turned serous, saying: "I hate it for Travis and those guys. I hope they get to the bottom of it."