Get to Know Jimmy Makar
During the past 20 years, Joe Gibbs Racing Team has experienced many changes. A constant is Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations. Makar has journeyed and grown with the team since he joined in August of 1991. Makar began as the crew chief for Dale Jarrett, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car. Jarrett and Makar earned Joe Gibbs Racing its first victory at the 1993 Daytona 500. Makar went on to serve as Bobby Labonte’s crew chief for eight seasons. Afterwards, he moved into his current role to oversee all aspects of competition for Joe Gibbs Racing. Many victories and challenges have filled the past 20 years for Makar, but no regrets.
Why have you stayed at JGR for so long?
No need to leave. The thing from the beginning with Joe as an owner was that he has provided everything that we’ve needed to go racing and to be competitive. If we didn’t succeed, it wasn’t because we lacked anything that we felt like we needed to succeed. We had all the things necessary, so there was no need to go anywhere else.
How were some of the first few races?
They were pretty anxious races. The very first race we went to in Daytona was a good example of a “welcome to racing” for Joe. We had a good car, and in the qualifying race on Thursday we were running second to Earnhardt. Dale (Jarrett) was passing Earnhardt off of turn four, the car got loose, and he got into the wall with it. So we had to go to our back up car.
I remember I was a little bit worried because we had to run the 125 to qualify. Back then it was a little different. The top 15 cars in each of those two 125’s were guaranteed a spot in, and the rest of the field was set by your qualifying speed, when you did your single car qualifying laps. We were ok, but we weren’t that great.
Joe asked me why I was so nervous. I said, “I want to make sure we are in.” He said, “What do you mean make sure we are in?” Well, he didn’t understand. He thought that when we showed up at the racetrack, we just kind of qualified and were in the race. He had no idea that there was a chance that we may not qualify for the race. His eyes just got big, and he was like “We may not even be in the Daytona 500?” I said,” Yes, there is a chance of that if the things don’t fall the right way.”
That was his first indication of a potential problem. Then we wrecked in the 125. We were fast enough to get into the race and started 30-something. We ran all the way up into the top 10. Everything was looking good, when they had a big wreck on the backstretch. Our car got wiped out completely. So the first race we went to, we crashed two racecars and finished terribly. Welcome to stock car racing. That was his introduction to the sport.
What perseverance did it take to keep going after that start?
I was use to it. I knew what things were, but Joe was good. He never checked up. We moved forward, kept on racing and had limited success. We did pretty well that year. It was tough, but it was a building year for sure.
The second year we went back to the Daytona 500 and won. We led a lot of the points that year. I think we ended up winning two races that year and finished third in the points.
What all happened in that first year to create such a turn around?
It was building thing. In August of 1991, I started hiring people. We had nothing and had to be in Daytona to race in February. A lot of work had to be done, and a lot of building had to be done. People hired. Cars, parts, there was a lot happening. It took a good year to get the team built solidly to the point where we could show up in Daytona the next year in 1993 and actually be prepared mentally and with the right people. It was just a matter of taking some time to get the team put together.
Could you explain more about adding the second team?
One of the harder things for me was going to be to find a crew chief that I could work with. Crew chiefs are pretty independent people. It would be key for me to find a guy that I could work with that would not want to go off on his own direction and do his own thing different from my philosophies on racing. That was going to be a hard position for me to fill, so I was filling other positions first.
I interviewed Greg Zipadelli about a job on the 20 car as the shock specialist. We met at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Mooresville one Sunday afternoon, and we sat out front in those rocking chairs for probably a little over three hours talking about racing and about the job.
I didn’t know Greg that well. We talked about his career, where he had been, and what he had done. I soon realized in talking to him that he had been a crew chief in the north series for years. The more I talked to him the more I realized that this could be the guy to be the crew chief for the 20 car. The interview was for a shock specialist job, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was a guy I could work with, and I thought he was sharp enough to get the job done. I told Joe.
Joe was like “What? This is the guy you want to be the crew chief?” and I said “Yeah, I think he can get the job done, and I know we can get along and work together.” Joe agreed and instead of getting a name crew chief that was in the business already, we hired Greg for the crew chief job on the 20 car. That probably still ranks as one of the better decisions we ever made.