As head coach of the Washington Redskins, Joe Gibbs was accustomed to flying to Dallas for “meetings” with the Dallas Cowboys. He was also accustomed to flying back to Washington, D.C., with a smile on his face thanks to the Redskins scoring five victories in nine games at Texas Stadium from 1981 to 1990.
But Gibbs was never more nervous for a meeting in Dallas than he was in May 1991. It wasn’t the Cowboys who were waiting for him this time, however. It was Norm Miller. And Gibbs wasn’t looking to defeat Miller, like he so often did the Cowboys. Rather, he was looking for Miller’s company, Interstate Batteries, to sponsor Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR).
If all went well at the meeting, Interstate Batteries would sponsor JGR’s first season in what was then the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 1992.
The only problem was that Gibbs didn’t have a race shop, employees, a driver, or any racing experience. All Gibbs really had was two Super Bowl rings, an agreement from Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick to provide cars and engines, and a dream.
What Gibbs didn’t know was that he would essentially return the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
“We hit it right off,” said Miller, who is chairman of Interstate Batteries. “You could tell there was warm communication between us right away.”
So how did the meeting come about?
Fittingly for two men who are devout Christians, a minister helped put them in contact.
“Joe talked to Max Helton (founder of Motor Racing Outreach),” Miller said. “I had never met Max, nor had my brother Tommy (retired Interstate president and CEO), but Max told Joe he heard that the Miller brothers from Interstate Batteries were decent guys and that he ought to call them.
“What’s funny is that Joe didn’t even know we were in racing. We had agreed to something like four races in 1991 as an associate with Stanley Smith. Joe was at a race (in May 1991 at Talladega, Ala.) and saw our car and it shocked him. He almost didn’t call.”
Gibbs decided to call, anyway, and nearly ran into a bit of a roadblock getting in touch with Miller. And the roadblock was none other than Miller himself.
“He called down to Dallas and my assistant answered,” Miller said. “I was down the hall doing something and she came and got me and said, ‘There’s a guy on the phone named Joe Gibbs and he wants to talk to you.’ And I said, ‘Oh that’s just some goofy friend screwing around. Get the number.’ She said, ‘No, I think it’s really him.’ So, I went and took that call and it was, indeed, Joe.”
Like they would in the first face-to-face meeting just a few weeks later, the duo hit it off right away.
“I think, in that first phone conversation, we may have talked 45 minutes,” Gibbs said. “We just talked about all sorts of different stuff and ministry things and we just hit it off right away. So I asked Norm if we could come down to Dallas for a meeting.”
A few weeks later, at 7:30 p.m. CDT in the fifth-floor conference room of Interstate Batteries’ headquarters, Gibbs pitched his dream to Norm and Tommy Miller and a small group of Interstate Batteries executives.
“I kid everyone today, but when we went down there, I almost felt kind of embarrassed,” Gibbs said. “We met with them and we didn’t have a driver, we didn’t have a manufacturer, we didn’t have a building – we didn’t have anything. Basically, all we had was a dream. I just kind of laid out for them our dream and what we wanted to do. And we had a great meeting and really hit it off.
“Now, when I walked out of there, I thought, ‘Gosh, this is too much to ask somebody to do. To be a major sponsor on something like this when we don’t have the practical parts and pieces put together is too much to ask.’ Two days later, I made up my mind that that was the case, and I decided I’d call Norm back and say, ‘Would you consider being an associate sponsor?’ So, I called Norm back and described my feelings and said, ‘This is a lot to ask of somebody,’ and pitched him the idea of being an associate sponsor.”
Miller’s response just about knocked the wind out of the future Hall of Fame football coach.
“I remember I was downstairs in my house,” Gibbs said. “And Norm goes, ‘I’ve got to tell you the truth. We talked it over and we’re thinking about doing this.’ I thought, ‘Holy Mackerel,’ and I think I almost fainted.”
It turns out that Gibbs’ dream was just what Interstate Batteries was looking for.
“What Joe didn’t realize was that we had surveyed our dealer base and approximately 70 percent had responded that they watched a lot of NFL football and NASCAR,” Miller said. “I’m looking at the numbers and then looked at Joe’s past and he had been a winner in everything he’d done. At the time, he had won two Super Bowls, so I said, ‘If we get him, we’ve got football, because he’s still coaching. We know they love that. We’ll also have NASCAR, and since he’s won everywhere, he ought to win at that. And, even if he doesn’t, the combination of the two is worth the price of the NASCAR sponsorship, only.’
“We had to be there, anyway, because our people told us they loved racing, so we backed up the racing with football. And two weeks before our first race ever, Joe won his third Super Bowl with the Redskins.”
Less than a month after the meeting, the deal with Interstate Batteries was signed and JGR had a full-time sponsor and was able to begin preparations for the 1992 Winston Cup season. Now all he needed were cars, engines, employees and a driver.
“In June of 1991, on Sunday night after the race at Dover, Del., Joe called me,” said Dale Jarrett, now an analyst for ESPN’s NASCAR coverage. “I had seen Joe in May of that year walking around the garage area at Talladega with Max Helton. Max brought Joe over to say hello to me, knowing I loved sports. That was the first opportunity I had to meet him and, at that time, I just thought he was there hanging out. Then I started hearing that Joe was looking at getting involved as an owner. When I got the call that Sunday night, I was driving for the Wood Brothers and we hadn’t had a very good day.”
Jarrett finished last in the 35-car field at Dover after a crash on lap 18 on the backstretch left his car unable to continue. Ironically, Bobby Labonte, who would take over for Jarrett at JGR in 1995, was making his Sprint Cup debut and finished just one spot ahead of Jarrett in 34th place after engine problems sidelined him 88 laps into the race.
“Joe expressed an interest in me as a driver for when he got involved,” Jarrett said. “That was the first real knowledge I had that he was serious about getting involved. He said he had a sponsor lined up and knew what an undertaking it was going to be. He had talked to Rick Hendrick and said he was going to get cars and engines and some technical support to help him get started. He seemed to have things in line but, to me, I’m looking at getting my career moved along further and did I want to take a real chance?
“Even though I knew what kind of person Joe was and how successful he’d been at coaching people and coaching football teams to the highest level, how was that going to translate into being successful on the racetrack with something new?”
A face-to-face meeting later that summer with the Miller brothers and Gibbs helped convince Jarrett to make the move to JGR. He signed a contract just prior to scoring his first career victory on Aug. 18, 1991, while driving for the Wood Brothers at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
“My request to them was that we have someone very knowledgeable to put all of this together from the racing side of it and my first choice was Jimmy Makar,” Jarrett said. “And it turned out to be a pretty good choice because he is still there today.”
Makar had come up through the NASCAR ranks working with legendary crew chiefs Harry Hyde and Buddy Parrott, as well as driver-turned-owner Junior Johnson. After serving as the chassis specialist at Blue Max Racing when Rusty Wallace won the 1989 Winston Cup Series championship, Maker spent seven races as crew chief for Wallace at Blue Max during the 1990 season. By 1991, Makar, along with Wallace, had moved to Penske Racing South.
“I got a phone call from Dale one night,” said Makar, who is married to Jarrett’s sister Patti. “He called the house and said he was going to drive for Joe, who was starting a new team. He wanted to know, out of courtesy, if I’d be interested in talking to them about the crew chief job. Just because I was curious, I said, ‘Sure.’ I don’t think he expected that because he’d been a little hesitant on the phone. So, we set up a meeting with Joe.
“Patti and I met with Joe at the Sheraton down by the Charlotte airport. He was coming through town and had a couple of hours and Patti and I were going on vacation and flying out of the airport that night and it was the only time we could get together. So, we met in the lobby of the Sheraton and we talked for about two hours, just getting to know each other. I was trying to get a feel for him because I didn’t really know him other than knowing he was the coach of the Redskins.”
From day one, Gibbs’ philosophy was that an organization “wins with people.” The idea sold Makar that summer day in the lobby of the Sheraton.
“Through that conversation, the thing that struck me the most was his philosophy on building teams and people,” Makar said. “It’s the story we’ve all heard a million times – ‘You win with people.’ That just resonated with me. In racing at that time, there wasn’t that feeling from the owners that people really mattered. The thought at that time was, ‘There are a thousand people hanging on the fence and a hat and a T-shirt will get them in here and they can do your job.’ It was a different mentality and he was putting a value on people, and I really wanted to be a part of it. That’s probably what sold me.”
In the summer of 1991, Gibbs pulled off what amounted to a stunning upset in the motorsports world. With no cars, engines, employees or a building, he landed a big-name sponsor, an up-and-coming driver and a crew chief with an impressive 15-year resume in the sport.
Even 20 years later, it’s still a little surprising to everyone involved.
“Knowing the sport and how difficult things are to put together, to go about it the way he did it is almost unprecedented,” Jarrett said. “I don’t know that it’s happened since and don’t know that it will ever happen again that someone can come in and do it that way. It took the perfect scenario for two people to come together like Joe and Norm. That’s the relationship that really started all of this. It was their beliefs that really got them started in this. They felt very strongly that the way they lived their lives and their common interests were going to carry them through this.
“They believed, and it obviously came to fruition for them, that if they put their resources together, it could be very good for both of them. Joe had been successful (in the NFL) and was a very hot property at the time, and Norm and Interstate were looking to grow the company and they both felt they could do good things in the sport and also outside of it. I think it’s still very surprising to a lot of people that they were able to get a sponsor before having a team or even a driver at the time.”
Even Gibbs knows what he pulled off was nothing short of a miracle.
“It was kind of a miraculous meeting,” Gibbs said. “I don’t think anybody today would think you could walk into a place, propose something to a big corporation and have none of the practical parts and pieces and have somebody say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing this.’ To me, it’s one of the most miraculous things in our life and I attribute the Lord with helping with this. If the Lord hadn’t been in this, we would have never gotten this done.
“I’ll say this about Norm: Norm has guts. If Norm believes in something, Norm’s going for it. Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen him over and over again in ministry and in different efforts we’ve put together in ministry. I’ve seen him just step out and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this.’ Norm’s one of those guys who has guts and, if he believes in something, he’s going to go after it.”