While many involved in the racing industry may change jobs frequently, David Wagner has spent the last 20 years helping Joe Gibbs Racing bring cars to the track. He began as one of the two mechanics that the team had building cars. As the team grew, his responsibilities also grew. With more and more people working in the prep shop, he took over as supervisor. This year he became the special projects manager for the shop. Wagner plans to retire from the racing industry next year.
What all does being special projects manager entail?
I just manage any special project that comes through that really doesn’t have a department to work on it. I take over that and find the people to work on it.
What special project are you currently working on?
Over the winter, I worked on the fueling system, because it was new. It needed a lot of guidance to implement it to fuel cars on a pit stop. I took that on as a special project. Right now, I am looking at building some equipment for the pit crew to use for working out.
What did you do before you were at Joe Gibbs Racing?
I grew up in racing in Knoxville, TN. My father owned a small machine shop where he built racecar motors. I started racing myself, when I was a junior in high school in 1972. What I have done my whole life is racing. I got started at a young age and was really hooked on it. I started building my own cars, building cars for other people and racing locally. Then there was a company in Knoxville called Thunder Craft Boats, and they started a race team in a lower level called All-Pro racing. It was a touring event. They asked me if I would start it from the ground up and run it for them. I did that for about 3 or 4 years, and I met a lot of people in NASCAR and started making connections there. I felt like that was the next move for me. I talked to some people and finally talked Moroso Racing into giving me a job. I moved over here from Knoxville and lived in a motel. My wife stayed in Knoxville and worked her job. We kept our house just to see if I liked it, and if they liked me, before we gave up everything. That is how I got over here to Charlotte. When they started Joe Gibbs Racing and hired Dale Jarrett and Jimmy Makar, Jimmy contacted me about coming to work here, and I did. As we started the place, it was just Jimmy and I for a while. We bought an existing team, went through a warehouse, and went through the stuff to see what we could use. Then we started the team up and in the first year we started, I think we had 11 employees out at the shop working. Then I kind of grew naturally into being the supervisor of the prep shop. I was the prep shop at the beginning of it. There were only two mechanics, and one of them traveled, and I didn’t. This whole side of the shop basically was me. I think our first year we had six or seven cars. It grew from there into what it has become today.
How did you start working for Joe Gibbs Racing?
The place that I was working wasn’t it very good shape, and was about to go out of business. They were starting this team, and I had heard about it. I had talked to Jimmy (Makar) about it, when I found out he was going to be in charge of it. That was another reason I wanted to come here, was because of Jimmy. He was a very respected person. I have a lot of respect for him. I did then, and I have even more after working with him for 20 years. I didn’t know a lot about the Gibbs of what kind of owners they would be. I didn’t come here because it was Joe Gibbs. I came here more because of Jimmy and knowing his history, not knowing very much about the Gibbs. It turned out to be very good. They are by far the best owners in racing. I think they are the best employers you can have of any business. I don’t see how you can have any body any better to take any better care of you.
What were your starting responsibilities in getting the car to race?
We had a very small group of guys. When it was one other mechanic and I, we had some help from different departments. My job was basically to completely assemble the cars, to do the maintenance on them, to put motors in them, to take them to the set up plate, to set them up, and to get them ready to leave for the racetrack.
What were your responsibilities as a supervisor of the floor?
The whole car. From the time it came to this side of the shop as just a body and a chassis, I oversaw the guys putting the car together. It was the same things that I did whenever I was a mechanic, but I oversaw them because we had a lot more cars and a lot more people. It was basically taking a body and a chassis, building all the components that go on it, putting all the components on the car, putting the motor in the car and sending it down to the set up plate. At that time there were 35 guys that worked under me in this department.
What are your favorite memories of working here at JGR?
I don’t know if there is any one fond memory. It was so different, because everybody did everything. It wasn’t as specialized as it is now. It was good to work for the Gibbs. They are just such great people. Employers are not the greatest people to work for to begin with, and then you get in racing. To have them as good as they are just takes it to another level. It is even more special.
How has the dynamic of the shop and the team changed as it has grown?
It has changed so much, because now it is so specialized. Now you have people where it is almost like an assembly line. You have people that just do there little job and that is it. There are specialists all through the building. Back when it was such a small thing, you had to do everything. You were a mechanic before lunch. Maybe after lunch you had to help fabricate and build parts. The next morning you were in the body shop working a little bit. Everybody had to do a little bit of everything. The biggest change is that there is none of that now. Even in your department there are specialty departments, and you have to stay in your special department.
When everyone had to do everything, was there ever something you had to do that was out of your comfort zone?
I don’t think I had that, simply because I had been racing since I was a kid. I did everything from building my own cars from just a pile of steel to building the motor. That is really what led me to be the supervisor, there was really nothing in racing that I couldn’t do. I don’t know that I ever had to do anything that I wasn’t comfortable with. My uniqueness to the Gibbs is that I am well experienced at it.
How will it feel to retire after 20 years?
I don’t know if retirement is the right word. It is just that I have been racing my entire life. I would just like to do something different. I don’t think it is retiring. I think it is leaving here. My wife and I are going to move to the mountains. We are just going to have a simple life. I will still be working. I will just be working in less of a high-pressure environment.
What are some of the stories that you will take with you into retirement?
I think how hard we worked back then as such a small team. I am not saying that we don’t work hard now, but back then there were so few people. You worked so many hours. It was very hard work, but it was a lot more rewarding, because you did everything. Winning our championships was special. Winning the first Daytona for the Gibbs was also very special. For me, the biggest accomplishment has been seeing the place grow from 11 employees to what it is now and to know that I helped plant that seed and helped it grow to where it is today. Personally, that is a pretty big accomplishment.
How would you describe what it was like to work for the Joe Gibbs Racing team for 20 years?
Well, the Gibbs are very good people and take very good care of you. I always like to say that in racing most of the people you work for were always trying to figure out how to steal a dollar from you, whereas the Gibbs were always trying to figure out how to put an extra dollar in your pocket. There are just very good people, and they have always given us every thing we needed to race. Anything that we have asked for, they have said they will get it for us. That makes your job a lot easier then working at a place that does not have very many resources and having to scrounge around to try and make things work.
How do you feel about the time you spent with the team?
To work 20 years in racing is a huge accomplishment. It is getting more to where that could happen in the future, but in the past it never happened. People jumped from job to job. If you stayed there 2 years it was an eternity. I feel like that was a very major accomplishment. I still feel like I have accomplished a lot just by taking this thing from a bunch of parts in a warehouse, and help building it to what is today.