Our performance on the track for the past several weeks has been second-to-none. Win after win in the Nationwide and Cup series, weekend sweeps, and fantastic pit stops headline these springtime races. Morale is up and smiles are a little bit brighter around the shop.
None of it has happened by accident. I remember being in Texas and riding to dinner with one of our VP’s earlier in the season. “My goal is to win every race. I want us to be the best at every track. When our equipment is right, we can beat anyone,” he said. The engineers and specialists riding along with us nodded in agreement; fully aware of the pivotal role each of them plays in making those desires a reality. Everyone at JGR shares in that sentiment.
The Gibbs family knows the importance of celebration. It is tradition for the driver to buy the entire race team lunch after a win. And so, everyone converged on the banquet hall for a BBQ lunch courtesy of Denny Hamlin. Before lunch was served, team owner Joe Gibbs and President J.D. Gibbs stood on stage to conduct a brief team meeting.
“Obviously, we have had a great few weeks and that is attributable to everyone in this room,” J.D. began. At the beginning of the season he had encouraged everyone to remain diligent in their pursuit of excellence. Today, he took the time to thank them for taking that message to heart. Joe Gibbs did the same, understanding that the weeks move quickly in NASCAR and leave little time for celebration.
“What have we shown?” asked the coach rhetorically. “We’ve shown that we have focused our attention and resources on three cars, three teams. We’ve done it well and we need to continue to do it well.”
The message is clear in the minds of every person in the room – Enjoy this celebration. You deserve it. But, don’t forget the importance of your impact on the success of the team as a whole. Don’t get complacent; the competition is as fierce as it’s ever been.
What has it been like to be a part of Joe Gibbs Racing during these last few weeks of success? For me, it has been eye-opening. Finding the balance between pausing to celebrate and relentlessly pursuing a goal is a tricky thing to achieve. However, when I talk to people like Jay (who shapes our car’s hoods), or Patrick (who oversees everything to do with tires), it’s clear that JGR knows how to strike a balance. Jay, Patrick, and everyone else has a passion to succeed not just for themselves, but for their teammates, and JGR.
“You win with people,” Joe Gibbs always says, and this team is winning because it treats its people well.
During the 2009 NASCAR season I made it to forty Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series events with Joe Gibbs Racing. This meant giving fans unparalleled access to the garage, pit road, the haulers, the motorhome lot, and especially Victory Lane! I have been a dedicated follower and fan NASCAR for over twelve years, so I know a thing or two about the sport. There were a few things, however, that surprised me about being on the road with the best team in the business. I think you’ll enjoy this glimpse into life on the traveling NASCAR-circus.
The One-Day Show
On a typical race weekend the transporters carrying the race cars arrive to the track on the Thursday (and sometimes the Wednesday) before the big race. The A-team is next to arrive and usually includes drivers, crew chiefs, engineers, mechanics, specialists, and public relations personnel. They usually fly in on the evening before the first practice begins and have been preparing their notes and a game plan for the weekend ahead. The A-team and the truck drivers obviously spend a lot of time on the road, in hotels, and away from families (though JGR does a good job of respecting and being mindful of an employee’s family-time). Every member of the A-team has an important job when it comes to winning the race on Saturday or Sunday and though I shouldn’t be surprised, I must say that I had no idea about the level of talent, professionalism, and dedication it takes from each member of the team in order to win a race, much less a championship. My hat goes off to them. The same goes to our Nationwide teams.
For the over-the-wall crew members, pit crew coaches, sponsor representatives, executives, scorers, and myself, race days begin early. We are the B-team. Joe Gibbs Racing operates two turbo-prop airplanes that seat roughly 40 people each. Any race from the Mid-West to the East-Coast means one of those planes is waiting for the B-team on race morning, bright and early. Some flights leave as early as 4:00 am, others around 5:00am. Of course, the good thing about a private plane is the absence of a long line and wait. You can show up 5-minutes before take-off (if you don’t care about a good seat). But don’t be late! The plane will wait for you, but you’ll probably be met with a sarcastic applause as you board. We follow strict TSA guidelines, but check-in amounts to a walk onto the tarmac and an identity check. Our friendly stewardesses, skilled pilots, and expert mechanics, give us the peace of mind to catch a few Z’s after we find our seat on the plane. The typical non-West-Coast flight takes 2 to 3 hours, with Bristol taking only 45 minutes or so. We drive to Charlotte, Darlington, and Martinsville.
When we land, a flock of warmed-up Toyota rental cars are waiting for us on the tarmac.
The Mad Rush
After the race our two planes are warmed up and ready to fly as soon as every last man and woman is on board. What you might not know, and what I didn’t know about, was the mad rush that every team makes after the race in order to get the race cars packed up and their behinds in a plane seat. Think about it, if you’re on the team, you’ve either been at the race track for three or four days or you woke up before the rooster and have had a long day of racing. Needless to say, you’re looking forward to the comfort of your own bed. It’s not simply a matter of beating another crew member to the plane or getting the perfect seat; it’s a race to circumvent the traffic after the race. The last thing you want is to be sitting in two to three hours of traffic after a day or weekend of hard work.
Thankfully, we have some experienced navigators on our team (Sprint Navigation on our phones not withstanding). Dirt roads, gravel roads, roads that aren’t roads, are all fair game when it comes to missing traffic and making it back to the airport. Most airports are a 15-30 minute drive from the track. Some are closer, some are a lot farther. If one of our cars wins or finishes in the top-5 it means an extended inspection and
tear-down process. This also means that the second plane could potentially be sitting for a bit longer than the first one was. Didn’t make it onto the first one? Tough-luck bub.
The drivers either charter a plane or have their own and they are in just as much of a rush. The exception being Joey Logano, who flies with us on the turbo-props. A team of motorhome drivers will either spend the night and leave the next morning or wait for traffic to die down and then head to the next track.
When we get to the plane, we are happy to find dinner waiting for us. We usually land back in Concord anywhere from 10pm – 1 or 2 am. Watching the races on TV or listening on the radio left me with no clue about the massive amount of planning it takes to make each weekend run smoothly for the teams – and that’s in addition to actually trying to win the race!
Speaking of traveling, I got the chance to fly to Richmond for Denny Hamlin’s Late Model Race for Charity (www.dennyhamlinfoundation.org). Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch were all entered in the race. What surprised me the most was the hands-on dedication of Kyle Busch, who had his own late model team and crew there with him. Kyle was under the car, under the hood, making adjustments, wielding a wrench or two, and ultimately drove his car to victory that night. In the past I had overlooked Kyle, but watching him work on the car and win that night made me a fan. It didn’t matter if he was racing to win money or racing to donate money, Kyle made sure he was in a position to win the race – and he did.
This past weekend our team plane landed in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Much to my excitement, the plane that will carry the band U2 around the world on their next concert tour was there as well! They just happen to be my favorite band, so to honor that moment, I’m going to relate 10 moments from JGR’s season to my favorite U2 songs.
Which JGR moments can you relate to your favorite band or group of songs? Leave them in the comments below!
1) I Will Follow (From the album “Boy” – 1980)
After Denny Hamlin’s most recent win in Michigan, JGR has won 7 of the last 10 Sprint Cup races, 6 of the last 9 Nationwide Series races, and 3 of the last 4 K&N East Series race. The 4th K&N race was won by our own Darrell Wallace, Jr. in another team’s equipment.
2) Window In The Skies (From “U218″ – 2006)
The brief storm that hit Pocono just as the green flag was about to fly was a monster. While on the track, Joey Logano commented that the rain drops were running sideways across his windshield instead of upwards. I sought shelter in the No. 18 hauler just before it hit. When it was over, the sky was bright blue and the temperature was in the mid seventies. The calm after the storm is more like it.
3) Discothèque (From “Pop” – 1987)
Denny Hamlin invited the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team and other teams to his club Butter during the Charlotte race weeks. It was a fun night of dancing and celebration after a successful start to the season.
4) Mysterious Ways (From “Achtung Baby” – 1991)
Joey Logano once again had the competition wondering how they might possibly beat he and the No.20 GameStop team in the Nationwide Series race in Kentucky. Logano won his third-straight race there from the pole!
5) One (From “Achtung Baby” – 1991)
This weekend will mark the first time the Nationwide Series has visited the long road course in Elkhart Lake, WI. I’ve heard they have track officials in the woods scaring animals away from the track. Matt DiBenedetto and Brad Coleman are driving for us in the race and have been practicing the track on their simulators.
6) Pride [In The Name Of Love] (From “The Unforgettable Fire” – 1984)
Taylor’s Finish Line Festival was a blast! It was held the day after the All-Star race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway drag strip. J.D. and Melissa Gibbs setup the festival to celebrate their son Taylor’s completion of leukemia treatments. 100% of the proceeds from the festival went to Make-A-Wish and Levine’s Children’s Hospital. Over $600,000 was raised!
7) Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own (From “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” – 2004)
How about our pit crews so far this year!? The No. 11 FedEx crew won the Pit Crew Challenge and the No. 18 M&M’s team and No. 20 Home Depot team continue to crank out flawless stops. It has been fun to watch, especially when our cars come out of the pits 1-2-3 as they did near the end of the Pocono race.
8) Sunday Bloody Sunday (From “War” – 1983)
9) Where The Streets Have No Name (From “The Joshua Tree” – 1987)
I attended the Prelude to the Dream at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway. It was a fantastic show! Kyle Busch almost won the thing. It was my first dirt track race and I was thoroughly impressed. However, it was kind of in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio – I wouldn’t have been able to find my way back home from there if my life depended on it.
10) Yahweh (From “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” – 2004)
Taylor Gibbs stole the show after giving the invocation before the All Star Race! “God, please help the drivers to win a lot, Kyle, Denny, and Joey the most. And help the other drivers win sometimes too. And please help the people in the hospitals, I don’t want them to get sick,” he prayed, among other things. A childlike faith is the strongest kind for sure. I received more feedback on the website, Twitter, and Facebook about Taylor’s prayer than I did about the Kyle & Denny altercation during the race that night.