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Interstate Batteries Helped Take JGR to Bigger Places

Joe Gibbs Racing Headquarters One of Premier Shops in NASCAR

If you’re driving on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte, N.C., and exit onto Gilead Road (Exit 23, as the locals call it), when you head west, you’ll see a shopping center on the right and Presbyterian Hospital on the left. Just past the hospital on the left is an entrance for Huntersville Business Park. Once you turn onto Reece Boulevard and head south for bit, you’ll travel just slightly to the right on Reece Boulevard West.

Travel less than a mile, just past Julian Clark Avenue, and you’ll see nestled in a beautiful wooded area the 240,000-square-foot headquarters of Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). If you drove past it and didn’t see the sign out front, you would never know the building housed one of premier teams in NASCAR. The massive building looks like it could house a Fortune 500 company or serve as a medical complex.

And that’s exactly how Todd Meredith, vice president of operations for JGR, envisioned things in 1997 when he began scouting locations for JGR’s third and final headquarters.

“We wanted something that looked nice and was in a pleasant environment, so when we brought corporations in to talk about sponsorship, it didn’t look like an industrial park,” said Meredith, who has been with JGR since 1991. “We wanted something a little bit nicer that looked like a business park.”

But the look of the building was far from the reason to pull up stakes and move to the current shop. After spending its first three seasons in a shop on Harris Boulevard in north Charlotte, JGR built its second headquarters in Twin Lakes Business Park, also in north Charlotte, just north of Harris Boulevard, and moved there in November 1994.

“We pretty much outgrew our second shop the day we moved into it,” Meredith said. “But, once we decided to do the 20 car, we knew we had to move.”

From 1992 through 1998, JGR fielded only the No. 18 Interstate Batteries entry, first for Dale Jarrett and then for Bobby Labonte, who took over for Jarrett in 1995. With space already tight in the shop and multi-car teams becoming more and more common in NASCAR, JGR officials began the process of adding a second car while also looking for a new place to call home.

By the time Tony Stewart was announced as the driver of JGR’s second car, the No. 20 Home Depot machine, the organization was just three months away from moving to its current location in Huntersville.

And what a challenge it was.

Meredith spent months searching parcels of land that would house the new shop before settling on Huntersville – the last piece of land he looked at during the process. He was then heavily involved with the design process, along with architects from LS3P Associates Ltd. Meredith was there when Shelco Inc., which constructed the building, broke ground in late 1997, and then oversaw the move from the old shop to the new shop in December 1998.

“It’s a huge challenge and a lot of hard work,” Meredith said. “The year we moved to the current shop, I worked seven months without a day off, and then worked all day Thanksgiving day just because it was so much work to get moved in. You don’t have a lot of downtime to get ready for the next season, so you have to do it quickly.”

When employees moved in, they were greeted by a 130,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art complex which gave them all the tools – and more importantly – space to work in.

“It was a massive ‘wow’ factor,” said Jimmy Makar, vice president of racing operations for JGR and Labonte’s crew chief at the time of the move. “Even when we were building it, you couldn’t believe the size of it. Everyone was just really proud of the place that Joe had built for us. It was like buying a new home. Everyone was just proud and happy to have a place like our shop to come to everyday to go to work.”

Labonte was equally impressed.

“I thought the other shop was pretty big,” Labonte said. “Of course, there were only 18 people working there. Fortunately, I was able to be involved and I wanted to be involved. I’ll never forget looking at the plans for that shop in Todd’s office, and then we went over the woods where the shop is now. It was me, Joe (Gibbs), J.D. (Gibbs), Jimmy (Makar), Todd (Meredith) and Mac (Steve McMillan, facilities supervisor) and I remember just thinking, ‘There’s a lot of woods here.’ So, for me to have walked through the woods and see the plans from Todd and get the updates throughout the process from Todd and Mac – to then see it finished was an incredible feeling.”

In 2005, JGR added a third entity to its stable – the No. 11 FedEx team. In turn, JGR officials constructed a 110,000-square-foot addition to the shop to bring the total square-footage to 240,000.

“One of the things we did originally with the shop was design it so we could grow,” Makar said. “Nobody knew at that time how quickly the sport was going to grow and what we were going to need. The seven-post room was planned for even before we built it. The ground was going to be laid and the foundation was laid for that. The engine room was designed for expansion. The machine shop, which was originally in the engine room and something that we thought we weren’t going to outgrow, turned out to grow out of its area, so we moved that to what used to be the fabrication room. But, we had the ability and we had rooms to grow into. We have had, and still have, the ability to expand and change as we need to, and that’s what’s great about our shop.”

Even more than a decade after the shop opened, Meredith and Makar can’t believe how far JGR has come in 20 years.

“There’s no doubt about that,” Makar said. “The industry has grown leaps and bounds since the early ’90s and the shops are much more phenomenal than they were back then. To have even been able to envision a shop of this size and magnatiude, with the amount of people we have working and the technology we have within the walls – it’s something you never would’ve thought about. You never would’ve dreamed that you’d be doing the things we’re able to do at our shop.”

“It’s been quite a ride,” Meredith said. “It’s obviously slowed down in the last three years, but for the first 17 years it was just everything you could do to keep up. You couldn’t hire enough people, you couldn’t buy enough space and you couldn’t buy enough equipment. It was just all you could do to keep up. And there are days I walk around and am still amazed at how far we’ve come.”

And Meredith, like everyone at JGR, knows the gamble by Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries, to align with JGR in 1991, paved the way for the team’s success.

“Obviously, without Interstate Batteries, we wouldn’t be here today,” Meredith said. “They’ve been with us for all 20 seasons and they’re a huge part of history and our culture. Norm Miller is a huge friend to all of us. He’s not just a sponsor. It’s a deeper relationship than that. When you see Norm, you give him a hug, and he and Joe are very good friends. They’re just a huge part of our history.”

The Incredible Story of JGR's Founding

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.”