Birthdate: March 12, 1974
Hometown: Marshfield, Vt.
Residence: Davidson, N.C.
Marital Status: Married (Tracey)
Children: David, Matthew
Dave Rogers has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in vehicle dynamics. But he has received a veritable self-taught Ph.D in chemistry in recent years, especially since becoming the crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing’s (JGR) No. 18 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Camry team in the fall of 2009.
Rogers, a native of Marshfield, Vt., credits team chemistry for playing a pivotal role that helped him build JGR into the NASCAR Nationwide Series powerhouse it is today. That same focus on chemistry helps fuel Rogers in his latest quest to return JGR’s No. 18 Sprint Cup team to championship form. After all, it has been 13 years since Bobby Labonte drove the No. 18 to the title for JGR in 2000.
With Kyle Busch in his sixth season behind the wheel of the No. 18 JGR Sprint Cup Toyota, Rogers enters 2013 in his fourth full season with young driving phenom Busch. Rogers got a bit of a head start on the 2010 Sprint Cup season when he took charge of the No. 18 at the final three races of 2009, which resulted in three consecutive top-12 finishes and included a race-high 232 laps led at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
That progress was all in the name of starting to build all-important chemistry. In 2010, Rogers helped Busch find victory lane three times, in May at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway and Dover (Del.) International Speedway and in August at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The latter win gave Busch a historic weekend sweep.
In 2011, Rogers led the team to four Sprint Cup victories – in March at Bristol, in May at Richmond, in July at the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta and in August at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. In addition to the four wins, 14 top-five, and 18 top-10 finishes in 2011, Rogers also helped Busch return to the 12-team Chase for the Championship in 2010 and 2011.
The 2012 season proved to be a frustrating one for Rogers and Busch, as mechanical gremlins kept them from making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With their only points-paying win coming in March at Richmond, the duo still finished the season with 15 top-five, and 23 top-10 finishes, while also scoring an impressive seven top-five finishes over the course of the final 10 races of the season.
“Chemistry and performance go hand-in-hand throughout the sports world,” Rogers said. “If a crew chief and a driver are happy together, they tend to run better. I’ve always been a firm believer in that.”
Eight seasons ago, before he led JGR’s No. 20 Nationwide Series team to 20 wins from 2006 through 2009 – including a remarkable nine trips to victory lane in 2008, Rogers experienced what can happen when the chemistry is not quite right.
After serving as race engineer under crew chief Greg Zipadelli with the No. 20 Sprint Cup team and driver Tony Stewart when he arrived at JGR in 1998, Rogers was awarded the opportunity of his racing lifetime when he was promoted to crew chief on JGR’s new No. 11 Sprint Cup team with driver Jason Leffler.
“I knew they were looking for a crew chief, and I obviously threw my name in the hat and pleaded with (JGR President) J.D. (Gibbs) to give me an opportunity,” Rogers said.
“For us, Dave was just a natural fit for the job,” Gibbs said. “We love promoting from within, and the rest of the guys agreed he was the guy to lead that team. Unfortunately, we obviously got off to a frustrating start to the year, and the rest is history.”
Just 13 races into the season and with just one top-12 finish to the team’s credit, Rogers found himself back in the engineering department awaiting his next assignment.
“Looking back, we just couldn’t hit it off,” Rogers said of his 2005 stint with Leffler and the No. 11 team. “I don’t think it was anything Jason did or anything I did. We were working hard and trying to make gains. I think Jason and I were making gains, but they just weren’t quick enough.
“When I was working with Zippy (Zipadelli), he took me aside and gave me a behind-the-scenes look at what really goes on and the struggles that some crew chiefs encounter. He really gave me a crash course on what I was about to get involved with as crew chief of the 11 car. When (team owner) Joe Gibbs gave me the opportunity to crew chief the 11 car, some of the things Zippy warned me about actually came true. It didn’t go too well, and I went back to the engineering
department for the second half of the ’05 season. I’m just very grateful that they didn’t just get rid of me, for lack of a better term, and ultimately gave me a second chance with the Nationwide program.”
Partly at the recommendation of new JGR Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin, who doubled as part-time driver for the No. 20 Nationwide Series team, Rogers got a fresh start in a crew chief role in 2006. Over the next four seasons, Rogers and fellow JGR Nationwide Series crew chief Jason Ratcliff established a race-winning empire of their own.
“We wanted Dave to stay with us and thought it was a good opportunity for him and us,” Joe Gibbs said. “We were in the Nationwide Series for seven years and won probably only about three races. It shows you how difficult and competitive it is. Then we finally hit a hot streak with Dave and Jason calling the shots. Obviously, we gave Dave the opportunity knowing he was going to make the absolute most of it.”
Said J.D. Gibbs: “Dave has been a huge part of Joe Gibbs Racing. He knows how the culture works, and he buys into that. What was encouraging to us was watching him jump into that role and really take it on.”
In late 2009, Rogers was back in the Sprint Cup ranks alongside Busch and the rest of the No. 18 team, which enjoyed eight wins and 17 top-five finishes when they qualified for the Chase in 2008. He certainly benefitted from the momentum of his previous four seasons in the Nationwide Series, as well as lessons learned in his brief Sprint Cup crew chief debut in 2005.
“Past experiences affect everything you do,” Rogers said. “You make so many mistakes in life, and you try to document them, remember them, so when you get in that situation again, you don’t make that same mistake twice. I feel like I’ve seen that all through my career.”
As he sits atop the No. 18 pitbox, even after more than 13 years with the JGR organization, hardly a day goes by that Rogers doesn’t thank his lucky stars for achieving his racing dream.
He also knows that it’s a wonder he ever finds himself in the racing business.
From his earliest days as a child, tagging along with his dad to race Late Model stock cars at short tracks in and around his native Vermont, Rogers always wanted nothing more than to work in the racing business. Rogers had so much determination to achieve his one and only career goal that he defied the advice of his dad, Davis C. Rogers, who urged his son to steer clear of the world of professional motorsports.
“I’m here despite the fact Dad discouraged me from getting into racing,” Rogers said. “Even so, he’s probably the biggest race fan in the world. And he always said for me to set goals and accomplish them. He always laughed at my desire to go racing, saying, ‘It’s not the way to make money and try to pay the bills.’”
As the story goes, Rogers’ father grew up in a working-class family having to toil on a farm through his teenage years, and he wanted his own kids to enjoy opportunities he never had. Davis C. Rogers had an auto body business in Marshfield when Dave was a youngster, and father and son were fixtures at nearby tracks like Bear Ridge Speedway and Thunder Road Raceway, fielding cars for the likes of local hero “Rapid” Ralph Baldwin.
Some of Rogers’ fondest memories involved sitting in the racecar after an evening of racing, “raising Cain like most 9-year-olds do,” he said, while the grown-ups around him were tearing it down.
Times got tough in the auto body business about the time Rogers turned 10, forcing his father to cut back on his racing involvement. Still, they would never miss a Thursday-night show together at Thunder Road, sitting in the stands and roaming the pits, rooting on their friends. And Rogers continued to dream about his future in racing.
“My parents still continued to feel otherwise,” Rogers said. “So they pushed sports on me from the time I was 10. I played basketball, baseball, soccer and learned the team aspect of things. Even so, I was still always at the racetrack, but I wasn’t working in the pits where I really wanted to be. Playing sports was always great, but I always managed to get bored. I was always ready to move on to the next sport before the one I was playing was over. Racing is the only thing I never have gotten bored with to this day. It’s still fun for me today, just like it was when I was a kid.”
When he was finished with high school, Rogers actually heeded a piece of advice from his dad and went to Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., to pursue a mechanical engineering degree.
“I knew Dad wanted me to get a ‘real job,’ but I had ulterior motives because this was a time when the concept of engineers in racing started becoming popular,” Rogers said.
With a mechanical engineering degree in hand in 1996, Rogers took a look at job opportunities in the “real world” his father envisioned. But none of the jobs looked like much fun to Rogers, so he again took a long, hard look at how he could find his way into big-time auto racing.
“The job offers I did have were with big ‘Corporate America’ type companies, and that’s not what I wanted to commit my life to at all,” Rogers said. “That’s when I got serious about racing, and I learned about GMI (the General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich.), which is known as Kettering U., and I fell in love with their vehicle dynamics program. There was a
professor there named Dr. Tuttle, and I let him know what I wanted to do. He gave me an assistantship to teach manufacturing processes. In return, I got a graduate education in mechanical engineering. I studied vehicle dynamics, and I got my masters in 1998.”
Rogers’ time at GMI was thoroughly committed to his studies, with one exception – working with a Late Model stock car team at Auto City Speedway in Clio, Mich.
“While I was at GMI, the only thing I did was study and work on Late Models,” he said. “I had really nothing else going on. I tried to make up for lost time between the time I was 10 and 22 years old. I tried to get as much experience as I could. I tried to apply the book side of engineering to working on Late Models.”
As graduation time neared in mid-1998, Rogers littered North Carolina race shops with his resume and started knocking on doors in search of the break of his racing lifetime. He had solid offers for entry-level engineering positions with a small handful of high-profile teams, but the one that intrigued him the most came from JGR, and he jumped at the chance.
“I joined JGR on July 1, 1998,” Rogers said about the date he’ll understandably never forget. “When I started out, I was just a shop rat. I did a lot of component studies – modifying and designing new components while trying to keep the components durable and lightweight. I took the job with Joe Gibbs because of his reputation as a winner. I felt that if there was a team that was going to be around forever, it would be this one.”
Memories of those early days at JGR are among the ones Rogers cherishes the most.
“The company was small, and some of those long nights at the shop, Joe would walk through and we would enjoy a few minutes of his time, listening to what he had to say,” Rogers said. “He’s a true winner in life. We hung onto every word.”
When he was taken under Zipadelli’s wing with the No. 20 Sprint Cup team in 1999, it was the defining moment.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Rogers said. “Zippy will go down in history as one of the best in the business. I viewed him as a hands-on guy who built race cars from the day he was born – the kind of life I probably always wished I could have lived in the back of my mind. And I got to contribute to the success of the (No.) 20 (team) during those years, which is very satisfying. In return, Zippy probably helped me out more than I ever could have helped him out. He took me under his wing and showed me a lot of things I never could have learned from a book. It was a golden opportunity, and by far the most valuable experience I ever had.”
Zipadelli also knew a guy with Rogers’ talent would someday have to be thrown from the nest and set out on a crew chief career of his own.
Even though his first try as a crew chief in the Sprint Cup ranks didn’t last long, Rogers proved his mettle by taking charge of the Nationwide Series program from 2006 to 2009. The 2006 season featured a pair of wins and five poles for Hamlin. In 2007, the Rogers-led team scored four victories, including three for Hamlin and one shared by Hamlin and Aric Almirola. The 2008 watershed year for the No. 20 team earned nine wins, including Busch’s dominating run in Mexico City, as well as five by Tony Stewart, two by Hamlin and one by 18-year-old newcomer Joey Logano. In 2009, the No. 20 Nationwide team scored another five wins and 12 top-five finishes for Logano and a slew of strong results for Hamlin and Brad Coleman, setting the stage for Rogers’ full-time return to the Sprint Cup ranks in 2010.
“We have a really strong program, and there is great chemistry at JGR,” Rogers said. “All the lessons learned over the years are contributing to our success. It’s a true team effort here. I love racing against crew chiefs who think they can do it all themselves. I know that, collectively, 10 guys are a lot smarter than any one guy.
“I’ve adopted Joe Gibbs’ philosophy of hiring the best people and listening to them. There was a quote in my physics lab in college that said, ‘The reason I see so far is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.’ I remind myself of that every day.”