Besides trying to prepare the best possible car for the next race, the crew chief's role in motivating and boosting the confidence of the driver can't be overlooked.
In the ultra-competitive sport and environment of stock car racing, every team member needs to feel confident. But if the driver doesn't go into the race thinking he's unbeatable, then he's beatable. That's just the way it is.
From the end of one race to the start of the next, good communication with the driver is crucial to preparing the car, building confidence and ultimately, success.
Typically, on Monday the crew chief catches up with the driver after you've done a post-race check of the race car. After measuring all the elements, you've got a whole checklist of things you want to discuss. You're looking back at the last race and looking forward to the next race, so you want to have the car you plan to take, the setup you plan to run the next week before you call your driver.
After catching up on the past race, the crew chief fills him in on any of the details of the car that may or may not have been like he or the team was expecting. Almost every race you've got something in the post-race setup check that wasn't exactly like you thought it was going to be.
You discuss some of the adjustments you made in the race and how that affected the car because there's really no chance to measure that until after you get back to the garage. You talk about the things you've learned over that week that helped the car and things that didn't or might have hurt the car.
You talk about the tire a little bit, especially if you're going to go a couple of weeks in a row on that same tire. You want to really get to know the characteristics of that tire and really make good notes on that, so if you do run it again, you can go back to that because the tire controls the car so much.
Then you want to look forward, and really start getting the driver motivated and really feeling confident going into the next week that he has got a really good piece. You show excitement over some adjustments, such as "We've got this car that came out of the wind tunnel, made more downforce." Or "The guys in the engine department made a little more power." Or it can touch on the pit crew's practice and how they're making improvements or making gains.
All these things contribute to having the driver going into that race with every reason to think he can win it. You definitely don't want to dwell on any negatives. The way you talk about negatives are to just make sure they don't happen again. The crew chief really tries to pump up everybody.
Then it's time to listen to any concerns the driver has. He might come back to me and say "Look, the brake pedal didn't fit, it wasn't exactly right. ... There was a hotspot on the floor. ... The seatbelts weren't exactly as I wanted them. The mirrors weren't in the right spot." All these are little things, but it's these details that win races.
You really want your driver to pick out things because the crew and the crew chief can find certain technical and mechanical things to work on. We can see things that are wrong, but the driver has got to communicate to you the things that he needs because you don't have any other way of knowing.
You want that driver to be very nitpicky. Every time you talk to that driver you want to come away from every conversation with a list of things that you can work on.
That doesn't just go for the midweek stuff, it actually goes into a practice session. The more that driver feeds you, the more details that you can pull out of him, the more information you'll have to make your decisions on adjustments and how to make the car better.
Some days you call him he's not all that chatty, but you've got to pull it out of him, you've got to come up with a list of questions. And that's the way you develop your strategy and your gameplan for the next week. The answers he gives you sort of leads you in a direction.
Every team has a different dynamic. Some of these drivers even come into the shop during the week. My experience as a crew chief, our driver never really was that close to our race team geographically so we talked on the phone. Sometimes these drivers are living many states away. Jeff Gordon, for example, lives in New York.
Sometimes we'd talk four, five maybe six times a week. I'd call him on everything. I'd see a little issue and I'd say what do you think about this? Give him a choice, do you want this or that. You're talking back and forth. The Monday morning conversation is probably the most detailed and the most lengthy. It's basically a formal type call and most teams will have this kind of conversation.
Sometimes the driver will come into the shop Monday morning, sit down in the office and review all this stuff face to face for around an hour. But if not, you do it on the telephone for about a half-hour. Some of them actually have an active role in the shop, and they'll come in almost every day. I wouldn't think that would be typical, especially with the superstar drivers.
After the car leaves Wednesday or Thursday, the crew chief and driver get together again at the track for the first day of practice. The driver will usually get there a bit early, touch base with the guys and go over any loose ends that you haven't covered. Then you say, "OK these are the things that we did based on what we talked about this week" and kind of get him all fired back up all ready to saddle up and go to battle.
If any adjustments fail to be made, you still address every one of them. You say, "Here's what we've done. We couldn't change the seat in this car because we've only had an hour or two since we last talked about it, but we did do this and we did make this adjustment."
Any compromise you address. And you sell it. You have to really sell it that you've done it right, that it was a good decision and it was a good compromise because we were able to give something else more attention because we felt it had a higher priority.
Every single practice session is ultracritical to get with the driver and get as much information out of him as possible. That right there is the key to a successful relationship between a driver and a crew chief.
In the very tense and competitive environment of NASCAR, sometimes emotions run high and you've got to be the guy to bring everything back to reality. Refocus your crew and your driver back to what you're trying to do. There are going to be days when we're just not going to be able to win. But what we want to do is come out here with the best possible outcome or result that we can. And to do that we've got to keep our heads on. "OK, we don't have a winning car, maybe we don't have a top five or a top 10 car. We've got to get a 15th-place finish out of this 20th-place car. Let's stay focused, let's get out of here and feel like we've accomplished something."
You've got to be realistic to maintain credibility and respect because if you're this guy who's always blowing smoke all the time, you're not going to have any credibility when it is time to say "Hey, wait, we've got a winning race car let's make the right decisions here." If you say that every week you can lose credibility
You need to go into every week thinking you're a winning car, every team has to feel that way. And when you get there you kind of realize where you really stack up. Then that's where you assess where you are and then where are the areas that you need to work on and that's where communication is the key because you've got to say "OK, we're a 15th place car, what's wrong here, what do we have to do?"
Looking back on my career I probably was not as good of a motivator as I needed to be, but my biggest advantage was that I had special drivers who were so talented and self-motivated. Harry Gant and Dale Earnhardt both were just so special race car drivers; they were going to give you way more than a lot of guys were getting out of their drivers.
I believe I was pretty strong technically and worked really good at getting the car right and developing new stuff. But I probably wasn't as good of a coach, not so much with the driver but with the whole team. It really takes a guy who is a really good people person to rally these guys because you have to put in so much effort to be successful. Maybe I wasn't the best coach and looking back I wish I'd been a better people person because that's a bigger part of the puzzle than I gave it credit for in my early days.
I think that's one of the reasons Joe Gibbs has been really successful with his race teams. He uses that philosophy of a football coach and is such a good motivator that he's been able to push his people to do extraordinary things. I think that's a big advantage. Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress and all the great owners do the do that.