The long road home

Greg Ives had to drive thousands of miles just to get his foot in NASCAR's door

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Greg Ives was fixing a semi truck 12 years ago when the call that jump-started his career and changed his life started with a tiny fib.

Hendrick Motorsports team manager Brian Whitesell, under the impression he was calling Ives’ cell phone, was on the line with a question. Was Ives near Daytona International Speedway?

From a desk at Ives Truck Repair in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the future crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., didn’t miss a beat, answering with the confidence of a man who eventually would have the pressure-packed task of ensuring success for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

“Yeah, I’m in Florida,” Ives recalls responding. “It’s Speedweeks. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Terrific, Whitesell said. Be at the track Thursday, and we’ll show you around and talk job opportunities.

It was 1 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. Daytona was a 1,500-mile drive away.

Uhh.

“I left within an hour,” said Ives, who delayed the road trip only to change the oil in his car. “I was ready to go. My dad gave me a hug and said, ‘Have fun, good luck. Call when you get there. Drive safe.’”

After a 24-hour drive to Daytona in his black 1998 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ives went to the track that Thursday to meet with several Hendrick team members. The interview lasted about 30 minutes. He wasn’t offered a job and didn’t return for Sunday’s race. A few days later, he made the long trip home.

“I was like, ‘OK, I just drove all this way for that,’” Ives said, pausing to smile. “That was awesome!”

It would take another interview at Hendrick headquarters near Charlotte (a 32-hour round trip from Michigan this time) before he was hired for an entry-level shop job.

Including the last drive he made from Michigan to North Carolina to start work on March 22, 2004, Ives estimates he invested roughly 100 hours crisscrossing a dozen states behind the wheel to get his first job.

Every minute was worth it.

For those trying to reach the top rung of the pit box in NASCAR, going the extra mile – or a few thousand of them – is the credo.

“You look for individuals that have a passion for it, that if they didn’t race another day, it’d be the worst day ever,” Ives, 36, said. “That’s where a lot of us are.

“I may have days I don’t feel I have as much fun or enjoy it as much as possible, but I’d rather take that than not do it at all. I think my daughter described it best. She said, ‘Dad I want to race. Because it’s in my blood like yours.’ I’ve seen plenty of people who didn’t have it and not cut it. The rest of them are just passionate.”

Ives’ endless road to employment isn’t atypical for Sprint Cup crew chiefs, virtually all of whom made long journeys to reach the pinnacle of their profession.

Unlike other professional sports, where coaches and managers often tend to be former players who are identified and groomed years ahead of their arrivals in the spotlight, NASCAR’s garage generals tend to rise through the ranks from very humble and obscure beginnings. The next winning crew chief in Sprint Cup could be on a marathon roadie now en route to his first job interview just as Ives once did.

NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte, who started at Hendrick as a teenager pushing a broom around shop floors before becoming a winning crew chief with Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt, said it’s understood that great sacrifices are required.

“We don’t want people who say they’ll do anything, we want people who will do anything,” said Letarte, who still laughs about the time he delivered a chair for crew chief Ray Evernham because he was asked. “I think people don’t always understand the lengths we’ve all gone. When I look at the people who are crew chiefs, it’s because they did anything to get there and didn’t ask questions.

“Greg Ives was definitely one of those guys.”

So was Adam Stevens. The crew chief for defending series champion Kyle Busch, Stevens made a 10-hour round trip commute once a week from Ohio University to the Charlotte area during his senior year.

Chris Heroy, a crew chief for four seasons who switched from Kyle Larson to Brian Scott this year, gave up a life of surfing daily in the Bay Area and moved 3,000 miles for his first NASCAR job.

Chad Johnston, who worked with Tony Stewart the past two seasons and now holds the reins for Larson, became familiar with the back roads between Terre Haute, Ind., and North Carolina while trying to network.

“You’re just trying to meet the right people, or meet somebody that could lead you to the right person,” Johnston, 35, said.  “Once you’re in, it’s a pretty tight-knit group, and if you’re good at what you do, it seems to be easy to stay in, but it also makes it really hard to get in from the outside unless you know somebody.

“I didn’t know any big people, so it was just a matter of knocking on enough doors until you got the right one.”

* * *

Stevens’ quest began when his career racing late models in dirt ended 15 years ago. Two members of his team had ventured to North Carolina and landed jobs, prompting his belief in opportunity.

“A lot of people we became acquainted with worked in NASCAR for a living,” he said. “When you see people you know really do this, it’s not so far away. You see the avenue.”

Stevens went to Jayski.com and printed all the available addresses and phone numbers for NASCAR teams. In the last few months of wrapping up his mechanical engineering degree at Ohio, he spent weekends zigzagging across North Carolina from Mooresville to Huntersville to Statesville to Welcome to Level Cross to High Point “and everywhere in between.”

Sometimes, he had interviews lined up through friends, but many times there were cold calls and unannounced visits.

“A lot of times you sat in the waiting room for an hour, and no one came to talk to you,” Stevens, 37, said. “But eventually, after seven to eight trips, I’d met enough people and people knew I was serious enough about it and thought I had a little bit of something to offer and found the right opportunity.”

Before finally getting hired by Petty Enterprises in summer 2002, Stevens had turned down three well-paying engineering jobs as well as an opportunity with his father’s booming construction business. If he had taken one of the jobs, he would have given up on racing for good because “I don’t do something halfway.”

“The urgency ramped up for sure because there was nothing to fall back on,” he said. “It was either/or. I wanted to be real sure about what I wanted to do and then be able to commit to it. I never second-guessed it. The hardest part wasn’t telling the three companies no, it was telling my dad I didn’t want to take over the family business. That was tough, but it didn’t excite me like racing did.”

The same was true for Johnston, who took a real-world job after graduating with an engineering degree from Indiana State but stayed involved in racing by working at an Indianapolis wind tunnel with Chevy ties.

He made countless weekend trips to Charlotte, sometimes sleeping on the ground beside a pickup truck in between interviewing with teams. He even had his cell phone programmed with a 704 area code to help disguise that he hadn’t relocated to Charlotte yet.

“Everybody just said you had to be here,” said Johnston, who eventually landed a job with the Morgan Dollar Motorsports truck team. “But it was one of those things where you’re out of college and trying to build your career and some stability. It’s hard to pick up and move.”

Heroy, 38, found himself with little choice after the 2004 shuttering of his California-based team in the Toyota Atlantic series (a feeder circuit for IndyCar). He decided to make the leap for a job opening at Hendrick and moved to North Carolina sight unseen. He hadn’t worked on a stock car before he drove across the country with his brother for the job (overcoming a car breakdown in Reno, NV., along the way).

“I was like, ‘Well, I like fried chicken, I like the South,’” Heroy said. “NASCAR seemed cool.”

That willingness to travel long distances to start the job, much less be granted a short interview, actually is a good qualifier considering the nomadic lifestyle of being on a NASCAR road crew. If you aren’t open to spending every waking minute dedicated to racing, i.e. working in the pits at short tracks while putting yourself through school as Ives, Stevens and Johnston did, chances are you probably won’t survive the grind of being on the road 10 months a year.

“This is something you dedicate your life to doing,” Stevens said. “You don’t wake up and decide I want to work on race cars. Maybe you do, but it needed to be when you were younger. Because there is so much stuff you need to know about racing in general that you can learn with a go-kart, a quarter-midget, a dirt car or a late model. You need to know that stuff.

“There’s a commitment or mentality to develop long before the first day on the job. It’s tough to hire someone who hasn’t raced. You don’t have a clue of the actual commitment unless you’ve made it before.”

 

* * *

Ives knew the demands well before he embarked on that 24-hour drive to Central Florida. He grew up in a racing family about 10 miles from Bark River, Mich., a one-stoplight town known for hosting off-road races.

As a teenager, Ives gravitated toward an emerging NASCAR superstar named Jeff Gordon. When Ives raced in a Super Late Model Series as a 16-year-old rookie, he told the local paper that he wanted to work for Hendrick Motorsports within 10 years.

He made it in eight, but he didn’t always believe it was possible.

“Initially, I was kind of like, ‘How am I ever really going to know if I can?’ I wasn’t a super race car driver,” Ives said. “I wasn’t a spectacular fabricator or building chassis. My skills won’t fit in NASCAR. They don’t want a guy like me. I didn’t know what was required. I’m a short track racer mechanic bum grease monkey.

“Some of that is the mentality of a small town. How do you think you’re going to get out of this small town? You’re nothing special. I was always told, ‘Why are you (racing)? You’re wasting time and money. You have no future.’”

The break came at a family reunion in August 2003 when a third cousin said his son-in-law had started working as a front-end mechanic on Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet. He offered to forward Ives’ resume to Hendrick via email. Somehow, it landed in the hands of Whitesell, who called a few months later.

They stayed in touch, and Ives turned down an engineering firm job on the hopes of an opening at Hendrick.

When the call came from Whitesell at Daytona, he was ready – even if he had only a vague idea of where he was going.

“I had a map that said, ‘Get on I-75 and take it to Daytona,’” Ives said.

Things got hairy in Kentucky during a snowstorm that necessitated some NASCAR-esque dodges between a few large semis. Ives kept forging ahead, though. He can’t remember if he listened to the radio, but he knows he didn’t listen to a CD because he didn’t own one.

“I just drove,” he said. “I tried to stop and sleep at one point, and then started thinking about the interview more. So I got back in the car.”

He finally took a nap after arriving in Florida at New Smyrna Speedway, where he scanned the parking lot for Wisconsin and Michigan license plates. Ives found a friendly fellow Midwestern team to work with on that night’s Late Model race, then checked into a rundown motel on A1A in Daytona Beach.

The next morning, he patched an antifreeze leak in his car’s heater, bought his first cell phone (with a 303 area code for Michigan) and called Whitesell, who told Ives to meet his wife at the track. Mary Whitesell shepherded Ives, who didn’t have a credential, into the garage.

A month later, Brian Whitesell called again, summoning Ives for an interview with crew chiefs Robbie Loomis and Chad Knaus. Ives made the 32-hour round trip to Charlotte with his future wife, Jessica, for another 30-minute interview. A few days after Ives returned to Michigan, Whitesell called again on a Thursday afternoon.

“Brian’s like, ‘We have a position available, but it doesn’t pay as much as an engineering position,’” Ives said. “I said, ‘I’ll take it. I’ll start tomorrow. My car’s packed up. See you Friday afternoon.’”

He made it on time. Because of paperwork processing, though, Ives actually didn’t start until Monday, using the weekend to find a new place.

Since starting at Hendrick, he hasn’t dawdled on the lengths he went to get there. Ives said he and Whitesell still haven’t discussed the full story behind that first interview.

“I might have told him once that he made me drive 99 hours to get one job,” Ives said. “But Brian is a smart guy, so he probably already knew that.

“I think that was part of the interview.”