Start your engineers

Are they crew chiefs or rocket scientists? These days, it can be tough to tell the difference

Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe (Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Forced to choose between getting an education in the classroom or at the racetrack, Rodney Childers did what any self-respecting racer would have done 20 years ago.

He went to the Mitchell Community College bookstore in Statesville, N.C., sold all the textbooks from his prerequisite courses for mechanical engineering and then went home and waited for his father. After working 16-hours days trying to balance school with a fledgling career in Late Models (NASCAR’s grassroots level), he was choosing racing over reading.

“I told him I’d turned all my books in, and he about beat the shit out of me,” Childers, who had been working 16-hour days trying to balance school with a Late Model career, recalled to NBC Sports with a chuckle. “He was not happy. At all.”

Stock-car schooling turned out just fine for the bright mind of Childers, who became a Sprint Cup crew chief and tuned Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet to a championship in NASCAR’s premier series last season.

But there are abundant signs that Childers somehow is among the last of a breed that still enjoys striking boundless success – even as the education he left behind becomes a pervasive requirement in the Cup garage.

A NASCAR equivalent to “Moneyball” is overhauling the gritty makeup of the mechanics most instrumental to making stock cars hum at 200 mph. Of the last 13 crew chief changes in Sprint Cup during the past five months, a dozen resulted in men with engineering degrees calling the shots.

The lone exception is Tony Gibson, a barrel-chested native of Daytona Beach, Fla., who worked the midnight shift at his hometown camshaft factory while breaking into racing three decades ago.

“I’m on my way out,” Gibson, 50, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “I didn’t know in 1982 that I’d need to go to school to be an engineer in Cup. I went to school to be a machinist, build parts and run a lathe. That’s what you needed to do at the time to be part of racing.”

Times have changed.

Heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500, 21 drivers – nearly half of the 43-car field – will be guided by crew chiefs trained in the principles of physics, and that lineup will include several stars – notably defending race winner and 12-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will make his debut with Greg Ives (the engineer who led Chase Elliott to the 2014 Xfinity Series championship).

The curious marriage of speed freaks and computer geeks is a startling development for a sport long associated with the shade-tree street smarts of grizzled, overall-clad crew chiefs with grease under their fingernails and cigarettes dangling from their lips.

The new CV for being a NASCAR crew chief is a framed diploma hanging on a wall, and it’s added an academic sheen to a traditionally blue-collar garage that increasingly resembles a 700-horsepower study hall of intellectual pedigrees. Nick Sandler, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s new crew chief whose bespectacled and boyish visage could pass for Phi Beta Kappa president, assuredly will be the first Duke graduate tasked with critical decisions to take two or four tires on pivotal pit stops.

Many believe there’ll be a day when every crew chief in Cup will have a degree.

“Absolutely, it’s coming,” said Gibson, crew chief for Kurt Busch’s No. 41 Chevrolet. “It’s almost there. There’ll be a day it’ll be like a video game. I love racing and am very fortunate to still be in the mix. There’ll come a day it’s going to outrun me. I’m getting older, these guys are getting smarter, and the cars are getting more complex. A mechanic from 20 years ago couldn’t work on street cars now. You have to be a rocket scientist.”

Tony Gibson (Associated Press)

Just like its showroom counterpart, NASCAR increasingly has become so driven by technology – with electronic fuel injection, computer-controlled machines and intricate software simulations – that it’s become imperative to employ college graduates as team leaders.

“The trend certainly isn’t accidental,” Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, a 1984 engineering graduate of Virginia Tech who oversees the manufacturer’s NASCAR program, told NBC Sports. “The sport started evolving 10 to 15 years ago into something quite a bit more complex, and the tools each team has and needs became very engineering-centric.

“When NASCAR instituted a testing ban (this season), it didn’t mean there’d be less work to do, it just shifted the power band and put more emphasis on computer simulation. But what’s interesting is the challenge as a crew chief isn’t just whether you are a good engineer, but whether you can communicate and lead people. I don’t know that you can teach that.”

Indeed, there are signs being a crew chief isn’t about education.

Last season, 22 of 36 races were won by crew chiefs who don’t have engineering degrees. That includes Childers, Steve Letarte, who led Earnhardt to four wins in their final season together before joining NBC Sports as a TV analyst, and Chad Knaus, who has six titles with Jimmie Johnson and generally is considered the greatest crew chief of all time.

So why is there a dichotomy between those who are reaching victory lane and those being hired to get there?

“It’s not just NASCAR,” Letarte told NBC Sports. “The Michael Vick experiment was unsuccessful, yet teams continued to try to find running QBs while Tom Brady can’t run more than 5 yards at a time.

“Moneyball gets you to the playoffs. It doesn’t win you a single World Series game. It happens in all of sports and business. I think there are guys who will buck the trends.”

Another is Paul Wolfe, the crew chief who led Brad Keselowski to the 2012 championship and a series-high six wins in 2014.

“Some people get confused and think I am an engineer,” Wolfe said. “Guys like myself or Rodney or Chad, I feel like we all have a lot of common sense and just racer savvy for what it takes. If you can mix that with a great engineering staff, you can be really successful.”

After winning the title with an “old-school” approach that was “all gut decisions and going off history,” last year Wolfe added an engineer who helped push the No. 2 Ford toward a heavy reliance on computer simulation – proving the blend can work.

“We have gotten somewhat pigeonholed over the last decade into crew chiefs needing to have a degree, but I don’t think that’s the only path for success,” Keselowski said. “You look at the most successful people in the world — Bill Gates – (who) didn’t get a degree. Paul is proof in the pudding.

“A degree is a certification of knowledge, but to not have a degree is not to have an absence of knowledge. It’s more about what’s underneath that degree that matters the most.”

Said Gibson: “I’m not as smart as a lot of these engineers are about building rockets and all that stuff. But I can shoot your rocket down. You have some guys who can design a door but don’t know how to open it.”

* * *

 There is no debate, though, that without having a member of the team with a fundamental understanding of the mechanics of physics and thermodynamics, it’s impossible to set up a winning car in NASCAR.

Gibson said he first noticed the change as a member of the 1992 championship crew of the late Alan Kulwicki, a bull-headed driver-owner who moved south with a maverick streak and a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Kulwicki died in a plane crash five months after winning the title, but he planted the seed for a more scientific approach that spread through the garage – most notably through Ray Evernham, who won three championships with Jeff Gordon before starting his own team, and Brian Whitesell, an engineer who became a team manager at Hendrick Motorsports.

FOX analyst Larry McReynolds, the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 Daytona 500 win, remembers the first engineer at Richard Childress Racing in ’99 using a simulation trick at Watkins Glen International that turned a 15th-place finish into a fourth. By the end of the following season, RCR had five full-time engineers.

Rodney Childers (Getty Images)

Now the organization has at least 10 times as many – as does Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and every championship contender in NASCAR. Many teams typically deploy at least two engineers on the road with each car every week, and there are several dozen working at shops in North Carolina.

“It still makes my jaw drop to see all the laptops” in the garage, McReynolds told NBC Sports.

When JGR expanded by 60 employees over the offseason with a new Toyota for Carl Edwards, the team hired so many engineers “they were putting them in conference rooms until they had a place to put them,” Kyle Busch said.

“I couldn’t even tell you how many engineers (are at JGR),” said Adam Stevens, an Ohio University graduate promoted from the Xfinity Series to become Busch’s crew chief this season. “I walk in every day and say, ‘Who are you? My name’s Adam.’

“When I started at Gibbs in ’05, (the engineers) were in a little tiny room that houses the electrical department now. It’s tripled in size and expanded and expanded because there are so many people.”

The engineering curve began hitting critical mass in 2003 when Ryan Newman (a degreed driver just like Kulwicki) and crew chief Matt Borland won a series-high eight races with engineering driven setups. Several current crew chiefs with engineering degrees – Keith Rodden, Luke Lambert, Justin Alexander, Matt McCall, Stevens – entered NASCAR during the mid-2000s, but it took a while for the machinery to catch up with the methods.

“You couldn’t make an impact because you didn’t have all the information,” Lambert, who guided Newman to a second-place finish in the 2014 standings, told NBC Sports. “You didn’t really have the correct tools. Now we’ve got enough engineers that we have the depth that it requires to build these tools, collect this information and actually create a properly engineered approach.

“The computer technology has come a long way. In 2005, you could buy a pretty amazing computer, but you were looking at like $50,000 for a computer that now you can go pick up at Best Buy. What’s available at an affordable rate has taken magnitudes of sophistication to higher levels. What we were trying to do with a simulation 10 years ago was so simple and such a snapshot. Now it’s much more precise and in-depth and the fidelity is so much higher.”

Alexander, who was promoted from lead engineer to crew chief for Paul Menard with five races remaining last season, entered NASCAR from N.C. State in 2003 when computers couldn’t handle processing the reams of data – tire pressures, track temperatures, thermodynamics, — produced in a single lap by a car. “It’s leaps and bounds ahead,” he said.

That has eliminated the trial-and-error methods of NASAR’s first half-century when crew chiefs would lug three-ring binders jam-packed with notes about the car setups they’d used at tracks.

“We didn’t use simulations when I started crew-chiefing” in 2005, Letarte said. “When I ended, we couldn’t make the car go around in a circle without it. It’s like the age of the computer. I remember not having a phone when I traveled in 1995. Now it’s a smartphone. Racing is the same. You race a completely different way.”

 * * *

 For Childers, the light bulb switched on when he became a crew chief a decade ago at Evernham Motorsports. While being outrun by teammate Kasey Kahne, he realized crew chief Kenny Francis’ setups were better because of their precision.

“They were using their simulation correctly, where I was over here on the side saying, ‘Oh man, I think a 500-pound right-front spring would be good,’” Childers said. “I was kind of rednecking it in a way.”

Though he possesses no formal background, Childers is self-taught in running several simulations weekly. Many crew chiefs are delegators; Knaus has hired engineers to shore up weaknesses, and he compares it with a head football coach relying on offensive and defensive coordinators to call plays. A crew chief 20 years ago may have spent 80 percent of his time focusing on the car. Now that time is spent on the people around the car.

“We need the smart guys to come in and help us because it is getting more difficult,” Knaus told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot more lab testing than in the past because we can’t do a lot of track testing. But you also need to be a racer. Just because you have a piece of paper that says you’re an engineer doesn’t mean you can crew-chief.”

Much like Childers and Wolfe, who both drove, the latest wave of engineers mostly is comprised of crewmen and former drivers who decided they needed to attend college instead of taking a left turn into racing after graduation.

Lambert, a 32-year-old native of Mt. Airy, N.C., has been attending races since childhood, and McCall is a former Xfinity driver. Ives also raced Super Late Models in Michigan for eight years before joining Hendrick eight years ago.

“That’s where I think a guy like Greg Ives has a huge advantage because he’s a legit racer, and he’s a degreed engineer,” Knaus said. “Being a real racer, that’s where you get it.”

Chase Elliott and Greg Ives (Getty Images)

But sometimes there is no substitute for on-the-job experience that teaches crew chiefs how to factor in their gut for calls in the pits that can’t be managed by software programs. Viewing the world through numbers can be a drawback when trying to devise strategies on the fly.

“Engineers are taught to have a very analytical mind,” Evernham said. “There’s no emotion, but sports is still emotion. Since a crew chief has to deal with the sports side of the business, and engineers have to deal with the technical side of the business, sometimes that line is tough to cross.

“The engineering part is very black and white. There’s one answer. You come down to mathematics equations. It’s right or it’s wrong. With people it’s not that way.”

As race teams have grown exponentially (McReynolds recalls having 10 people working on his car in 1986; 30 years later, four-car organizations have 500-plus employees), the role of a crew chief has become as much about managing people as massaging cars.

“I think it’s a serious problem,” said Stevens, who was promoted to Cup after scoring 31 victories as an Xfinity Series crew chief (19 with Busch). “You spend all your time locked in the classroom or locked in with other engineers, and you don’t learn how to manage or deal with people in general. It’s tough to develop the managerial and social side in addition to developing your technical skills. Both of them take a lot of work. It’s easy for someone to get focused on one at the exclusion of another.”

Teams offer leadership training for crew chiefs, and Hendrick uses a Management By Strengths program (also used by team owner Rick Hendrick’s automotive empire) to match team members with certain personality traits.

But some interaction can’t be learned.

“When I get in my engineering brain, (it’s) don’t talk to me,” Evernham said. “It’s like I don’t care if your hair is on fire, right now I have to finish this job.”

“I think the engineers that struggle are ones that spend all their time on theory and don’t get their hands dirty,” Wilson said. “It’s harder for them to relate.”

But being a people person doesn’t exclude someone from having an engineer’s traits. Wilson believes Childers, a personable sort who is extremely active engaging fans on social media sites such as Twitter, “is every bit an engineer as anyone, he just doesn’t have the paper and the framed degree.”

Gibson is heavily involved with plotting the direction of simulations with engineers Johnny Klausmeier and Mike Cook, but he chuckles when asked if he ever runs the programs himself.

“Hell, no,” he said. “The engineers are so freaking smart and so into what they’re working on, and it’s intense. It’s nonstop. You don’t just push a button and get an answer. You have to push 50,000 buttons to get an answer.”

* * *

 If there’s an engineering crew chief who has shown the most promise for blending old school with new age, it might be Lambert.

He was named the 2014 crew chief of the year by Motorsports Analytics (a website that fastidiously studies NASCAR through statistics) because of his consistently strong tactical calls. Though Newman didn’t win last season, he consistently gained positions through pit stops, and Lambert’s strategy put the No. 31 Chevrolet alongside champion Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 with three laps left and a shot at the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November.

Lambert, who joined Richard Childress Racing after his 2005 graduation from N.C. State, studies how head coaches in other professional sports manage games and how star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers handle stress.

“The biggest thing is managing people and studying the culture and what it takes to make a team excel,” Lambert said. “I’ve paid a lot of attention, since I wanted to become a crew chief, to other sports I never really cared all that much about. I’ve always just tried to pay a lot of attention to the way teams operate. That’s how I look at my job: As managing, executing and trying to help a group of people be as successful as they possibly can be.

“I try to look at the global aspect of what’s going on in the races and then look at the information available from an engineering standpoint but then trust my gut.”

Even if an engineer can’t get the handle of being a crew chief as Lambert has, it might not matter in the future.

Letarte believes fear drives the trend of hiring engineering-based crew chiefs despite the majority of wins belonging to non-degreed crew chiefs. In order to keep their sharpest minds, teams reward them with their best-paying position (the top crew chiefs earn in the seven figures).

“Someone – Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs – will see this trend and say, ‘All right, what we’re going to do is restructure our teams, whether it’s the pay or the responsibilities, and I’m going to keep my crew chief and go get a great engineer,’ ” Letarte said. “The people doing the hiring know how valuable engineering is, and they are so afraid to lose their engineers, so they have to promote them up through the system.”

Meanwhile, the prospects likely will continue to dwindle for those without degrees – such as Jason Burdett, one of Letarte’s best friends who was hired to be an Xfinity Series crew chief for JR Motorsports this year after working as a top mechanic the past six years on Hendrick’s Cup teams.

“I told him when that opportunity came, he’s one of the last,” Letarte said. “There are no more coming.”