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Racing to WinStudy Guide: Establish Your Game Plan for Success
By Joe Gibbs
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2002 Joe Gibbs
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRACING TO WIN
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Watch out! Trouble on the backstretch!" The excited voice of Eddie Masencup, the spotter for our Interstate Batteries #18 car, crackled in my headset, piercing the din at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Eddie's job was to warn our driver Bobby Labonte of impending traffic around him, and with race cars streaking by at nearly 150 miles per hour, Bobby needed the extra "eyes" Eddie provided. One small bump by another hurtling NASCAR missile could send Bobby's car careening out of control, crashing into another car, or worse yet, smashing into the thick concrete wall surrounding the race track.
Anyone associated with NASCAR knows the risks involved with racing high-speed stock cars on tracks not much wider than the roads in front of most American shopping malls. Four cars running behind Bobby smashed into one another like bumper cars at an amusement park-only these bumps were costly, dangerous, and anything but amusing to our race team.
As rescue crews hurried to the scene of the accident, I strained to see what was going on down in turn four, the last turn before the homestretch leading to the start-finish line. For a long moment, I couldn't tell whether Bobby had made it through the rising smoke and metal strewn across the track. Nor could I locate Tony Stewart, the driver of our #20 car, who had been leading the race. From where I was standing in the pits, it was difficult to see the entire race track. More than 75,000 race fans had jammed into the enormous grandstand to see the 2000 Pennzoil 400, and I craned my neck along with them, trying to catch a glimpse of our guys.
Unable to see the crash site, I paced back and forth in the pit area, waiting anxiously for information to come over the headset. As a former head coach of a National Football League team, I was accustomed to the tension. I was used to having to recover and regroup when plays didn't pan out the way I had meticulously drawn them up in our game plan. I knew the joys and the frustrations of building a strong team, fighting and clawing to get to the top, and overcoming adversity. I knew what it felt like to win, to succeed in front of a worldwide audience. I also knew how it felt to fail in front of friends, family, and people I had never met but who knew all about me-or at least thought they did.
But all that heightened exponentially when I got involved with NASCAR-the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, as the organization has been known since 1949. The competition in NASCAR was just as intense as in the NFL.
I had coached the Washington Redskins for only two years before we won a Super Bowl. Now, in my ninth year as owner of one of the premier NASCAR racing teams, I could almost taste our first Winston Cup championship. Joe Gibbs Racing had grown to nearly 150 employees, including my two sons, J D and Coy. We all wanted this one badly.
Bobby Labonte had grown up a Dallas Cowboys fan. "I hated the Washington Redskins!" Bobby once admitted to me. No matter. Today, Bobby and I were on the same team. He was my "quarterback" on the Interstate Batteries #18 team. Jimmy Makar, our crew chief, was the coach who called the shots. Tony Stewart drove the Home Depot #20 car, while Greg Zipadelli was that team's crew chief. When I coached the Redskins, I designed the offense and helped call the plays so I could control the football team's destiny to some extent and help make it happen. Not so in racing. On our race team, Jimmy and Greg are the technical guys; they are the ones making the tough decisions. Bobby and Tony drive the cars. And my job as the owner ... well, truthfully, my job is to let the guys do their jobs while I stay out of the way. As the owner, my main function is to pace and worry. What a job description!
OUR RACE DAY ROUTINE
During the prerace interviews that morning, Bobby and Tony joked and laughed casually with the press. One reporter asked Bobby, "How'd you sleep last night?"
"Best night of sleep I've had the whole time down here," Bobby replied.
Another reporter piped up, "What was your first thought when you woke up this morning?"
"I've got to go to the bathroom," Bobby deadpanned. He was obviously going to enjoy this day. Bobby had been here before. His older brother, Terry Labonte, had won the Winston Cup title in 1984 and 1996, and Bobby himself had finished second in the championship points race in 1999. He wasn't about to let the pressure get to him.
Although the Sunday race was not scheduled to begin until one o'clock, the flurry of activity had begun early for all of us. Dressed in my usual race day garb-a white shirt sporting the Interstate Batteries and Home Depot logos, black slacks, and black running shoes-I had flown in to join Bobby and Tony in visiting the hospitality tents, the areas in which our corporate sponsors entertain their clients before, during, and after the race. The drivers and I went from group to group-Bobby to visit with the #18-car sponsors, Tony to greet the #20-car sponsors, and I to do both-meeting and greeting myriad people, many of whom were avid race fans and many others who knew me from my twenty-eight years as a football coach. Bobby, Tony, and I shook hands with fans, posed for pictures, and signed autographs for several hours, right up until it was time for the drivers to get ready for the race. Although Bobby and Tony have risen to what could be equated with superstar status in other sports, they remain extremely accessible to the NASCAR fans.
Finally, just before race time I returned to our transporters, the eighteen-wheelers in which our race cars are hauled to the track. Parked in the NASCAR garage area, the transporters carry everything from spare lug nuts and an extra engine to a complete backup car. The transporters also serve as our portable offices at the track.
I picked up my headset and headed for the pits, pressed by a throng of reporters and fans each step of the way. It was a chaotic scene. Pit crew members from various teams, dressed in brightly colored uniforms decked out with a wide variety of corporate logos-McDonald's, Tide, Coca-Cola, etc.-scurried in every direction. Curious fans, sporting the credentials which gave them "backstage access" to the pit and garage areas, watched for any glimpse of their heroes. The crowd-a strange mix of corporate executives, ruddy mechanics, immaculately dressed women, and the jeans-and-T-shirt crowd-all surged harmoniously along. A young woman bearing a sign, NASCAR Garage Tour, led a group of Japanese fans through the garage area, while a translator conveyed her words to the tour members listening on headsets. A sea of faces blurred in front of me as I passed by, many people calling out words of encouragement and reporters pelting me with last-minute queries.
I tried my best to answer the reporters' questions as we moved through the crowd. When asked how I was doing, I told them the truth: "I'm nervous." Just as I had experienced so many times on a football field, I had an anxious excitement in anticipation of the race. I felt sure that this was going to be a big day for both our racing teams.
With all but two of thirty-four races already run, Bobby had won four times during the 2000 season. He had accumulated 4,505 points, leading the hard-charging, always competitive Dale Earnhardt by a mere 218 points. "The Intimidator," as Dale was known by legions of his fans, was pursuing his eighth NASCAR championship with a passion. Jeff Burton trailed right behind him, and Dale Jarrett stood just 356 points shy of first place.
The Winston Cup points system looks complicated, but it's really quite simple: The winner of a race receives 175 points, second place gets 170, and the points awarded drop 5 per position until seventh place, where the points drop 4 per spot down through twelfth place. The points drop is then 3 per position down to last place. Five bonus points are awarded for leading a lap, and the driver who leads the most laps in each race receives a 5-point bonus. Points earned each week are added to the cumulative season totals, and the team with the most points at the end of the season wins the championship.
Since every car that starts a race receives some points, drivers and teams will race like mad even when they know they have little possibility of winning a particular race. If a car crashes or has a mechanical problem that forces it out of the race, the driver drops to the bottom of the points for that race. That's why race teams work feverishly to get banged-up cars back into the race after a wreck or other problem, because the points earned even in a losing effort will be important in the year-end championship tally.
Bobby had owned first place in the point standings for most of the 2000 season, even as Dale Earnhardt pressed ever closer. Before the Miami-Homestead race, Dale admitted that Bobby had the inside track: "Bobby has a pretty solid lock on things ... but we're going to keep fighting till it's over."
The Pennzoil 400 would be a key race. If Bobby could finish in fifth place or better, he would clinch his first NASCAR championship-and accomplish the dream of a lifetime. We would take home the Winston Cup trophy and a check for more than $3 million at the awards ceremony to be held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York the first week in December.
Should Bobby fail to place fifth or better, he'd still have a good chance to win it all in Atlanta the following week, but that would only increase the pressure. Besides, close is never good enough in NASCAR. Anyone associated with motor racing well understands that anything can happen at any moment on the track. Although Bobby had finished every race he had started during the year, all it would take is one spinout in the third turn, one blown tire, one broken valve, or one serious miscue by a competing driver-and dreams of winning our first championship after nine years of racing could be shattered.
We had almost gotten to the place of not wanting to talk too much about the championship to the press, or even around the race shop, for fear that we might jinx our chances or become overconfident.
Now at Homestead, I was really sweatin' it out, thinking, We've come all this way, after thirty-two weeks of racing, and we still haven't won this thing! We didn't want to go into the last race of the season having to place in the top ten or else. We wanted to win this thing today!
Four F-16 jets from Homestead Air Force Base streaked across the sky following the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Then former United States Senator Howard H. Baker stepped to a microphone and gave the traditional call: "Gentlemen, start your engines!"
A roar of gas-powered thunder pealed across the track as forty-three drivers simultaneously cranked their motors. Few feelings in all of sports can compare to the enormous adrenaline rush people experience when they hear that sound-the sound of sheer power.
I prayed briefly with our team members prior to the race: "Lord, let us have a great race today, and please keep the guys safe. Let everything we do today bring honor to You."
Steve Park, driving the #1 Pennzoil car, sat on the pole-the number one starting position-which he had earned by posting the fastest speed in the field during qualifying. Ricky Rudd had qualified on the front row with Steve. Bobby started the race in row number two. Tony Stewart, who had won the Pennzoil 400 in his first full year of NASCAR racing in 1999, was in row seven, driving our #20 Home Depot car. Today there was a printed reminder on his dashboard: PATIENCE. With his outgoing personality and sometimes risky racing style, Tony needed all the patience he could muster, especially as he was the reigning champion of this race. Telling Tony to take it easy was like telling Tiger Woods to lay up.
The greatest stock car racers in the world compete every week of the NASCAR season. The list of drivers gathered at Homestead-Miami Speedway that day read like a Who's Who of racing-Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, and the legendary Darrell Waltrip, who was winding down his on-track career. Jeff Burton was there, too, as was Terry Labonte, Bobby's older brother. Dale Earnhardt Jr., known as "Little E" to many of his colleagues, sat behind the wheel of the #8 car.
The 400-mile race meant 267 grueling laps around the one-and-a-half-mile, sun-baked track. Even in November, the heat on the track would be horrific. Most of the cars' crew chiefs would call for a change of tires every fifty to sixty laps to prevent their cars from slipping on the hot asphalt track. Fresh tires are crucial to winning races, because the track gets slicker with every lap, and as the rubber on the tires wears, traction diminishes, heightening the possibility of accidents and hampering the ability of drivers to handle their cars at blazing speeds. A wall of tires stood ready, stacked four-high with lug nuts in place, at the rear of our pit area. Even at $1500 per set, I knew that we'd probably use five to eight sets of tires before the race was over.
The racers slowly followed the pace car around the track, weaving slightly to "scrub in" their tires, creating a sticky quality to the rubber to help with traction. I watched nervously from pit road, the stretch of track where the cars come in during the race for adjustments, fresh tires, and fuel. Pit locations are picked according to the order in which teams qualify, with faster drivers receiving first choice. The choices are not made lightly. Strategy is involved in the pit selection, with the crew chiefs and drivers usually preferring locations closer to the pit road exit leading back onto the track, though not always. Sometimes the crew chief will select a stall farther down pit road, especially if the stall has an opening behind or in front of it, allowing his driver's car to get in and out of the pit area more easily-and hopefully faster. A fraction of a second saved during a pit stop can easily be the difference between winning and losing.
I donned my headset so I could hear the radio communications between Bobby and our Interstate Batteries crew. Crew chief Jimmy Makar sat perched in a chair atop the pit cart, a mobile "tool chest" housing a television monitor connected to a satellite dish, several computers, and a raft of tools and equipment. In front of Jimmy was another television screen and a computer monitor on which he received constant updates on the speed and status of every car on the track. Stock car racing has come a long way from its humble beginnings during Prohibition, when bootleggers took a break from running moonshine to test their automobiles and driving skills against one another on the back roads of the South.
Excerpted from Racing to Win by Joe Gibbs Copyright © 2002 by Joe Gibbs. Excerpted by permission.
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