The Crew Chief of Tomorrow

I saw the tweet as I was hurrying toward the Goodyear tent at Michigan International Speedway: Chad Knaus says that, in the future, the Crew Chief will be a thing of the past.

Here’s Knaus’s statement in its entirety.

In NASCAR’s early years, all the money (and there wasn’t a lot of it) went into the car. The crew chief, the mechanics and the pit crew were usually friends and family who volunteered to help out.

Back then, the man responsible for the car was called a ‘Chief Mechanic’. His job was getting the car ready for the track, which usually meant turning wrenches himself. 

Some people claim that Dale Inman, Crew Chief Chief Mechanic for Richard Petty, was responsible for the term ‘Crew Chief’. He denies it. Inman did almost everything: set up the car, change tires during pit stops, and drive the transporter. In fact, Petty used to kid him that they might have won even more races if Inman hadn’t insisted on doing everything himself. 

The Wood Brothers were the first to professionalize pit stops. They developed equipment to speed up fueling and tire changing. They are believed to be the first to use air guns instead of 4-lug wrenches. They also specialized the roles of the men on pit road. Ray Evernham took it a step further, realizing that the mechanics were already working 12-14 hour days and weren’t the best people to be running pit stops. Evernham brought in fresh bodies — and those bodies belonged to trained athletes. 

The same thing happened in the shop.  When Inman had to decide what car to bring, he had a choice of two or three. As teams built specific cars for each track, that meant building more cars and hiring more people.

With the advent of ever-higher-precision inspection techniques came the need for higher-precision machining techniques. Now you need people who can run CNC machines, 3 laser printers, and laser scanners.

And that’s not even getting into influx of engineers in the 1990’s and 2000s: aerodynamics specialists; race engineers; information technologists; a full-time R&D team; 3D printing and prototyping experts; digital dashboard experts… Heck, Gibbs even had a R&D project for pit guns before NASCAR standardized them.

We have a specialist for every specialist

Dale Inman

“We have a specialist for every specialist,” Inman said. “I used to do it all, including checking air pressures just before the race started. Now you have someone that all they do is one specific thing and nothing else.”

What that’s meant for the Crew Chief is that his role has changed from hands-on to management.

At the Track

Focus for a moment on the Crew Chief’s duties at the track. To save money for the teams, NASCAR recently implemented limits as to how many people can come to the track for each team. 

  • Organizational People
    • 3 for 1 and 2-car teams
    • 4 for 3- and 4-car teams
  • Road Crew
    • 12 people allowed
    • One more person allowed at Indy and road courses, places where a second spotter is usually needed.
  • Pit Crew
    • Limited to 5 people

NASCAR publishes the roster for each team prior to the weekend. For example, here’s the roster for the #4 car. It’s fairly typical for most teams.

What’s happened is that the parts of the Crew Chief’s job have been split off. The Car Chief is responsible for physically making changes to the car. Those changes are determined by the Crew Chief, with the help of the race engineers. (Most teams have two race engineers now.) It’s pretty rare to see a Crew Chief actually working on the car.

Data Explosion

Just as people have become more specialized, so too has data. Teams have more sophisticated data gathering devices and they’re using more sophisticated ways of analyzing the data. Those ‘black boxes’ spit out huge amounts of data that have to be analyzed and synthesized.

Someday, I’m not going to be able to beat that black box.

Ray Evernham (RaceDay)

The above quote comes from the Fox Sports RaceDay segment. Evernham was explaining that, when aero became so important in the 1990s-2000s, he realized there were things he was just not going to be able to understand first hand. The amount of information and the specificity of the data precludes a single person from an in-depth understanding of it all. 

Back in March, I wrote about some of the data science being used by some teams to deal with the real-time data NASCAR now allows the teams to access (and requires them to share). A lot of that computer work is being done with an eye to optimizing race strategy. A Crew Chief would have a computer screen in front of him that would tell him to, say, stay out if a caution were to come out right now, or take two tires.

I have no idea whether Hendrick is moving in this direction, but one could see how an old-school, hands-on guy like Chad Knaus might get a little frustrated. He doesn’t get to work on the car anymore, he’s reliant on other people to tell him what’s happening and his seat on the pit box might some day be claimed by a computer.

What a Crew Chief Does Do

There’s a very interesting article in Inc. Magazine. (I know: not the place I usually look for NASCAR information.) In 2016, writer Jeff Haden followed Alan Gustafson around for a race and the subsequent debrief at the shop. Here’s a summary of Gustafson’s schedule for Tuesday morning (the first day back from the track.)

  • Met with the 5-car crew chief and their shop manager to talk about what happened at the race and how that information can be used to improve future performance.
  • Met with the guys who work in the shop, recapping the race and thanking everyone for their hard work getting the car ready.
  • Meets with a group of mechanics, to talk about specifics: brakes and calipers; aero numbers. The spotter provides his input, as well (Eddie D’Hondt actually wrote a report.) 
  • Meets with the pit crew to review the stops from the last race with the pit crew coach
  • Meets with engineers and the car chief to go over problems and brainstorm solutions, and to look at tapes from last year’s race at the next track.
  • Meets with his driver to debrief.
  • Meets with the 5, 48 and 88 crew chiefs to compare notes — because they all had the same meetings with their teams. 
  • Only after all of that does Gustafson head to the shop to actually look at the car for next weekend’s race.

Haden is a business journalist, so he picks up on very different things than I would have.  For example:

He oversees his team’s activity, but for the most part stays out of the way.

Jeff Haden on Alan Gustafson’s role as Crew Chief

“If the pressure weighs on Alan, it’s not apparent. He oversees his team’s activity, but for the most part stays out of the way. They don’t need constant direction. Each member of the team knows his job. If they don’t, Alan hasn’t done his job. A good crew chief keeps every member of his team feeling confident and empowered. Constant direction is overwhelming. Instead, he feeds in details to help enhance already excellent skill sets.

I spent last Monday at the Goodyear manufacturing facility in Akron where I got to see the tires being made (by hand!) for the Charlotte Roval Race. Ray Evernham was part of that group and we spent a bit of time talking about how NASCAR has changed, not just since I was following his team around ten years ago, but over his time in the sport. 

We also were the very first passengers in Goodyear’s brand new rigid airship, Wingfoot Three which is not a blimp. Interestingly, the airship was manufactured in Germany and has cigarette ashtrays.

Thanks to Paul Eide (@EidePaul) for posting the photo of us all on twitter.

Ray was on the RaceDay segment, but hadn’t seen Chad’s comment — but he agreed. 

The crew chief has become a manager, not a mechanic”

Ray Evernham

The problem, Evernham said, is that there’s just too much information for one man to digest. That’s a problem for people like Ray and Chad. These are men who like understanding every aspect of their car. They want to know how the shock was packed, not just be handed a force/velocity curve. These are hands-on mechanical guys, not managers. (Which is not to say they aren’t good managers — that’s just not why they got into racing.

Whither the Crew Chief?

The NASCAR race team has experienced the same kind of transformation that any successful business experiences. Apple, Microsoft, Google and all the other tech companies that started in someone’s garage are not multi-billion-dollar businesses. The founders of the businesses eventually step away because the job of running the business becomes about business, not about technology. It became managing people, not ideas. And that’s not what innovative, techy people necessarily want to do. 

If you read tech websites, you’ve probably heard that robots and artificial intelligence will eventually take all our jobs. If that does happen (and I’m among the very, very skeptical), it won’t happen for a very long time.

Part of it is that data science and AI are not mature technologies. But the other part is more… human.

One of the events on the Goodyear tour was a chance to talk with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He was there to talk about tires, so I (of course) asked him what the first thing he looks for when he’s hiring a crew chief.

I took 10 pictures and this was the only one where his eyes weren’t closed.

I want someone who can be a cheerleader. A leader.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

He went on to explain that there are a lot of potential crew chiefs with the requisite technical skills, but that as an owner (or a driver), the most important thing a crew chief had to do was to lead. That includes motivating the driver and the team. You not only have to have the situation under control, you have to convince people that it is under control.

I found his answer surprising, but at the same time, perfectly logical. And that quality: leadership, cheerleading, people management, whatever you want to call it, will not come from a machine. Not soon, if ever. 

The Crew Chief job will not go away. It will change, as it has been doing since the term “Crew Chief” was coined. But the job Chad Knaus took on in 2000 (with Casey Atwood) doesn’t exist today, the same way the jobs Leonard Wood or Dale Inman did no longer exist. That’s a sad thing for people like Knaus: You can hear it in his voice. 

The Evernham Solution

I don’t know Knaus personally, but I bet he and Ray Evernham are cut from similar cloth.  Ray raved about his experiences at the Pikes Peak run in June of this year.

Evernham ran in the ‘Exhibition class’, which was created in support of the mission statement of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb to “demonstrate advancements in the practical application of motor sports technology”

In keeping with the mission statement of The Broadmoor PPIHC, specifically to “demonstrate advancements in the practical application of motor sports technology,” the race encourages competitors with vehicles that do not meet the technical specifications of PPIHC sanctioned divisions and classes to enter in the Exhibition Class. 

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb mission statement

Evernham custom built a 1936 Chevy Sedan that he calls “the culmination of my 40-plus years of experience in auto racing.” He built the car from the ground up: no computers, no lasers.

What you can’t tell from those quotes is the excitement in Evernham’s voice when he talks about his project. It may be a 1936 body, but he’s packed it with high tech for the 12.42 mile route with 156 turns, climbing from 4,720 feet to 14, 110 feet. That’s a technical challenge, just considering the change in temperature and air density due to the change in elevation. Never mind that there was snow the last half-mile. And he was on slicks.

Did I mention that Evernham won his class?

He did.

He was almost euphoric as he related the experience, but I think he would’ve been just as animated if he hadn’t won. He had put his driving and technical skills and a machine he built on his own terms to the test against the mountain.

And that’s the great thing about racing. There’s so much variety that everyone ought to be able to find something they like. Ray suggested I should go to Pikes Peak next year because he enjoyed the experience. I wonder if we should see if Chad can come.

1 Comment

  1. I agree that the world has passed me and my flip phone by. Thank goodness there are still low buck classes that are still available for us poor souls without a PHD.

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