Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine
With the Sprint Cup Chase looming, J.D. Gibbs treads lightly through the hallways of Joe Gibbs Racing. The 41-year-old team president recognizes the looks on the faces of his three crew chiefs, the men who call the shots for JGR's Cup teams. It's the staring-right-through-you glare his dad wore when he coached the Redskins.
"During the season he'd walk right by, not even acknowledge me," J.D. says. "He was thinking about football. It's all he ever thought about. But it's how he won three Super Bowls." JGR has won three Cup titles and has done it by following one simple rule. "I don't bother the crew chiefs," J.D. says with a chuckle. "Those guys have one of the hardest jobs in pro sports."
Each year it becomes a little more like the elder Gibbs' former gig. Forget Harry Hogge working on Cole Trickle's Chevy in a barn in Days of Thunder. A modern NASCAR crew chief needs to do more than look good in overalls and know how to handle a torque wrench. Today, it's a job for khaki-wearing spreadsheet readers, a leading cause of bleeding ulcers.
And it never stops. At Hendrick Motorsports, Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte share a race shop, an office wall and midnight migraines. Both call the shots for four-time champs, Knaus with Jimmie Johnson and Letarte with Jeff Gordon. Both started at HMS as floor sweepers and both now have multiyear, multimillion-dollar deals. They've also each spent the summer navigating slumps. Gordon is stuck in the longest winless drought of his career, and Johnson has been listing since July.
So, at the shop they dart endlessly between offices, obsessively overseeing race car prep while at the same time reviewing notes from every race they've run at the 10 Chase tracks. They calculate patterns: In the previous five Sprint Cup races at New Hampshire, where the Chase begins on Sept. 19, there's been an average of 8.2 caution flags, 2.4 over the final 33 laps. So they figure they can roll the dice on tires because they're likely to get a moment later to rethink their choice. They study film: Overhead slo-mo footage of Gordon's crew recently revealed that a tire-changer was keeping his elbows too wide as he replaced lug nuts, costing precious fractions of a second. And they meet with everyone: from engineers to over-the-wall crew members, hoping to fight rampant garage free agency. "Our team has stayed largely intact through four championships," Knaus boasts. "That makes us a target for poaching. I spend a lot of time making sure I retain my personnel." Knaus, like Mike Shanahan, is part coach, part front office wiz.
At the track, the crew chiefs tinker with the chassis setups of their Chevys during three practice sessions. And on race day they manage the troops and react to interactions between engineers and pit crew members. Everyone reports to the chief on issues from tire wear to fuel efficiency to the weather. "You start each race with a perfect scenario," Letarte says. "But with one dented quarter panel, rain shower or bad pit stop, it's thrown in the garbage. Then it's as much gut reaction and educated guesses as anything."
Still, paddock parity and a couple of new rules (double-file restarts and multiple green-white-checker finishes) have meant that most of this season's races have come down to the final pit stop. And that clutch-time pressure has been compounded by the fact that every make-or-break call is followed by vicious second-guessing in the grandstands. An NFL coach hears it for kicking a long field goal on fourth and inches. Crew chief Brian Pattie gets ripped for taking four tires on the final pit stop at Indy, handing Juan Pablo Montoya's likely Brickyard win to a team that took two. The only abuse worse than what was hurled at him over satellite radio and Twitter was what Montoya fired off immediately after the infamous decision. Fans could hear every salty syllable.
Ray Evernham, who won three championships and 47 races calling the shots for Gordon from 1992 to 1999, is widely credited with pushing the crew chief position into the limelight. "I used to say being a crew chief was like walking a tightrope," says Evernham. "Now it's walking on a razor blade. There's so much at stake. We didn't have so many Monday-morning crew chiefs. Making the calls for Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes you a piñata. It's every bit like being an NFL head coach."
The man who knows best isn't about to argue. "It does sound a little too familiar," Joe Gibbs says. "I've told our guys not to make the mistakes I did. I told them I'll throw out any cots I find hidden under a desk." The coach raises an eyebrow and shakes his head. "But I never look. I figure they'll just go down to the fabrication shop and make another one.
"You can't stop that drive to win. Trust me."
Fast, forward: Why Force can’t stop
Some things never change: As the NHRA enters its final two-race run, Funny Car driver John Force is gunning for an unprecedented 15th title. Each of his finals victories extends a career wins mark that currently stands at 130. In other words, we're soaring in the Wayne Gretzky/Cy Young/Richard Petty stratosphere of records. "I don't care if you're talking Super Bowls or Pop Warner titles," says "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, drag racing's elder statesman. "It's a lot of damn championships. He's only behind who, the Yankees and the Celtics?"
This is no farewell lap, either. Force recently re-upped with Ford for four more years – after which he'll be 65. He's 14 years older than Jamie Moyer, 20 years past Brett Favre (whom Force, a former juco QB himself, calls "an inspiring kid"). What makes his longevity significant is his own calculation that he should've been "burned up or ripped apart at least 50 times."
There was the explosion at Memphis in 1992, so violent he claimed he "saw Elvis at 1,000 feet." And the crash three autumns ago in Dallas – six months after team member Eric Medlen's fatal wreck – that tore his dragster in half and shattered his hands, feet and left ankle. What followed was a lengthy rehab stint filled with pleas for retirement from his four daughters, three of whom are racers. For a while he did hesitate, survival instincts beating out bravado. But the pull of the strip was too great, and he returned that winter.
At first, the performance wasn't there, and in a sagging economy neither was the money. Force admits he rushed his comeback to save the team, to give sponsors the superstar they'd signed with, damaged or not. He won only once in 2008, the season fellow racer Scott Kalitta died during quals, and went 0-for-'09, his first winless season since the Reagan years.
But this year the fire is back. And that's good for his place in the standings, even if it is bad for his welfare. When The Mag first approached Force's handlers to do a story for next year, they answered helpfully: "He may not live that long." Fact is, Force may be safer racing. He recently fell out of his motorcoach door, nearly ran over himself with his own rental car and wants to turn a workout invite from the Cowboys into an advice-giving session for Tony Romo. "That would go over great, right?" says daughter and teammate Ashley Force Hood, with an eye roll. "He's so jacked up we're not entirely sure how long it'll be before he kills himself."
In mid-September, in the downtime at the Carolinas Nationals, Force is indeed jacked up, pointing with fingers stained dark by four decades' worth of engine lubricants. "Look at this hot rod!" With his other arm, he slams his cup of Dunkin' Donuts Turbo coffee (which he clearly does not need) so hard onto the counter that it pops off the lid and knocks his ball cap askew, revealing gray hair. Force is sitting – no wait, now he's standing – in the living room of his well-worn motorcoach, sending all eyes in the direction of the race car being reassembled outside. He says: "You think it's just a hot rod? It's not. That's my time machine."
Actually, the 10-foot-long, one-ton Mustang Funny Car isn't exactly what H.G. Wells envisioned. This is a nitromethane-gulping beast that produces 10 times the horsepower of a NASCAR Cup car and 40 times that of your commuter ride. It reaches 100 mph in 0.8 of a second. Every 1,000-foot run rides a razor between internal combustion and external detonation.
"My kids, my friends, my fans, my poor wife – I know what they're thinking: Get out of that hot rod, old man!" Force says. "But it's the opposite. This may kill me, but when I wrap my legs around that 8,000-hp engine for four seconds down that strip, I'm a kid again."
He gestures out the window once more, a weathered hand hovering just beneath a cabinet packed with trophies, painkillers and bills to pay. The smile vanishes, and he grows quiet for a beat. The crew outside fires up the engine to the applause of fans who have gathered around the tent. Above the muffled roar, you can almost hear their hero's heartbeat slow as he takes a deep breath. Sighing, he speaks to none but himself: "A time machine."
Formula One: Soap opera on wheels
More than half a billion people glued to televisions across six continents. The pride of nations and decades of tradition on the line. Iffy calls from officials that send entire cities into anguish. Superstar athletes dogged by paparazzi at every turn.
No, this isn't the quadrennial spectacle of the World Cup. This is Formula One, the global giant of motorsports that will be in business pretty much every other weekend all summer long. Throughout the world, its popularity is second only to soccer's among annual sports. Of course, with no Americans on the grid and no U.S. stops on the schedule, it has a near-zero presence in the States. (There are plans to race in Austin in 2012. Don't hold your breath.)
Thing is, the exotic aerodynamic tweaks that make the cars so quick also make them wickedly unstable in traffic. That results in very little passing – or "overtaking" in F1 lingo. Most races, in fact, are decided either in the first turn of the first lap or by superior pit strategy. Yawn.
So what's all the fuss about? "It's the soap opera," says three-time champ Jackie Stewart. "Actually, it's two soap operas." The first centers on the drivers' off-track lives. Lewis Hamilton is dating a Pussycat Doll! The second is fueled by the drama that surrounds them on the track. F1 cars are the most sophisticated machines on the planet that are not designed for flying. And the sport's governing body, the FIA, is constantly devising rules to keep those rides in check, for safety's and entertainment's sake, not to mention the solvency of the competitors. (Ferrari's 2008 budget was reported to be more than $400 million.) But almost as soon as the FIA reins in one aspect of the cars, teams come up with an end-around. Think of it as The Bourne Identity on titanium composite rims: Cold War-ish garages filled with gadgets, secrets and espionage regulated by a rulebook written as much with an eraser as with a pencil. To stick-and-ball fans, it can seem ridiculous.
"Take soccer," says Massimo Rivola, Ferrari's team manager. "If FIFA felt there were too many goals scored or not enough, maybe the next time you'd come to the stadium the size of the goal or the field dimensions would have changed. The intentions are good, but it keeps a man in my job up at night."
To F1 devotees, these machinations are junk food they can't ignore. As teams dissect each molecule of their cars to find an advantage, fans follow along, gobbling up info from the race shop to Pit Road to (seriously) the chemistry lab. Receiving an invite to step into that laboratory is like being asked to check out Lady Gaga's closet. You may not understand what you'll see, but you can't pass up the chance. I didn't.
Deep within the paddock at Montreal's Grand Prix du Canada, behind digitally triggered security gates and tucked behind stacks of tires and banks of laptops, sits Ferrari's fuels-and-lubricants trackside lab.
Here, in a whitewashed room that is much more Star Trek than Grand Prix, Shell scientists Dan Jamieson and Mark Farley pore over data as they pour liquids into vials and centrifuges. Their job is to sift through the gasoline and synthetic motor oil that power F1's most popular and historically dominant team. Officially, the two Brits are looking for microscopic flaws, impurities that have crept in from the outside or polymer breakdowns that have snuck in from the inside. But really, they, like everyone on the 85-person Ferrari crew, are searching for something more primal among the ferrographies and spectrographs.
They are searching for speed.
"There's always something to find," says Lisa Lilley, Shell's technology manager for Ferrari. Her research and development team, which includes Jamieson and Farley, dedicates about 18,000 man-hours a year to developing, producing and improving the fluids that course through the 18,000 rpm, 600-plus-hp engine of the Ferrari F10. "No matter how deep you look or how many times you analyze the same data, there's that moment when the light goes on."
She's a cog in a high-tech organization with a basic goal: to win. "But here's the thing," Farley interjects as he rubs his hands against very dark circles under his eyes. "That target is always moving – and I'm not talking about the other cars on the course."
Like the staircase at Hogwarts, the path to a fast car is never the same two races in a row. Blame a rules committee made up not of objective judges but rather of reps from each F1 team. It's a 12-way tug-of-war pulling at constantly in-flux regulations. Year to year, the changes can be so staggering they require a complete reboot of team processes, car construction and driving style.
For example, this season's biggest change – a simple idea on paper – has touched every crease of the cars and race strategy: To cut costs and prevent fires, cars no longer refuel during pit stops. Not surprisingly, that has led to a dramatic increase in the size of fuel tanks (from 120 liters to 235), and cars are now longer and wider to accommodate that added bulk. But engine-development restrictions mean builders cannot compensate by simply adding more horsepower. So Ferrari engineers tackled aerodynamics and braking, and left the rest to their friends in the Shell lab. Says Jamieson: "They said they needed more efficiency out of the fuel with no reduction in horsepower. They'd gotten all they could out of the engine mechanically, so we had to find more power in the oil, too."
Farley jumps in again, sarcasm dripping like 5W-30. "No problem, right?" His eyes are still on the fuel, a liquid so clean it looks like bottled water. In other forms of racing, teams receive their fuel from a league supplier, but F1 crews fly in their own concoctions. Samples are checked incessantly, to make sure the fuel matches the formula approved by the FIA in preseason testing. Stray, and it is assumed you are looking for an edge, and you'll be hit with severe penalties. No one knows how severe, though, because no one dares test the rules.
There are no such restrictions on motor oil, which means Lilley, Farley, Jamieson and their co-workers at Shell's Global Solutions center in England have concocted more recipes than Paula Deen. Track layout, engine wear, gear load, even atmospheric conditions and altitude can determine which mix is right for a race. The goal is to reduce friction, keeping the engine cool through that initial speed burst. That push, like a holeshot in Supercross, usually leads to victory.
Thanks in large part to increased fuel efficiency from Shell, Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso has climbed to fourth in points. Meanwhile team aerodynamicists are busy preparing new tricks for the second half of the season. There are still five months, 11 races, 11 countries and countless chemical compounds to go.
As Jamieson and Farley return to their workstations with one more synchronized rub of the eyes, I sense frustration. "Sounds like a pretty miserable gig," I say, trying to empathize. They turn to show confounded, almost offended, looks. "I'm standing 20 meters from the greatest racing car ever built," Farley says. "On Sunday I hope to be standing in Victory Lane. We're chemists and racers.
"This is the greatest gig in the world."