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Driven to win: Crew chiefs started as drivers

June 14, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Paul Wolfe went from Nationwide driver to championship-winning crew chief. While successful, it hasn't always been easy. (Getty Images)

Some crew chiefs started behind the wheel but have found success on pit road

He never intended to quit. He was good behind the wheel, and he knew it, but he wasn't the type to run around the country chasing money. So he drove on a shoestring, and eventually it got tiresome, and he moved to North Carolina to make some contacts and find a job with a little more stability. Before he knew it, he had sold his late model car to buy his first house. He landed a job with Butch Mock, which turned into a job with Robert Yates, which turned into a job with Ray Evernham.

Suddenly, Kenny Francis wasn't a driver anymore. He was a crew chief.

"At some point, you just have to realize, it's like music or anything else. You've got to realize that you're only going to go so far."

--RAY EVERNHAM

"I really didn't quit on purpose," said the crew chief on Kasey Kahne's team at Hendrick Motorsports. "It just sort of happened."

And it's happened to more than just him. NASCAR's national divisions are dotted by signal-callers who began their careers with a drive to succeed that was quite literal, one that included a view from behind the windshield rather than on top of the pit box. They all started with the same dream -- to make it as a professional driver, and reach the highest levels of the sport. Many of them won races, some of them championships. But somewhere along the way, the money ran out. Or sponsorship couldn't be found. Or a new opportunity presented itself. Or there were serious internal discussions about whether they had enough ability to do it for a living.

Eventually they made the switch, trading a helmet for a headset, though the process was usually more gradual than that. Francis had always loved the preparation side of racing more than the event itself. Rodney Childers faced the question of whether he was winning because of talent, or because he was setting up cars that were better than those of anyone else. Paul Wolfe ran out of funding, had a background as a mechanic to fall back on, and needed to make a living. Shane Huffman lost a Nationwide Series ride and received an unexpected call to work on race cars. Even the godfather of the modern crew chief, three-time Cup champion Evernham, made the transition -- he was injured in a modified crash, spent some time outside the car, and realized he was better at building vehicles than driving them.

"Could I have gone on and raced professionally? Probably, because I would have stayed on it, and stayed on it, and stayed on it," Evernham said. "But my problem is, if I can't go with the ability to be championship level, then there's no sense in going. And at that point I realized, I'm the weak link on my team. I'm building cars that are better than I am. Because as soon as I stopped driving and started to build cars for other people, my cars were winning. And I was like, man, I must have really sucked as a driver. If I can build a car that good, I must have really sucked."

Are there regrets? Perhaps, but not always. For those who were more accomplished drivers, there might be a little itch back there somewhere, making them wonder what they might have achieved had the right breaks and the right rides and the right funding all aligned at the same time. But from the very beginning some of these crew chiefs were as fascinated with the cars as they were with the races, making them feel as at home under the vehicle as inside it. And their current jobs are so all-encompassing, and winning at NASCAR's highest levels is so difficult, that there's not much room left for pining over what might have been.

Kenny Francis was paired with Kasey Kahne at Evernham Motorsports, and the two have been together ever since. (Getty Images)

"I guess for a while I thought about that," said Wolfe, who made it to the Nationwide Series as a driver, and is now crew chief on Brad Keselowski's No. 2 car. "But I think once I started to have success at this level in the Nationwide Series as a crew chief, and now in the Cup Series, it really doesn't cross my mind anymore. I feel like things happen for a reason, and that just wasn't meant to be."

World coming to an end

Rodney Childers could flat-out wheel it. Now crew chief of Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 55 car driven primarily by Mark Martin, he was a terror back in his go-kart days. Childers won five consecutive national championships in the World Karting Association, and once claimed a victory on the limestone track at Daytona Beach's Municipal Stadium in a class that attracted more than 300 entries. It all began to feel routine -- he'd go to a national karting event and sweep all six classes. No big deal.

"That was normal for us," he said. "That was a normal weekend."

"I don't know that I can say I enjoy this more, but I never had the success as a driver that I'm having now as a crew chief."

--PAUL WOLFE

For some of these crew chiefs who started out behind the wheel, talent wasn't necessarily the factor that kept them from reaching the top as drivers. They won, and they won a lot, and their dreams of making it to NASCAR's top levels were far from fantasy. Childers parlayed his go-kart success into late model rides, and eventually NASCAR's old All-Pro circuit. Francis made his mark on short tracks throughout the Southeast. Wolfe climbed all the way into the Nationwide ranks. Huffman, who worked briefly as a crew chief at Rusty Wallace Racing and is now a car chief on the Camping World Truck circuit, was a champion on the old Pro Cup tour who landed a Nationwide ride at JR Motorsports.

They were far from weekend warriors. Although Francis loves his current job and has zero regrets about his career change, he also believes he'd be successful if he were on the other side. "I think I could compete," he said. "I don't have any question in my mind that I could compete with most any of them out there. I think if you asked a lot of the guys I competed with, they'd probably tell you the same thing."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who occasionally raced against Francis in late model events at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina and whose father once offered Francis a job, certainly knows. So does Childers, whose career path closely mirrors that of his good friend.

"He was good. He was really good," said Childers, who still races against his buddy in go-karts. "We go riding all the time, and he's a little bit lighter than I am, and I say, 'If we want to make this a real competition, you need to put a little weight on your car.' He's really good. It doesn't matter what he gets in. We were at some dirt track one night, some guy had a dirt late model, and he hopped in it, and ran the same speed as the guy who had gotten out of it."

"I feel like for sure that I have more left to accomplish, and that if the proper time and situation was right, you'd probably never have heard of Brad Keselowski, in all honesty. I really feel that way."

--SHANE HUFFMAN

As good as he was, though, Francis made little progress climbing the career ladder. Since he had an engineering degree and had always worked on his own cars, he had something to fall back on -- which he put to use in 1997, when he went to work for a part-time Nationwide operation doing a little bit of everything. Becoming equally as frustrated in his driving pursuits was Childers, who despite his success in the go-kart ranks eventually found himself stalling out. He moved into late models, where he drove as well as worked as crew chief on a friend's car. He advanced to the All-Pro Series, which includes David Reutimann as a notable graduate.

But he eventually began to realize he might be better suited in another role. "I started to realize I was good at the other side of it," Childers said. "I started to question, do I outrun these guys because I'm better at the car side of it, or am I a good driver?" People were paying him to help with their lade models, and Childers eventually began preparing ready-made race cars for people to rent. He continued to make a push as a driver, angling hard for a ride in the then-Busch Series in 1999, but nothing worked out. "You feel like your whole world is coming to an end," he said. He went back to work as a late model crew chief, eventually landing a mechanic job with Jasper Racing that set his career on its current path.

But even making it to NASCAR's national divisions offered no guarantee of success. Wolfe broke into the Nationwide tour with Tommy Baldwin, moved into rides with Armando Fitz and Evernham, and scored a top-10 finish at Nashville in 2005. But funding was always an issue, and performance suffered. "The money ran out," said Wolfe, who had worked as a mechanic for Joe Gibbs Racing while driving a late model on the side. "I honestly got to a point where I had to live and eat every day, and there were no opportunities for me out there to drive. I did a good enough job and knew enough people that I wasn't concerned that I could make it as a mechanic in the sport, and that's what I went back to do."

Huffman seemed ticketed for stardom during a dominant Pro Cup run that included 28 race victories and the 2003 series championship, and netted him a ride in Earnhardt's No. 88 car in the Nationwide Series. He made 28 starts in the vehicle before being replaced by Keselowski. His career in limbo, he received an invitation from Rusty Wallace to become a test driver for Steve Wallace's program. Needing stable work, Huffman accepted the job, which evolved into a car chief position, and eventually crew chief for eight races on the Nationwide tour.

"It wasn't the direction I had intended on going. It was just kind of something that I did," said Huffman, now car chief for James Buescher at Turner Motorsports. He has a wife and two young children, so he likes the Truck Series schedule, as well as the stability the job gives him. He's had a few offers to pilot start-and-park cars in the years since he traded his firesuit for a mechanic's jersey, but turned them all down. The yearning to drive is clearly still there, as is the faith in his abilities. But he's also a realist.

The emotions are different when you're a driver than they are as a crew chief, as Rodney Childers has learned in his transition. (Getty Images)

"Obviously, that fire and desire is still there to drive," he said. "You see some guys get opportunities who are question marks. But it is what it is. The sport is going to be built on sponsorship dollars and people with fortunate situations like that for a while. It's a sign of things to come. You've just got to find a happy medium for a guy like myself. The way I look at it is, there's just as high of a ladder to climb on this side as there was on the driving side. I feel like for sure that I have more left to accomplish, and that if the proper time and situation was right, you'd probably never have heard of Brad Keselowski, in all honesty. I really feel that way."

A driver at heart

One of the greatest crew chiefs ever to sit atop a pit box can probably relate. Evernham started as a driver, piloting a modified car during the heyday of Richie Evans, and for all his race wins and championships as crew chief with Jeff Gordon, he remains a driver at heart. These days he wheels a spec sprint car about a dozen times a year, winning every now and then. Last week he competed in Tony Stewart's Prelude to the Dream charity race, once again scratching that itch that's always been there.

"Heck, I raced Knoxville in a sprint car. I was 54 years old," Evernham said, referring to Knoxville, Iowa, a capital of sprint-car racing. "It's things crossed off of my bucket list."

"I liked racing, but I liked getting ready to race better than the actual race."

--KENNY FRANCIS

And it hearkens back to his past. Famously intense and detail-oriented as a competitor, Evernham never did anything halfway -- which is why he became so frustrated when his driving career didn't progress as he had hoped. There were mitigating factors, most notably a hard crash at Flemington, N.J., in 1991 that left Evernham with a brain stem injury and doctors warning him against getting back in the car. "I was asking for trouble," he said, "because I was just not recovering."

Regardless, he had hit a ceiling. He began to realize his limitations when he started building cars for other drivers, who started winning in them. "It just was frustration," he said. "I get really frustrated if I don't feel like I can be the best at something. I find something else to do. I just was frustrated, because I was hurt, I was broke, and I just didn't see a future. I was 34 years old. And when I got with Jeff Gordon, his personality and the relationship we had never made me feel intimidated by his ability. I was so impressed with his ability that it was OK for me not to drive."

Every driver who traded his helmet for a wrench had to get to that point, and it's not always easy. "Oh, it was real hard," said Wolfe, who was calling the shots for Fitz's Nationwide team not long after his driving days ended. "Because at the time, I believed I was as good as a lot of those guys who were getting the opportunities. It was real tough. But at the same time, I had to work really hard to get where I was at that point, and I knew what reality was. I just went back to work."

Francis started out with Butch Mock as an engineer and shock specialist, and a chance meeting with Brad Parrott at a Charlotte go-kart track years earlier eventually netted him a place at Robert Yates Racing. A few years later, Mike Ford hired him to work for Evernham's team, where he first teamed up with Kahne -- who he's been with ever since. For a driver who had worked on his own cars since he was 8, the transition was a natural one. "I liked racing, but I liked getting ready to race better than the actual race," Francis said. "Even when I was a kid, I liked getting the car tuned in, working on the setup, that kind of thing. That was my thing."

Childers' progression was similar, though more rapid. He got his job with Jasper after interviewing with Robert "Bootie" Barker, still a crew chief in NASCAR's top series. He started working on car interiors, then was moved when the mechanic handling the underside of the vehicle was injured. Within 10 months of taking the job, he was car chief. "It was a little overwhelming," Childers said. But he proved a quick study, which helped him when the inevitable call to become a crew chief came. He was car chief on Scott Riggs' program at MB2 Motorsports when co-owner Jay Frye told him he'd be calling the shots for the next race.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Childers remembered. "They threw me to the wolves." But that didn't make him as nervous as Riggs moving to Evernham's shop, and Childers coming along -- but not before passing muster with a certain three-time championship crew chief first.

"I can't tell you how intimidated I was to meet with Ray the first time," he remembered. "When I raced go-karts, watching Ray and Jeff win all those races, that was the deal. That's what I wanted to do. To go talk to him for the first time, I was completely spun out. But he gave me a chance." And though Childers may not have known it at the time, his future boss could directly relate to his experience. Even one of the best crew chiefs of all time started out wanting to do something else, only to have reality intervene.

"When I stepped away from racing, when I decided in 1991 that I was going to go do something else, I regretted not having the talent that I needed," Evernham said. "But at some point, you just have to realize, it's like music or anything else. You've got to realize that you're only going to go so far."

A different ballgame

As a driver, Huffman experienced victory again and again. The greatest moments of his driving career include winning the first Pro Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and the first event ever held at South Georgia Motorsports Park in Valdosta. Earlier this year, he got to experience victory for the first time from his current perspective, when Buescher won the Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway.

"Now, it may not be that way for someone who's won 50 Cup races, but I know how I felt at Chicago. It was like, holy s---. It's a whole different ballgame."

--RODNEY CHILDERS

And the feeling was -- different, to say the least.

"I can tell you that the win at Kansas was sweet. And it was the first win I had on this side of it," the car chief said. "But it was not nearly as emotional as driving and winning. It was not even close. Not even in the same ballpark. I was wondering what it was going to feel like, I really was. And it was a happy feeling and a great feeling, but totally different. It's hard to explain -- they're opposite ends of the spectrum. I feel like my role is important and I feel like I made a difference, but that driver gets the credit and gets the glory, and I was always used to that side of it. I was just as happy to do it, but it was a totally different feeling."

Therein lies perhaps the most difficult part of the transition -- watching all the accolades associated with victory go to somebody else. That driver part of the DNA is always there, to some degree, whether it's manifested in Childers and Francis racing against one another in go-karts or Wolfe and Huffman having the occasional wistful look back. The itch is never completely scratched. "I don't know that I can say I enjoy this more," Wolfe said of his current role, "but I never had the success as a driver that I'm having now as a crew chief."

What it takes to achieve that kind of success helps tilt the equation. Childers thinks back to his driving days, and how he'd swagger into a national go-kart event and win everything he signed up for, and how it all seemed so easy that the sense of accomplishment was muted. Then he thinks of a Sprint Cup win, like the one with his old All-Pro buddy Reutimann at Chicagoland Speedway in 2010, and what it took out of him.

Making the transition

Crew chiefs and their records on the box
Crew ChiefRacesWinsTop-fivesTop-10sLapsLed
Ray Evernham2164711614062,51310,164
Kenny Francis304135211284,9092901
Shane Huffman801114816
Paul Wolfe19911537841,4311896

"You win one of these deals, it's freaking hard. I mean, it's really hard," he said. "The competition is so tough, and everybody's cars are so close together. When you win a race as a driver, you're all pumped up in the car and your adrenaline is flowing. When you cross the finish line, you're just busting with excitement. When you're sitting there on the box as a crew chief, and there's 15 to go and you're leading the race by a front straightaway, you start thinking about who bought your first go-kart, who bought your first late model, who did this, who did this for you. How you got there. By the time you get to five to go, you're about emotionally wrecked. Now, it may not be that way for someone who's won 50 Cup races, but I know how I felt at Chicago. It was like, holy s---. It's a whole different ballgame."