At Roush, the buck no longer stops with Jack
January 29, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Where's Jack?
That was the question being asked Wednesday morning, as Roush Fenway Racing team members assembled for their visit with the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour with their namesake leader noticeably absent. A Roush event without Jack Roush, that famous fedora pulled down over his forehead? It felt like seeing a race car without tires. Or a steering wheel. Or an engine.
"I haven't seen Jack since Homestead," driver Greg Biffle said, referring to last season's finale. Turned out, the team's 71-year-old founder was absent Wednesday because he had been whisked away to a surprise Disney vacation plotted by his grandchildren.
"I guess he checked out," general manager Robbie Reiser added.
Please. The biggest running joke at Roush Fenway Racing these days is about how Jack isn't around anymore. It's probably even told in those weekly 6:30 a.m. meetings -- the ones Roush still sits in on.
"He's there all the damn time. I'm not kidding," team president Steve Newmark said. And yet, there is a transition unfolding these days over at Roush, though it's far more subtle than the team's omnipresent owner simply checking out and heading for Florida. Roush still lives, eats, and breathes racing seven days a week, as his schedule will attest. But his absence Wednesday was another small sign of how he's gradually ceding power to others within his organization, loosening the reins on what was once an absolute dictatorship.
This coming season as in others past, Roush will still be at the track for the course of an event weekend. He'll still be at the team's facility in Concord, N.C., for meetings on Monday and Tuesday, still fly home to Michigan on Wednesday, still be back at the track again the next weekend. He'll still be in meetings, still be a presence, still be a voice. But in what's one part succession plan and one part a nod to others better equipped to handle emerging technology, final authority no longer rests with the man whose name is on the sign outside.
"Our whole company is going through that adjustment," Reiser said. "We've had Jack as our main decision-maker, main decider, main director if you want to call it that, for a lot of years. When that format starts to change, all the people who are in other roles have to understand that. I think it's taken all of us time to understand that Jack was trying to do something different, and allow us to go out and run the place, and that's kind of where we are. I've been slow at the switch to understand that. Real slow at the switch, because it is Jack's company and his name's on the door, and it's tough to say, 'OK, here are the keys, and you guys go run this thing.' It's been tough for me to understand that."
The process has been unfolding over the past five years as Roush has turned more control of competition matters over to Reiser, who won a Sprint Cup Series championship as Matt Kenseth's crew chief before shifting into the GM role. When somebody needed to take a hard look at Roush's competition department after Biffle finished ninth, Carl Edwards 13th and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 19th last season, it was Reiser who did the looking. When it came time to pull the trigger on a flurry of crew chief changes intended to spur improvement in 2014, it was Reiser who had the final say. Those are decisions Roush used to make, and Roush alone, and now they're being made by others.
"Those are Robbie decisions with input from the drivers, Jack and myself," Newmark said. "But (Reiser) is the one driving that boat."
And getting more comfortable at the helm.
"I think as a company, you've got to have somebody at the final rung of the ladder to say, 'Hey, this is what we're going to do today.' And we've always had Jack do that, for so many years," Reiser said at the Media Tour, which is presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "And now (Roush) is kind of changing that role to be more of a consultant for us than the guy who decides every day. And I've been kind of put in that seat to make those decisions, and I haven't done them fast enough, and I haven't understood it early enough for where we are. But today I understand it."
To Biffle, who has been with Roush longer than any of the team's current drivers, this shift is not unlike engineers using computers to make setup decisions once dictated by the driver's right foot and rear end.
"That decision-making hasn't necessarily been taken away, there's just less of it," he said. "So you need to empower your engineers to pick the best brakes. Don't let me pick the best brakes. Let science pick the best brakes. With that, kind of the guard has changed a little bit. I wouldn't say Jack's stepped back, but Jack's kind of empowered the important people who can make the right decisions."
Of course, some of this has fed a perception that Roush -- who founded the team in 1988 -- is completely out of the picture, an idea that makes his drivers roll their eyes.
"It's been a joke, because Jack's been at every meeting. Everything," Biffle said. "He's so into us winning and competing in 2014. He's been at all of it. This (media event) is the first thing he's been gone for, and I'm sure it was a tough decision for him."
There is, though, a change taking place. In addition to relinquishing some control, Newmark said Roush these days fashions himself more of a mentor and teacher, and lets others play the heavy with people who step out of line or don't perform up to expectations.
"He doesn’t like to be the bad guy now. He wants to be the good guy," the team president said. A kinder, gentler Jack Roush? Edwards, who has driven for the owner for a decade now, has witnessed the transition firsthand.
"The way he described it to me was, 'Look, I'm just coming around to tinker and comment and take it for what it's worth.' He's letting other people do the jobs that he did," Edwards said. "And I think in the end, it's going to be very good. Now, don't get me wrong -- if we're sitting in a meeting, he still comes in there, and if he has something to say or he wants things to be done a certain way, they get done that way. But just in the 10 years or so that I've been there, it's 180 degrees different. It's not a dictatorship like it used to be. It's a much warmer, calmer Jack."
Why? "He probably sees the future, and the future is going to require people to step into the roles that he's done," Edwards added. "It's smart, and it's pretty humble on his part to be able to do that. Especially since it's his place. It's Roush Fenway Racing. So I don't know how he's done it, but he's doing a good job of it. Seems like he's having a lot of fun."