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Caraviello: For Gustafson, racing anything but a game

February 12, 2011, David Caraviello,

For Gordon's new crew chief, racing anything but a game

The fever gripped him before he was even in grade school, and it never let go. Alan Gustafson was just 4 when his father took him, his brother and a few friends to the 24 Hours of Daytona at the big speedway in their hometown. That was the locals' race, the one where you could see a lot of action for a relatively low ticket price. They watched in person for a little while, went home and caught the updates every few hours on television, and were back the next morning for the finish. After the event spectators were allowed to cross the track, giving Gustafson his first, up-close look at vehicles that seemed like something out of the space age.

Back home there are photos, images of a young Gustafson clad in a 1980s kid uniform of shorts, jean jacket and striped athletic socks pulled up to the knees, standing next to cars still cooling from a full day and night of competition on the track. That was the moment when he knew. From that point forward, there was no doubt.

""I think why I'm so serious is, I put everything I have into this sport. If I'm going to spend that time ... it's going to be for a good reason.""


"The newness of that racing world, and the intoxication, I can remember that from 4 years old," said Gustafson, now a crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, and beginning his first season with Jeff Gordon. "There was nothing on the planet, nothing cooler than that day. That was it. From that day forward, and I'll never forget, that was my life focus. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be successful in motorsports."

He tells the story with a broad smile, not surprising given that Gustafson is an articulate, engaging guy with a disposition that can be as sunny as his hometown. When the subject turns to his work, though, his eyes narrow a bit and his jaw sets. His words become less jocular and more pointed. Being a crew chief on a NASCAR team that expects to take home championships every year is serious business, particularly now that Gustafson is overseeing a No. 24 team with a huge fan base that wants to see it returned to the ranks of the sport's elite. This isn't about fun, this isn't about palling around at the race track with buddies, this is about performance and results.

"Alan's real serious," said Mark Martin, who worked with Gustafson the past two seasons. "I've been told by people that I'm too serious and I'm not enough fun ... [but] Alan and I together in a room were probably not much fun for anybody else. He and I were fine, because we were real serious. But for other people, I don't know how entertaining we were to hang with."

Gordon, who last year went winless for the second time in the past three seasons, has already noticed that about his new crew chief. During their first week working together, at a last-minute tire test Goodyear added in mid-December to gauge the new pavement at Daytona International Speedway, "I saw he got a little grumpy, but I didn't know why," Gordon remembered. Later Gordon was talking to Gustafson's wife, Shannon, who mentioned that the No. 24 car hadn't been as fast as her husband had hoped it would be.

"She's like, 'Oh yeah, he did not like that. He did not like that you guys weren't fast down there in Daytona,'" Gordon said. "I was like, is that what was wrong with him? I didn't understand it. And that's what you want in a crew chief. You want a crew chief where it's never good enough, no matter how fast your car is. It's never enough. You want more, more, more, more. I feel like that's what it takes to win championships."

For the past five years Gordon has worked with crew chief Steve Letarte, and together the pair won 10 races and nearly claimed the championship in 2007. Renowned for his ability to enhance his driver's levels of motivation and confidence, Letarte will now work with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who in some eyes could use a booster shot of both. In steps the more demanding Gustafson, perhaps an ideal fit for a program that's now gone a decade since winning its last title. Team owner Rick Hendrick paired Gustafson and Gordon because he thought the driver would respond to a crew chief who engages in little small talk and is very matter-of-fact.

"When I grew up racing, the people I worked for at a young age were extremely passionate -- this isn't a hobby, this isn't a pastime, this isn't even fun. It's a passion," said Gustafson, 35. "It's a lifelong journey, a commitment to succeed. I think why I'm so serious is, I put everything I have into this sport. I give everything I have to Hendrick Motorsports. I spend hours here from 7 in the morning to 8 at night, sometimes worse. ... If I'm going to spend that time away from my family, if I'm going to spend that time away from my young children, it's going to be for a good reason. I'm not going to stand around and patty-cake or high-five. Look, I love my guys. I love Mark, I love Jeff. But we're here for one reason, and it's to perform."

To be fair, he's not a grumpy, angry, or mean person -- in fact, Gustafson is often just the opposite. And yet, that singular focus is always there. He can become so involved with what he's doing that he can lose track of everything else. Sometimes that can offend people who don't know him very well. It's a hazard of the job.

"I have unintentionally offended or rubbed people the wrong way, people who don't know me, who take my focus as a lack of interest in them personally or what they've got going on," said Gustafson, who's won nine times as a crew chief, five with Martin and four with Kyle Busch. "That is regrettable, and that's the negative side of it. And it's not a calculated decision. It's not like I wake up and say, oh, I've got to be serious today. ... I get entrenched in what I'm doing, and that's what the focus becomes."

Gordon certainly isn't offended. His first impression is that he likes Gustafson's intensity. It reminds him of another crew chief he used to work with -- Ray Evernham, who oversaw three championship campaigns from atop the No. 24 pit box before moving into team ownership.

"He was not a very happy person when I worked with him," Gordon said of Evernham. "He hates it when I say that, but I mean it in all the best ways possible, because it's really what it takes to be the top crew chief in the garage area. If you go talk to a guy who's winning a lot of races, you don't see him smile a whole lot other than Victory Lane. That's what it takes."

The seriousness with which Gustafson takes his job comes from his background. His father, he said, always walked the straight and narrow. And then there was another influence -- Smokey Yunick Jr., son of the legendary car builder and mechanic, whom Gustafson worked for during his teenage years. Growing up outside Daytona Beach, racing rapidly became a way of life for Gustafson and his friends from his neighborhood. One was Troy Flis, who now runs the Spirit of Daytona team on the Grand-Am Road Racing Series. Another was Casey Yunick, whose grandfather Smokey ran the Best Damn Garage in Town, and whose father Smokey Jr. ran a company called Speedway Manufacturing that fabricated items for everyone from the Daytona track to NASA.

Of course, there was always a race car around, too. Like his old man, Smokey Jr. was a whiz with a race car body. "When Smokey Sr. won all those Indianapolis races, Smokey Jr. hand-fabbed all those cars," Gustafson said. "He built all those cool, aluminum shaped IndyCars. He was the guy." And yet, he was also an extremely intense, taciturn man who saw zero value in finishing second. He didn't get along with many people, but for whatever reason he took a shine to Gustafson. He'd get mad and kick everyone out of the shop -- except Alan. They'd work late, sometimes until 11 at night, and Yunick would order up dinner from Hungry Howie's Pizza because he knew the kid liked it.

"He would sit there and talk to me," Gustafson said. "I learned so many things. But the one thing I just remember from Smokey Jr. is, he never made it to where he wanted to be, and that burning desire he had ... I can remember him sitting there saying I had a real good chance. I wanted to do it, I wanted to capitalize on opportunities. He almost scared that into me."

Intensity, focus, taking advantage of opportunities -- suddenly, it's very easy to see where Gustafson's serious side comes from. It's very easy to see why, for Jeff Gordon's new crew chief, racing is anything but a game.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.