J.D. Gibbs, who followed his famous father’s path from football to stock-car racing, died Friday evening. He was 49.
Gibbs’ passing was announced by Joe Gibbs Racing, the family’s racing team, citing “complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease.” Gibbs had undergone treatment for symptoms impacting areas of brain function in recent years.
Gibbs served as president and later co-chairman of Joe Gibbs Racing. Before joining the organization’s senior management, Gibbs was an over-the-wall crewmember and a part-time driver, making 13 NASCAR national series starts from 1998-2002.
“We were privileged to watch J.D. Gibbs grow within the sport, displaying an endearing personality, a keen eye for talent and the strong business acumen that helped grow Joe Gibbs Racing into a pre-eminent NASCAR team,” NASCAR Chairman & CEO Jim France said in a statement. “The NASCAR family has lost a truly special member. On behalf of NASCAR and the France family, I extend my deepest condolences to Joe Gibbs, Pat, Melissa, Coy and the entire Gibbs family.”
Drivers poured in condolences and memories on social media as well, with former JGR driver Tony Stewart seemingly speaking for the group in this tweet: “Heartbroken for the entire Gibbs family. J.D. was a great person – a family man who loved sports & racing in particular. He played a big part in my career, both as a driver & as a team owner. When he asked how you were doing, he genuinely cared. I’ll miss that the most.”
Jason Dean Gibbs was born Feb. 21, 1969, near Los Angeles as his father served as assistant football coach at the University of Southern California. His upbringing included plenty of moves, according to a team biography, as his father was hired as an assistant at Arkansas before reaching the pros with stops at St. Louis, Tampa Bay and San Diego. But it also included a pursuit of speed, with J.D. and his brother, Coy, taking an interest in go-karts, jet-skis and motorbikes in their young age.
Before following his father’s career arc into motorsports, Gibbs pursued another of his father’s passions in football. The younger Gibbs played defensive back and quarterback at William & Mary from 1987-90, then transitioned to join his father’s race team after his college career.
“I wasn’t really stellar from an athletic standpoint,” J.D. Gibbs told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2006. “So for me to go into business, starting a family business with my dad, was really great. I’m glad we had a chance to do that together.”
Joe Gibbs Racing formed as the elder Gibbs was wrapping up his first stint as coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, a tenure that yielded three Super Bowl wins. Joe Gibbs Racing hit the track in 1992 with a staff of 17 people operating out of a 5,000-square foot shop.
J.D. Gibbs was a tire-changer for JGR in its earliest years, which included a breakthrough Daytona 500 win with Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett in 1993. Back then, the younger Gibbs still thought his future was in football, becoming a fixture on the sidelines as his father had done.
“I figured I’d do this for a couple of years and then I’d go coach,” Gibbs said in a 2004 profile in The Washington Post. “But we got in at a perfect time, the Lord kind of blessed us, and it has grown.”
PHOTOS: J.D. Gibbs through the years
Gibbs attempted a limited schedule in Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series competition, during the same time that he moved into an administrative role with JGR, becoming its team president in 1998. He tested for the first time at Darlington Raceway in March of that year, with plans to run 8-10 races later in the season.
Gibbs’ brief audition behind the wheel was less than successful. Later in his life, he was able to make light of his driving days with self-deprecating wit. “If it was just me, I could be a pretty good racer,” he told The Washington Post in 2004. “But then you put 42 other cars out there and that causes some issues.” He also quipped at a convention with sponsor Interstate Batteries in San Francisco in 2014: “My dad, he fired me in a nice way,” Gibbs said, with his father and driver Kyle Busch alongside. “He gave me an office and said, ‘hey, you’re now the president, because you’re a horrible driver.’ ”
J.D. Gibbs’ competitive spirit translated into his management style, fueling a period of dramatic growth for Joe Gibbs Racing. The organization expanded to a two-car team in 1999 and quickly snared its first two championships — with Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002.
When his father rejoined the Redskins in 2004, bringing Coy Gibbs with him as an assistant coach, J.D. Gibbs was solely in charge of JGR’s day-to-day operations. J.D. said he was initially concerned for the added responsibility, but lauded the foundation that his father had established. Even then, he had plenty of support from within the organization.
“I think he underestimates his ability as the team leader,” Stewart told the Associated Press in 2005. “J.D. is a really smart guy — a lot smarter than he lets people know.”
One year later, the team had expanded to a three-car effort, highlighted by a second premier series title for Stewart and the debut of Denny Hamlin, who remains with the team as JGR’s longest-tenured driver.
Joe Gibbs resigned from his second NFL coaching tour in January 2008 after taking the Redskins to two more postseason appearances, rejoining his son in JGR’s senior management. Together, they navigated another season of change, adding Kyle Busch to the driver roster and shifting manufacturers to Toyota.
The younger Gibbs was also instrumental in forming the JGR Diversity Program in conjunction with his father and the late Reggie White, an NFL Hall of Famer. That initiative groomed Aric Almirola for a career in NASCAR’s big leagues and continued with the ascension of Mexican-born standout Daniel Suarez to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ranks.
J.D. Gibbs’ health became a serious concern in fall 2014, when he exhibited symptoms that led to a neurological diagnosis. Joe Gibbs provided an update on his condition in March 2015 as his son began treatment for the ailment, which had affected his speech and processing functions.
The elder Gibbs said there were “very few answers” about the cause of his son’s condition. He pointed to his son’s action-sports lifestyle — with racing, football, snowboarding and mountain biking among his pastimes — but said doctors were unable to pinpoint a single traumatic event that caused his illness.
It wasn’t the first time J.D. Gibbs had faced severe medical adversity. His son, Taylor, was diagnosed with leukemia as a 2-year-old in 2007. After numerous surgeries and treatments, Taylor Gibbs recovered, completing chemotherapy in 2010.
“To have somebody go through what J.D.’s going through … and have all the tough times, never to complain. Not once, not once,” Joe Gibbs told the Orlando Sentinel in 2016. “I know I’m not strong enough to do that and he is.”
J.D. Gibbs’ presence at the track diminished in his later years. He was named co-chairman of JGR ahead of the 2016 season, succeeded as president by Dave Alpern. But his impact on the organization was a lasting one, a family legacy that spanned football and NASCAR success.
“Any kid wants to see what their dad is doing,” J.D. Gibbs told the Associated Press in 2006. “If you have a good relationship with them, you’re going to want to do what they do, no matter what the profession is. Football for most kids is pretty cool. So is racing cars.
“To be involved as a kid, that’s just what we love to do, that’s what we did.”