DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — James Small’s current place of business is nearly 10,000 miles from his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, but his connection to NASCAR in an upbringing tethered to racing is closer than a world apart.
Small was thrust into the spotlight last December, elevated from the important but less forward-facing role of lead engineer to crew chief of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota for Martin Truex Jr. As for Cole Pearn, his Canadian predecessor, they’re not exactly worlds apart either, down to Small’s choice of a logoed T-shirt as their shared preference for at-track attire.
“Him and Cole are kind of like twins. One is from Canada, one is from Australia, but I’m pretty sure in some way they’re related,” Truex said this week in the lead-up to Sunday’s Daytona 500, their first race together under the new arrangement. “They’re very, very similar, and from that standpoint, I think that’s a good thing.”
The combination is still in its early stages, but Small has strived to make the change in command as seamless as possible. A helping factor has been Pearn’s influence, which dates back to their time together with the former Furniture Row Racing operation. Another plus: By Small’s count, 10 former Furniture Row crewmembers remain from the cohesive group that claimed the Cup Series title with Truex in 2017, keeping a dedicated core intact at JGR.
“Cole’s been a really good teacher and we’ve worked really well together,” Small says. “We have similar mindsets and everything, and I think we operate pretty similarly. He felt like transitioning to me was just a natural progression and it wouldn’t really change too much, which so far I don’t think it has.
“We have pretty strong bonds, and think that’s what’s super-important in our team. He saw that and we can continue that legacy he built with such a strong team.”
Pearn rose to prominence with a steady, low-key demeanor, a crew-chief prowess that yielded 24 Cup Series victories and a selective social-media presence that went heavy on dry wit. Small’s story, one rooted in Aussie racing history before his stateside move in 2013, deserves its own light.
Small says he was “born into racing” as the son of Les Small, a successful team manager and mechanic on the Australian touring car circuit. The elder Small was a key part of a unique international convergence of NASCAR and racing Down Under in the late 1980s.
Racer and businessman Bob Jane served as Les Small’s sponsor, but he was instrumental in building a NASCAR-style oval dubbed the Thunderdome at Calder Park Raceway. A handful of American stock-car stars made the trip to the track — a hybrid layout that drew design inspiration from Rockingham and Charlotte — for a pair of exhibition events in 1988, when James Small was barely in grade school.
In the same time frame, his father also brought an international presence to NASCAR’s heartland, making the long trip to Charlotte for two starts in the Coca-Cola 600 with Aussie touring-car legend Allan Grice in 1987 and 1989. “That’s where my start in NASCAR began,” Small says, “and I just became as I grew up more hooked in.”
His own racing career went from primary steps in BMX racing and go-carts to Formula Ford competition until funding ran dry. The backup plan for keeping his career path headed toward motorsports was an engineering degree. Fresh from school, Small went to work for Garry Rogers Motorsport, staying involved in the Australia-based V8 Supercar tour for several years. In his last season in the series, he was part of a winning effort in the famed Bathurst 1000 — the Aussie equivalent to the Daytona 500.
“That’s when I decided I’d accomplished what I wanted to do there so now was the time to come over,” says Small, who landed with Richard Childress Racing before the 2014 season. Once there, he soon connected and became friends with Pearn through Furniture Row, which was allied with RCR at the time. After three years with Childress, Small joined Pearn with the Denver-based operation and began building their foundation as part of one of NASCAR’s elite groups.
“He’s really Cole’s protege,” Truex said. “I feel like he’s always been behind the scenes, but he’s always been a big part of what we’ve done and the decision-making process, and I feel like he’s right at home in his new role.”
When Pearn left the organization in the offseason to spend more time with his family, both driver and crew chief were part of an overwhelming recommendation for Small’s promotion. In the latter stages of Pearn’s tenure, Truex said he and Small were on the same wavelength, “answering each other’s questions and finishing each other’s sentences.”
When it came time to assess the team’s direction for 2020, Pearn’s vote of confidence carried such magnitude that Truex said he would not have made his decision if he didn’t feel the No. 19 group was left in good hands. The choice was unanimous.
“He told me he couldn’t leave unless he knew that it was going to be OK,” Small said. “He wouldn’t do that to everybody on this team, so that was one big thing. He knew if they chose me, it’d be fine, and I think everybody had the same mindset.”
The Daytona 500 (set to resume on Monday at 4 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) won’t be Small’s crew chief debut. The 36-year-old engineer filled in for the suspended Chris Gayle for two races with Erik Jones in 2017.
But the Great American Race represents the start of a full-time crew chief role with a team that won a series-best seven races last year and cruised to Truex’s third straight Championship 4 appearance. It’s a high bar, one that comes with the responsibility of taking credit for when strategies play out right or answering for when other factors go haywire, such as when a miscue with mismatched tires unraveled Truex’s title bid in the 2019 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Small says he’s ready for all of it.
“There’s a lot more added pressure, but that’s something I feel like in my career, even back in Australia, that’s what I’ve done,” Small says. “I like having that responsibility, and I feel like I’m ready for it. Nobody’s harder on me than myself, so as far as I see, anything less than seven wins is kind of like a failure almost, but that was such a difficult thing to accomplish in the first place. There’s so many things that happen in our sport that are outside of our control. As you saw in Homestead even, we were on our way to a championship and it all fell apart. It’s a random thing and all we can do is just try to be as competitive as we can be every week and hopefully it all falls our way.”