NASCAR: Stewart putting his stamp on new team
By Jenna Fryer
KANNAPOLIS ó The chrome bumper of a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air is one of the first things visitors notice when they walk through the doors of Stewart-Haas Racing.
Encased in the cashier stand in the gift shop, the bumper is equipped with an authentic Indiana license plate ó AF 3383 ó from the same vintage year.
The light fixtures are all retro, the barn door-like entrance to the shop floor replicates an old garage stall at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the siding on the walls is meant to remind visitors of the kind of place where racers worked on their cars all week then hauled them off to whatever track paid the most that weekend.
Yes, Tony Stewart’s stamp is all over his latest acquisition: a Sprint Cup race team that oozes with his passion for the old days, when racing was fun and not big business.
Only Stewart-Haas Racing is very big business, eclipsing the collection of racetracks and sprint car teams he’s already assembled. But the chance to run his own organization at the highest level in NASCAR was too great to pass up, so the two-time series champion left the cozy confines of Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 super successful seasons to enter into the maddening world of a driver and a team owner.
“He had an option that we couldn’t match,” JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. “This was a chance for him to go out there and own a team and do what he wanted to do.”
He finalized his decision in July, then spent several months assembling the key personnel needed to reshape the slumping Haas CNC Racing team he inherited.
When he opened the shop doors to the media Wednesday, his leadership flanking him as they sat atop a riser, it was clear he’d assembled a group of racers who share his passion, commitment and ideas on how racing is supposed to be.
“Getting this group of people that are sitting with me up on the stage, that was the hardest part,” Stewart said. “Once we got this group hired, it was easy for me to step back and start learning. It goes back to what we’ve said all along and I’ve learned from Joe (Gibbs) ó you hire the right people to do the right jobs. You don’t sit there and put your hand over their shoulder and look over their shoulder and micromanage.”
It starts with Bobby Hutchens, who left his longtime management role with Richard Childress Racing to be Stewart’s director of competition.
Too scared to look at budgets and line items, Stewart has given Hutchens full control of the purse strings and the planning.
“I think one reason they brought me in here was they had enough confidence to know I wasn’t going to blow a bunch of money,” Hutchens said. “You can spend a lot of money, and you can spend a lot of money on the wrong things. Hopefully, where we have spent money, is upgrading some things that when we came in the door we felt needed to be at a little different level.”
That included a pair of new crew chiefs and a new driver lineup. Stewart will be paired with Darian Grubb, a longtime fixture at Hendrick Motorsports, while fellow Indiana native Ryan Newman will drive a second car led by former Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew chief Tony Gibson.
Key NASCAR players who represented five different race teams last season, they had the contacts and connections to talk to dozens of crew members about joining their organization. And as the economic crisis led to mass offseason layoffs across the industry, the application pile was deep.
Stewart said he released about 20 inherited employees, but added roughly 50 new hires.
“We’ve probably been one of the few teams that have actually added people to their organization through the offseason, so that’s something we’re pretty proud of,” he said.
It’s those hires that Stewart will depend on to make his new team an instant success.
Hutchens said he’ll be disappointed if Stewart and Newman don’t both finish this upcoming season inside the top-10 in points, but reaching that goal will take a monumental effort: Scott Riggs’ 31st-place finish marked the highest Haas car in the final standings.
And it won’t help that Stewart will be spread thin filling both the driver and owner role, something very few have done with much success. Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd and Bill Elliott all eventually folded their race teams, and Robby Gordon has had his struggles in the four years since he left RCR.
The most recent example is Michael Waltrip, who entered the ownership side with lucrative sponsors, high expectations and enormous hype. His first season was a debacle, and although MWR showed slight improvement last year, the team is still a long way away from being a legitimate front-runner.