- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Most were in a hurry to get out of Daytona International Speedway on Wednesday, anxious to get back to their North Carolina shops to find ways to squeeze another tenth of a second or two off their speeds after two-and-a-half days of testing.
Not Richie Gilmore.
This was his first trip to a racetrack since early October, when he suffered an aneurysm at Talladega Superspeedway. He has savored every moment since arriving on these hallowed grounds that he wondered if he'd ever walk again.
"I didn't even know if I would come back into racing at one time," said Gilmore, who was given a clean bill of health to fly here late last week.
He went so far as to tell Richard Childress, one of his new bosses in his new role as chairman of operations at Earnhardt-Childress Racing Technologies, he didn't want to work in racing anymore.
"He told me he felt that same way after the last lap of the Daytona 500 and what happened to Dale," Gilmore said, referring to the death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt here in 2001. "He told me this is how you get over things. You come into the garage, you talk to your friends and people that care for you and people you care for.
"They help you get over this."
Gilmore wants to be here now. He's refreshed, ready to put the frustration of last season behind and help make the new engine-building program formed by Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing the best in the business.
That he arrived at Daytona wearing a black cap with ECRT across the front will help.
A year ago, Gilmore was the vice president for competition at DEI. Considered one of the best engine builders in the business, he felt pulled in so many different directions that he didn't do a good job at any one thing.
Probably the big thing it made me realize I have a family at home. I had a tendency of trying to work 24 hours a day to fix things. I had a tendency ... to kind of take the world on by myself.
-- Richie Gilmore
The frustration was magnified by the company's failure to re-sign Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gilmore's inability to get NASCAR's most popular driver into the
championship chase because of six blown engines.
"It seemed like the harder we tried to dig out of that hole the worse we got," Gilmore said. "We've had a solid engine program since '98. That's something Dale took a lot of pride in. He brought a lot of us over from Hendrick Motorsports and put together a good group.
"It feels good to wake up in the morning just to have one direction in mind. You can't do four things a hundred percent. I feel now I can go to work and do one thing a hundred percent and do a good job at it."
Gilmore isn't concerned about the problems that kept him up at nights last year. He's changed a lot of the engine-building processes and parts that led to more engine failures in one season than DEI had in the past five.
"Last year, we made a lot of horsepower," he said. "We tried to gain too much too quick and we gave away some reliability."
Gilmore also has made adjustments in his life. He no longer works seemingly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He's relying more on the quality people around him such as Bobby Hutchinson, who moved from RCR to be general manager of ECRT.
The aneurysm, he said, helped put things into perspective.
"Probably the big thing it made me realize I have a family at home," Gilmore said. "I had a tendency of trying to work 24 hours a day to fix things. I had a tendency ... to kind of take the world on by myself."
Gilmore said his absence from the track also made an impression on others in the garage.
"They've all come up to me and said, 'What happened to you has made me go home at five or six o'clock at night instead of 11 at night,'" he said. "That made me feel good. Now guys are paying more attention to their families and health, and that's a good thing."
Gilmore hopes to have more time for his family once the new 111,000-square-foot ECRT building, scheduled to be built on 75 acres belonging to DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt near Salisbury, N.C., is completed by the beginning of next season.
He currently has a 150-mile round trip each day between the shop at DEI, where Nationwide and Truck Series engines are built, and the Cup engine shop at RCR in Welcome, N.C.
But he uses that time to wind down and reflect on all he has to do and all he has to be thankful for.
Becoming closer to Childress, who helped Earnhardt to six of his seven titles out of the Welcome shop, also has been a plus.
"He's in the engine shop about every day," Gilmore said. "He has a passion like Dale did. That's what I really enjoy right now. Those two could be twin brothers in another life they're so much alike.
"And that's what's brought a lot of my passion back in the engine shop, being around Richard. I don't think we could have found a better company to merge with because there's so much history. There's two companies that truly miss Dale and are together now, and that's a good thing."
The respect is mutual.
"Richie's management experience was a key factor in naming him the chief
operating officer of Earnhardt-Childress Racing [Technologies]," Childress said. "He's been very
successful in establishing engine shops in the past and he's proven his
ability to lead a group of dedicated engine builders. Richie has a
tremendous amount of respect in the industry and we have all the confidence
that he will make the ECR program a great success."
Being back at Daytona is a good thing for Gilmore. He's encouraged with the initial progress of the ECRT engines, with Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin posting top-13 speeds during Tuesday's drafting session.
He can't wait to drive through the tunnel next month to begin final preparations for the 50th running of the Daytona 500, the race he has helped win seven times between DEI, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.
"It's like a football player walking out on the field before the game," Gilmore said. "This is something we truly love to do. No matter how many hours we put in and how much we complain about it at midseason, we always look forward to coming here.
"We all said last week we can't believe it's here again, but we couldn't wait to get here either."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.