Crew chief Gibson coming full circle
Gibson isn't saying a word. He merely listens as Newman talks with points and hand gestures meant to mimic the actions and reactions of his race car.
It is the unique language that only Newman speaks, the dialect of NASCAR's only driver who also owns a mechanical engineering degree. To a lot of mechanics, perhaps most, it would sound like Aramaic.
Tony Gibson seems to understand every word.
Long before Newman became NASCAR's most heralded numbers man, there was Alan Kulwicki.
In 1985, when Newman was not quite yet 8 years old, Kulwicki came south from Wisconsin, toting a mechanical engineering degree of his own. Newman's comes from Purdue, Kulwicki's from Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Newman and Kulwicki both came from the Midwest. They both came in spouting numbers and aerodynamic terms, such as pitch and yaw. They both earned a reputation as demanders of very specific needs when it comes to their race cars. And though they never raced against each other, or never even met, they both share a common confidant and ally.
"Look at Gibson," Stewart says with a smirk. "He's not saying squat. It takes a special kind of crew chief to put up with a driver who is also an engineer.
"That or maybe an insane crew chief. But I don't worry about him. He's been doing that his whole career."
"Dude, there's no way this is going to work"
Alan Kulwicki arrived in NASCAR's top series in the summer of 1985, with the reputation of a hard-charging but wickedly smart racer, earned as he mixed it up with the likes of Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin on the short track-dominated ASA and USAC stock car circuits.
After running a handful of Busch (now Nationwide) races in '84 he sold all his belongings and moved to North Carolina to commit full-time to NASCAR racing.
He couldn't afford his own shop, so he rented space from Norman Negre, who built cars for other teams. That's where he met a 21-year-old mechanic and body hanger from Daytona Beach, Fla.
"Alan was there with his Quincy's car. He just had two cars," Gibson recalls. "He kind of saw what I could do and that I could hang bodies and the mechanical, and we became friends. And it just kind of materialized from there and he ended up hiring me away from Norman, so that's really how I got my big break."
Kulwicki began to assemble his dream team. But his out-of-the-box ways and prickly personality ran off more people than it lured in.
"He would come up with some ideas on bodies and I'd be like 'Dude, there's no way this is going to work.' I'd build it, man, and it'd go out and sit on the pole or win the race. And it was like, 'Holy cow, he was right.' And that's when I started believing in him."
The list of those that bailed on Kulwicki included a young Ray Evernham, who lasted all of a month before famously declaring that the team would never win a championship and walking out the door.
"Once you got away from racing [Kulwiclki] was just like me and you, all about having fun. Go out to the movies, go out to eat, whatever," Gibson said. "But when you were there at the race shop, it was about racing. Man that was it, you did it his way, the way he wanted to do it, whether it was right or wrong. It was his way and you knew that going in. Man, we rifled through guys. It was unbelievable the amount of people we went through. Guys that didn't last days, weeks."
Those who stuck around, including Gibson, eventually proved Evernham wrong.
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Though, in Gibson's words, "We sure took the hard road to doing it."
With seven races remaining in the 1992 season, the No. 7 Ford "Underbird" and its chances of a Cup title seemed to be wrecked. Literally. Kulwicki had crashed three cars during the Peak Antifreeze 500 weekend at Dover, finishing the race 34th out of 36 cars and sitting 278 points -- essentially two full races -- behind series leader Bill Elliott.
After the race Kulwicki called his demoralized team into the hauler and circled the wagons.
Remembers Gibson: "He said, 'Guys, we can still do this. If you don't give up on me, I won't give up on you. But the only way we're going to be able to do this is together.' From that day on, we did nothing but great things and I can remember that conversation today like it was yesterday and I'll never forget it. That's one of the things I'll carry with me forever."
Two months later, they were the most unlikely champions in NASCAR history.
Six months later, Kulwicki was gone.
Tragedy And Transition
It was 18 years ago this very week on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, the Bristol spring race, that the unthinkable happened. The reigning series and defending Bristol race champion was dead, killed along with four others when their private plane crashed into the mountains of eastern Tennessee on April 1, 1993.
The garage veterans still tell the stories of how they heard the news of Alan Kulwicki's death.
The truck drivers talk about the way that their CBs cracked to life that night as they weaved through the Appalachians.
Kulwicki's friends and rivals still talk about waking up to the news the next morning. Anyone who was there that day to see Kulwicki's hauler do a lap around the cold, rainy Bristol Motor Speedway and take the checkered flag as it left the track can't describe the scene without choking up.
Gibson and the others who helped build the team scattered throughout the sport.
Gibson worked with Bill Elliott, then became a car chief at Hendrick Motorsports, where he won two Cup titles with Jeff Gordon. Ironically, one of those came with Ray Evernham.
"We were getting so aggressive with engineering at Hendrick during that time," Evernham remembers. "There's no doubt that what Tony had learned with Alan helped him step right in and play a huge role."
In 2002, Gibson moved to Dale Earnhardt Inc. and by '07 had become a crew chief, eventually calling the shots for Kulwicki's old short-track rival, Mark Martin. When DEI began to implode, Gibson found himself at a career crossroads.
As it turned out, the driver that many described as a modern Alan Kulwicki was standing at the same intersection.
An Old Familiar Feeling
Stewart-Haas Racing was formed in the summer of 2008. For his second car, Tony Stewart wanted a veteran racer who reminded him of, well, himself. He found that in Ryan Newman, who was struggling at Penske Racing, having won just one race in three years, and looking for a fresh start.
As he assembled his own version of a dream team, Stewart admits that he was able to "kind of cherry pick an all-star team" from the dozens of NASCAR crew members who had either been laid off or were in serious danger of being unemployed due to the worsening economy. Gibson was one of those people.
The moment that Gibson and Newman first talked, they clicked. Newman was thrilled to have someone who seemed to understand his engineering speak. Gibson was thrilled to have an old familiar feeling suddenly return to his racing conversations.
"He is a lot like Alan," says the crew chief. "Back when we had bias-ply tires, we'd have 20 sets of tires. Well, you may put the right-front of set one with the right-rear of set 15 and Alan could remember those numbers. It'd be during the race, he'd tell you to put set one and set two with the right rear of set six. How he knew, I have no idea. Ryan Newman is the same way. He'll ask how are we looking on fuel. You can give him numbers and he'll give you an answer he knows. He is so close to [what] the computer spit out, it's unbelievable."
Now Newman, who has heard people compare him to Kulwicki throughout his career, finally has firsthand stories to draw from.
"[Gibson] brings up Alan Kulwicki stories once in a while. Usually he's sometimes afraid to, because it's usually something about an engineer knowing it all and then Alan proved him wrong or whatever."
Then Newman adds with a sly smile, "So I don't think he necessarily likes to do that because he doesn't want to give me an example of what could be."
Back To Bristol
It is impossible for Gibson to return to Bristol, site of this weekend's Cup race, without thinking about Kulwicki. He thinks about their success there -- two of their five wins came at Thunder Valley -- and he of course thinks about the tragedy of 1993.
But over the past two years he has had to think about constructing an Underbird-style comeback. In 2009 and last year, the No. 39 car was already deep in a hole in the points standings, victimized by what was becoming a signature of the Gibson-Newman marriage: terrible starts to the season.
But because of 1992, Gibson never panicked. In '09, they rallied to make it into the Chase at the Richmond "regular season" cutoff event. One year ago they once again had a chance to race their way in, but came up one spot short. Both of those season-long rallies began, fittingly, at Bristol in the spring.
This year the team is finally off to a great start, sitting fifth in the standings. One year ago at this time they were 29th. Two years ago they were 32nd.
But even if the season suddenly begins to go south, Gibson won't panic. And neither will his engineer of a driver. Why? Because of a pep talk that took place inside of a hauler nearly two decades ago, given by the man who made both of their careers possible.
"We never give up and I'll never give up, never," Gibson says adamantly. "That day with Alan Kulwicki in that truck taught me a lot.
"I will never, ever give up no matter how bad it looks. I'll never give up, and most of these guys have that same mentality. We're not going to quit until it's over."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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