Commentary

What does it take to be a success in NASCAR? Maybe a psychologist

What's the best route to success in a sport that can wear down the strongest minds? Hiring a sports psychologist -- and channeling a little John "Animal House" Blutarsky -- may not hurt, writes David Newton.

Updated: September 26, 2008, 3:16 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- Dr. Jack Stark listened with great interest Sunday as the television aired radio communication between Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

He marveled at the calming effect the owner of Hendrick Motorsports had on NASCAR's most popular driver, who was upset that a bad set of tires turned a five-second lead into a huge deficit.

He applauded the way Hendrick made the point that his driver might be better served by working with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. to improve the car instead of ranting and raving about an issue that was beyond anyone's control.

"He's taking money out of my pocket," Stark said with a laugh. "He should get a license. He's practicing psychology without a license."

Stark is a licensed sports psychologist out of Omaha, Neb., who has worked with Hendrick Motorsports for the past seven years and sees many other drivers and crew members professionally.

He worked indirectly with two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus a few years ago when their struggles with their relationship kept them from reaching a championship level.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. wishes he had a do-over after last week's radio-chatter tirade at New Hampshire became a controversy. Still, he says he's communicating the best way he knows how. Story
• Hendrick wants gentler Dale

He worked with the entire organization after the tragic 2004 plane crash that took the lives of 10 people, including Hendrick's son, Ricky.

Hardly a day goes by that NASCAR's version of Dr. Phil doesn't get a call from somebody in the sport, particularly during the Chase, when the intensity level is at an all-time high.

Stark is there to help turn negatives into positives and create a more positive working environment, in the hope that will result in a higher level of performance.

He reminds that a team's mental state -- such as that of Kyle Busch and company heading into this weekend's race at Dover International Speedway after falling from first to eighth in points because of a broken sway bar at New Hampshire -- is critical.

"It's a sport that is very hard on people because it's a 10- to 12-month season," Stark said. "You're gone all the time. There's a high divorce rate. It's intense, and it never seems to stop because there is something going on every single weekend. That part takes a toll.

"Just the fatigue and exhaustion becomes a factor at this time of the year. And if you're in the Chase the pressure is very intense, and that can be a factor."

Sports psychologists weren't prevalent in the days of Richard Petty or even Dale Earnhardt. Drivers that put their lives on the line and drove at speeds of 200 mph thought they were too macho to need help inside or outside the car.

They were afraid of the negative connotation that came -- and to an extent still does today -- with the term "psychologist."

It's a sport that is very hard on people because it's a 10- to 12-month season. You're gone all the time. There's a high divorce rate. It's intense, and it never seems to stop because there is something going on every single weekend. That part takes a toll.

-- Dr. Jack Stark

"You would have had to convince [Dale]," said Richard Childress, who was Earnhardt's owner for six of his seven titles. "They're important now. This business has gotten a lot more stressful, and there's a lot more pressure on everybody now."

Stark estimates that a third of the drivers and crew members throughout NASCAR's top three series routinely work with professionals like him, and that half of them have some sort of contact throughout the season.

It may be as simple as helping a crew member with relationship issues or as complicated as restoring confidence to a driver.

Sports psychologists are full-time employees of many of today's most successful organizations -- the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and San Antonio Spurs.

Stark was the team psychologist for the University of Nebraska football team during some of its most successful years in the 1980s and early '90s. He says racing is natural for his business because of the high concentration it takes for a driver to focus for 500 miles, or a pit crew to turn a stop in under 14 seconds.

"Football, you go hard for 15 seconds, rest 30 or 40," he said. "Basketball, you have timeouts. You can't stop a race and get out of your car. You've been going hard for four hours and you have to have a tremendous amount of mental toughness and a tremendous amount of drive and desire to win."

Stark called Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing owner Joe Gibbs and Team Red Bull general manager Jay Frye three of the best amateur psychologists in the business, and big reasons their organizations are so strong.

"Everybody respects them, and they listen to them," he said. "Those kind of guys take a huge load off of somebody like me."

That's why Stark was so impressed with Hendrick at New Hampshire.

"Rick Hendrick is actually superb," he said. "In some ways he can do more good than I can. Sometimes when people come and see me it's like, 'Oh, you've got a problem.'

"I am not the problem guy. I am the performance guy."

Animal House
"Did you say over? Nothing is over until we decide it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! … It ain't over now. Cause when the goin' gets tough, the tough get goin'. Who's with me?"
-- John "Bluto" Blutarsky

Frye dimmed the lights Tuesday and turned on the video of John Belushi's [Bluto] Delta House fraternity speech from the 1978 classic "Animal House."

Everyone laughed.

[+] EnlargeJay Frye
AP Photo/Don PetersenOne way Jay Frye loosened his team up recently? A little clip from "Animal House."

Tension that had been building from two consecutive weeks of struggles seemed to disappear.

"We needed a light-hearted moment," Frye said. "We needed to let everybody know 'It's OK. We're in this together. Let's do it.' A lot of what we do is very routine, mundane. It's a marathon. A lot of getting through this marathon is mental, how to handle adversity."

Frye calls on Stark often to discuss everything from personal issues to how he can better organize or structure the organization in a positive manner.

Team Red Bull driver Brian Vickers, 24, also is one of Stark's clients and, according to Stark, "at the highest level of the mental stuff of anybody I've worked with as an athlete."

Frye said having somebody such as Stark to deal with the countless scenarios that run through an organization daily is almost a necessity.

"It's nice to have that as a tool," Frye said. "That's what Dr. Jack is: a tool in our toolbox that can understand things from a different approach."

One of Stark's tools is role-play. Frye uses that as well, such as earlier this year when he took his team to Yankee Stadium on the way to Pocono to show them the type of tradition he hopes his two-year-old organization one day achieves.

"That weekend we finished second and 12th; at the time our best finish of the year," he said. "You always look for a return."

But Frye said it's important to have the input of somebody outside of the organization.

"We have an open-door policy, but me being a new guy and starting in January, a lot of people might not come tell you exactly what's going on," he said. "A guy like [Stark] can spend a day in the building and tell me 'Here are things that are happening behind the scenes.'

"Based on that, we can make evaluations on how to change something. It's just little stuff a lot of times, but in this sport little stuff is what makes a difference."

Jeff Burton, who enters the second race of the Chase tied for fourth 50 points behind leaders Carl Edwards and Johnson, has been a proponent of sports psychology for a long time.

"This is a specialty sport," he said. "There are things that I'm really good at that I don't really need any help with. There are things that I'm not good at at all that I could definitely use some help on.

"So understanding what they are is really important. And again, a psychologist or any type of profession that can help you do a better job, I think it's really useful. If you're not willing to look at every kind of option, you're leaving yourself short."

Red zone
A color-coded chart listing each member of Johnson's crew is taped to the inside of the No. 48 tool box.

Red stands for aggressive, blue for passive and green for introverted, the results of a course the entire team went through together.

"We know some guys are dominant and some guys are passive and some guys are aggressive, and there's a whole way to interact with one another," Johnson said. "So we've gone to great lengths to understand this stuff to help with the communication between the team."

Five team members are coded red, including Johnson and Knaus. There also are bullet points with things such as what a red can say to make another red mad and how a red and a blue can get along.

"When you look at those things you're like, 'Yep, I know I could say something along those lines and make them mad,' " Johnson said. "So it just helps put it in perspective.

"It's a small tool. It doesn't make the car go much faster, but in today's world where a tenth of a second is a lot, if you can communicate a little better it's going to help."

But when it comes to mental warfare, nobody at HMS is stronger than Hendrick.

"You might hear things you don't want to hear," Johnson said. "He might challenge you in ways that you don't want to be challenged, but that's what Rick Hendrick is good at doing. He's good at finding things in everyone and trying to make you stronger in those areas."

Johnson recalled how Hendrick once presented him and Knaus with a plate of milk and cookies and told them that if they wanted to act like children then he would treat them like children.

"There's also a pork-chop meeting that took place, where Rick had a pork chop in his hand with his son Ricky and [crew chief] Lance McGrew," Johnson said. "He was so mad he was flinging the bone around, and the meat went flying off and all over the side of the truck.

"When he gets to a pork-chop meeting, you know it's pretty bad. I think milk and cookies is a step before that. Rick is just good at bringing the best out of people and really coming to your level. He can morph into whatever personality is there and really talk to you in a way that makes sense."

Yogi to Eury
"Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."
-- Yogi Berra

[+] EnlargeYogi Berra
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarYogi Berra may be more than half right about a lot of things.

One of the many so-called "Yogi-isms" used by the former New York Yankees Hall of Fame player and coach pertains to all sports.

"There is definite mental preparation that you have to have to be on top of your game," Frye said. "It's nice to have a third party to be able to talk about different things."

Jamie McMurray, a disciple of exercise physiologist Jacques Dallaire, said it's amazing how "powerful your mind is and if you believe something typically that will come true."

He uses golf as an analogy, saying that if you have water on one side of the fairway and are constantly saying, "Oh, no, don't hit it in the water," then in all likelihood you will hit it in the water.

"The thought process I went through [with Dallaire] was how to have positive thinking and how to take a negative thought and turn it into a positive," he said. "It's not only in the car. It's in life in general."

McMurray said the $10,000 he spent on Dallaire's course was some of the best money he's spent.

Dallaire said a driver's ability to stay in the now may be more crucial in NASCAR than almost any other sport because of the danger, but how he gets drivers to focus is no different that working with a CEO or fighter pilot.

"I ask every one of my clients, 'What the heck are you here for?' " said Dallaire, who claims four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves among his clients.

"High-performance people usually come back with the same thing: Show me how to focus more effectively, and when I lose my focus how to get it back quickly. Show me how to keep my confidence when things are not going well."

Dallaire said extremely competitive people are extremely good at "shooting themselves in the foot" because they are so result-driven.

"And the more we focus on the results while we're in the process of attempting to accomplish it, it is less likely we are to accomplish," he said.

[+] EnlargeHendrick/Eury/Earnhardt
AP Photo/Mark AveryRick Hendrick, center, made it clear after New Hampshire that dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. need to communicate more effectively.

Why? He points to what he calls part two of the mental rule.

"The mind can only process one thought at a time," he said. "If you're focused on the end game, what you are not focused on is that moment and time.

"How many times have you seen a driver blow a corner thinking about the corner they just blew? Why? Because their head is in the last corner, not right here where it matters. Anything that takes you off that focus, whether it's a disagreement with somebody over something, what happened in the last corner … it's going to affect you."

That's why Hendrick was so intent on getting Earnhardt to focus on giving Eury information that would improve the car instead of lingering over what already had happened.

"He's awesome," Stark said. "He does that every week, whether it's a driver or crew members. He's just a perfect calming influence. I'm writing a book on what it takes to have a successful sport or business performance. The key person is somebody like a Rick Hendrick.

"A person that people listen to and follow and can have such a powerful influence on that organization is essential. You have the wrong person in charge, it ain't going nowhere, I don't care how good equipment you have or how good the drivers are."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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