Absentee crew chiefs stay plugged in via technology

Absentee crew chiefs stay plugged in via technology

Absentee crew chiefs stay plugged in via technology
NASCAR.COM

No crew, no calls, no problem.

NASCAR crew chiefs who find themselves forced outside the track these days are likely singing a similar tune.

Be it a welcomed leave of absence for the birth of child or a more begrudged exit to serve a lengthy NASCAR-imposed suspension, crew chiefs simply refuse to be silent.

And with increasing technologies and innovation, they don't have to be.

Evident by Tony Eury Jr.'s tech-savvy setup in his motor coach last weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway, the crew chief was anything but silent.

"I stay in touch with things like NASCAR TrackPass and the cell phone. I keep up with the practice lap times and instant message back and forth with our team engineer, H.A. [Mergen]," said Eury, who will return to the pit box this weekend in Daytona after serving a six-race suspension for improper brackets used to attach the rear wing to the COT of the No. 8 Chevrolet.

The violation was discovered before the Dodge Avenger 500 at Darlington Raceway in May.

From the results his driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has posted of late, seemingly the communications, though not firsthand, were effective.

"I try to offer help if they need it -- but I really try to let Tony Gibson work with Dale Jr. and the team to make the decisions during practice," Eury added. "I'm an extra set of eyes and I try to offer help when I can without getting in the way."

During a post-race interview, Earnhardt joked that his crew chief hasn't been missed.

"The six races that Tony Gibson was in charge, we had good cars every week and the joke around the shop is that Tony Jr. is under pressure now because we run better with Gibson! But, it will be great to be back at full strength with Tony Jr. next week at Daytona," Earnhardt said.

According to NASCAR rules, suspended crew chiefs are not permitted to communicate with their crews via team radios, however, NASCAR is not in a position to monitor all outside communication that may take place, such as cell phone calls, instant messaging or text messaging.

Also, crew chiefs are not allowed to enter the garage areas so most -- including recently suspended Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte -- set up shop in their motor coaches just outside the track and utilize AM/FM Pi Antennas to monitor radio traffic.

Jeff Gordon and his interim crew chief, Jeff Meendering, kept the lines of communication open with the ousted Letarte, but didn't overload on tech tools.

"You've got to have confidence in the person that you put up there on that box, and we have confidence in Jeff Meendering," Gordon said Sunday after posting a second-place finish. "I feel like [Meendering] was well-prepped. And I think that we had enough guys up there helping him ... all an additional person on the phone or texting would do is complicate things a bit more."

No matter the level of communication, NASCAR spokesperson Kerry Tharp said the suspensions still serve their purpose.

"In this modern day of technology, there are certain ways in which the crew chiefs can remain in communication with their teams, and it is virtually next to impossible to monitor all of that. But, not being able to physically be there in the heat of battle certainly can't be the same," he said. "Losing your crew chief is a lot like losing your quarterback in football or your point guard in basketball. The glue to your team is not able to be there with you on race weekend."

Eury Jr. agrees.

"I can listen to their radio chatter -- but I can't reply or use the radio to communicate with them," he said.

On more than one occasion, Wood Brothers/JTG Racing crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain has been forced to bridge the communication gap away from the track, although never for a suspension.

Last month, the birth of his son Wyatt pulled the crew chief away from his highly coveted post.

Nevertheless, the dedicated family man toted his laptop right into the delivery room.

"I pretty much had everything rolling," McSwain said. "Nextel text messaging, e-mail ... I was sitting in the room waiting for everything with a computer and a phone at the same time."

Two years ago, McSwain underwent back surgery and wasn't allowed, per doctors' orders, to fly on an airplane once again forcing him away from the pit box.

No problem.

"The TV was on and I had a live phone conversation with my crew during the whole race and was able to talk through the whole thing," he said.

Technology can only take you so far, McSwain said.

"It's hard. It's possible to be effective, but it's fairly hard," he said. "Crew chiefs [have] to make their people as smart as they can while their gone. It ain't easy and it's harder when you're not there."

Just before NASCAR's season-opening Daytona 500 in February, a string of crew chiefs were suspended in an unprecedented manner leaving them to their own devices to stay connected with their respective crews.

On a four-race suspension for rule bending Robbie Reiser, crew chief for Matt Kenseth, took a low-tech approach and stayed home and away from the computer while Kenny Francis, team director for Kasey Kahne, traveled to each race city, stayed in the team hotel and used instant messaging to get his points across.

Today, crew chiefs have the luxury of real time text-based communications and speak in text chat lingo, a language tailored to the needed immediacy.

Crew chiefs of yesteryear however wouldn't LOL if a driver said IDK what's wrong with the car but OMG it's NBD.

Communicating between crew and driver was much more archaic back then.

In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s crews used blackboards not Blackberrys.

If the driver needed to pit, he would tap the hood of the car, or if the car was tight, the driver would tap the door. Actual hand signals were used, not hand-held devices.

"You didn't see electronic communication until the late 1970s," said Buz McKim, NASCAR Hall of Fame historian. "More and more radios came into play when it became more reliable."

And if a crew chief was suspended, which was unusual, there was only one phone in the pits and crews relied on intercom systems.

Legendary crew chief Buddy Parrott, who came up admiring the likes of Junior Johnson and Bud Moore, said technology and communication wasn't necessary 10 years ago, because crew chiefs were rarely suspended.

If NASCAR caught you cheating, you were told to fix the car or never bring it back to the track. If you did, Parrott said, it was an insult to the inspector and an embarrassment to yourself.

"Can you imagine telling Junior Johnson he couldn't come to the track?" Parrott asked in a rhetorical manner. "This has only started happening in the last seven years, NASCAR has really started clamping down."

In his long and diverse career spanning more than three decades starting in 1975, Parrott was never suspended, even though he admits lying awake some nights thinking up ways to gain unfair advantages over the competition.

"I was always a good boy, I never cheated," he said, tongue in cheek. "NASCAR did take the top off my car once in Talladega. I thought they wanted to race convertibles. I said, 'Hey my driver will get too cold.'"

Parrott said the league fined him $20,000.

"We moved the roof flaps to enhance the aerodynamics of the car but we weren't suspended," he said. "Thank goodness Jack Roush bailed me out because I didn't have that kind of money."

Even as technology emerged, electronic communication was frowned upon and fought, McKim said. If you had a radio you were probably cheating.

"Paul Parks was the first to use two-way radio in the 1950s. It was protested, threw out as an illegal advantage," McKim said.

In 1961 during the Daytona Firecracker 250, Jack Smith was ridiculed for installing a two-way radio in his helmet.

McKim said the sport has evolved tremendously in all sectors with advancing new technologies and crew chiefs, at or away from the track, need to stay plugged in.

"I think it's necessary to get as much contact with team as they can," he said. "If they don't use the technology they have, then they are not doing their job."

High-tech or low-tech, Eury Jr. is eager to have his back.

"I can't remember the last race I missed," he said. "Sonoma was my first one in a long, long time. My wife makes me work a lot harder around the house than if I'm at the track, so I'd rather be at the tracks."

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