Editor’s Note: This column originally ran August 16th, 2006. If you enjoy reading this type of stuff, be sure to come back every Wednesday starting in February, as Tommy Thompson’s insightful commentary on the positive aspects of Nextel Cup returns on a weekly basis… Thompson In Turn 5, run exclusively on Frontstretch.
Kevin Harvick‘s win Sunday at Watkins Glen did not come as a great surprise to those that have followed NASCAR racing this season. Harvick has been competitive all year, and his first ever road course win advanced him to third in Nextel Cup driver points, virtually guaranteeing him a spot in the Chase for the Championship. In addition, Harvick has so dominated the NASCAR Busch series that after 24 races he commands an advantage over his nearest rival of more than 400 points, and with 11 races remaining in that series appears to be a shoo-in to become the 2006 Busch Series champion. What may come as a surprise to many, however, is that his car owner Richard Childress is the one providing to Harvick those racecars necessary to run so ultra-competitive this season.
Not much more than a year ago, the state of wellness at Richard Childress Racing (RCR) had become a legitimate concern. The Cup teams were languishing in points and its premier driver, Harvick, was rumored to be ready to flee the organization. Childress, despite being a six-time owners’ champion, was a man who had seemed to have his best days behind him in as much as being a competitive NASCAR team owner was concerned. Childress, who had admitted to having doubts as to whether he wanted to continue in the sport after the death of his good friend and driver, Dale Earnhardt Sr., in 2001, had instead made the commitment to soldier on, and part of that commitment was rehabilitating the No. 29 team (formerly No. 3) and making it an elite entry in Cup racing once again.
But Childress wasn’t living up to his end of the bargain. During the years after the loss of Earnhardt, very little improvement in on-track performance was achieved, and his replacement Harvick gathered just five wins from 2001 through 2005. Even more importantly, with the exception finishing fifth in points in 2003 with Harvick, no car in the organization had competed for a championship on the Cup level. No question about it: RCR had gone from top-level team to struggling to remain competitive. Not only was Harvick’s performance lagging behind expectations, even more so were the performance of RCR’s other full-time teams, the No. 31 now driven by veteran Jeff Burton and the No. 07 currently driven by Nextel Cup rookie Clint Bowyer.
Another half a season’s worth of dismal performances in 2005 finally put an exclamation point on what Childress knew needed to be done: a wholesale shakeup of his organization. Now, there had been numerous attempts to fix the problems at RCR prior to mid-2005, not the least of which was putting different men in the cockpit. Numerous drivers had come and gone since 2001, including Jeff Green, Steve Park, Johnny Sauter, Dave Blaney and Robby Gordon. Knowing that locking down a solid driver lineup was key to moving in the right direction, Childress moved to solidify that piece of the puzzle. Never wavering in his desire to keep Harvick at RCR, and accepted responsibility for Harvick not running more competitively and slowly coaxed him into resigning with the team by April of 2006. Childress had already locked up Burton, a driver highly respected for not only his driving skills but also his ability to interact within an organization, to a contract extension in 2007. Bowyer, who ran a very competitive Busch season in 2005, finishing second in points, provided RCR the final link to their program, a driver for the future who could grow while the veterans around him rebuilt the team.
With Childress confident that he had a championship caliber group of drivers, he knew that he had to provide championship-caliber equipment to those drivers. The problems with RCR cars were simple and clear: they weren’t fast. RCR embarked on an aggressive plan to address the problems from the perspective of both a need for better horsepower and improved aerodynamics. Aero improvements have come through stepped-up testing and a commitment to increased budgeting in that area. Wind tunnel data that may have been acceptable in past years suddenly became unacceptable, bodies were stripped or re-fabricated, and further testing and analyzing of data was done. More money and more man hours have been relegated to improving racecars aerodynamically at RCR than ever before.
However, the single biggest move RCR has made to improve its racecars mechanically may have been the hiring of Nick Hayes. Hayes, an Englishman, came to RCR with an impressive history in engine building. Having worked as a lead engineer for Cosworth’s Formula 1 engine design, development and track support before rising through the ranks to lead its F1 program through the late 1990s, Hayes was responsible for technical activities at Cosworth as Technical Director. Hayes’s background is impressive and his assessment of RCR’s engine program was complimentary from the outset, giving credence to the claims that Childress is committed to providing a first-class operation to its employees. Shortly after arriving at RCR in the summer of 2005, Hayes said, “The working environment at RCR is excellent, and we have everything we need right here within the RCR complex. The cars are built here and run from here, and we have excellent machining capabilities with a state-of-the-art showcase Okuma manufacturing center at our disposal. I have a great deal to learn from everyone here about NASCAR but, last time I looked, the laws of physics are the same on both sides of the Atlantic and the issues associated with racing are the same, also, so I hope that I can bring a lot to RCR.” Hayes has from all indications to date brought more than a lot: RCR engines are now faster, competitive and more durable than they’ve been in years.
Another component in RCR’s desire to improve the organization was perhaps the most difficult for Childress, known for his loyalty to his friends and employees: there needed to be a shakeup within the ranks of the more than 300 personnel currently on his payroll. Childress has accomplished those changes in a way that would leave even the most accomplished and skilled Human Resource Director in awe. Massive changes were executed: individual capabilities were evaluated, and job responsibilities were reassigned throughout the organization based on those evaluations. You would think such a scenario would lead to massive pink slips, but that’s the most amazing part of all. This evaluation was accomplished without one employee being terminated. The changes instituted are now coming to fruition, as reinvigorated employees are translating into success on the track.
Insiders report that there has been an even more subtle yet equally important change at RCR, and one that has been difficult to discuss. It has been widely whispered that RCR had a difficult time moving in new directions away from the success that had been achieved with Earnhardt, and his active participation and influence in the RCR operation still lingered prominently in the day-to-day operations of the organization. A common phrase longtime employees uttered when discussing or contemplating change was “Dale didn’t do it that way,” continually looking to embrace the past rather than reshaping the future. Burton is said to have been instrumental in changing this culture by his quiet, reflective manner and willingness to explore new ideas and approaches. Burton’s stature as a respected and mature driver has made it easier for the organization to incorporate many of Earnhardt’s philosophies into the new operation, yet allowing for employees to feel comfortable in discarding those that do not fit in with the NASCAR of today.
The resurgence of RCR probably shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that knows the racing history of Richard Childress, who’s spent years riding the highs and lows only racing can provide. Childress competed as an owner and driver from 1975 to 1981, driving in more than 200 races and finishing in the top 10 in points five of his seven years. Realizing he could never attract that big-time sponsor as a driver to create the championship-caliber team he desired, Childress retired to become a full-time owner, then struggled for a few years to find the right combination of driver and crew before finally coming together with the legendary Earnhardt in 1984.
With that unprecedented success he and Dale achieved, Childress is clearly among those who ushered in the modern era of NASCAR. Now, he appears on the brink of a second wave of success. The two Harvick wins and his third-place positioning in points cannot be dismissed as a fluke, as the whole organization is operating at a much higher level this year. Burton has been consistently completing top-10 runs and appears destined to also be a participant in the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship. RCR’s third team, with rookie Bowyer as its driver, is currently 15th in points, and though he is not a candidate for championship consideration, he has shown that he and his team have the talent to be competitive at the Cup level as the years progress.
Kevin Harvick is “Happy” Harvick for sure these days. With a Busch Series championship all but assured, and a place in the 10 race championship run in Nextel Cup an almost certainty, why shouldn’t he be? He can now realistically dream of being the first driver in history to be crowned both the Nextel Cup champion and the Busch Series champion in the same season.
What a difference a year makes.