As is often the case, it was one conversation that changed Joe Balash’s life.
“Just happened to be another one of those phone calls,” he says now, but at the time it was clearly anything but. When that call came, Balash was Senior Vice President of Operations for the now-defunct ASA Series, rising to the top after just four short years of working his way up the ladder.
Little did he know the next step would be a little higher.
“[NASCAR’s] Gary Nelson asked me to come down and interview,” he explained. “We talked about me working as a Technical Director for the Regional Tours.”
Making the move from ASA to the top stock car series in America, Balash and his wife moved from Ohio to North Carolina and began the transition to NASCAR. But 60 days later, another phone call turned his life upside down once again. This time, the call came from NASCAR President Mike Helton, and the words would change this official’s life for good. Was Balash interested in becoming Director of the Busch Series?
The answer was yes; and in the matter of two months, a man who never envisioned working in stock cars in his younger days had risen to one of the most powerful positions within the sport.
Joe Balash grew up in northwest Indiana, and it was the thrill of Top Fuel cars, not NASCAR, that caught his attention in his formative years. The son of a gas station owner in northwest Indiana, Balash spent most of his childhood “at the drag strip,” dreaming of one day working with Top Fuel cars. But after a sporting injury in his first year of college, he moved back to Indianapolis and completed a degree in automotive management. Balash then went to work for a company teaching engine electronics and fuel injection; eight years later, he accepted a position with Mac Tools and moved to Columbus, Ohio. Happy with his job and content with life, it appeared Balash was on a career track that didn’t involve NASCAR.
But a small request for help would lead to a sudden change of focus for Balash. One of Mac’s primary sponsorships was as the “Official Tool of the ASA” (American Speed Association). When the ASA converted their carbureted race engines to fuel injected race engines, they turned to Balash who, in 1999, started to teach engine electronics and fuel injection to the crew chiefs. A year later, he parlayed the part-time position into a full time role with the ASA, eventually rising to Senior Vice President of Race Operations. It was then that Gary Nelson – then working in NASCAR’s R&D department – made contact with Balash; and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, what exactly does it mean to be Director of the Nationwide Series? As Balash puts it, he’s a man who wears many different hats over the course of a race weekend. “Managing the rulebook and the competition side of the Nationwide Series is first and foremost,” he says, recognizing the need to constantly set priorities. “The other big part is managing all the event logistics.”
And as you might imagine, those logistics come in all shapes and sizes.
“It’s anything from rulebook questions to parking the haulers to helping call the race from the tower,” says Balash. “Every weekend in different.”
There are six primary areas of responsibility under his remit, each of which has its own supervisor: engine, chassis, templates, safety, tires, and weights & measures. Clearly, Balash is not alone in the quest to keep the Nationwide Series in line; aiding the director each race weekend is a full-time traveling staff of around 35 people.
But as the guy in charge, it’s Balash who makes the decisions that can ultimately make or break the series; and in his four and a half years in the role, the director has seen his far share of incidents and challenges. Perhaps his biggest one lies ahead; with the series at a crossroads, Balash is working hard to change the style of cars, engaged in research and development to come up with a secondary equivalent to the Car of Tomorrow.
In talking with the director, you can sense his wealth of knowledge on the project from the get go. Clearly, this is something he’s been wrapped around from the start, a change he truly believes is necessary to take the series to the next level.
“We are working very hard on the CoT,” Balash explains. “We’ll utilize the NASCAR 110-inch wheelbase certified chassis, and it will be interchangeable between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide garages. [But] we’re going to do something unique with the bodies to give the Series its own look as opposed to the past.”
The last point is a reminder of the dangers posed by creating a Nationwide car too much like their Sprint Cup cousins; and when you talk to Balash, you sense his focus at ensuring the next generation of Nationwide vehicles create a unique driving style all their own.
“We want [the new car] to drive somewhere between a truck and Cup car,” he says. “And we’ve been working with drag and downforce to be somewhere in between. We want the car to drive a little easier than a Sprint Cup car; [and while] there are some components of the body that are the same, we’ve relocated them. For example, we’ve moved the rear deck lid forward, and the same distance we moved it forward, we’ve moved the front of the body forward, helping the car turn just a little bit better in the corner.”
“It’s been great to see from concept to the car in the wind tunnel.”
When that concept becomes reality, the timeframe is still very much TBD. “My hope is to introduce the new car next year,” says the series director. “We’re looking at an August timeframe based on the conversations we’ve had with owners and others in the garage.”
As for what brands they’ll be, Balash deferred that question to the individual manufacturers; however, don’t expect the rumored “pony cars” to appear in this new rendition of the CoT. Since the interview, Toyota has announced they’ll still run the Camry with the new generation Nationwide CoT, a sign that cars like the Ford Mustang will remain a dream, not reality for NASCAR’s number two Series in the near future. But whatever and whenever the new car will be, assurance has been given that the teams on the Nationwide side will have a lot more input with their vehicle than ever before.
“There are certainly lessons to be learned from the introduction of the CoT at Cup level,” explained Balash. “Initially, some teams were more serious than others [about the changes], and our garage has learned from that. [Nationwide] teams [know this is coming] and they’re spending a lot more time on the new car. We can gain experience without the expenditure.”
Cost saving in general is a key factor in the Nationwide Series these days, with a number of teams closing up shop before the start of 2008. Balash is very much aware of the problem – at least half a dozen teams are currently making a living pulling the patented “start and park” — and claims he’s always looking for ways to ease the pressure for the financially strapped smaller teams.
“One of the reasons we have the start and parks is because we don’t have our costs in line,” he says point blank. “The more we can work on getting teams racing week in and week out, the better; maybe not all 35 events, maybe 20. I think that will reduce the start and parks. We can’t restrict anybody from coming into the event if they meet the criteria, but it’s unfortunate that they don’t try and race all the laps. It’s up to us, those that are governing the sport to work on the costs – to make it more affordable for more people to race.”
“The challenge of sponsor dollars has become more difficult. [But] the value proposition of the Nationwide Series is a little better than the Sprint Cup when you think about the exposure versus the costs of getting into the sport.”
The biggest change on the sponsorship front for the series was the arrival of the new title sponsor, Nationwide, after 26 years under the Anheuser-Busch banner. So, how has the new sponsor integrated? “They’ve been really engaged,” claims Balash. “They wanted to start by meeting all the teams to find out their needs; they’re having the conversations in the garage with teams and owners to help put the [sponsorship] plan together rather than saying this is how we would do it. They’ve also [worked towards] a younger audience, with educational programs and simulators with the high schools about not being a distracted driver.”
One such area the series has focused on cutting costs is the engine packages. On a typical annual budget of $4-6 million for a full-time Nationwide team the engine portion of that can suck up as much as $1.5 million – around a quarter of the budget. One of Balash’s main initiatives this season has been to work with the manufacturers to cut costs in this arena, focusing on durability as well as power; 10 races in, there are signs are that the program is starting to work. At Talladega, several teams ran on engines that survived the previous weekend in Mexico, with that extended lifespan the key to future cost savings. While that won’t cut the engine budget in half, it can certainly have a positive effect on the teams financially, and that can only be a good thing.
With the new car on the horizon, does Balash see any other radical changes, such as no points for Sprint Cup drivers or a Nationwide version of the Chase? “There’s been a lot of things discussed and we are having those conversations,” he claimed. “We’re still a long way from making those decisions. You can argue both ways [on the Chase] and we need to spend more time doing some research – we’ve got teams working on this. We’re going back in history and seeing how things would have changed with different rules… we want to make sure that if we make big changes, we’re doing the proper research with fans, owners, and people that work at the tracks. Lots of things come into play.”
Don’t look to for a change in the Top-30 qualifying rule anytime soon, either. “We’re really happy with the Top 30,” Balash further explained. “Look back in our history, and we averaged around 24-25 full time teams before lock-ins. Once we started [with lock-ins], we grew the number of teams that ran with the series full-time. We’re happy with 30, and we have more full-time teams competing for a championship than in the past. 30 allows for 12 open spots per race, plus a past champion. There’s a lot of opportunity to make the show.”
Those increased number of spots available – especially at companion events – have also made it very easy for Sprint Cup drivers to run part-time schedules, dipping in and out of the Series as they choose. Balash refers to them as “double-duty drivers,” but as he notes, the problem is a little overblown. “We’ve ebbed and flowed with the number [of Cup drivers] in the Series,” he said. “There have always been double-duty drivers; it’s not unique and it’s not new. What’s happened is a couple of years ago, the numbers spiked. This year, they’ve come down to a more natural level.”
“Another thing that has happened [in recent years] is that the age of the drivers has gotten younger. More drivers are moving to the higher levels at a younger age. But once they reach the Sprint Cup level, they still need more experience and more laps on the racetrack.”
As expected, the series director is up for meeting the challenges that lie ahead; as the leader of NASCAR’s number two division, one can never expect a dull moment. As Balash describes it, one of the strangest days of his time running the show came in his first year at Richmond, during the Chevy Rock “N” Roll 400 weekend. Gene Simmons was one of the Grand Marshals of the race, and he and his entourage of scantily clad females were attempting to enter the garage… until a resolute NASCAR official who had been with the Series for 55 years stopped them. Simmons tried to explain who he was, and that he simply wanted to see the special “Kiss” paint scheme Kevin Harvick was running. But the official was having none of it. The problem? The ladies who were not wearing “the proper garage attire.” Balash and team intervened, resolved the attire issues and quickly smoothed over the incident.
Five years from that fateful first phone call, Balash is in a position he never imagined; and for a man that never expected to be working in the sport, it has been quite the transition. All problems aside, the Nationwide Series is still the final rung on the ladder before the very top echelon of NASCAR; and with a string of cost cutting initiatives already beginning to pay dividends, not to mention a steady hand at the helm of the Nationwide CoT program, you get the sense that Joe Balash is the perfect man to keep the series afloat.
That is, I suppose, until the next fateful phone call.