As Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus has amassed 81 wins and seven NASCAR championships.
It’s certainly possible that Knaus, who revealed this week he won’t be with J.J. in 2019, can still add to that total in the next few years, but won’t come close to the all-time mark of 193 by Dale Inman, who wrenched Richard Petty.
But the role of chief mechanic has changed so much in IndyCar and NASCAR during the past 60 years that it’s almost unrecognizable today. When Clint Brawner, A.J. Watson and George Bignotti ruled IndyCar with their hands, eyes, ideas, designs and improvisations, the crew chief was not only the direct line to the driver – he called all the shots. There were no engineers, aerodynamicists, shock specialists or gearbox men. The chief did it all with a little help from his friends.
“I think we had three crew members total when I first came to Indianapolis in 1948, so you had to know a little bit of everything – or at least fake it,” said Watson, whose roadsters dominated the Indy 500 in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in a 1989 interview.
“But then with (Bob) Wilke in the 1960s we hit the big time, and I think we had six guys for two cars, plus a stooge. I never had a blueprint, I’d just draw the car on the ground, built one frame off the next one, make a jig on a piece of plywood, bend them all the same and then tack them together. Then I’d have someone else weld them because I was too lazy. But I usually built all the motors.”
Bignotti captured seven Indy 500s and seven IndyCar championships during his five decades and really shined with A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, while Brawner-prepared cars won 51 times with heroes like Jimmy Bryan, Eddie Sachs and Mario Andretti. And that was the era when the crew chief couldn’t call Dallara for a new car or spares after an accident – it was fix what was left, or start from scratch.
“Straightened a lot of bent suspension pieces on a tree,” recalled Brawner back in 1979. “There wasn’t much we couldn’t fix, because you had to do it or go home.”
Of course, the definition of chief mechanic began to change in the 1980s with March kit cars, and engineers became a major part of the process the rest of that decade.
“My first job was in 1982 with Frank Arciero, and there were four of us,” recalled Mike Hull, who is managing director for Chip Ganassi Racing. “I guess I was engineer, team manager and chief mechanic, because that’s just about what everybody did back then, no matter which team. And the guys from our off-road team would come and work the pit stops on race weekends. But that all began to change in the mid-’80s.”
NASCAR didn’t become specialized until much later than IndyCar, and Ray Evernham might have been one of the last true chief mechanics.
“I did a little bit of everything,” said Evernham, who teamed with Jeff Gordon to win three Cup championships and 47 races during their six-year blitzkrieg from 1994-1999. “I helped build both cars, I was the shock guy, did the chassis setups and called the races. I loved it.
“We [Hendrick] didn’t hire an engineer until the late ’90s, and then he had to drive the truck to because nobody did just one job back then.”
As a mechanic and protégé of Brawner in the ’60s, Jim McGee was likely the first to create and elevate the title of team manager as he racked up 98 wins with Brawner, Parnelli Jones, Newman/Haas and Pat Patrick in his dual roles during four decades.
But no one embodied the title of chief mechanic more than Bill Finley. He literally built every piece of his Eagle copy behind his house in a tiny garage on the west side of Indianapolis. He welded, fabricated, designed, chopped and modified the “Fleagle” in addition to building the engine, and Johnny Parsons qualified it at Indianapolis in 1974.
Grant King and Rolla Vollstedt were also longtime crew chiefs in USAC who copied Eagles, Wildcats and Lightnings (along with Watson) in the ’70s and ’80s before IndyCar became big business and chiefs were phased out of many major decisions.
Today, there are still crew chiefs in IndyCar with impressive resumes like Matt Jonsson of Team Penske, whose win total of 37 include 20 with Will Power, nine with Gil de Ferran and eight with Sam Hornish Jr. Ganassi’s Ricky Davis sprayed champagne 30 times with Scott Dixon before his understudy Blair Julian took over as chief and has since scored 11 wins with the five-time champion. But it’s a different role.
“The job title is the same, but the description is so much different, and five years from now it’s probably going to be different [again],” said Hull who has been with Ganassi for 27 years. “Today, a chief mechanic has four mechanics – two front and two rear – a transmission specialist, a damper tech, a sub-assembly mechanic and two truck drivers. The rest of the support group floats between the two entries. The lead engineer provides setups, while the support engineer handles electronics, radios and data.
“The chief mechanic’s job is to present the car and backup car to tech and make sure everything is right. He works with the engineer to make changes on the car, and Blair is still hands-on if something needs to be worked on. He’s a good crew chief who works for the bonded culture.”
NASCAR teams became so sophisticated that there were shop crews, traveling crews and special crews just for pit stops. Today’s chiefs still call race strategy, but most don’t have to get his their hands dirty at the racetrack anymore.
Evernham misses the good old days. “I hate to sound like an old-timer, and I guess I am, but I miss Dale Inman, Cotton Owens and Bud Moore. And Bignotti, Brawner, Watson and McGee. Where did that human spirit go?”
It pretty much dissolved into spec cars and engine leases.