When James Small first came to the United States from Australia, he gave himself five years to become a NASCAR crew chief.
He ended up needing six years. Joe Gibbs Racing promoted Small from engineer role to oversee Martin Truex Jr.’s team in mid-December following the Cole Pearn’s surprise retirement. But Small and Truex were no strangers, having worked together for years at Gibbs and Furniture Row Racing.
Through the season’s first four races, Small has enjoyed calling the shots. Although the Toyota teams have been a touch behind in speed, Small isn’t too stressed because he believes that in the case of Truex’s No. 19 team, the effort hasn’t equaled results.
“We’ve had good cars every single race,” Small tells RACER. “The way I look at it, outside of Daytona, we’ve been the best Toyota at every single race. We’ve had a bunch of setbacks, starting at the rear of the field at Fontana and then at Phoenix. But we’ve been able to drive our way up to the front.”
Although Truex hasn’t finished in the top 10 yet, he has earned the third-most stage points this season. His 42 stage points are behind Chase Elliott’s 50 and Ryan Blaney’s 43. If it weren’t for stage points, most of which have come in Stage 2, Small acknowledges the team would be mired further back than 15th in the standings.
“We had pit stop issues; we had two in one race at one point,” says Small. “We were leading at Vegas, and we had the stop issue. Then we were running second at Fontana and had the pit stop issues, and after them, we’ve been put in the fence. From a speed perspective, Toyota is off a little bit, but I feel like the 19 team has been pretty strong outside of that.”
After a career in V8 Supercars, Small came to the U.S. for good in 2013. Exposed to racing at a young age, Small was regularly taken to the track by his mom and dad before he later began sneaking into the pits on his own. Les Small, James’s dad, wasn’t a racer, but was involved in motor racing through his own business and building engines, cars, and selling products all around the world.
The younger Small remembers the late 1980s when one of his dad’s team sponsors, Bob Jane, wanted to build the Thunderdome – a slightly smaller Charlotte Motor Speedway replica – at Calder Park on the outskirts of Melbourne. The track drew American stock car drivers for exhibition races. There was also 1987 and ’89 when Les Small came to the United States with driver Allan Grice to compete in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
“When we (the 19 team) won last year, that was 30 years since they qualified for the race, which is actually really cool,” Small says. “I never really thought about that until I spoke to my dad afterward. So yeah, he was involved in NASCAR in Australia, and that’s how my love for NASCAR grew and how I got exposed to it. From five years old, NASCAR kind of overtook Formula 1 as my favorite racing, and that’s why I ended up here.”
The journey to climbing atop of Truex’s pit box didn’t happen overnight, as Small details:
Growing up, Small wanted to be a driver and to try and make it in Europe
“I had a really successful go-karting career and then Formula Ford career, and it got to the point where I had to transition where the only real thing left to do there was go to V8 Supercars. I had a deal all ready and all funded to race in the development series, and it was going to be endurance races. At the last minute, it all fall over – not my part – but the other guy who was going to drive, so that team kind of shut down. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh [expletive], I need to get a job.’”
After getting a degree, Small became a race engineer for Garry Rogers Motorsport on the V8 Supercars tour at 23 years old, which helped carve out a career path for him and offers for better jobs along the way, including one in 2008.
“That’s when we came over here and bought a car and did wind tunnel testing. We actually airfreighted everything over here and worked out of Dale [Earnhardt] Jr.’s property for two weeks. That was the first time I came to the U.S., and at that point, I’m like, ‘I need to move here one day.’”
In 2013, Small was in the U.S. for the V8 Supercars race in Austin, Texas. While here, he flew from Texas to Charlotte for interviews with Richard Childress Racing and Team Penske, set up through friends
“Those were the only two interviews I had, because they were the only ins I kind of had. I went away from that and got offered a job at both, but RCR could tell me at that point in time they would give me a job on the road for a Cup team, whereas Penske said they had a job for me, but didn’t exactly know where it would be. A few months in, I was like, ‘What have you done?’ But it’s funny how things work.
“I was on the 27 car with Slugger [Labbe], and at the start of the year, he sent me to all tests. It didn’t matter where the test was. And that’s how I met Cole [Pearn] and the rest of the Furniture Row guys (an RCR alliance team) – because I used to go to all their tests, and I formed that friendship. From then on, I said whenever I can move to Denver, I really need to go out there.”
Small spent three years with Childress before joining Furniture Row and becoming Pearn’s protege
“The first year (in NASCAR) there was a lot to learn, obviously. There’s still a lot of similarities, though. It’s still a vehicle with four tires trying to go around the track as fast as possible, so it is still problem-solving in the same kind of way. It’s definitely made me a better engineer and crew chief, you never stop learning, and I think there are things I’ve brought from over there that have helped me do things better than maybe what people have been doing before. It’s just little ways of going about things, attention to detail, and a different way of thinking.”
Having now made it to the Cup Series crew chief position, Small has a unique perspective on the job and the sport.
“I definitely think people don’t hold NASCAR engineering in high enough esteem. There are some incredibly talented people that work in this industry, and we do some crazy stuff that people aren’t doing in other categories around the world. NASCAR doesn’t always get the rap it needs from an engineering perspective.”