Chris Gabehart spent weeks during the offseason taking care of an agenda item that had nothing to do with preparing the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Gabehart is as concerned as anyone in the industry about burnout affecting NASCAR Cup Series teams with one off weekend on the schedule, which doesn’t come until mid-June. Beginning with the Daytona 500, teams go through 17 straight weekends of racing before the break and then 20 consecutive weekends through the season finale. So he took the time to sit down and put together an organized schedule for his group, giving each of them two extra weekends off. He did so in a way that wouldn’t hurt the race team.
“It’s scheduled, choreographed. It’s not haphazard,” Gabehart said. “They all know what weekends they’re getting off and when, because I think it’s a big deal. On top of rolling out a new car, we’re now all traveling more than we have with a much-reduced roster, parts shortage. It’s no secret on all that.
“So, it’s a lot of work for these guys. It’s a big deal, and I spent a lot of time in the offseason trying to get it where I thought we could get it.”
Gabehart’s organizing includes who is going to the track, who is off and even how the behind-the-wall choreography will change.
“I didn’t want it to be a distraction,” he said. “If you didn’t do it right week to week, it would be a distraction. But I wanted it to be such that everybody could plan an off weekend with their families and all that’s been done.”
The off weekend is Father’s Day, June 19. The race before is at Sonoma Raceway, which wraps up the Fox Sports portion of the broadcast schedule. After the off-weekend, NBC Sports picks up the job at Nashville Superspeedway.
Like Gabehart, keeping an eye on his guys will be the responsibility of Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Rudy Fugle. A rookie Cup Series crew chief last season, Fugle knew he had it easy with COVID protocols dictating a show-up-and-race schedule.
Practice and qualifying are back this year, but the schedule is much tighter, with most weekends being two days. On those weekends, practices are only 20 minutes and lead right into qualifying. Race day then has a tight three-hour window from when the garage opens to the green flag.
“Big worries about that,” Fugle said about burnout. “We do everything we can to try to give people time to reset. Whether that’s a day off during the week or sometimes we’ll do stuff as a group that’s not racing when we’re at the track. Whatever we can do to make sure people have a little bit of break.
“It’s definitely grueling. You get yourself in a little bit of a rut, and I think it’s easy to not do your job as good as you can if you’re well-rested. It’s something on the (agenda) for all of us to take care of.”
Fugle will also swap out team members when need be.
“All the guys we have on this team aren’t going to admit they want time off, but you have to recognize it and make them and get their minds right,” he said. “We rotate our truck drivers, so that helps, and we have mechanics who want to be here every week we’re going to rotate through. It makes your team stronger if you take guys at the shop and get them to the track a little bit where everybody understands (someone else’s) job.”
Asked about his level of concern, Kaulig Racing president Chris Rice admitted he recently had an ice cream truck at the team shop in Welcome, N.C.
“Just to try to get some morale going,” Rice said. “And with the hours we’re working right now because we don’t have parts and pieces and different stuff, it’s definitely a concern. Trying to balance that is tough, and we’re trying to figure that out. I think we’re making more mistakes than we are positives right now. We’re trying to work through it.”
Making mistakes means making wrong decisions and Rice said it’s all part of the learning process. The company is doing its best to make good decisions to help its two teams, and for now that means they can’t move people around.
“Not yet; we’re trying to hire and get more and more people,” Rice said. “We’re definitely not where we want to be. I thought it would take a certain amount of people (to field two teams), and I think we’ve got to double that. So once we double that, we’ll be better. It’s just a process. Once you get that down, it’ll be better because we definitely want to give people breaks and time off. We’ll get there.”
Tyler Reddick’s crew chief at Richard Childress Racing, Randall Burnett, thinks guys getting exhausted will be easier if a team starts running poorly. Fortunately, Reddick’s team feels they’ve been in contention in every race, and everyone is excited to get to the track the following week.
“Where if you’re having a problem throughout the year, it’s a drag,” Burnett said. “Yeah, it’s going to be grueling with one week. That’s tough. Not only on the guys but the driver and everybody else and their families. That’s hard. It’s going to wear on people, and it’s going to be tough. I’ve got to manage it with my guys and try to give them as much of a break during the week as I can by getting ahead on car builds and preparation, so they don’t have to be there every day until seven or 8:00 at night.”
NASCAR moving to a new car saw some in the industry walk away for a career elsewhere. Using supplier parts meant there were likely to be job cuts and some, not wanting to take the risk, made the first move. Others simply walked away because they were concerned over the direction the sport was taking.
Now, some in the industry say there are plenty of jobs that need filling. Then add the strain many in the garage are going through until the parts shortage straightens itself out.
“I’m not sure what we can do about it,” Denny Hamlin said from a team owner perspective at 23XI Racing. “We have to work extreme hours because we have to wait on parts. My crew chief told me on the plane (going to Richmond), don’t tear the splitter up (because) we have legitimate concerns we won’t have a splitter for Martinsville, so just be gentle. But how do you do that and race too? The short supply is causing extended hours.
“I think I saw some stuff on Twitter … teams are losing a lot of people just because of workload and eventually, it becomes a problem. You can’t afford to just pay them more. We’re trying to do everything we can to tread water right now, so it’s a tough position that we’re in that the supply chain is not coming through to us as good as it needs to do.
“We’ve designated one supplier to do all the work and when that one supplier doesn’t get the stuff we need, we’re stuck because we’ve told everyone else to pound sand. So it’s just a tough spot to be in right now, and the teams, we just don’t know what else to do. It is tough to keep your workforce right now — all teams are losing people.”
It’s the same for everyone in the garage, from the big teams to the ones with the fewest people. Matt Tifft, co-owner of Live Fast Racing with B.J. McLeod, admitted that one of their biggest difficulties is keeping morale up, knowing tough stretches are coming.
“Normally, we go to Easter weekend and have that off — and it’s awesome what we’re doing for the dirt race,” Tifft said. “I think it’s a big TV spectacle and we need those things for the new TV contract. We have to have that. But I think when you look at what we’re doing throughout the entire summer with one week off that’s really, really hard.”
Tifft doesn’t have the right answer yet but knows the company will have to find ways to keep things fun and easy for the guys. Taking care of the equipment is something the drivers can do to help so the team won’t have to rebuild cars frequently and get folks out of the shop at a decent hour.
Live Fast isn’t in a position to swap out team members like a Gibbs or Hendrick group. Compared to the powerhouse organizations that employ hundreds of people, Live Fast has “about 12ish for the shop and road crew,” plus folks who volunteer between Live Fast and B.J. McLeod Motorsports.
But regardless of the number of people working for a race team, physical and mental exhaustion is a big concern for all of them.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re in NASCAR. You should expect this,’” said Tifft. “Well, people are people. You can’t lose sight of that.”