ATLANTA - Tony Eury Sr. had all the credentials necessary to become a crew chief on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
He had worked on stock cars his father drove at local short tracks near his home in Kannapolis, N.C., since he was 12. By the time he graduated from high school, he was driving himself.
"There's not a thing on a stock car I can't build or fix," Eury said.
An impressive resume certainly helped, but what got him in the door at Dale Earnhardt Inc. were family ties: He is Dale Earnhardt's cousin.
MATT BORLAND STARTED his racing career when he was 10 years old. He drove small open-wheeled cars until he was old enough to attend an engineering school for General Motors. He became a design and simulation specialist who could turn computer schematics into working applications on IndyCars.
"There's probably not a smarter guy in this garage area than Matt," said fellow crew chief Paul Andrews. "He knows all that computer and engineering stuff."
When Roger Penske decided to create a new race team a year ago, he decided he wanted a crew chief that wasn't stuck in a stock car mind-set. Borland's engineering background, not his mechanical prowess, got him in the door at Penske's.
JUST AS OWNERS are dipping into new pools of driving talent, they also are looking beyond local short tracks and junkyards to find crew chiefs.
Drivers rarely work through the ranks of local short tracks and the NASCAR Busch Series to find a ride in Winston Cup. They come from IndyCars, World of Outlaws, USAC Midgets and other open-wheeled programs where there's a necessary understanding of the balance between power, handling and speed.
Crew chiefs that once worked their way through the ranks in a garage - from sweeping floors, cleaning cars and hanging sheet metal - now are coming from classrooms, where computers help them understand the balance between power, handling and speed.
A growing number of men responsible for every nut and bolt on 3,400-pound stock car are bringing engineering degrees and technical backgrounds to the racing workplace. They come with laptops, not just fists full of socket wrenches.
CREW CHIEFS SUCH as Robbie Loomis, Chad Knaus and Eurygot a taste for racing on local raceways early in their careers. Loomis was a mechanic at two Central Florida short tracks; Knaus was a mechanic with his father's short-track program; Eury as a dirt-track driver in central North Carolina.
All moved into the Winston Cup Series right out of high school and took on menial jobs - Loomis at Petty Enterprises; Knaus at Hendrick Motorsports; Eury Sr. at Dale Earnhardt Inc. They started with menial jobs. Years later, Loomis was a crew chief for Richard Petty, then with Jeff Gordon; Knaus was the boss for rookie Jimmie Johnson; Eury was calling shots for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"When I went to work for Dale, I had to learn the cars, do whatever it took," Eury said. "My daddy drove race cars, and I worked on them. Then I drove cars until '81. I've always been around race cars. Once I got with Dale, it was a lot of hard work to get here. It wasn't easy.
"I'm not like some of these other guys: I came through on the mechanical side of it."
It took Loomis 11 years to methodically work his way to the highest level: the head table at the NASCAR awards banquet. A year ago, he helped Gordon win his fourth title.
"It wasn't easy," Loomis said. "You have to like working long hours and not getting many days off when you start at the bottom. I do, so it's been a good ride. I came up the hard way. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of luck."
THE NEW GENERATION of crew chief also works his way through the ranks in the garage. Every team has shock, chassis and aerodynamic engineers on staff, and car owners are more willing to put one of them in charge as the sport continues to veer toward a more technical era.
Borland, crew chief for rookie Ryan Newman, took a mechanical engineering degree at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., and parlayed it into an 11-year stint as an engineer in several open-wheeled racing projects. He followed other book-smart mechanics to the Winston Cup Series a year ago to provide direction for Newman's stock-car team.
Newman's car is a scholastic marvel, complete with geometric designs that leave Penske teammate Rusty Wallace dumbfounded.
"The approaches of the two teams have been quite different, they really have," Wallace said. "We've got the same car, same engines, stuff like that. They have seemed to do a much, much, much more technical approach than we have. I approach it more of a seat-of-the-pants, been-there-done-that-type attitude.
"Some of these guys that haven't been at these race tracks don't get stuck in the old way of doing things. They'll get real aggressive in trying something that when we look at the setup we go, 'That's never going to work.' But they get real aggressive with their thought process, and sometimes it works. They're doing a lot of that with their instrumentation from their test sessions. They're using a lot of computers and stuff like that. I'm just, more or less, saying, 'Change the spring, change the shock,' and doing what we've been doing. It's a different approach."
THE NEW GENERATION of crew chiefs isn't hampered by old ideas. Eury said the change from bias ply tires to the harder, stiffer radials 10 years ago has rendered a lot of old crew chiefs useless. A few were able to make the adjustment, although it required a new way of thinking.
"The older tire, it was easy for a driver to get into a rhythm," Eury said. "The new tire made us throw away all of our old notes. The new tire keeps changing, so the setups that worked a couple years ago don't work, either. The big thing about being a crew chief now is to chase the tires. To me, it's the hardest part of the job."
Knaus likes to think he's a mixture of the way things used to be and the way things will be in the future on the Winston Cup Series.
He best exemplifies the landscape inside the busy garage area. He's young enough to read computerized schematics and have fresh, if not exotic, ideas for a sport that easily gets stuck in a rut. But at 30, he's old enough to remember what it was like when mechanical prowess was the only necessary job skill.
"I'm still a mechanic, but I'm getting better at reading the computer printouts," he said. "I gather all the information and take what Jimmie tells me about the car, and we go from there.
"That part of the job will never change. No matter how you go about it, it's all about making the car fast and comfortable. That part never gets old."
Or too technical.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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