Life in the Fast Lane

To finish first, you have to work fast. Ray Evernham - NASCAR's top crew chief and the man behind race-car champ Jeff Gordon - offers lessons from the pit on teamwork, surprise, and the pursuit of perfection.

Business is more demanding than ever, more perilous than ever - and faster than ever. Every company is rushing to launch the next great product, to seal the next big deal. No company knows what's waiting around the next corner.

It sounds a lot like auto racing.

Ray Evernham knows a little something about business. He's a key player in an enterprise that generates millions of dollars in annual revenues, and he's lectured audiences of business executives from DuPont, Digital, and Ingersoll-Rand. But Evernham knows even more about racing. He's widely considered to be the premier crew chief in NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Over the past five years, he and his team have steered the DuPont-sponsored No. 24 car and its celebrated driver, Jeff Gordon, from anonymity to unprecedented success in the Winston Cup Series - the big leagues of stock-car racing.

Evernham and Gordon burst onto the Winston Cup scene in 1993, when Gordon walked away with the Cup's Rookie of the Year honors. In 1994, Evernham was named Crew Chief of the Year. And in 1995, Gordon and Evernham hit the jackpot when Gordon won the Winston Cup Championship, the culmination of a grueling race for points that stretches from February to November. Gordon, then just 24, was the Winston Cup's youngest-ever champion. After garnering 10 wins in 1996 (good for second place that year), he and Evernham teamed up for another Winston Cup Championship in 1997. Their $4.2 million in prize money set a new record for total regular-season earnings in one year of racing. During their six years as a team, Evernham and Gordon have celebrated 37 victories, including wins in NASCAR's major races - the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 (three times), and the Brickyard 400 (twice).

Gordon's sudden dominance, combined with his youth, charisma, and leading-man looks, has made him the hottest commodity in the fastest-growing sport around. He's everywhere: on Leno and Letterman, on People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list. And on many Sundays, he's in victory lane. He gives much of the credit for his success to Evernham and to the pit crew known as the Rainbow Warriors. (Crew members wear rainbow-striped jumpsuits.)

Gordon is the star attraction, to be sure. But it's Evernham, 41, who pulls the whole act together. It's Evernham, an indefatigable perfectionist, who ensures that the No. 24 car - a 700-horsepower Chevrolet Monte Carlo - is the fastest on the track; who leads the daring pit stop that takes place with 20 laps to go; who pushes the Rainbow Warriors to be the best crew in the business, week after week.

Fast Company visited Evernham at the Hendrick Motorsports complex in Harrisburg, North Carolina, just north of Charlotte. In between signing autographs, speaking at a sponsor's lunch, and fine-tuning the No. 24 car, Evernham took time out to reflect on what it takes to finish first: painstaking preparation, egoless teamwork, and thoroughly original strategizing - principles that apply to any company that understands the need for speed.

New teams should do things in new ways

One reason we got off to such a fast start when the Rainbow Warrior team was assembled five years ago was that, right from the beginning, we dared to be different. I didn't hire anybody for the team who had Winston Cup experience. Racing is racing; the right people can figure it out. I wanted people who had the desire and the intelligence needed to excel.

When you have a team with different kinds of people, you get a chance to do things differently. We came up with innovative ideas about the mechanics of the car - about things like suspension components and shock absorbers - partly because we didn't know any better. And we hired a separate crew to work solely in the pits. Traditionally, the same mechanics who worked on the car all week also suited up on Sunday to work as the pit crew. The car was the number-one priority: People relied on horsepower and driving talent to win the day. But I believe that the crew should be as important as the car.

We were also the first team to hire a coach specifically to train and rehearse the pit crew. People laughed at the way we trained: rope climbing, wind sprints, guys carrying each other on their backs. People said, "What in the world are you guys doing?" I'm sure that it all looked funny, but it worked. Typically, we pit in 17 seconds or less - about a second faster than other teams do. In one second, a car going 200 MPH travels nearly 300 feet. So right there, we gain 300 feet on the competition.

You win as a team

When you coach and support a superstar like Jeff Gordon, you give him the best equipment possible, you give him the information he needs, and then you get out of the way. But racing is a team sport. Everyone who races pretty much has the same car and the same equipment. What sets us apart is our people. I like to talk about our "team IQ" - because none of us is as smart as all of us.

I think a lot about people, management, and psychology: Specifically, how can I motivate my guys and make them gel as a team? I surround them with ideas about teamwork. I read every leadership book I can get my hands on. One thing that I took from my reading is the idea of a "circle of strength." When the Rainbow Warriors meet, we always put our chairs in a circle. That's a way of saying that we're stronger as a team than we are on our own.

I also base rewards on team performance rather than individual performance. When our car wins, everybody shares in the prize money. And everybody gets a cut of what I make. I put a percentage of my bonus into the team account. When I sign a personal-service contract and I get paid to sign autographs or to give a talk, everybody shares in what I earn. I wouldn't be in a position to earn that income if it weren't for the team. Everyone should feel as if his signature is on the finished product.

Push for perfection - but accept imperfection

This sport is so competitive that you must never stop trying to improve. Even when the car is running well, I make Jeff find something wrong with it. A lot of people who hear him talking to me on the radio think that he's complaining. He's not. I've got a series of questions that I ask him over and over. I'm pumping him for information. I'm trying to find out exactly how Jeff feels in that car. The only time when we stop working on our setup is when it's time to race.

We always try to make the car perfect. But the car doesn't have to be perfect to win; it just has to be less imperfect than everyone else's car. Last year, on the very first pit stop at the Coca-Cola 600, we dropped the car off the jack and banged up the front end, leaving the car aerodynamically flawed. It took us three or four pit stops to straighten the fender. But we still won. After all, we had hundreds of laps in which to recover from that mistake.

Take risks, but don't gamble

When we're going into a race, we always have a clear strategy. But we can't predict exactly what's going to happen. Change is part of racing. Sometimes during a race, it looks as if I'm making a daring call. Well, I may be taking a risk, but I'm not gambling. I've calculated everything beforehand. I'm constantly looking at four or five possible scenarios: At the next pit stop, are we going to put in all of the gas or only half of it? Are we going to add air to the tires or let some out? Are we going to raise or lower the track bar to adjust the "roll center" - which alters the steering? There are so many variables to consider, and the slightest adjustment can make a huge difference in the car's performance. A race may come down to whether we change two tires or four. I need to make the right call.

[Editor's Note: Two days after this interview, the Coca-Cola 600 came down to just such a decision about tires. With 21 laps to go and with Gordon trailing the leaders, a caution flag went up. While the other cars changed two tires, Evernham opted to take longer in the pit and to change all four. When the green flag came out, Gordon easily sped past the others - and on to victory.]

To speed up, slow down

I still have to prove this principle to Jeff sometimes. I'll say, "Go out and bust me a lap." He'll drive the car hard, really work it. He'll mash the pedal on a straightaway, drive down into a corner, jam the brakes, turn the corner, and mash the pedal again. Then I'll say, "Now take it easy, and drive a smooth lap." And by letting the car do the work, he actually improves his time.

The same principle applies to a pit stop. Watch Mike Trower, my best tire changer, at work, and you'll swear that the guy next to him will be done first. You'll be thinking, "I wish Mike would hurry up." But nobody can beat him. He just looks as if he's going slow. It's all in the choreography. If you watch Mike change a tire, you'll see how efficient he is: He's so deliberate that he never has to hit a lug nut twice. It's "zzzt - zzzt - zzzt." Nice and smooth.

Don't strut your stuff

There aren't many secrets in the Winston Cup, so you've got to protect as much information as you can. We want to have the fastest car on the track, but we don't want everybody else to know how fast we are. We don't show our hand until it's time to race or to qualify.

We also try to mix things up on race day. We don't want to fall into patterns or to tip off the competition about our next pit stop. Since everybody can hear us on the scanners, we might use a code word to signal whether we're changing two tires or four. Sometimes, when the car is running well, Jeff might get on the radio and complain to me that the steering's tight, even though he's about to pass another driver. And that driver's crew chief will fall for it: "Yeah, Gordon can't pass you right now, because he's tight." The driver will leave a little opening and - boom - we're past him.

To win the race, drive by different rules

We attack certain race tracks differently from how everybody else does. If conventional wisdom says, "This corner is the best place to pass," we practice on the other end of the track, because nobody's expecting to get passed there. If you can hold your own where others plan to pass, and then sneak up and get by the others on another part of the track, you can gain an advantage.

We've done this at Darlington Raceway. Traditionally, at Darlington, you pass when you come off turn number two, because you can carry more speed into that turn than elsewhere. We worked hard at being good there, so we could avoid getting passed and so we could pass if we had to. But we also worked at being better around the rest of the track than most cars are. That extra work helped us win the Mountain Dew Southern 500 last year.

Face down your toughest competitor: success

I have a saying posted in the shop: "Success is a ruthless competitor for it flatters and nourishes our weakness and lulls us into complacency." When you win, if you're not careful - if you don't pay attention to how your team is handling success - you'll stop doing the things that put you on top. You've got to be very critical of what you do. Remember, the other teams are looking at how you beat them last Sunday, and they're trying to figure out how to beat you next Sunday. You can't let up.

Chuck Salter (csalter@bcpl.net), a writer based in Baltimore, contributes regularly to Fast Company. You can learn more about Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon on the Web (www.jeffgordon.com).

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