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Sunday, August 10, 2014

McGEE's STORY WORTH TELLING -- AND READING

(For my comments on the accident involving Tony Stewart, please go to Twitter and find me @SpinDoctor500 .)


It's an interesting experience to read a book by or about someone you've known for a long time.
Such is the case for me reading Jim McGee: Crew Chief of Champions, launched with a first-rate party Indianapolis 500 weekend at the Speedway Museum, which I attended.

I first met and interviewed Jim in the mid-1970s when I was with the Philadelphia Daily News. After a stint running Roger Penske's Indy Car team, which at that time was based in Reading, Pa. and thus covered by me as a "local" team, Jim returned to Indy to take charge of Pat Patrick's operation, succeeding George Bignotti. I had moved to Michigan to become CART's first communications director and McGee was a good resource for me. Whenever I had a journalist who needed help with a story on technical matters or pit stops or similar race team issues, I'd call Jim and ask him to speak with the reporter. Or get them connected at a track. He'd always do that and Jim has the talent to take such topics and explain them clearly. Then, in 1993 and '94, I worked directly with Jim when he was team manager at Newman/Haas Racing. 

Jim's tenure there included Nigel Mansell's historic PPG Cup championship in '93 and let me say, having seen all that happened behind closed garage and motorcoach doors, I don't think there's any way Nigel would have accomplished that without Jim. McGee's vast experience and calm manner helped Nigel understand what CART racing was about. No one could have done a better job. It was one of the best moves ever by Carl Haas. If Jim had not taken the job, it was going to go to someone with a lot of racing experience, but none in CART. Jim also was very smart about the rulebook and he exploited a loophole that allowed the crew to refuel and change tires when Nigel was blacked-flagged for supposedly passing in a yellow-flag zone in his debut race in Australia in 1993. Nigel went on to win, the first driver to take both the pole and race victory in his first start, with Jim on the radio with him all season. (CART subsequently ruled no more pit work during a penalty stop.) Jim, of course, is best known to many for his many years with Mario Andretti and together at Newman/Haas Mario won his last race, at Phoenix, in '93.

In more recent years, I was there at Manzanita Speedway when Jim was inducted into the Arizona Motorsports Hall of Fame, and in Indy when he became a member of the Speedway's Hall. He and Patrick tried to develop a racing program to showcase natural gas as a fuel. In fact, they wanted to try to break Arie Luyendyk's official IMS track speed record with a car fueled by natural gas, but the management then in place at the Speedway would not give the green light. Eventually, an ALMS class was to be powered by NG, but the merger with Grand-Am and a lack of corporate involvement stalled the project. Earlier this season, McGee emerged from his semi-retirement to call Ryan Briscoe's races.

Anyway, McGee's book, written by longtime journalist Gordon Kirby, is a good read for those wishing to understand what was happening with some of Indy Car's most famous teams and drivers. I like Kirby's technique of having many of the great names McGee worked with -- including Penske, Patrick, Andretti, Mansell, Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Adrian Fernandez, Scott Pruett, Rick Mears and Bobby Unser -- provide commentary specific to each chapter. 

Kirby takes McGee through his career journey that led him to becoming not only a four-time Indy 500 winner (Andretti, Mears, Gordon Johncock, Fittipaldi) but also Indy Car's most successful team manager/crew chief. I knew at least a few of the details of some of the fascinating stories McGee recalls, but most were new to me. (I'll bet to you, too.) Those sometimes crazy early years working and traveling with the legendary Clint Brawner and Andretti, well, I bet a lot of younger readers will think "no way" those kind of things actually happened. But I know they did. 

In books like this, I always look to see just how candid it will be. I've known for decades that part of Jim's great success has been his calm personality and, well, I'll call it diplomatic skills. But McGee does give you a good taste of things, such as the debacle of the car designed for Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing's so-called "Super Team." Most fans buy into the notion of Penske's "unfair advantage" but McGee says the cars he ran there were very stock, that the gains came from management and organizational skills, smart thinking in calling races, attention to detail and the budget to do lots of testing.

I can personally vouch for what McGee says Haas told him, which was to focus his time and attention on Mansell. Of course, this put a strain on Jim's long relationship with Andretti. McGee, via Kirby, writes that he doesn't think Mario really understood this is the way Carl said it had to be done. I agree with what Jim states in the book because Haas essentially told me the same thing. "This guy (Mansell) needs a lot of love," Carl told me right from the beginning. And the unprecedented international media attention made it a true necessity.

Jim remembers Brawner saying it's not all the fancy tools or equipment a team might have, what counts is what the team does with what it does have. A basic, but very insightful, philosophy. Jim has told me, and many others, that at Indy it's key to stay calm and follow your plan. Too many drivers, owners, crew chiefs, etc. get nervous when practice days are lost to rain and change what they do -- and that's what usually leads to trouble. My friend Bill Yeager, one of racing's all-time great characters, used to say such people were "jukey." Others, fully of the mind that nothing outside of Indianapolis is important, Yeager would say suffered from "Hoosierites."

I must congratulate Kirby, who has been a friend for three-plus decades, for the obvious great personal effort he put into this project. And I must also compliment publisher Joseph Freeman and the production staff for a strong presentation. The 286-page hardbound book just plain looks terrific. The photos brought back memories and often made me smile. The listings of Jim's drivers and wins is a great touch. Sure, I found a few errors, but none that take away the high value of the end product. It's certainly the best racing book I've read since Bones Bourcier's As a matter of fact, I am Parnelli Jones. It's important to racing history that this book exists.

You can't go wrong buying and reading Crew Chief of Champions. I'm proud to own a copy (yes, I paid the $75 price) and grateful for the very kind inscriptions from both Jim and Gordon.

Get it, IndyCar (and racing history) fans, because your premature and long off-season is only weeks away. 

For more information, go to www.RaceMakerPress.com or www.GordonKirby.com

[ more next week . . . ]