His lone job that February afternoon was simple — make sure the two rear tires on Dale Jarrett’s No. 18 car had 10 tight lug nuts.
But on the final pit stop of the 1993 Daytona 500, tire changer J.D. Gibbs — in his first event as an over-the-wall crew member for his father’s racing team — knew right away he had made a mistake. One of the five lug nuts on the left rear tire was loose.
While Joe Gibbs held his breath as Jarrett tried to win the company’s first race, J.D. Gibbs held his breath hoping Jarrett could finish.
“I was waiting for the thing to fall off,” J.D. recalled.
Fortunately for J.D., Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win the 500.
“I didn’t know anything about that until a year later,” Joe Gibbs said. “One of the other crew members knew it was loose and he asked [crew chief] Jimmy Makar if the car could run like that. Jimmy said, ‘We’re going to find out.’
Soon, the rest of the stock car world found out Joe Gibbs Racing wasn’t just an operation run for fun by a former NFL coach. Just like he built the Redskins into a three-time Super Bowl champion during the 1980s and early 1990s, Gibbs used the same strategy — tireless work, communication and selecting the right people — to build a NASCAR giant. And J.D. has been alongside nearly every step of the way, rising from crew member to his current job in charge of the team’s day-to-day operations.
Founded in August 1991 with 16 employees and borrowed shop space and engine parts, Joe Gibbs Racing now has 51 Cup victories, three championships, a combined six Cup and Busch teams, 400 employees and two buildings in suburban Charlotte totaling nearly 250,000 square feet.
And with Coach Joe Version 2.0 an unquestioned success at Redskin Park (10-6 and a playoff victory last year), J.D. and a staff of expert employees have kept Joe Gibbs Racing humming.
“The thing about our sport is, yeah, it’s about horsepower and it’s about aerodynamics and handling and all those things,” said Larry McReynolds, a former crew chief and now analyst for Fox Sports. “But it’s mostly about people. It’s about people working together, supporting each other and believing in each other. And that’s what’s going on right now at Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Fully involved with the operation during his sabbatical from the NFL, Joe Gibbs handed the reigns to J.D. in October 1997. When Joe returned to the Redskins in January 2004, J.D.’s role became even more amplified because his father would not be attending every race and dealing with the team’s primary sponsors.
“The reason I was so convinced it was OK for me to go back to football was because of J.D. and the senior management team we had in place,” Joe Gibbs said. “J.D.’s always been used to being in charge. He was a quarterback as a player and his strength is dealing with people.”
J.D. Gibbs won’t be at Redskin Park on Monday afternoon when his father begins his 15th season as Redskins coach. But he does have memories of training camp. Now 37 and a father of four boys ages 8, 6, 3 and 1, J.D. and brother Coy — now a member of the Redskins coaching staff — used to join the sons of other Redskins coaches at Dickinson College.
“We were pretty much on our own,” J.D. said. “My dad would come down to our dorm room every couple weeks to make sure we were all still alive.”
Joe Gibbs’ work hours from 1981 to 1992 were legendary. And after completing his playing career at William & Mary in 1990, J.D. thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps. But in 1991, Joe and business partner Don Meredith (not the former Dallas quarterback) met with racing heavyweights such as Rick Hendrick and Richard Petty to discuss the process of starting a Winston Cup team.
“I was going to coach but when we started the racing team, I thought I would do a couple years of this and then go coach,” J.D. said. “But it started so small and to be there as it grew and grew and grew, it became too much fun.”
Said Joe: “I thought he would go into coaching, too. But I think the reason he didn’t is because he saw what I went through and the sacrifices a family has to make.”
When Joe Gibbs Racing first started, Joe was still coaching. The operation got two big breaks: It hired a respected crew chief in Makar and it secured Interstate Batteries as a chief sponsor for a one-car team.
The team’s first race was a 36th-place finish by Jarrett in the 1992 Daytona 500. The first year was akin to an NFL expansion team. Plenty of money spent and hours worked, but very few results.
“Nothing went right,” Joe said. “Financially, we were so strapped because it was a family business and I was like, ‘Man, is this right for us?’
But Jarrett’s 500 win in 1993, Joe said, “verified everything.” JGR was off and running. They added a second Cup car in 1997 and a third car last year.
Joe Gibbs became heavily involved with sponsors and developing the team following his retirement from the Redskins in early 1993. J.D. is one of only nine original company employees. Before focusing entirely on being an executive, J.D. drove in several Busch and Craftsman Truck races. Coy also dabbled in driving.
“The bottom line is the race-car driving gene doesn’t run in the Gibbs family,” J.D. laughed. “If it was just me on the track, I’d be fine. With 42 other drivers, I was a weapon.”
Said Joe: “It was so much more relaxing when they stopped driving. The first race J.D. was in, there was a big wreck on the front stretch and a fire and Pat got up and said, ‘That’s it,’ and left. She was gone. It’s a good feeling as parents that they’re not racing.”
By the time Joe returned to the NFL, J.D. and the management team were essentially running the company.
“There was some nervousness on the sponsor’s part because him going back meant he would not be at every race,” J.D. said. “But the sponsors quickly realized that in his role as an NFL coach, that gave them a whole lot more exposure. For the guys in the shop, it was cool for them — their owner is a head coach again.
“There were some awesome and crazy circumstances around Dad’s return to the Redskins. When [Steve] Spurrier left, my dad started thinking, ‘Can I do this again?’ Coaching is a passion of his. On this side, he owns the team but doesn’t have much to do with the day-to-day technical stuff of building the race cars. He missed that competition.”
During the season, Joe and J.D. talk a couple of times a week and J.D. sends e-mail reports to his father’s secretary at Redskin Park. J.D. will accompany sponsors to Redskins home games because the family has a luxury box at FedEx Field.
Last year at this time was tough sledding for both. Joe had gone 6-10 in his return to the Redskins and fan expectations for 2005 were minimal; JGR had no drivers in the top 10 halfway through the NASCAR season.
“It made Dad a little more stressed because he had situations down here and up there,” J.D. said. “We have 400 families we represent down here. … You can’t really look at this as a real business. The goal isn’t to make money, it’s to go fast. If you go fast, then you win and then you make money. And sometimes, going fast is hard.”
Said Joe: “Bobby [Labonte] was way back in points and Tony Stewart had not run well up to that point and Jason Leffler’s team couldn’t get anywhere. It was awful and I could see the strain on J.D. But Tony then wound up winning the championship.”
Things worked out for the Redskins — a 10-6 record and their first playoff victory since the 1999 season has interest at a fever pitch entering training camp. The same goes for Joe Gibbs Racing. Entering next weekend’s Brickyard 400, the team has two drivers — rookie sensation Denny Hamlin and the veteran Stewart — in the top 10 of the points standings. (Rookie J.J. Yeley is 26th in points). Only the top 10 drivers after the Sept. 9 race in Richmond are eligible for the championship. Hamlin and Stewart each have two wins this season.
“I was a bystander when Dad won his Super Bowls, but I’ve been a part of all three of these championships,” J.D. said. “And this last one meant a lot because he wasn’t here and I was able to celebrate in New York the way he had the first two times.”