Tony Gibson lured by crack at history
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tony Gibson's eyes widen when he recollects the after-school bike rides. Down North Beach Street, past the corner store and into NASCAR nostalgia. Times were never better.
"We'd get a cold drink," he smiled, emphasizing cold. "They were, like, 10 cents for a bottle of pop, and we'd stop by Smokey's, hang out there a while. Then we would ride our bikes around the block to the boat works, and we would hang out with my dad and my grandfather. Did that for years."
The schoolboy Gibson already was fascinated by what Smokey Yunick, legendary as one of NASCAR's greatest mechanical innovators, rules-testers and designers, was concocting in the so-called "Best Damn Garage In Town." He and his family, admittedly, were "ate up with racing."
"Growing up in Florida was a cool time, because Daytona and NASCAR was the center," said Gibson, now a veteran crew chief running Danica Patrick's program. "It was where everything was happening. When you grow up looking at people like that, those are your heroes. They are still my heroes. You look at where they brought our sport. It was a privilege to grow up how I did."
Gibson's father, a former Virginia coal miner looking for warmer weather and greater opportunity, had moved his family to Daytona Beach to take a job with Southern Bell, and soon after began building motors for off-shore powerboat racers.
He met Yunick and began collaborating with NASCAR pioneers such as Tiny Lund as he raced his own cars on the short tracks of Florida and Georgia. NASCAR pioneer Ray Fox Sr. was the deacon of his church. Gibson's mother, Peggy Lynn, worked as secretary for Anne B. France, the wife of NASCAR founder Bill France, eventually becoming president of the ticket office.
Gibson's brothers raced in various grassroots series. This would be his life. He was certain.
"This was my dream. This is what I wanted to do. I didn't want to do anything else," he said. "I knew I wanted to be in racing, and I knew I was going to make it. I didn't know how far I was going to get, but I wanted to be one of those guys."
Returning to Daytona
Now Gibson is one of those guys. A three-decade veteran of a profession that can grind souls to a shine or a pulp, he has progressed from grubby backyard machine shops to some of the most successful teams in the sport to one of the most high-profile and potentially nettlesome jobs in NASCAR.
Gibson, 48, won three Sprint Cup championships as a car chief -- an all-encompassing quality-control meets tactician post -- with Alan Kulwicki in 1992 and Jeff Gordon in 1998 and 2001. He worked on the car Derrike Cope used to win the 1990 Daytona 500.
"I've been able to see and do things people only dream about," he said.
Some of that as recently as February, when Patrick won the first Sprint Cup pole by a female in the Daytona 500 and finished a gender-best eighth in the race. They will contest their first installment of the summer race Saturday at the 2.5-mile track, starting 11th.
Gibson, a barrel-chested man with a bushy mustache and a habit of referring to folks as "old man," has been an unabashed supporter of Patrick in public and a patient teacher inside the confines of the No. 10 Chevrolet team at Stewart-Haas Racing. He sets goals modestly -- "If you set your goals so high you can't reach them, then all you've got is disappointment," he asserts -- and cheers on Patrick toward them on team radio.
The front compartment of Patrick's hauler is a sort of temple of Gibson Zen, resplendent with cowhide rug, two stuffed ducks he bagged and the skull from a deer he killed in Michigan, painted team-issue electric green, with a gold tooth.
The things we accomplished at Daytona, nobody will ever get to do that first again. What wakes me up every morning is the next week we could set another record. … That is the exciting part and the fortunate part for me.Tony Gibson
"If you look up at the front of the hauler, you get a feel for Tony Gibson," Patrick said. "He's old-school, country boy, grew up in the South in NASCAR. He wears camo, and he wears his colors proud.
"The most important thing is we all have fun working together. At times it can get tough and you have to bear down and work hard. But, ultimately, you want someone who is fun to work with and be around and everyone can have a laugh and have some fun doing the job we're doing because it is a job. That is what we're able to do."
Possibilities with Patrick
Bo Gibson tried to make a driver out of his son Tony at age 15, entering him in a demolition race at New Smyrna Speedway. It didn't work out.
"He got up on the wall and the car caught fire and he came out the back window," Bo said. "I told him to get back in and crank it up, and he said, 'I ain't gonna be no statistic!'"
The ghastly scars covering Gibson's arms and much of his upper body aren't a result of the demolition race but a late-night frying incident gone wrong a few years later, but he'd experienced enough behind the wheel. He determined his future was either making the parts or making the sum of the parts better.
Gibson exudes a confidence with his team that likely comes from their 12 years of working together, eons in racing. But a South Daytona kid who grew up idolizing racing heroes seems reticent to place himself among those he idolized as a child.
"I am the one who's been fortunate," he said, "but I feel like I have worked hard. I've not been given anything.''
Gibson said he finally realized he could handle this job when he took over as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief when Tony Eury Jr. was suspended by NASCAR for a rules violation in 2007. Earnhardt had two top-5s during their eight-race tenure, which was rekindled in the final five races of the season when Eury left DEI to prepare for Earnhardt's switch to Hendrick Motorsports. Gibson had tested himself in the white-hot glare of scrutiny, a skill he would need when he eagerly took on the role as Patrick's crew chief last fall.
"That gave me confidence and notoriety," he said. "That's probably what gave me the recognition that said, 'Hey, this guy can make a pretty good crew chief.' That's when the light went off and people really started to notice me."
Gibson was serving as crew chief for Ryan Newman last season when he let it be known to SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli that he would be interested in running Patrick's program. History, he contends, gets made once, and in Patrick and a possible collaboration, he saw great possibilities.
Well able to meld old-school ethos with the new age, concepts and technologies that drive modern NASCAR, Gibson has proved to be a sound fit with the former IndyCar driver.
It was Gibson who humanized the importance of Patrick's Daytona 500 pole when Patrick, as is her bent, was reluctant to frame her accomplishments in gender terms. It was Gibson who shared how he passed scores of yellow lug nuts -- adorned with a tiny "10" in Sharpie -- through autograph slots in his garage bay windows. Many of those trinkets of NASCAR history, he said, were placed in the wanting hands of little girls.
"The things we accomplished at Daytona, nobody will ever get to do that first again," Gibson said. "What wakes me up every morning is the next week we could set another record. That is the exciting part and the fortunate part for me.
"People say, 'Man that has to be a tough job' and 'She's a rookie,' but I say, 'Yeah, but every day, you don't know when I am going to make history.' And I want to be part of that."
As he should. He's been a part of it for years.