Xfinity Series Spotlight: Chris Gabehart, racer turned crew chief
Chris Gabehart had hopes of being a NASCAR driver, but ending up the crew chief of the No. 20 Xfinity Series team at Joe Gibbs Racing is just fine, too.
“I was destined to be in racing some way, shape or form no matter how much my dad hoped that one day I’d want to be a pilot instead,” Gabehart told NBC Sports with a laugh.
His grandfather and father were both racers and his grandfather even dabbled in NASCAR in the 1960s. Gabehart was in a go-kart by the time he was 10 and his career culminated with the 2007 CRA/ARCA Super Series championship. It was around that time that Gabehart realized he had probably done all the driving he would and racing would cost him more money than he would ever make.
“So here I am working on them now,” he said.
His mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University paid off. Gabehart’s time in Late Models resulted in him crossing paths with Kyle Busch. Conversations with Busch and his father, Tom, landed Gabehart at Kyle Busch Motorsports to work on his Late Model program.
He soon moved up to Joe Gibbs Racing as an engineer, spending time on Busch and Denny Hamlin’s teams. In January, Gabehart was named the crew chief for Erik Jones in his rookie Xfinity season.
At 35 and married, Gabehart has begun to see the world outside of motorsports but being the racer at heart that he is, he admits that’s a large portion of his life. Which means you’re likely to find Gabehart following his driver to a Late Model race when the schedule permits.
“A lot of what I do is race,” Gabehart said. “I do enjoy racquetball, hanging out with the guys, going to movies, going to friend’s house. That kind of stuff, but nothing extraordinary, I don’t have the time for it. I’m a simple guy. I race, and I sleep, and I eat.”
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: Expand on your decision to get out of the driver’s seat and how meeting Kyle Busch played a role in that
Gabehart: When I was done with school up in Indiana at Purdue I was racing with a Late Model team out of Indianapolis. Started building shocks for a company called Advance Racing Suspension as a side job and was just full blown racer, doing well, but was running out of funding. Once I won the championship in 2007, the team I was with, that was about as far as they were going to take me in terms of money and ability. I built my own car to run a few choice races because I love racing, and I wanted to keep going. Did a part-time deal in 2008 up there in building shocks and crew chiefing and driving, kind of the whole thing, and then in 2009 I took a full-time crew chief job in Atlanta, Georgia, with a kid named TJ Reid with Late Model stuff. Brought my car down there and started a little shock business, so that path was continuing to develop. I was staying busy, phone consulting a little bit, and kind of had it all going on.
I always knew the NASCAR thing was in the back of my mind; I wanted to drive when I was a younger guy, but I realized that’s probably not going to happen. I thought if I’m ever going to try (something else) someone with the connections and ability of Kyle Busch would be a great way to try it out. So Tom (Busch) and I ended up talking, and I got the crew chief deal for Kyle Busch Motorsports for 2010 and moved to North Carolina. I did that for a year and was fairly successful at that. With my engineering degree Kyle was needing some help on trucks as well, so in 2011, I did Late Model stuff and Trucks. Then towards the end of that year, there was an opportunity on his Cup team to be an engineer, so things were obviously going well and again, I looked at Kyle as a great resource to try and advance my career, so I’m like, well, I better take this opportunity, too. To Joe Gibbs Racing I came, and here I am.
NBC Sports: Was it always racing for you, or did you try any other sports when you were younger?
Gabehart: In grade school, I played baseball and basketball and was pretty decent at both. But again, I started racing pretty competitively at the age of 11, regionally and even starting to tour nationally in go-karts. At a pretty young age, it was either baseball and basketball, summer and fall type sports, and it quickly became the choice of I’m going to race, or I’m going to play the stick-and-ball sports. I chose racing.
NBC Sports: How much of your approach do you have to change when you go from a more experienced driver to a younger driver?
Gabehart: I think the skill sets can be very different. For me, my previous driving experience definitely helps me every day at my job. For a younger driver, I would say I lean on my experience to help pull information out of them by trying to relate to them based on my past experiences. So if I’m getting feedback from Christopher (Bell) and now Erik, I think I understand what he means, but I’m leaning on some experience that I have. I know the right questions to ask to get the information out of him whereas with a more experienced driver like Kyle, he knows what he needs to tell me, so instead I lean on my past experiences to understand what he’s saying.
NBC Sports: Does it make your job easier being a former driver?
Gabehart: No question about it. There are many successful crew chiefs out there who haven’t driven, but I make it no secret that they are way smarter than I because I don’t know how I could do it without previous experiences. I tip my hat to those who have never driven very much but have become very successful in this sport because, for me, I lean on it every day. But I think that highlights something that is really neat about my job at this level and above - it’s so much more than making a race car go fast. It’s managing people and projects and getting the most out of people and looking far enough ahead to determine what you need six months from now and making sure the driver has what he needs and gets along well with the team. All of those things have nothing to do with particularly making a race car go fast and certainly not my past driving experience, but they’re vital to making a good race team. There’s a great reason why you don’t have to be a past driver to be an excellent crew chief, so there’s so much more to it than that.
NBC Sports: Crew chiefs are thought of as the ones constantly working, but there has to be things you do to get away from racing?
Gabehart: (laughs) Well I must tell you I’ve been married for about two-and-a-half years now, but I’ve been with the same woman for almost 13 years. Before her, I raced, and that’s what I did. After her, I race a lot, but she is expanding my horizons. The past couple of years we’ve been on big offseason vacations which is something I never did before her. This year we’re going to Hawaii for a week and a half. Last year we went to Sweden and London over the New Year and went above the Arctic Circle in Sweden and to the Ice Hotel up there. It was amazing, right? The whole thing was great. So what do I do and what I enjoy? I don’t know. It’s not like I play basketball in my spare time, but she is definitely helping me expand my horizons and see the world, so that’s kind of cool.
NBC Sports: Being in the Late Model world is much smaller than NASCAR, so when you changed careers when did it strike you that you were in the big time?
Gabehart: My first week in Daytona when I was on the Cup side. It’s a long week because you have the Unlimited before the Duel races. So that’s long and grueling because you have to have three cars ready – backup, the Unlimited car, and the Daytona 500 car. Then you fly back home for a day or two and then you’re back down there for a week. Well, the Daytona 500 that year was the year (2012) it rained out and we had a Monday night 500. Then after that our planes were fogged in, so that week and a half was, ‘Wow, if this is what this is going to be like, I don’t know if I can handle this (laughs).’ It was just non-stop one event after the next.
This year from a crew chief perspective, we had the schedule of Daytona week, then Atlanta, and the three weeks out west. Well, I liken that to a college hazing because as a crew chief you’re forced to plan and organize those five races before you ever leave for Daytona because you just don’t have enough cars, people, and resources to force it through each week. The last race was Fontana, and most of the planning and organizing and shipping of equipment back and forth was all done, and when I was done with that, I said to myself, ‘Wow, that has been a rough five weeks, I do not know why they pile it all up front like that.’ But I feel like I made it, and I’m a member of the club now.