We all know what a gallant effort Dodge has made in the 211/42 years since its "Second Coming"-scoring three wins in the '01 NASCAR Winston Cup series along with two more so far this year (through midseason), including the '02 Daytona 500.
This year's win by Dodge in the Daytona 500 was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The following is the first installment in a series of articles designed to give a glimpse behind the scenes at the talent Dodge has assembled for its assault on the Winston Cup Series in 2002. This month we'll ride along with Bill Davis Racing (BDR) and the Caterpillar-sponsored No. 22 Dodge Intrepid R/T to see how BDR shifted into victory lane in motorsport's biggest race.
From The BeginningWe can't begin this story without recognizing the insight of Bill and Gloria Davis, who over the last two decades have brought the likes of Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, and Ward Burton into the Winston Cup Series. And looking toward the future, Scott Wimmer is scheduled to make his debut in a Dodge Intrepid R/T later this season.
Bill and Gail Davis already built a successful trucking business before they ever thought of getting into the racing game. Although their endeavor began as a hobby, that didn't last long.
"I've been involved in racing since high school," says Bill. "During that time, I helped Bob Himes' Top Fuel drag racing team. They were a local team that operated out of a shop in Little Rock, Arkansas, close to my house. From 1969 until 1972 I raced motorcross at some local tracks around Little Rock and across the United States."
In the early '80s, with his booming trucking business underway and Gail handling its day-to-day operation, Bill became involved in ASA racing with the late Julian Martin, father of now "Winston Cup" great Mark Martin.
"I grew up knowing the Martins," says Bill. "My father and Mark's father, Julian, were good friends. Julian sparked my interest in both racing and the trucking business."
Bill jumped in with both feet in 1987, building and campaigning an ASA car for Mark Martin to compete in the Midwest.
In 1988, Mark joined the newly formed Jack Roush organization in Winston Cup, but Davis wanted to continue his race team if sponsorship could be found. Davis, Martin, and the Carolina Ford Dealers formed a Busch team, and their relationship continued through the end of the '90 season.
It was then that Martin encouraged Davis to commit full-time to the racing business.
"At the end of the '90 season, Mark told me that if I wanted to be taken seriously I had to commit and move to North Carolina," says Davis. "I told myself that I really liked being a part of racing, but I had a business and employees in Arkansas. I was on the fence. I didn't know what to do."
Well, Davis made the move, and as they say, the rest is history.
After a call from then top Ford executives Lee Morse and Michael Kranefuss, Bill cast his watchful eye on an open-wheel star from the midwest by the name of Jeff Gordon.
Bill liked what he saw and gave Jeff a tryout at the Rockingham Busch race in 1990. "Jeff qualified on the outside pole at Rockingham in his first Busch series race, and that made up our minds," said Davis. "I signed Jeff to drive the Carolina Ford Dealers car for the '91 season.
"In 1992 we got backing from Baby Ruth and hired Ray Evernham. We had a phenomenal season. We broke every record there was, including 11 pole positions (a single-season record), most money in a season, and most laps led."
Gordon and Evernham's success wasn't overlooked by other owners. While Davis was working on plans to take the pair to Winston Cup in 1993, Gordon and his crew chief were lured away by Rick Hendrick.
After losing Gordon and Evernham, Davis regrouped, signing then-rookie Bobby Labonte and Maxwell House to a full-time Winston Cup deal. They finished 19th in the points, scoring top-5 and top-10 finishes, and a pole, in 1993. Davis and Labonte worked together through the '94 season, after which Maxwell House made the decision to get out of racing.
Labonte left the team at the end of the season, joining Joe Gibbs Racing. Not long after Labonte's departure, MBNA signed a three-year deal with BDR for the No. 22 Winston Cup entry. Davis recruited several talented drivers, including Busch series star Randy Lajoie, but a lack of chemistry left Davis to find yet another driver.
With ten races remaining in the '95 season, Davis secured Virginia native Ward Burton to drive the MBNA-sponsored No. 22 car, and seven races later Burton gave Bill and Gail their first Winston Cup victory in the AC Delco 400 at North Carolina Motor Speedway.
Davis had built a team with tremendous potential over the years, but something was missing. A talented, young, first-time crew chief named Tom Baldwin joined BDR with seven races remaining in the '98 season. Once on board, Baldwin led Ward Burton and the No. 22 team to their best finish in the Winston Cup series point standings-16th.
Building on the improved finishes and consistency, Ward visited victory lane in 2000 with a dominating victory in the Mall.com 400 at Darlington Raceway, giving Caterpillar their first Winston Cup victory since joining the team in 1999.
The team's domination continued at Darlington Raceway, handing Dodge its second "new age" win in the '01 Mountain Dew Southern 500.
Leading into the '02 Winston Cup season, many questions faced the BDR team-off-season rule changes, such as NASCAR's "one-engine" rule, loomed over their heads.
We all know the hard work put in during a race weekend, but what did it take back at the shop to get the BDR/Caterpillar-sponsored team into victory lane in the series' biggest race?
Let's peek inside the shop doors.
On The InsideWhen you first turn the corner onto Old Thomasville Road in southwestern High Point, North Carolina, it seems like any other light industrial area you might find anywhere in the U.S.
But as soon as you pull into the parking lot and walk inside, you're greeted by the winning trophy from the '02 Daytona 500 and know you're somewhere special.
Welcome inside BDR: Be careful not to step on Short Track, Bill and Gail's elderly dog-that's if he's not asleep on the pillow next to Gail's desk or "on guard" while his "mother" works out in the gym.
In today's seemingly impersonal racing world, this organization is just the opposite-a highly trained group of warm, down-to-earth people working their hearts out in the sport they love. Don't get me wrong-they're paid and paid well for all their hard work, but most enthusiasts would do the same job for nothing.
You can experience much of this insider's tour yourself by just stopping by the shop. Unlike most professional race teams, the BDR shops are open to the general public.
"We've never lost sight of what built this sport-the fans," says Davis. "Without them and their support, we wouldn't have these great jobs we love. Without the fans all this wouldn't exist.
"Our shop has always been open to the fans. We could have anywhere from a few each day to a couple of hundred if it's near one of the Charlotte races. For the most part they're quiet and leave the guys to do their work. We try and give them a once in a lifetime experience."
When you walk through the glass doors that lead into the assembly room, on the left you'll see the red/gold No. 23 Hills Brothers Coffee Intrepid R/Ts being prepared for veteran Winston Cup driver Hut Stricklin. To your right are Ward Burton's familiar yellow/black No. 22 Caterpillar-sponsored Dodge Intrepids.
The assembly room is where the race engines are installed, the cars receive their initial suspension setups, and rear gears and final quality checks are made before loading the cars onto their haulers for the next race.
In one corner of the massive BDR main shop building sits the Caterpillar and Hills Brothers Coffee haulers being restocked and readied for the next race by hauler drivers John Pounds (No. 22) and Rick Simmons (No. 23). Just to restock these with all the spare parts, engines, nuts, bolts, and everything else you might need 36 weekends a year is a full-time job.
Can you imagine carrying enough parts to rebuild two-plus cars at every race, and keeping track of that inventory?
Along the back wall are the surface plates-the perfectly level areas where the proper suspension setup is applied, along with the shock/spring packages for each track. These guys are under the direction of Head Engineer Todd Holbert, son of the late road racing great Al Holbert.
If you look closely you can see the team's setup notebooks for each track sitting on the back cabinets-full of those deep, dark chassis secrets.
Stepping through the back doors and into the fab/paint shop is the room where some of the 150-plus employees of BDR work on repairing, fabricating, adjusting, and conforming the chassis to meet the strict regulations of the NASCAR Winston Cup series. Here the Intrepids go from a bare Hopkins chassis to painted, decaled, and aerodynamically perfect vehicles ready for the wind tunnel or racetrack.
Unlike other shops that aren't built to suit the needs of the workers, BDR long-time employee and Director of Operations Lee Robertson designed each space to make life easier on the mechanics.
The fab shop houses three lifts that hoist the vehicles overhead for underbody work, allowing the mechanics to stand under the car-reducing the wear-and-tear on the hard-working men in the shop. Once the bodywork on each car is finished, they're rolled across the room into the paint shop.
Across the street from the main race shop is the engine shop (the only "off limits" area in the place). But this is unlike anything you might expect to see in a manufacturer's assembly line. Normally, engines are built as they travel down the line and workers install their pieces until it's completed. But not here. Each Dodge powerplant Is lovingly built by some of the most skilled mechanics in the business.
The engine builders at BDR all have more than a working knowledge of each aspect of the engine-building process. They know that it's the heart of the vehicle, so no expense is spared (within NACASR rules) in building them, and any problems here will make for a short Sunday at the track.
The engine shop is led by Head Engine Builder Terry Elledge, one of the most valued members of the BDR organization. He and his staff helped develop the stout Dodge engine for Winston Cup competition.
As in all forms of racing, the exact specifications of each engine is a closely guarded secret, but we can tell you that under the hoods of the No. 22 and No. 23 Intrepids live Dodge's NASCAR-approved V8s. Producing 750 bhp with 530 lb-ft of torque, these monsters run a 12:1 compression ratio, with a 4.125x3.330 bore and stroke using BME pistons and breathing through a Braswell carburetor.
With the '01 Daytona 500 victory under their belts, we'd say Terry Elledge and his staff have a good understanding of Dodge's Winston Cup engine.
Here And ThereWe've walked you through almost every corner of the BDR High Point shops, and now it's time to follow the guys to the track and see what else it takes to put a Winston Cup Dodge Intrepid on the asphalt.
Getting the car properly prepared at the shop is half the battle in being fast off the truck. Being able to quickly pass through the required NASCAR technical inspection is critical to getting as much track time as possible. This allows the team more time to dial-in the qualifying and race setups.
"I'm real proud of the effort the guys put in the car," says Burton. "Most of our guys have jobs at the shop. They aren't the hired guns (race-day-only pit stop specialists) some teams use."
"I think these guys have more pride in the job they do by being with the car all the way from the shop to the track and back. It's like it's their baby," says Ward.
"Look at my over-the wall-guys-they're some pretty talented men. My crew chief, Tommy Bladwin, changes the rear tires; Mike Brown carries the rears for Tommy, and he's the shop General Manager. Tommy Wallace changes the fronts for us-he's a suspension fabricator back at the shop, while Trip Bruce, who carries the front tires, is also my car chief at the track and a mechanic back at the shop."
The team's finest hour has to be awarding Dodge its first Daytona 500 of the new age. Davis was overwhelmed with pride by what the team and Dodge accomplished.
"It doesn't get any better than winning the Daytona 500," said Davis. "This is it. This is what we all work for. When you're a young person and you want to be a racer, and you're a real racer, you dream of not only competing at this level, but then to win the biggest race that we run is just amazing. I thought the Southern 500 was about as good as it could get last year, but this is just hard to describe. It is unbelievable. I'm just so happy for everybody that supports us-all the people that work at Bill Davis racing who work so hard and dedicate themselves to it. This is just a wonderful thing.
"Without Dodge's support, development, and engineering help, we couldn't have won the 500. The manner in which they help all the Dodge teams is more than you can put into words," said Davis.
Claiming his first Daytona 500 win was also the highlight of Ward Burton's Winston Cup career, and the Virginia native has high praise for the whole team.
"It's been exciting," says Burton. "To win NASCAR's biggest race is a real accomplishment for the team. I just feel really thankful for all the support that Dodge has given us; the guys on the team and their families who have sacrificed so much and worked so hard. Bill, Gail, this team, and myself have come a long way since 1995. It means a lot to bring home this trophy together."
The entire BDR crew has been through some rough times since their Daytona 500 win. NASCAR's one-engine rule has given Terry Elledge and the guys in the engine shop more than one sleepless night, along with many others in the series.
In addition, the new and harder Goodyear tires have been a headache in setup for Todd Holbert and the engineering department, not to mention driver Ward Burton.
The depth of a team's talent is most evident when their back is against the wall. Remember why Dodge chose Bill Davis racing-their eye for and use of talented people.