Alan Gustafson, crew chief for four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, grew up in Ormond Beach, Florida in the shadows of the Daytona International Speedway. As a boy, he could hear the sounds of racing off in the distance. It became a siren’s song that he could not refuse.
He picked up a mechanic’s tool belt at the age of 8, working on a friend’s go-kart, and never put it back down. Throughout high school, he was the go-to guy for getting help with your car, especially if it was a race car.
In the midst of studying for a college degree in mechanical engineering in Florida, he was also being drawn to North Carolina, where there was work in racing. He did what few have the courage to do—he chased his dream. Leaving his studies behind, Gustafson moved to NASCAR country in 1996 and four years later he was working at Hendrick Motorsports.
Since then, he’s been the crew chief for then Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Busch (2005-07); Casey Mears (2008); Mark Martin (2009-2010) and now Gordon (2011-present).
Gustafson’s easy-going, southern style seems to work well with the often intense Gordon, whose requirements in a race car appear to be more demanding and precise as he’s matured behind the wheel.
Gustafson’s ability to deliver a fast, yet comfortable race car to the future Hall of Famer has earned him at least one win in each of his years with Gordon.
I first met Gustafson in 2005. He’s one of those people in the Sprint Cup garage who always seems to wear a smile. And no matter how busy he is, there is always time to talk, whether it be about shop or family. When talking shop, Gustafson has a knack for making things easy to understand, especially when talking about the voodoo science of stock car engineering.
This season, NASCAR has placed a new priority on winning. A race win virtually assures you a spot in the 16-driver 2014 Chase. But after 10 weeks of racing (we talked before Richmond) the No. 24 team remains winless, with Gordon sitting atop the drivers' points standings.
Bleacher Report: It’s been a close-but-no-cigar situation on numerous occasions for your team. Fontana had to be tough for your team. You had a win in your grasp.
Alan Gustafson: That was probably the best car we’d had all year, if you look at the performance. I thought we had the best car at the track. Yeah, that was a tough one for everybody. Then, I thought we had a decent shot at Darlington and then we let that one slip through our hand after we struggled on pit road a little bit.
The good news is we have a high level of performance. The bad news is we haven’t been able to seal the deal yet.
B/R: When you’re close but not closing the deal, for instance, like Fontana and maybe a couple of other races this season, how difficult is it to keep your team positive, focused and with their heads up?
AG: I think the thing that I’ve learned in my experience over the years is that you have to be relentless. Even if you’ve won or you didn’t win or you're not running well, you have to be relentless in the pursuit and always have that mindset. I’ve tried to counsel the guys on that. You get frustrated and disappointed when you run this well and you don’t win and we've emphasized winning as our goal.
There is frustration and disappointment but you have to turn it into fuel towards your goal and come back hungrier and hungrier. You can’t have that defeatist attitude and say ‘If we haven't won by now we’re not going to win.’ You definitely can’t have that. You have to maintain a very positive and optimistic outlook.
The good news is, with our performance we're not that much behind. So we look at that and say ‘If we push hard we can get to the top.’ We’re close enough to the peak that we can get on the top. You use that as fuel to push yourself forward. (And) not let the disappointment hold us back.
B/R: How different a vibe is it at Hendrick Motorsports when the 88 (Earnhardt Jr.) is the only car to have won this year
AG: It is weird. But it isn’t because we haven’t had our chances. We just need to generate more chances. There is a learning process you have to go through, as strange as it sounds, where you have to put yourself in those positions (no winning) to learn from them, so when they happen again, you can take advantage of your knowledge. Even though we haven't done what we wanted to do, it’s not like it’s been wasted time.
B/R: You say your team’s performance is there, yet there’s been several rules changes. Has one (rule change) been more difficult to deal with than another? (No ride height restrictions and a different 1.5-mile package.)
AG: For us, I like the opportunity to have whatever ride heights we want to use to our advantage. It’s (ride height adjustment) a really big point of adjustment on the cars. It opens up a lot of opportunities within the suspension settings on the car. I enjoy that. I think rule change has given us more freedom as a crew chief. It presents us with more options and I think we’ve been able to exploit that a little bit.
It’s artistic freedom. It’s fun.
B/R: Artistic freedom?
AG: When you have the opportunity not to be restricted and you can kind of dream up whatever it is that you want to and carry that philosophy over to your race car, it's a fun challenge. It’s really one of the biggest things that I enjoy. It’s given us some great opportunities and it's been something that I’ve embraced. It’s not easy. I don’t want this to come across as this is a no-brainer. It’s a lot of hard work, but it's a lot of fun work. But, when you love what you do, it’s hard to say that something’s difficult.
Aerodynamically, the changes in the rules have been somewhat of a struggle (for us) because it has changed the aerodynamic balance of the cars. The (aerodynamic) box they put us in makes it a little bit more difficult to adjust. I wish we had more freedom in that area because that would be an avenue to explore to get an advantage.
I don’t want to throw off on Goodyear and it's not necessarily their fault, but tire management has probably been the most difficult thing for us.
B/R: Every team is looking for something just a bit different from Goodyear’s tires. Are we ever going to find a happy medium?
AG: The whole thing is, the cars are so fast and they create so much load that the challenge is, ‘Can you make a tire live in that environment?’ I think that’s the thing that I’m most curious about. You sit here and say, ‘Hey, we’re having tire issues’ more often than before. Normally, there are tracks that you go to where you kind of expect that, or not expect that, but that you know it's going to be a concern. This year, tire issues have turned up everywhere we go.
And that’s been tough, because it takes an extreme amount of discipline from the team and the driver—when you know that there’s a tenth (of a second) here and a tenth there. But, I know that if I take that tenth, I may be in the fence or down on pit road. So, it’s tough.
Approaching the job with that kind of attitude is something that I’ve never loved doing, something that I had never really embraced. But this year, with the new push to win, I’ve had to reflect and realize that thinking that way is part of how you have to play right now.
B/R: That’s due to the ‘you have to win' mentality, right?
AG: That’s right. It’s part of the current state of our sport. You have to embrace it and exploit it to get the best that you can out of it.
B/R: When you’re around fellow Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte, he’s pretty laid back these days, isn’t he? Do you give much thought to how nice it must be to have the pressure off?
AG: I have thought about it. It's good that you bring those points up because I’ve tried to learn from his experience. And from the experiences he’s going through.
There’s two things going on there. He knows he’s getting off at the exit. He knows that he’s going to have a different adventure in life. That changes how he views what he does as a crew chief. I’ve tried to learn from his approach (to work, to life) as much as I can. There are some positives to it in that you get to look from a different perspective at certain parts of our sport. It’s been a very interesting time for me and I’ve tried to learn from Steve.
So, on top of everything, he wins the first race of the year. That compounds everything about that whole state of mind or philosophy or whatever you want to call it that I just talked about.
I’d love to win every race and I’d love to win one quick. I’d love to be able to take that pressure off, immediately. But, I know how I am and what I would do is say, ‘OK, now that the pressure is off to get into the Chase, I’ve got to win more to get the bonus points and then the pressure is off for that first segment (of the Chase).’ It’s kind of a never-ending cycle.
Doing what we do, we can be very greedy. You’re always saying, ‘I just want to win one more.’ I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.
B/R: Do fans and other people involved with the sport outside of the garage understand how difficult it is to win?
AG: I think there’s a couple of things that people don’t get, whether it be the fan or even people involved with the sport.
This is a difficult job.There are so many resources and variables and personalities that you have to work with. You try and balance all the parts while at the same time you’re trying to figure out a way to exploit getting the most of out of them. Success here comes down to sacrifice. What are you willing to do? How long are you willing to work? How much sleep are you wanting to give up? How much time (with your family and others) are you willing to give up?
It is so competitive. When you look around at anything in the world, whatever it is that you do, if you’re in an ultra-competitive industry like ours, you’re in an environment where you’re constantly pushing the bar higher and higher and higher.
I feel like, and this is just my opinion because I’ve never worked in Formula One which might be the closest, but Sprint Cup is the most competitive form of motorsports in the world. And because of that, it brings that competitive environment I’m talking about. It’s an extremely difficult environment to find success in.
B/R: How have the new knockout qualifying rules changed your approach to the weekend? And how has it been for your team?
AG: It is something I’m excited about. I like that it generates excitement for the fans. For us, it generates some opportunity. Overall, it is still a big unknown and that makes qualifying even more of a challenge because there are so many different things that can happen.
It gives us some more freedom to make adjustments to the race car. It gives the driver another opportunity to refine how they approach the track. We have to continuously keep up with the car and a track that may be degrading or may be improving, which I think is very important.
For me, it’s very difficult to do. I love it.
When you’re in the middle of it like I am, there’s a lot happening and a lot going on. It’s difficult for them (television) to pick up a car that’s on a fast lap, because you don’t know they’re running a fast lap until they’ve run the fast lap. If they can improve there and get where I am as a competitor, if we can translate that to the audience, I think it will be a great thing.
I don’t know if the television broadcast is capturing the real excitement of everything that is going on. The networks need to understand how to cover it better.
There is so much technology available. I think the more that we can bring to the TV broadcast and to the web…the more technology that we can bring to the fan, the better off we will be.
B/R: You’ve got a great gig that you love doing and it pays very well. But that’s not what drives you, obviously. If you could describe it in a sentence or two, why do you do what you do?
AG: The quest for knowledge is ultimately what I love about this sport. The competitiveness. Knowing that if you can gain just a bit more knowledge than your competitor you can exploit that to your advantage.
B/R: Thanks. That about covers it.