"Jeff Gordon Flashback": T-Rex Set NASCAR On Its Ear With 1997 "Winston" Win

Jack Benton@@USASafetyNewsContributor INovember 27, 2008

Being the BIG Jeff Gordon fan that I am, I was going through some old VHS tapes of all the races that I have taped and saved over the years, and came across the one from "The Winston" of 1997. I am sure most Jeff Gordon fans will remember this race as the emergence of a car aptly named "T-Rex," and that it only ran one time.

Here is the story behind that "monster" of a race car that was so good...it became an instant "dinosaur."

The dinosaur died early on a Sunday in an inspection bay at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Jeff Gordon had won The Winston on Saturday night, May 17, 1997. But by the time he and crew chief Ray Evernham had finished celebrations and interviews, it was a new day.

When Evernham went to check on post-race inspection of the No. 24 Chevrolet, a NASCAR official pulled him aside. "He said, `I'm gonna give you a tip,'" Evernham said. "`Don't bring this car back.'" T-Rex was extinct.

It began, as all great legends do, a long, long time ago. Rick Hendrick became a Winston Cup car owner in 1984. Within three seasons, he decided he wanted his teams to build their cars from the chassis up."When you come into the sport, you kind of just do what everybody else does," Hendrick said. "Nobody had a research-and-development program, and you really didn't have time to try stuff and race at the same time."

In 1996, Hendrick had three Cup teams. He won his first championship with Gordon in 1995 and would get another title in '96 with Terry Labonte. In January of '96, engineer Rex Stump was hired and put in charge of an R&D program Hendrick vowed to leave alone. "It was kind of like our own 'Area 51'," Evernham said. By early 1997, Stump's racing laboratory had come up with a big idea.

"We went around to all of the people in the shop and said, `If you had a blank sheet of paper, what would you do different in building a race car?'" Stump said.

"It was something like 60 different people's ideas on how to make a better car." James Garde was one of those people, and he had plenty of ideas. He had always been an avid reader."I would read the rulebook and try to find the gray areas," Garde said. "We decided that we would take every component of a race car and look to see how it complied (with rules) and whether it could be redesigned and manufactured."

Stump studied the rules, too.He also studied what they didn't say."It seemed we had a little more latitude as to what we could do," Stump said. "...Any place where there wasn't a rule, we took what we could."Every aspect of the car was examined in excruciating detail.Hendrick remembers the first time he saw the result.

"I got back there and saw that car, looked underneath it and everything," Hendrick said. "I said, `There's no way you're going to get to run this car.' "All the Hendrick crew chiefs got regular updates on Stump's team. Evernham, long a champion for the R&D effort, showed keen interest.

"I was kind of like Mikey from the cereal commercials," Evernham said. "It was like, 'Give it to Ray, he'll try anything.'"

Because Hendrick knew his team was working in the rulebook's margins, he made sure NASCAR was clued in."I do remember seeing the car in certain stages of the building process," said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's managing director for competition who in 1997 was Winston Cup Series director.

"We looked at our rulebook and looked at the car and said it was not outside the parameters of the rulebook. But we followed that by saying, 'Remember, we do control the rules. We can write more.'"

Stump is still reticent to talk in great detail about the car. "I don't want to give away the whole farm," he said. In general terms, it began with bigger frame rails that made the chassis more resistant to twisting forces as it went around the track.Close attention was paid to how much parts weighed. The distribution of weight and how that impacted the car's characteristics also went through intense scrutiny.

The car finally got on the track at a test at Texas Motor Speedway."It was wicked fast when we unloaded it," Stump said. Said Evernham: "We worked on some things and realized it just needed a different kind of a set-up than we were used to running at that time with Jeff. But once we got what it needed, all of a sudden it was wicked fast."One more adjustment was required.

"Jeff came in and said, `If you would move that seat so I didn't feel like it was falling over on the right front, I'll bet I could get another two or three tenths out of it,' " Garde said. "I ... changed the seat and he went out and, sure enough, ran faster."

That the car needed only a few tweaks was a good sign for Stump."We knew we had something," he said. "Jeff was winning with anything—I think you could have built a grocery cart and he could have won with it. That's tough to beat. The object wasn't to beat the competition. It was to beat what we had."

As The Winston approached, Hendrick Motorsports made a deal to promote "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," a sequel to the 1993 hit movie, with a special paint scheme. It featured a large dinosaur painted on the hood of the No. 24. Specifically, the dinosaur was a tyrannosaurus rex. Add that to Rex Stump's role, and the car's nickname was inevitable.They called it T-Rex.

Trained eyes in the Cup garage quickly fell on the car when it was rolled out at the Concord track. Some things were readily apparent."The valence was pretty high up off the ground," Stump said. "You'd walk down and see all the (other cars') valances 3 1/2 or four inches off the ground and this one was 5 1/2 or six inches. These guys in the garage are professionals and they would have noticed."

Despite sitting higher off the ground, when the car went through turns the opposite happened. "It was built to `land' in the middle of the corner to get all of the possible aero benefits, getting it as far down in front as possible and keeping the rear end up," Stump said.

That was a key to what made T-Rex special, Evernham said. "Everything was raised so that when you dropped the nose it created negative pressure under the car," he said. If that sounds like the ground effects that help hold Indy-style cars to the track, you're getting the picture.

On his qualifying attempt that Friday, Gordon came to pit road too fast and slid through his pit box. Since each driver's qualifying time was the total of three laps with a pit stop, that error put Gordon 19th on the starting grid.

The next night, Gordon sliced through the field in the 30-lap first segment of The Winston before settling into third place.Gordon lined up 16th when the field was inverted for Segment Two. He was fourth, behind Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, and Ricky Craven, after those 30 laps, waiting to show his cards.

"I just remember that car being stuck to the track in a way that I had never felt a car be stuck before," Gordon said. "It just gave me confidence, and it was fast -- it was awesome."It took him less than a lap and a half of the final 10-lap segment to take charge.He passed his teammate, Terry Labonte, for the lead and took off.

"When I got by Terry, I said, `If this thing feels this good for the remainder of this thing, there's no way they can touch me,' " Gordon said that night. Looking back now?

"We killed them," Gordon said. "It was ridiculous."

Stump wonders now if it would have been better if nobody had said anything about T-Rex being different."But that would have been hard," he said. "So many people's efforts went into that car, you wanted to say, `Man, look at what this guy built,' and, `Look at the idea this guy came up with.'

"Ultimately, that bit us."Evernham said it would have been wrong not to be proud.Besides, NASCAR and rival teams had their radar up."I kind of saw it coming," Hendrick said. "People would walk by and look at it, the guys in the garage.

So much attention was being paid to it. When we'd pull the wheels off of it people were looking up under it. I had a feeling, and when the race was over I kind of knew there would be some moaning."

Moaning was an understatement.

"The other car owners looked at it and they all whined and flipped out and said, `We'll have to build all new cars!' " Evernham said. "Everybody panicked. It's easier to kill Frankenstein than it is to figure out how to get along with him."

Nelson, the NASCAR official, remembers his father taking him to a theater to see a closed-circuit broadcast of the Indianapolis 500."It was the first year that a rear-engine car showed up," Nelson said. "I've always remembered that. If one official at Indy had said, `Sorry, but your engine is in the wrong place, you're not racing,' racing would have been different from that point on.

"But they let the car race and didn't react. The next year, 80 or 90 percent of the field had engines in the back, and every car owner in the sport had instant obsolescence for all of his cars."

Nelson uses that story when he's asked about how NASCAR reacted to T-Rex.

"As caretakers of the sport, NASCAR's responsibility is to prevent car owners from having to constantly chase things like that," he said. "We don't want them to have to throw out everything they have because we didn't recognize something soon enough."

But if T-Rex was so radical, why let it race, let Gordon's victory stand, then order the team not to bring it back?

"Every detail of that car had been optimized," Nelson said. "But none of it was outside the rules. ..."So we said, `Let's let them race it and get to work on our rulebook.' "

The wheels were in motion when Evernham made it to post-race inspection."They said, `Don't bring it back,' "Hendrick said of NASCAR's inspectors. "I said, `Hold on a minute. You can't tell me one week that it's OK and then the next week tell me not to bring it back!' "

Evernham also was aghast.

As teams prepared for the next week's Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR inspectors came to Hendrick Motorsports for a closer look at T-Rex."We asked them to tell us what was wrong with it," Stump said. "Maybe that was a mistake, because they spent a good bit of time really looking at the car. Then they went back and wrote a whole bunch of new rules that basically outlawed it."

The co-operation, however, helped NASCAR. "By letting us come over to examine the car closely, that helped us to write more definitive rules," he said. "That way, only one car was affected."

Stump said NASCAR added at least a half-dozen rules specifically to address issues raised by T-Rex. Nelson won't argue."They were going to write new rules anyway," Evernham said. "What we did by letting them poke around and measure everything was probably saved the rest of our fleet.

"We were trying to win championships and do different things and it was like, `Do we want to fight this battle and give up everything else, or do we give up on this one and go on?' I know Rex took that hard because it was his baby. I didn't like it all and I still don't, but they didn't want the car, bottom line, and you have to pick your fights."

Hendrick couldn't be too angry with his rivals."I would have done the same thing," he said. "That's the unique deal in this garage area. You're either going to do what the other teams are doing, or you're going to turn them in. ..."We couldn't force them to let us keep using T-Rex. We had already started taking pieces of what we had learned and put it into our other cars."

Nelson said everyone was trying to do the right thing."The motives were right on our end to protect the garage," Nelson said. "The motives were right on their side to take rules as they're written and make the car better. I don't fault them, that's their job. But I don't fault what we did, because that's NASCAR's job."

The legend of T-Rex is that it retired undefeated. That's a tale.

It was said that the car was turned into a show car and never raced again. The truth is the chassis was used in the 1997 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon finished fourth.

"We had it pretty disguised, and we had fixed a lot of the stuff that NASCAR had complained about," Evernham said. "T-Rex was undefeated in its original form, but when we made some of the changes that we had to make, it got beat."

Though the team got minimal use of T-Rex, almost everyone involved believes it was a worthwhile project."Ultimately, it didn't matter how many rules they changed for that car," Garde said. "They're still making rules about stuff we built for it."

Garde now has a shop at his house near Charlotte and makes parts for several Cup teams. "I am still building a lot of stuff now that evolved from that process, because it made you think carefully about the process," he said.

"That's exactly what it was, a new thought process," said Evernham, whose team builds its own chassis, no doubt using some of the things learned."We learned stuff off of that car that we wound up using inside the new rules they wrote that have helped us on and on and on," Hendrick said. "That car paid us big dividends."

Even Nelson sees value in T-Rex."The evolution of ideas is a healthy thing," Nelson said. "... I read a quote once that said, `The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.' "Junior Johnson, maybe? No, Oliver Wendell Holmes.

T-Rex, or what's left of it, is on display at the Hendrick Motorsports museum in Harrisburg.

"That's good," Nelson said. "It's a perfect thing for a museum."