Wood Brothers Crew Chief Donnie Wingo Has Lived Evolution of His Position
Few positions in sports are as important to the success or failure of their teams as the NASCAR Sprint Cup crew chief.
It’s why as the Wood Brothers Racing Team prepares its famed No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, no one on the team is busier or has more responsibility for the preparation of the race car than crew chief Donnie Wingo.
Nothing happens to the race car – no set up tweak or tire change – unless the crew chief says so. That level of responsibility often results in blame in the face of failure and little glory on the heels of success. That tends to fall on the driver like victory lane confetti and champagne spray.
“It’s the hardest job in here by far,” said Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion. “Earlier crew chiefs had to worry about everything about the car and the people, and they still do. There’s just more of it. The job hasn’t changed. It’s just become harder.”
Wood explained that as the race cars themselves become more sophisticated, so do their support mechanisms. “There are so many more elements of the crew chief job now with engineering, simulations, aerodynamics and engines,” he said. “It’s so much more complex. He’s like an air traffic controller. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on him. Everything’s got to work and the crew chief is the one who puts that all together.”
Following in Leonard Wood’s footsteps as crew chief of the iconic No. 21 is Wingo, who said, “It’s changed a lot. Back when I first started, the crew chief was a mechanic like everyone else. I changed springs, put motors and gears in, whatever needed to be done. It’s evolved since then. You’re more of a people person, more like a manager.”
Wingo, who started in racing as a “gofer” for a small, independent racing team in the early ‘80s before becoming a crew chief for Brett Bodine in Bud Moore’s operation a decade later, is the primary conduit of information between the team and Wood Brothers Racing’s current technical alliance partner, Roush Fenway Racing.
“This sport changes from week to week and with us running a limited schedule, without that information coming back, you’d be in trouble,” Wingo stated. “It would be tough, really tough - a lot tougher than it already is.”
Today, tough equals delegating responsibility for every aspect of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane race car to a crew of approximately 30 people. It includes managing the resources of a limited-schedule team trying to stay competitive on the race track against teams with more people and many more millions of dollars in funding. For Wingo and his Wood Brothers Racing Team, that starts two weeks before a race in which they are scheduled to run.
“We get the car on the Monday the week before race week,” Wingo explains. “We try to take the car to the wind tunnel to get the best balance. The engines usually come on Wednesday and by the end of the week before the race we install all the springs that we plan on running.”
On Monday of race week, the No. 21 goes into the chassis dyno at the Wood Brothers shop to make sure the engine is running the way the Roush Yates Engines says it is supposed to be running.
“On Tuesday we’ll grid the car and make sure everything’s good NASCAR-wise, roll through a preliminary tech (inspection) and after that we’ll final scale it and do all the final touches,” Wingo explains.
Depending on the track schedule of a particular race, the team will start the car in either race trim or qualifying trim, then change during the practice session to suit their needs. “If we have two practices before we qualify, we’ll start in race trim, then move to qualifying trim and get a better balance,” he said.
Wednesday of race week will find the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team loading all the parts and pieces the team will need for that week’s race, including the primary and back-up race cars, on the hauler to get the vehicle on its way to the track before lunch. Thursday is a travel day.
“When I started, I drove the truck,” Wingo recalls. “We drove everywhere in the truck. We didn’t know anything about traveling to races on airplanes.”
Race weekend begins on Friday with the crew unloading, setting up the garage and putting the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion through its first NASCAR inspection in time for practice to begin at around noon.
“During that first practice, you’re basically communicating with the driver to see where the balance of the car is and adjust it from there,” Wingo said. “In qualifying trim you’re just trying to get the most speed out of it that you can. Some places you go, you have to scuff the tires and we’ll start with that. While you’re doing that you’re trying to work on the balance a little bit.”
Communication is also key in NASCAR’s new knock-out qualifying system, according to Wingo. “Once you make your first run you can see where your balance is and then you go from there. Just like practice you’re trying to fine tune the balance to get the best speed you can.”
The refinement continues during Saturday’s practice sessions. “Driver feedback is really all you have at a race weekend,” he said. “You don’t have telemetry. You’re going off what the driver says when you’re tuning the car. It’s not like a test where you have all the data coming from the car.”
Race day finds Wingo supervising the final touches of race car set up before the last pre-race inspection. He also checks out the pit box to make sure everything and everyone is in place and ready to go.
“About an hour before the race we have our little team meeting in the hauler and go over what the trends are for this track, how many laps we think we can go on fuel so everybody’s got a good idea when we’ll be pitting and get ready to race,” he explained.
During the race the crew chief becomes the team’s master strategist in an environment that is as ever-changing as war.
“There are a lot of things that can happen,” Wingo said. “There’s track position. You have to decide what’s best for a particular situation based on your pit window. Maybe it’s best to stay out or take the wave around. It’s changing as the race goes on and you have to do what’s best for you at that point.”
Like in practice and qualifying, the only data available to the crew chief during the race are lap times and driver feedback.
“You feed the driver lap times as often as possible because he’s always looking for the best line around the track,” Wingo said. “You may not be the quickest car on the track but you find a line that will give you the best lap time for you at that particular moment.”
When the checkered flag drops, the crew puts everything back on the hauler and the process starts all over with one exception.
“As long as the car’s not torn up, we’ll debrief it when we get back to the shop to make sure we didn’t have anything change during the race,” he said.
Eddie Wood, who has seen the crew chief position evolve during his many years in racing, said earlier that the job was like being an air traffic controller. He amended that later to a sports analogy.
“If you compare it to football, he’s kind of the quarterback, but also the coach and a little bit of general manager.”
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