Part one of six: Head engineer Todd Holbert key unseen player in Dodge development at Bill Davis Racing as 2001 programs for drivers Burton and Blaney take shape.
HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Some of Todd Holbert's fondest and final memories of his famous father were formed not on-track but in his dad's Pennsylvania workshops where he was developing a prototype sports car at the time of his tragic death.
Holbert, entering his fifth year as Head Engineer for Bill Davis Racing, was in his early teens when his father Al -- one of America's greatest road racers -- was killed in a private plane crash (in 1988) enroute from the Mid-Ohio road course to pick his son up for a Lehigh University football game. Throughout the 2000 season, the younger Holbert finds himself ironically in a similar development role, working with a consortium of teams (Petty Enterprises, Evernham Racing, BDR) to mold the Dodge Intrepid from scratch for the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season.
Holbert's choice to pursue the science of stock cars as his engineering focus instead following his sports-car pedigree pointed him in a direction where such a ground-up project was unlikely in the highly-structured NASCAR technical environment.
The splitting of duties for Holbert between the Dodge start-up demands and his usual duties as BDR added Dave Blaney's #93 Amoco/Siemens team to Ward Burton's #22 Caterpillar/Polaris Winston Cup entry for the 2000 season have left the 26-year old Holbert scrambling to juggle a schedule with too many needs and not enough hours.
"I've tried to look at all that we've been trying to accomplish with the Dodge program as a one-time situation," said Holbert as the BDR teams entered a critical 30-day period before heavy testing periods begin in early January. "Once we got the specs on the Intrepid approved and on its way, this fall has been all about getting cars and engines built and testing them. We've had some delays, no question.
And splitting time between what we would usually be doing with the week-to-week needs of our two Winston Cup teams and our Busch Series team has gotten a little tougher after Labor Day. We hired Jon Babek, who went to engineering school with me at Lehigh, to help us and he's helped share the load of Dodge development and on-going needs between three teams. Dave Nelson and Daryl Smithback, our key fabricators, have gone far beyond their usual range of responsibility to help us meet our deadlines. But there have been times -- like when we're putting in long hours at the wind tunnel with the Dodge on a race-week -- that sacrifices have been made on all sides, I'm sure.
It is strange that I've been working now on a project to bring a new race car into our sport. This hasn't happened for a long time with stock cars. Of course, we're working under much stricter guidelines of what we can do but it's been a great challenge, one I certainly didn't think I'd be a part of after deciding to get into NASCAR instead of sports cars."
At the time of dad's death, he was involved with Porsche on several levels -- as a driver and as a team owner as well as manager for the manufacturer's domestic parts program and the family's three dealerships in Doylestown (PA).
(*NOTE: The elder Holbert was one of America's greatest racers, winning a record five IMSA Camel GT titles and 49 series wins, 10 Can-Am Series wins as well as victories at LeMans in 1983, 1986 and 1987 and a fourth-place finish in his only start in the Indianapolis 500.)
"My dad's developmental program with the prototype could have been much bigger than anything he had ever worked on in motorsports had he been able to see it through. I regret we never were able to see what the final product would have looked like and how it would have performed on the race track.
It's different with the Dodge. My father had a much broader field of options available to him when he sat down to draw up a new racing machine. Front- or rear-engine? Shape? Powerplant? His project was truly conceptual in a way ours has not been, with the competitive guidelines we all know that NASCAR presents to engineers and car builders. Still, I know when I look back on this Dodge project -- to be able to do this so early in my career -- it will be an extraordinary opportunity that doesn't come often in our sport."
At Holbert's side almost every step of the way has been Nelson, a graduate of the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series like so many BDR team members. The 36-year old Nelson joined Bill Davis Racing two years ago after stints at Hensley Racing and as a crew chief in the Busch North and Craftsman Truck Series since 1987. As Lead Fabricator, Nelson has been the integral "hands-on" member of the BDR research-and-development team as the year-long Dodge project unfolded.
"There's no question that the demands on Todd and myself have doubled since the start of the season but that was predictable," said Nelson, who began racing in 1982 with local Late Model Stock programs while still in high school in his native Connecticut. "When I first started at BDR, I worked with Todd on projects to improve our overall team performance but nothing of this magnitude or scope. Todd's got a lot in front of him but whenever you sit down with him, you have his complete attention. That's something for a guy that young but maybe it's how many racing years you have, not how old you are, anad he's been around racing as long as I have.
It's been great working with the Dodge people because the range of what they've been able to offer has been way past what other manufacturers I've worked with. We've probably been to the wind-tunnel 15 times already this year. Last year, we went twice. And Bill Davis' has never told us 'no' when we needed anything that was going to move us ahead. Even at this early date, I'm sure that everything we've built up to this point for the 2001 program is better than what we raced this season. If the Dodge engines are even close, we should be a whole lot better."
When the first Bill Davis Racing Dodge officially begins competition in Daytona next February, Todd Holbert's influence on the alpha stage of the NASCAR Intrepid will be the greatest unseen factor in the on-track success of Ward Burton and Dave Blaney during the 2001 Winston Cup Series season. His considerable contribution to the three-team Dodge creative group will serve as an early pivot-point in his lasting motorsports legacy, one his late father would have certainly savored.
"At the time of my dad's death, I was just old enough to understand his impact in racing," said Holbert. "Now that I'm older, I've met so many people who worked with him and respected him so much. There are many days I wish he were here to see what's happened with my career but I'm reminded of his what he accomplished almost everyday."