Crew Chief Dan Binks: Corvette Racing's "Big Daddy" Binks Is Quarterback, Coach and Cheerleader for the Championship-Winning No. 3 Corvette NEW HUDSON, Mich. - It's 5:15 a.m., and Dan Binks is already on the job. He's been up since 4:30, and...
Crew Chief Dan Binks: Corvette Racing's "Big Daddy"
Binks Is Quarterback, Coach and Cheerleader for the Championship-Winning No. 3 Corvette
NEW HUDSON, Mich. - It's 5:15 a.m., and Dan Binks is already on the job. He's been up since 4:30, and he can't wait to get to the office. His "office" is the headquarters of Corvette Racing, the command center where Chevrolet's championship-winning race cars are designed, constructed and maintained.
It's said that races are won and lost in the pits. Binks, the crew chief for the No. 3 Compuware Corvette C6.R, knows better. Races are also won and lost in the shop. Which is why he's hard at work before sunrise.
"I've been in racing for 35 years," said Binks, "and when they throw the green flag, I still get excited."
Binks, a 41-year-old resident of Brighton, Mich., has traveled a long and winding road to Corvette Racing since he began working on his father's sports cars as a youngster in San Diego. He's won 13 championships and 75 professional races with machines that span the spectrum of motor racing, from IMSA GTU and SCCA Trans Am sedans to NASCAR trucks and exotic GTP prototypes. He joined Corvette Racing in late 2002, and since his arrival the No. 3 Corvette has won 11 American Le Mans Series races (including consecutive victories in the Sebring 12-hour race) and back-to-back drivers championships for Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell.
Binks is a big man, and the "Big Daddy" nickname that's lettered on his pit helmet is appropriate on many levels. He's a coach, quarterback, chief mechanic, psychologist, cheerleader, administrator, guidance counselor, car restorer and vintage race car driver. And those are just a few of his roles.
On Oct. 14, Binks will lead his crew into the final round of the Klein Tools Pit Stop Challenge at the Monterey Sports Car Championships at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The four finalists will vie for a $20,000 prize in the season finale of the American Le Mans Series. As always, the chief competition will come from within Corvette Racing. The final four includes Binks' No. 3 Corvette crew and the No. 4 Corvette team led by crew chief Ray Gongla.
Both Corvette Racing crews have won preliminary rounds of the pit stop competition. Gongla's team took the top honors at Infineon Raceway, completing a driver change, simulated refueling and four-tire change in 59.349 seconds. Then the Binks-led crew bettered that mark with a 51.937-second stop in the semifinal round at Road America, the quickest time recorded in the season-long competition.
"The chemistry at Corvette Racing is incredible," said Binks. "We're all racers, and everybody wants to win. We have 20 guys running two cars, and we're competitive in everything we do. That's what makes us good. Sure, I want to see the No. 3 Corvette in the winner's circle, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is to have a Corvette win."
Team manager Gary Pratt selected Binks and Gongla for their key positions when he recognized that they share common goals and philosophies.
"They have the passion to race, and all three of us think alike as far as what we expect from the team," said Pratt. "There aren't any big egos. I like a flat organization chart, where everyone knows they can contribute, instead of having layers of hierarchy. Dan and Ray believe in that, too."
Both Binks and Gongla are hands-on crew chiefs, going over the wall during pit stops to change the inside tires on their respective cars.
"I'm getting older, but I still love the pit stops," Binks laughed. "It's like being on a football team, and when you do a great stop, there are high-fives all around. I must have done a thousand pit stops, but I still get butterflies when the car's coming down the pit lane."
It's no surprise that both Corvette crews are among the finalists for the Pit Stop Challenge. They drill relentlessly at the shop, and rehearse pit stops every day at the track. Quick pit work played a decisive role in the team's 1-2 finish at this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans when seconds saved in the pit lane offset the quicker lap times of Corvette Racing's rivals during the long day and night of racing.
Between pit stops, the two crew chiefs act as spotters for their respective drivers, monitoring the race on a bank of television screens. They watch for traffic, warn the drivers about incidents, and keep their heads in the game.
"Drivers have good days and bad days, and when they're having a bad day you need to pump them up and help them feel good," Binks said. "There are other times when you have to calm them down because they're taking unnecessary risks. It happens with the pit crew as well; if we have a bad pit stop, we just have to get through it.
"Time seems to go faster in the pits," Binks observed. "You're keeping track of the pit windows, trying to organize the tires and fuel for the next stop, and then suddenly the competition does something unexpected. You might have to change your entire plan."
A crew chief's relationship with his drivers is built on mutual trust and respect. Binks knows he is literally responsible for his drivers' lives.
"This is a dangerous business," said Binks. "My relationship with Ron and Johnny is phenomenal. Guys who drive hard and guys who work hard on race cars get along. At this year's Sebring race, a carbon front brake rotor disintegrated and Johnny smashed into a tire barrier at 150 mph. We worked on his car and sent him back out, and he radioed to the crew, 'Every time you guys fix this thing, I'm amazed.' To have the trust to go flat-out after an impact like that is remarkable. It takes a while to get to that level, and I think everybody on this team trusts everyone else totally."
The drivers feel just as strongly about Binks.
"A driver needs complete trust in his crew chief, and I certainly have that with Dan," said Fellows. "I not only have faith in the level of preparation, but also in the job he does spotting for us in the pits. To do that for hour after hour without a break is probably tougher than driving. He takes it very seriously.
"The effort that Dan puts into motivating the crew, his enthusiasm, and his work ethic energize the entire team," Fellows continued. "He will do anything, stay up all hours, to make the car right. That's a testament to his dedication and his desire to win. His record speaks for itself, and I wish our paths had crossed a lot sooner."
Ironically, Fellows and Binks were once fierce rivals. During Binks' long association with driver Tommy Kendall that produced IMSA and SCCA Trans Am championships, he was frequently at odds with Fellows.
"The rivalry was extremely intense, even bitter at times," Fellows recalled. "It was an odd sight the first time I saw Dan Binks working on my car because he was the face of Tommy Kendall. I must admit it took a little time to get used to seeing Binks in a Corvette uniform."
Initially it was an awkward situation for Binks as well.
"We raced against Ron for years in Trans Am, and we beat Johnny for the IMSA championship by one point in 1993," Binks remembered. "We raced those guys hard, maybe a little too hard sometimes, so it took some time to get everyone comfortable with each other. When you see how see how hard Ron and Johnny work, it's impossible not to like them."
After working long hours at Corvette Racing, Binks relaxes by working long hours on his own automotive projects. He restores classic Volkswagens ("I wanted to have the nicest '51 split-window VW in the world, and I've probably got one of the best," he said) and drives vintage race cars. On weekends when he's not racing the factory Corvettes, you can find Binks wheeling a Riley & Scott prototype, a historic Trans Am Mustang or a classic Lola T70 around a race track at speed. He's also brought his encyclopedic knowledge of road racing to television, providing expert commentary for the SPEED Channel at the SCCA Runoffs.
"When I was young, I wanted to be a race car driver," Binks laughed. "I raced awhile on my Visa card and quickly figured out that wasn't going to work. Now I get to drive some very cool cars. I have to pinch myself because I'm a very lucky guy.
"I never imagined that I would be in this position," Binks acknowledged. "The first time we took the Corvettes to Le Mans, I called an old friend and said, 'Can you believe Dan Binks is standing in the pit lane at Le Mans?' For a kid from San Diego to be able to work at Corvette Racing and compete against the best in the world is unbelievable. It's the fulfillment of a lifelong dream."