Greg Zipadelli on Earnhardt Investigation report

GREG ZIPADELLI - Home Depot Racing Crew Chief Offers Insight on Car Construction Following Earnhardt Investigation Report ATLANTA (Aug. 21, 2001) - Greg Zipadelli, crew chief on the ...

GREG ZIPADELLI - Home Depot Racing
Crew Chief Offers Insight on Car Construction Following Earnhardt Investigation Report

ATLANTA (Aug. 21, 2001) - Greg Zipadelli, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing and driven by Tony Stewart, is in his third year as a NASCAR Winston Cup Series crew chief. Prior to joining Joe Gibbs Racing in December of 1998, he served as the chassis specialist on the #99 Roush Racing entry driven by Jeff Burton.

But well before Zipadelli moved south from his New Britain, Conn., home, he spent years toiling on race cars in the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series.

It began at age seven, when Zipadelli was handing wrenches to his father who fielded Modifieds under the Sherwood Racing banner. By age 14, Zipadelli was a main player in the preparation of the family's race cars.

At 20, Zipadelli earned his first championship by leading Mike McLaughlin to the 1988 Modified Tour championship. Two more years were spent in the Modified ranks before Zipadelli moved on to the NASCAR Busch North Series, again experiencing many successes, including the 1997 Busch North title with Mike Stefanik.

But while Zipadelli enjoyed success, he also endured his share of tragedy, as did much of the Northeastern racing community. In the mid-1980s to early 1990s, a rash of fatalities occurred on the Modified Tour.

Richie Evans, a Modified driver whose stature in the series was Dale Earnhardt-esqe, was killed at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in 1985. Other prominent Modified drivers, such as Tommy Druar, Donnie Pratt, Charlie Jarzombek, Corky Cookman and Tony Jankowiak met similar fates in a relatively short period of time.

Questions regarding chassis construction and safety in general were raised, much in the same way Dale Earnhardt's tragic death in this year's Daytona 500 spurred similar inquiries.

For Zipadelli, the release of the Earnhardt investigation report is two-fold - it brings back memories from his days on the Modified circuit, and it enables him to find safer ways to construct race cars.

How do you feel about the safety of the cars you currently build for Tony Stewart and do you expect the findings of the Earnhardt investigation report to change the way you construct race cars?

"Obviously, we're always looking for something to make ourselves safer. So, if the report comes up with something that we're not doing or we don't know about or we can learn something from, we'll immediately add it to our program. Are our cars safe? I feel they're as safe as anybody's in the garage area. Safety is one thing we never, ever even think about skimping on. I don't care how much better it would be for our car, as far as going faster. Safety is paramount. We're always trying to make little changes here and there, to make the car safer. I think some of the wrecks we've had this year showed our Daytona (Fla.) car, I hate to look back and even think about that, but we still have it sitting there in the shop and we're very fortunate that everything inside that car did what it was supposed to do. The cage collapsed a little bit and did it what it was supposed to do. As far as everything we did to that car, everything stayed where it was. Nothing broke loose and jeopardized our driver. When you look at things like that it makes you proud that you did a good job and that there wasn't an unfortunate situation that made us go back and work harder on our cars because, say, the air conditioner came loose and broke his arm, or just something stupid like that. So from that standpoint, we were pleased. But I do believe that we're not as safe as we can be. But we are as safe as we know how to be. It's going to take smarter people and a lot more testing to educate us all in making our cars better."

Is this whole ordeal a little bit of déjà vu for you, considering your past experiences on the Featherlite Modified Tour?

"It's similar. And it's a shame that we've lost a few drivers in this series in the last two years. You know, that's where I started - in the Modifieds. Those were some of my best years, as far as running and having fun and doing well. But at the same time, it was the worst because I lost five people that I knew, three of whom were good, close friends of mine. It was a frustrating time, but everyone was very cooperative when it came to changing their cars. Everybody was thinking about ways to make it better, and they took a lot of people's input and they made things better. Knock on wood, they haven't had any problems since. They're monitoring speeds and making sure that they don't creep too far up. There's a lot to be said for that, because it all depends upon how fast you're going. And every time you hit the wall it's not the same as the time before. That's the scary part. There are so many different variables. Just a couple of degrees on impact changes the way the energy comes through the whole car. That's one of the things that NASCAR's learning and hopefully they can educate us as well. Those are probably the areas we'll gain the most on when it comes to making our cars safer - bad impacts where the energy ends up inside the cockpit and with the driver. We know when we hit straight-on that both frame rails and the bumper absorb energy and we know that some other pieces do as well, but there are some angles of impact that seem to be worse than others. We want to make sure that we keep our driver safe on those hard, angled impacts, so that our race car could take pretty much anything else that's less than that."

Following Tony Stewart's crash at Daytona this year, Autoliv - a worldwide automotive safety company, visited Joe Gibbs Racing and inspected the car from Daytona. They said that it was one of the better race cars that they had ever seen.

"That's exactly what they said. They liked the way our seat belts were mounted and the way they were anchored to the car. The leg braces and the seat and all those things that the guys in our fab shop have developed as the years have gone on - Autoliv was impressed. They said it was one of the best cars that they had seen. They had seen a lot of race cars, but none that had been in as violent a wreck as ours had. Our car had an angle impact, flipped, landed on another car - it had a variety of everything. Like I said, nothing moved inside that car. That gives you a little sense of relief - not a lot, because it's a terrible thing to think about as you are responsible for everything that goes into that car. It's a restless feeling, really."

Will there be a sense of closure once the Earnhardt investigation report has been digested by drivers, teams and the media?

"I don't know. I don't think there will ever be any closure, as far as I'm concerned. We lost the greatest icon in motorsports, somebody that before I got here, I looked at and watched television every Sunday afternoon just to root for him. He came from nothing and made himself something and was just a great person. Those are things I got to see before I even came to Winston Cup. Then when I finally got here and got the chance to race against him and talk to him on a personal level it was pretty amazing to be able to meet him, to be able to talk to him and have him walk by all the time and talk to you. It meant so much growing up in New England, racing Modifieds and Busch North cars and then finally getting to race against one of my greatest heroes and motivators. To look at him and know that he came from a small town outside of Charlotte (N.C.) and didn't have much growing up, but just kept working hard to get to where he wanted and all the while did what he wanted to do that was motivating to me. Then to have him leave us is very disappointing, and I know everybody feels that way. I just hope we can all learn a lot from this and hopefully never have it happen again."

-JGR-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton , Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing