Northern Aggression New England Well Represented on Home Depot Racing Team CHARLOTTE, N.C., (July 3, 2000) - There's a team within the Home Depot Racing Team. Call it Team New England. The ...
New England Well Represented on Home Depot Racing Team
CHARLOTTE, N.C., (July 3, 2000) - There's a team within the Home Depot Racing Team. Call it Team New England.
The #20 Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) operation boasts five crew members from the New England region, and they all have interesting stories as to how they made their way south and into the pinnacle of motorsports - the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Perhaps the most recognized Yankee is crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who grew up in New Britain, Conn., working with his family-owned Sherwood Racing Team.
At age seven, Zipadelli could be found in his family's shop, handing wrenches to his father whenever he toiled on their race car. By age 14, Zipadelli was playing an integral role in the team's preparation of their race cars. When his 20th birthday rolled around, Zipadelli was a crew chief - and a winning one at that. He led Featherlite Modified Tour driver Mike McLaughlin to the 1988 series championship on the heels of five wins and 15 top-five finishes.
In 1990, McLaughlin was offered a ride in the NASCAR Busch North Series, Grand National Division with prominent New England car owner Mike Greci. At the behest of the driver, Greci named Zipadelli as crew chief for the Busch North effort. The tandem recorded five wins between 1990 and 1993.
One of those wins in particular stands out in Zipadelli's mind.
"We were at New Hampshire for a Busch North/Modified doubleheader in 1990," recounts Zipadelli. "Mike went out and won both of them. It was awesome. No one's been able to do that since - win the Mod race and the Busch North show all in the same day. That was probably one of my best days in racing."
McLaughlin departed Greci's operation at the end of the 1993 season, but Zipadelli stayed with team and worked with a handful of drivers in 1994 and 1995. Zipadelli's perseverance paid off in 1996 when driver Mike Stefanik joined the team with substantial sponsorship backing. While no wins were recorded that year, eight top-five and nine top-10 finishes laid the groundwork for a championship season in 1997. Stefanik marched to the Busch North title that year riding a wave of consistency with two wins, 14 top-five finishes and 16 top-10 finishes, giving Zipadelli his second NASCAR touring series championship in less than a decade.
Upon receiving his second championship ring at the age of 29, Zipadelli headed south in 1998 to join Roush Racing as the chassis specialist for the #99 Winston Cup team of driver Jeff Burton. With Zipadelli's astute recommendations for chassis setups, Burton won two races, earned 18 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes and finished fifth in points.
Zipadelli's ascension up the racing ladder wasn't over. In fact, it had just begun.
When team owner Joe Gibbs began laying the groundwork for a second team with open wheel hotshoe Tony Stewart, he conferred with veteran JGR crew chief Jimmy Makar as to who would be the best choice to lead the #20 Home Depot Racing Team. They looked no further than Zipadelli.
Zipadelli's first-year on the job resulted in three wins, two poles, 13 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes en route to finishing fourth in the season-ending point standings.
But Zipadelli didn't earn those accolades by himself. He had a lot of help from his hard-working crew, four of which call New England home.
New Hampshire's own Chris Woodward is the team's engine specialist. The Franklin native began his career at age 15, when a short walk up the street brought him to a neighbor's dirt late model team.
"After school or after work, I'd head over to their house and work on engines or help on the car in any way that I could," said Woodward. "I did that for a year and a half while I was in high school."
Upon graduating from Franklin High in 1990, Woodward went to New Hampshire Technical Institute where he majored in automotive technology. While at New Hampshire Tech, Woodward went to work for Grappone Auto Junction, a conglomerate of car dealerships in and around the Concord, N.H., area. During his employment at Grappone, the dealership bought into a Busch North Series effort. Woodward was quick to join the team, a relationship that lasted for several years.
"Once that Busch North team got going, they obviously began looking for someone with experience," said Woodward. "I proved to be a quick learner, so Norm Lavigne, who ended up buying the team from Grappone, looked for some schools for me to go to. He sent me to the Motorsports Training Center in Mooresville, N.C., and that was a great, great learning experience."
Woodward returned to the Busch North team, but it wasn't long before he would be headed south once again. A call to work on a start-up Busch Series team was made and Woodward accepted. But the team found itself in financial difficulty midway through the season, and Woodward was looking for a job just six months after moving to North Carolina.
But the time spent with the Busch team was by no means a waste. Woodward's connections earned him an interview at Joe Gibbs Racing, as the Huntersville, N.C-based team was in the process of forming a Busch team for Stewart.
"I got a phone call one night saying that I needed to get down to North Carolina to meet John Wilson, who was then the head engine builder at JGR," said Woodward. "Naturally, I was on a Greyhound bus that night. I went and met with John, and he didn't give me any kind of an answer right away. So, I called him back and bothered him a little bit. Finally, by the third time I called him, he told me to come down and fill out some paperwork. That was my in. I started in 1997 and I've been with Gibbs and Tony ever since."
From nearby Vermont is Dave Rogers, engineer for The Home Depot team. Rogers grew up in the town of Marshfield, where some of his earliest childhood memories stemmed from when his father raced a dirt late model at Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Vt.
"Dad was racing from the time I was an infant," said Rogers. "I grew up around it from day one, so my goal was always to get into Winston Cup."
Rogers' path to Winston Cup took him to Potsdam, N.Y.'s Clarkson University where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1996. From there, he went to the General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich., where he studied vehicle dynamics and automotive design. While working to obtain his masters of science degree in vehicle engineering, Rogers also worked on a late model team that raced at Auto City Speedway in Clio, Mich. It was an appropriate balancing act, as Rogers was hired by JGR prior to his graduation.
"I joined JGR on July 1, 1998," said Rogers. "When I started out, I was just a shop rat. I did a lot of component studies - modifying and designing new components while trying to keep the components durable and lightweight. In addition to that, I travel on race days to help Greg with pit strategy. I just try to add one more mind to the mix."
Joining Zipadelli from Connecticut are Essex's Jason Shapiro and Hebron's Jay Barry.
Shapiro was drawn to racing at an early age, watching such races as the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 on TV when he was four years old. Growing up 10 miles from the Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl, Shapiro's interest in racing soon went beyond the television screen.
"There were some guys in town who ran at Waterford," said Shapiro. "I saw what they were doing, so I wanted to try driving too. I tried building my own car, but I soon realized that I didn't know what I was doing. So, I started helping this one guy out - Gary Hartson, in the street stock division. I worked with him for a while and he taught me a lot.
"Then I got a volunteer job in the Busch North Series with Tony Sylvester and that tiger-striped car he had. That led to a crew chief position in the Busch North Series with Glenn Sullivan. I did that for a couple of years before I moved down to North Carolina."
The 29-year-old Shapiro now makes his home in Huntersville, N.C., with his wife of almost two years - Nicole. Getting to that point, however, didn't happen overnight.
"When I first moved down here," said Shapiro, "I didn't have a job, but I knew a few people. I just loaded up my stuff, came down, and it wasn't too long before I landed a job on the #11 car with Brett Bodine in 1996. I worked there for two years before I left for FILMAR Racing with Kenny Wallace. I was at FILMAR for a year before I joined the #20 team at its inception."
Barry's path to Winston Cup is a unique one, as business, not mechanics, led him to Winston Cup racing. The Hebron, Conn., native is a weekend warrior with The Home Depot team, balancing his duties as the team's rear tire carrier with the responsibilities that come with owning his own company.
AirBorn Coatings, incorporated in 1994 as a maker of exhaust coatings, now has 120 employees and plants in three states. At the backbone of Barry's business is the motorsports world, where he supplies his coatings to racers in all sorts of domains.
"When we first started out in Connecticut, we sponsored cars at Stafford, Thompson and the other northern tracks with such drivers as Reggie Ruggerio and Dave Dion. Pretty much all the guys who raced up there used our stuff. I got bit by the racing bug just by dealing with those guys.
"As we grew, I got to know more people. We opened up a plant in Oklahoma City, and soon after that I became friends with Bob Sutton, who at the time owned Elton Sawyer's car in the Busch Series. My friendship and business relationship with Bob led to other acquaintances in the racing world.
"Last year is what really changed the course of my life. Edgar Aleman, who builds the engines for Roush's Busch teams, asked me to come join him on the #60 car. The season was kind of already going, but he was looking for a mechanic. He showed me what he was looking for and essentially brought me up through the ranks. They lost a tire carrier just as I came on board, and after a couple of races, I begged them to train me. There was a two month break in the Busch schedule, so they sent me over to Johnny Benson's car on the Cup side to go practice, as they had lost a tire carrier too. I did that for a month before they brought me back to the #60 team. But by the time the end of the year rolled around, I knew I wasn't going to go back to Roush. I just wanted something different.
"With Greg being from Connecticut, we have a common friend in Roger Orsey, who I worked with before I formed AirBorn Coatings. Roger called Greg on my behalf and asked him to take a look at me. Greg asked me to try out and I made the team.
"I don't do this for the money," continued Barry. "I do it because I love doing it and I really enjoy working for Joe Gibbs Racing. They take really good care of us. The whole organization runs they way I would like to run it. You've got to take care of the guys who are taking care of you, and that's what they do here."
Zipadelli, Woodward, Rogers, Shapiro and Barry, the members of Team New England, return to their roots this weekend when the Winston Cup Series visits New Hampshire International Speedway for the July 9 New England 300.
"It's where I grew up," said Zipadelli. "I've raced at Louden since they held their very first race. It was two and a half hours from home and for 10 years I've been going there. I think we won six or seven races there between Busch North and the Modifieds. I worked on the #99 car in Winston Cup in 1998 and won at New Hampshire with them. I've gotten to win in everything I've gone there with. Now, we just need to do it with The Home Depot car."
"Going back to New Hampshire is definitely a reality check," said Woodward. "You're like, 'Wow,' I remember being on that side of the fence looking in on this side. Winston Cup was where I always wanted to be, and now I'm here."
"New Hampshire International was the first place that I saw a Winston Cup race live," said Rogers. "It was their inaugural year. Up until I got my job at Joe Gibbs Racing, I went to every Winston Cup race at New Hampshire. My entire family still goes, so to win there would be very special."
"When I was there with Glenn Sullivan, we made a bet," said Shapiro. "He had qualified really well in the three or four races leading up to New Hampshire. But he was really struggling when we unloaded there. I told Glenn that if he qualified in the top-15, he could shave my head bald while I sat in my underwear at the Grist Mill restaurant. Unfortunately for me, he qualified 14th.
"I made the bet so I lived up to it. I went to the Grist Mill, stripped down to my boxers, and let Glenn shave my head. When Glenn was done, I looked for my clothes but they were nowhere to be found. The guys on the team had taken them. So there I sat in the Grist Mill, bald and in my boxers. I will never forget that day."
"For the last three years after the fall race," said Barry, "I've taken a week's vacation and gone up to North Conway (N.H.) to drive up Mount Washington. It's just so beautiful up there that it's a great place to be. I finish off my vacation by seeing the old homestead for a day or two."