Mike Kelley is like an expectant father with triplets on the way.
Roush Fenway Racing has tasked the veteran crew chief with overseeing the No. 60 Xfinity Series program shared by rookie drivers Ty Majeski, Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe.
But unlike with newborns, the one-size-fits-all model does not generally apply to racers.
“You probably could not have picked three more different drivers—not just in size and stature but in personalities and where they came from,” Kelley said. “As far as building the physical cars, it’s been a real challenge, because of how we started off doing it. We already had seats for Ty Majeski. We had inserts, we had everything. But with the way NASCAR is going to tech these cars and trying to get new cars built with the carbon fiber bodies—and not building too far ahead in case we have to make changes for performance—we were limited with the number of backup cars we could have.
“Then in December, when they laid out the driver lineup, we realized there are certain points in the year when it’s almost every week we’re switching drivers so it would make our Mondays and Tuesdays super hectic. Now you’re not only changing seats, pedals, seat belts, head rests but front and rear windshields because the drivers' names are on the windshields; and paint schemes, because we’ve opened it up so that Penske can sell some sponsorship. But we quickly realized it was going to be a lot more work than we thought on our side.”
Kelley's experience speaks for itself
Still, when it comes to handling young drivers, RFR could not have selected a better candidate for the job. Kelley has guided nine different drivers over in his 11 seasons as a crew chief. For the last three years, Kelley was a car chief on the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Kelley, who won back-to-back titles on the Xfinity tour with Stenhouse in 2011-2012, has nurtured his share of up-and-coming drivers over the years and tackled the challenges along the way.
“He did a great job when he came over to be my crew chief when I was a rookie, and he got David Ragan when he was a rookie and some of those other ones when Roush was having quite a few drivers come through,” Stenhouse said of his former crew chief and friend. “He kind of helped build that Xfinity program back when we had five or six Xfinity cars back in the day before I got there. I think the confidence that he has as a crew chief in this sport and what he’s done carries over to the drivers as well.
“When he was working on our Cup cars, I felt like he was making sure he did everything he could to make sure that we had the most downforce last year every time we hit the race track, and I had confidence in that. I think he’ll do that same thing for the three rookie drivers he has, and I feel like, out of any of the crew chiefs I’ve worked for, for a rookie (driver), I feel like he’s the one to do the job. He believes in all of them, and if they can get things going and organize as quick as possible, that they’ll be competing for some wins before it’s over with.”
Despite being pulled in a variety of directions, Kelley appears to have a handle on the situation—but there has been compromise along the way. Take the drivers’ seats, for example.The team elected to purchase the same type of seats for Majeski as for Cindric and Briscoe, so it’s only a matter of moving the mounts, but not the buckets as well. Still, there’s a checklist of items specific to the drivers that provide no economy of scale.
“It’s a lot of work, but we’re getting that part behind us right now,” Kelley said. “If I told you most of my winter was seats, seat belts, headrests and pedals, most people would laugh but that’s what it’s been.
“And working around their schedules. They’ve been busy. Austin is racing everything he can get in. He’s been in Sweden. Chase, we went to Chili Bowl. Ty’s been getting Late Model stuff done. They’ve been testing the IMSA cars and racing IMSA and been in the simulator. So with all of their schedules and all of our schedules, it’s really been a work in progress. But today, it’s becoming part of the norm.”
As Kelley walks through the Roush Fenway Racing shop, there’s an assembly system where a variety of mechanics oversee different aspects of the cars for Daytona and Atlanta. The crews have moved past the necessities—pit boxes, tool boxes and transports. Now he can finally focus on building cars.
Precision is key
But there are challenges there as well. In the back corner of the massive building is Roush’s own Optical Scanning Station—complete with 17 cameras and eight projectors to measure the cars precisely before they leave for the race track.
Like most of the Xfinity Series garage, Roush Fenway Racing is moving full-speed-ahead to embrace the new flange-fit composite bodies. What complicates the move, however, is NASCAR also introducing the new inspection process at the same time. While Kelley understands the challenge is the same for all the teams, he just wishes teams had a better understanding of the fabrication of the 13-pieces that comprise the new bodies.
“You’re asking the teams to hold tolerances that are super tight when we’re not building the parts,” Kelley said. “We’re assembling them. It’s tough. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of multiple times putting the cars together—bolting a fender on, taking a fender off, putting a door on, taking a door off.
“We don't know what they’re going to be like after they roll down the road to California in a truck for 24 hours, and we have to unload with less people than ever, and you have two hours and 30 minutes to be ready and have an inspection sticker to make laps for practice. That’s a lot to ask when we’ve never seen this. We’ve never done this. Roush is super fortunate, because we bought a Hawk-Eye (OSS) system. But if you’re going to do it right, that’s what you have to do.”
Kelley is also uneasy with diminishing crews—particularly on the NXS side. In addition to trying to perfect a five-man pit stop, accomplishing tasks with a roster of 12, compared with 20 on the Cup side, doesn’t add up to the pragmatist.
“For us to have two guys sit on the pit box, five guys over the wall and five guys on this side of the wall trying to catch tires and hand over fuel cans, I’m just concerned that I’ll have a really fast car at Daytona and some, silly problematic pit stop will take us out of the race,” Kelley said. “Right now, I’m not worried about whether it’s a 16-second pit stop or a 15-second pit stop. I’m worried that it’s a problem-free pit stop, and I don’t have tires going everywhere and people dropping fuel cans. I just want to make sure we can walk before we can run.”
In addition to developing the three drivers, Kelley is undertaking the training of novice crew personnel as well. He knows the investment in youth will pay off over the grueling 10-month, 33-race schedule.
“We built a really young group of guys, and not one of them are in a position they’ve ever been in before,” Kelley said. “There was a lot of promoting from within. We looked outside of the box and picked up some guys from World of Outlaws series on our team that are just hungry and want to work. So now you’re trying to teach them their jobs like what a checklist looks like and what the K-rig (a K&C rig that tests chassis performance) looks like.
“So that’s been a neat part of it. It’s been a lot of work, but I think that’s going to pay off for us starting around April or May, down the road, just having a young group of guys that are digging. The beginning of the season means a lot, too, to get off on the right foot. But I know when we’re trying to find speed in our cars once we get through the West Coast and start making adjustments... when we have a new chassis coming, we’ll be ready in April and May.”
Kelley believes that Ford Performance “nailed it” when they recruited the three drivers. While they’re different on the track and off, he’s impressed by how the racers carry themselves.
“I’m glad they’re not looking at this as an individual’s opportunity to ‘I need to out-perform him to get a job,’ kind of deal,” Kelley said. “They all realize that if they all work together, their careers will be better, right? If the 60 is faster, if the 60 is better, it will help each one of them wherever their future goes.”
Kelley’s take on his triple threat
Ty Majeski—Ty is obviously one of the most talented Late Model drivers to sit in a car. His winning average is second to none. I heard a lot about him and I heard a lot about his iRacing background—which I haven’t figured out how that works or what that does yet. I sat down with him in September or October and we talked about running Homestead. Jack (Roush) wanted him to run Homestead and that was great. We went and tested Darlington. And I felt like If I closed my eyes, it was like listening to Mark Martin or Matt Kenseth. That’s how he works on a car. He’s super calm. Things don’t get to him. He works on every part of the car. He’s very methodical and he has the language. He knows what he’s talking about—and he’s good at what he does.
Chase Briscoe—Chase, when I shut my eyes, it’s like being back and working with Ricky for the first time. A lot of talent. Doesn’t have the vocabulary. Doesn’t care what you do to the car. He’s just going to tell you whether it’s fast or not. He’s going to hammer the gas and the car’s going to go fast. I watched Chase a lot in the truck series without ever knowing I was going to work with him. I remember St. Louis. I thought he had the most dominant truck and thought he was going to win that race easily. They had a different pit strategy and he came out second. But I remember how he handled that after that race. I thought, here’s his chance to either make fans or lose fans and he handled it perfectly—just as I expected him to.
Austin Cindric—I don’t really have any experience with Austin. I listened to him at Homestead—to his truck race—and he’s done a phenomenal job in a short amount of time in a stock car. He’s young and doesn’t seem to be scared to do anything or hold back any punches. Obviously, we all watched the road course truck race. He did what he had to do. At first, as a fan and a guy who works on race cars, when I watched him pull that move, I was mad. I was really going to be mad if he got out and said it was an accident. But he didn’t. He owned it. He said he did it for a reason. And I respected him for that. He didn’t shy away from it. He did it. And maybe that is the guy I want driving my car.