Greg Zipadelli (L) and Tony Stewart, during their early days together. Now together again, but in bigger roles (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Greg Zipadelli puts it out flat clearly:
The main goal of this whole 2013 project, Zipadelli points out, isn't to please drivers or crews. It's to get fans more interested in this sport....after several years of declining interest and declining crowds.
"At the end of the day the most important thing is that this new car comes to the track and races good. We need to satisfy our fans. That's the most important thing.
"We know it's been a tough couple of years."
Just why new sheet metal and chassis stuff should radically shake things up in this part of the sports world isn't clear.
Nevertheless that's the push -- that the 2013s will help rally fans back to NASCAR racing.
As Tony Stewart's long-time confidante, sage counselor, chief strategist, and consigliere, going back to the days when both men were rookies on the stock car tour, Zipadelli has been through it all with the three-time NASCAR champion. The goods times, and the bad.
And last season wasn't really filled with a lot of the good times.
In fact Stewart's last real hurrah was that now infamous last lap at Talladega in the fall, when in his bid for victory and a shot to get back in the Sprint Cup title chase, Stewart missed badly in his move to chop off Michael Waltrip the last lap.
The video: here
The season had opened on such a series of highs. Coming off his dramatic 2011 championship, Stewart won Las Vegas, he won California, he won Daytona in July, and he finished second at Michigan and Sonoma.
However after winning on the seventh of July, Stewart's season began going downhill.
Steve Addington (L), Tony Stewart's crew chief, and Greg Zipadelli (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The man charged with getting things turned around now is Zipadelli, now into his second season as competition director, and a man whose patience over the years with the often volatile Stewart has been amazing to watch.
The Stewart team is still a rather new team, all in all. And it's still expanding...and still struggling to get enough sponsors on the quarterpanels. Stewart says he's got nine 'open' races, teammate Ryan Newman has eight, and teammate Danica Patrick, this year to be her first full-time on the Cup tour, has three.
Competition director. It's a job that the man defines. And it means different things at different teams.
Zipadelli has grown into that job, just a year into it really, rather quickly.
But he says it hasn't been that easy, because he really misses the drama of being a crew chief.
"I miss it very much. I didn't realize how much I loved what I did...
"I've been a crew chief since I was 14, younger than the average person in this sport. And I didn't know till the Daytona 500 (last year) how much I missed it, when I went out to pit road and didn't know where my place was.
"...how much I miss it, and those butterflies and those wrenching decisions...
"It's amazing how that becomes such a part of your life."
"Being competition director has way less to do with the car than with people. I've got a (new) job and I'm trying to figure it out, and hopefully I can find a way to help these guys...."
A shoulder to lean on? "I talk to myself more than I ever have," Zipadelli says with a laugh.
Danica Patrick, Zipadelli's charge last season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Zipadelli has shuffled some people around for 2013, moved crew chief Tony Gibson to Patrick's team, put Matt Borland in charge of Newman's team, and shuffled some of Stewart's road engineers back to the shop, where the new 2013s are a handful, and added some crewmen "who are full of life," to add some pizazz.
The 2013s are probably the biggest issue facing all teams as the year gets under way. Most have focused most efforts on their Daytona 500 cars, and only now are they really pushing full-bore on cars for the tour's many mid-sized tracks.
Testing? Well, there's been a lot of track time put in, but how much of that will translate to Sundays once the season gets going is unclear.
A major worry at the moment is what to expect at Daytona. The tour's only big test for the season opener ended in a big crash a week ago, and teams, already too short on sheet metal, packed up for home rather than risk tearing up more cars.
Zipadelli says he's got three Daytona cars for each of his three teams.
But he says the NASCAR template measurements this season will be even tighter than the past few seasons, so just about every part has to be measured specifically for each car. Fixing a ding, or worse, may not be possible, without major reworking to meet the NASCAR templates. Most major body parts are now stamped with serial numbers, and Zipadelli says he figures anyone messing with any of those body parts could be in for a big penalty. (That may well be part of the fallout from the Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus C-post controversy.)
That may mean that logistics and car count management may be critical in the early weeks of the new year.
And the new 2013s feature a number of small body tweaks -- like the refueling point in a new position -- that could upset a pit crew's timing.
Zipadelli, in the middle of a scrum with Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The new 2013s are such a big PR gambit for NASCAR that the car changes may overshadow the drivers themselves early on. Stewart says the key to the new season is how well the teams themselves adjust to the new car, more than how the drivers adapt.
After some six years of running cars with identical 'common body' templates, the 2013s are designed to show more Detroit character lines. That's in part a major push by Detroit car makers, trying to keep this sport relevant to what they are trying to do -- sell passenger cars. And already Dodge/Chrysler officials have seen fit to drop NASCAR; NASCAR execs concede they see no particular move by Dodge/Chrysler to get back into this sport.
With such major changes in the cars, Zipadelli concedes one make could wind up with an early advantage. "You know what's going to happen -- if the Fords (for example) go out and run good, then everybody else is going to be bitching," Zipadelli says.
"Hopefully we won't see that for a while."
But Zipadelli says, from the competition side of his job, he would like for his men to have a lot more latitude in what they can do to their cars. "Those were really fun days, the late 1990s and early 2000s, when we were moving bodies and tweaking them, and making downforce," he says. "You'd show up one week and see what someone else had just done and say 'Holy cow, we've got to go back and get to work.'"
And back then you could go back to the shop and rebuild a car for the next race.
"Now it's frustrating, because we've lost a little of that."
From week to week teams would change things and rivals would complain to NASCAR, and it was something of a big circus. "And we were right in the middle of it, when we were running Pontiacs," Zipadelli said.
"But right now I don't think NASCAR is interested in going back and changing rear spoilers and front splitter to please manufacturers."
One major chassis change for this season is under the rear of the car, "where teams were doing a lot of crazy things with the swaybar, to hold the backs of these cars up (to add downforce).
"Another issue is figuring out the aero-balance, and where this car wants to be run (at what attitude, relative to the track), particularly in traffic...which nobody's really seen so far."
And that may be a big issue early in the season, that there simply hasn't been enough testing by teams and NASCAR to fully validate the engineering designs. For whatever reason, the 2013 project fell way behind schedule last season, parts were almost impossible to come by, for still inexplicable reasons, and teams finally demanded that NASCAR come up with a complete rules package, regardless, because they had to start building cars.
Stewart, an Indy-car champion once, remember, just made a difficult decision to turn down a very good offer from Roger Penske to drive for him in the Indianapolis 500. Stewart, who has twice done the Indy-Charlotte double, turned Penske down, though says it was an open-ended invitation that he might accept eventually.
Zipadelli is thus relieved. "I'm sure it tempted him," Zipadelli says. "But he's got a lot at stake in what he has here. Now I know some of you might not think he's shown a ton of maturity (here Zipadelli smiles), but he has shown some in a lot of areas and this is one.
"Who wouldn't be flattered to have that opportunity? But at the end of the day he knows he made the right decision. And he's still got a couple of good years left here (he turns 42 in May), and I don't think he's willing to give those up."
Okay, what did go wrong last season?
"I think we got off on a couple of things," Zipadelli says. "We built a couple of new cars, which didn't turn out to be any better than what we had.
"It was just a lot of little things."
He adds that coming off a championship season, "unless you're Jimmie Johnson," is tough.
This season? Zipadelli, like many right now, is uncertain of what to expect. "Until we line 43 cars up and race a couple of times, I'm not sure we'll know where we're at. But I think we're in as good a shape as anybody else."
Zipadelli is pinning a lot of hope on his engineers, particularly Borland, who he hopes "can steer that part of the ship."
One curious issue with the new cars seems to be that the noses and tails don't align that well, unlike in years past.
That was one reason for the big Daytona crash Jan. 11.
"There are so many different character lines and radiuses with the noses....and, face it, they (NASCAR officials) don't want these guys bump-drafting," Zipadelli says.
And how much of a distraction is Danica Patrick? Yes, she's a hot button item for sponsors, but 2011 was a bad year for her, and in running just 10 Cup events. This season she'll be running all 36. And so far she's been less than impressive on the track.
Zipadelli, though, and Stewart too both play up Patrick's positives.
"I worked with her last year (as Cup crew chief), and she's got a lot of heart and a lot of passion," Zipadelli says. "She listens, she's open to criticism. She gets it.
"I was really, truly amazed in how far she came in those few races. Look at Bristol, for example. She did an amazing job of growing throughout that weekend.
"When you have someone who is making progress, who has a good attitude, who is upbeat, and who really wants to be here and be part of this....."
Greg Zipadelli has been through it all with Tony Stewart in their many years together (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)