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For Jack Roush, the cat with nine lives, every Talladega race is the Larry Hicks 500....

  When Jack Roush says he's seen the light, he really has....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   It was a Heimlich maneuver, somewhere high over Daytona one lazy summer afternoon. Or maybe it was a Half-Cuban-Eight...
    "No, it's an Immelmann..." Jack Roush was saying with a laugh.
    Oh, I know....just a little Dr. Seuss, to see if Jack was paying attention.

    He likes to throw stuff like that out, so I thought I'd just toss one his way for a change.
    But whatever aerial dogfight corkscrew move Roush pulled in that P-51 certainly caught my attention pretty darned abruptly.
    But Jack Roush is like that: Just when you think you know which way things are going, and you can tell up from down, he likes to throw a fast one at you,  a change-up, or a wicked curve. To keep you on your toes.
    Sometimes it's in those witty, verbal jousts...
    Sometimes it's in an engineering dissertation on Talladega aerodynamics and engine restrictor plates....
    Sometimes it's at 10,000 feet in a restored warbird sporting enough supercharged Merlin horsepower in its 1650 c.i. to feel like it's going to take the top of your head clean off when he really gets into one of those 400 mph dive-flip-and-rolls.
    "Take a ride in my new P-51?" he'd asked. 
    Sure, why not.
   So I just squnched myself in that little space behind the pilot's seat, tightened those belts, and let him rip at it. Hey, he told me, this thing can glide three miles for every 1,000 feet if the engine conks out. Plenty of margin to find a place to land, he assured.
   Then there was the time we were flying into San Francisco International Airport one very busy afternoon, in one of Roush's small business jets, for a race at Sonoma. The other pilot was clearly getting nervous about it all, with 747s to the left of us and 747s to the right of us, and the turbulent wakes bouncing us all over the sky. And here's Jack, in the co-pilot's seat, reading to him from a landing manual, explaining how to put 'er down at one of the world's busiest airports during international Rush Hour: "Heck, it's just another airport," Roush insisted.


   For Carl Edwards (L)  those championship hopes are looking dim, but Jack Roush says Talladega could be a 150-point swing....and he's seen that himself (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Yes, Jack Roush is more than just another car owner on the stock car tour. It's like Darrell Waltrip used to say of the late Dale Earnhardt: His thrill level is a little higher than for the rest of us.
   After all, how many of these other guys have actually returned from the dead, as Roush likes to joke now about his near fatal ultra-light crash back in 2002?
   When Jack Roush says he's seen the light, he really has seen The Light.
   First time, here, eight years ago, when he got too carried away while celebrating his birthday during a Talladega race weekend break.
   Second time, a few weeks back, while landing at a big air show in Wisconsin.
   Now if you've never flown with Jack, well, it's always an adventure....whether it's watching him dancing through landing patterns at SFO during a late-afternoon deluge of trans-Pacific 747s of oh-so-many nationalities, or soaring and diving through the Atlantic coast air above Daytona in one of his P-51warbirds.....
   Nearly every time Roush comes to Talladega now, he shakes hands again with Larry Hicks, the Marine rescue specialist who pulled him up from under the waters of that nearby lake after a birthday flight gone awry and saved his life – in one of the most improbable sequence of lucky events any man could hope for. Afterwards he spent many days recovering from a head injury, broken ribs, and a shattered left leg over in Birmingham.
   It left Jack totally undaunted.
   Then just three months ago, on a leisurely July afternoon flight from his Lavonia, Mich., base to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he would be one of the featured attractions at the  Experimental Aircraft Association air show....well, Roush was indeed the featured attraction, but not quite in the way he'd envisioned.
   While landing his Hawker Premier 390, amid a furious afternoon rush-hour, Roush found himself suddenly enmeshed in a landing pattern with some much slower craft, and when he figured it was time to do a go-around and get some better air, well, things got busy in a hurry, and he dipped the wing in the grass.... 
   He managed to walk away from that, though bloodied and hurt. And after two weeks in the hospital, and some major league surgery, Roush had lost his left eye, fractured his back, and broken his jaw.
   But not his spirit.
   He missed Greg Biffle's victory that weekend at Pocono, while in the recovery room.
   But Roush was back on the pit box at Michigan the following week, a bit woozy perhaps, nevertheless back on the job.
   And he's been hard at it ever since.


Mark Martin (L): For 19 years Jack Roush's man at the wheel (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   While the cold, hard numbers might not offer much solace – Carl Edwards, 213 points back, the closest of his three men in the title chase – Roush insists he's still optimistic, with four races yet to go.
   After all, Sunday's Talladega 500 is quite the wild card....as Roush, Edwards, teammate Greg Biffle and teammate Matt Kenseth well remember from a few years back. They came here with high title hopes...only to crash out all together in the final miles while battling for the win.
   Yes, Talladega can be a graveyard for championship dreams. And next week's stop at Texas, well, remember what happened to Jimmie Johnson early on there last fall?
   Convention wisdom doesn't always hold sway in this sport. Well, unless your name is Jimmie Johnson.....
   Well, as Mark Martin, a pilot himself, explained, air shows like this one are inherently dangerous, with too many planes, and too many different types of planes, all trying to land in a very short period of time. Rush hour at air shows are, Martin says, high-tension.
   Roush says now "I can complain about it as much as I want...I was placed in a very congested environment in Oshkosh, and put in conflict with another airplane close to the ground, which prevented me from landing as I had planned.
   "And before I could get my airspace cleared and could assure myself I wasn't going to have an air-to-air with another airplane, I stalled a wing at 75 to 100 feet off the ground, and put the airplane into the ground hard. But it was upright; I didn't nose it in."
   Does the Federal Aviation Administration apologize for the traffic jam?
   The status of the investigation, Roush says, is still on-going: "The FAA has not taken punitive action against me or the controller, to my knowledge.
   "The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is in the process of interviewing everybody that was associated with it, and as many witnesses as they can find, and they'll come out with a rule as to who they think is at fault, if there was fault, and what could be done in the future to avoid similar problems.
  "It's pretty clear to me that the approach procedure and the environment I was in was not conducive to the airplane I was flying.
   "I felt that my pilot skills -- even though it was extraordinarily challenging, and took all the margin out of the performance of the airplane and my skills – that I could safely land the plane. And I would have, if there hadn't been that third conflict: there were two airplanes over the runway as I was landing, and there was a third that I didn't see until I made my final approach, right over the runway, at low altitude and low speed.
   "They (air traffic control) lost track of how many planes they had in the air. In my opinion they lost track of how many airplanes they had in the air and what their performance capabilities were.
   "The plane I was put in conflict with had a cruising speed of not more than 70 mph, and my stalling speed was about 100 mph.
   "So I was coming in behind somebody who couldn't get out of the way...and wasn't inclined to get out of the way because they didn't know I was there."
   Too many planes trying to land in too short a window?
   Roush just says "My fault is I failed to maintain air speed to keep my airplane flying.
  "Now whether I was put in a situation where I had to deal with a 'go-around,' in a congested environment of much slower airplanes that I was overtaking...."

   Bottom line here: "I've lost an eye. I'm blind in my left eye.
   "So I'm adjusting to life with my primary, dominant eye."
   Roush, since the accident, has flown some 30 hours, with another pilot along side. And he's flown in each of his many planes, "all except my P-51 Mustang."
   And that must hurt, because those P-51s have been the love of his life.
   "The sight picture and my depth perception, all the things that would indicate whether I could safely fly were in line with what I thought they should be," Roush says of his post-crash flying time.
   "I actually thought my landings might improve, because I though my left eye might have been part of my problem. But since my landings haven't improved, I guess it wasn't my left eye's fault."

    Now as that a wink he just threw at me?

   When talking to Roush about Roush and life, there are four categories of note: the RoushFenway racing operation, Roush's family, Roush Industries itself (that huge conglomerate now sporting even a medical division), and aviation.

    His family: four grandkids now, the eldest eight-years-old. Son Jack Jr. is making his mark as a sports car racer himself, and his daughter Susan Roush-McClenaghan is drag-racing, a propane-powered, nine-second bracket Mustang.
   "I still have qualms about Jack Jr. racing," Roush concedes. "The older I get, the more conservative I become, and I'm not all that happy with myself for setting up the lifestyle they're following.
    "But they're adults, and they've got children of their...and if they want to race, there's nothing I can really do to stop them."

   Jack Jr. this season finished third in sports car racing's Continental Tire classic Grand American GS series. "Eight points behind the tour champion....and after getting penalized six points for some technical indiscretion with the car, with the rulebook, which the officials didn't interpret quite as liberally as the team did," Roush noted wryly.
   Roush knows all too well how devastating those seemingly little points penalties can be to a championship drive....
   "But Jack Jr. had two wins in the series, at Homestead in March – my 400th win, and I was there. That was our 400th win in our 'modern' era...."
   Most racers, like Darrell Waltrip says, are glad just to have one 'era.' Roush likes to look at his life as two: "Until April 1984 we didn't really consider the drag racing events I won in the 1960s and 1970s that significant. We only won three championships and a couple dozen national events....kind of a down period getting started...
   "But in 1984 we won at Sears Point, with Greg Pickett (in what Roush considers his first major victory)....and then Jack Jr. won in a Mustang in 2010. Those are very significant milestones.
    "It's almost the changing of the guard – I've had my time, and Jack Jr.'s part of the company now, going on four years now, in the performance products division – figuring what to do to make the most of our internet sales division.
    "The good news he no longer has an interest in aviation...."

    Meanwhile, out on the NASCAR track, well, this season has been quite a roller-coaster. Greg Biffle came within a lap or so of winning the Daytona 500, just a few days after newcomer Kasey Kahne put a Roush-powered Ford in victory lane during a Daytona qualifier. Then came The Slump. Then came the July turnaround, and Carl Edwards' hot streak. And the Kansas City showcase Oct. 3....and just one week later the California crash.
   And now, with four races left this season --- Talladega, Texas, Phoenix, Homestead-Miami – Roush is pondering, what went right, what went wrong, what happens next:
   "Our teams last season went through a situation where our (computer) simulations had become dated," Roush says. "Richard Childress went through it too.
  "At the end of last year I said 'Man, we've got to do something.'
  "So when we had the opportunity to form a technical partnership with Richard Petty Motorsports, which was the remnants of Ray Evernham's Chrysler initiative, I saw that as an opportunity not only to help that operation reduce its costs and gain efficiencies – through our manufacturing – but also to give us an opportunity to look at some of Ray's thoughts and some of (George) Gillett's initiatives, and to marry those and apply those to our strengths.
   "They were arguably ahead of us in simulations, and some of the quality inspection things, as far as bodies go. So we put all those things together, and melded the two operations, so the engineers spoke the same language, and we had most of the same tools....
   "There was one Chrysler-supported software operation that we didn't have access to; but we've been able to see around it and behind it and through it, and use those as a means as the simulations would work during a race.
   "That technical marriage really came to maturity at Chicago. We got all the same parts on all the cars, and were able to sort out the good, the bad and the ugly."
  It was dramatic – like turning on a light switch.
  The same with Juan Pablo Montoya and Chip Ganassi in late summer 2009. The same with Childress' operations....
   When whatever it is finally comes all together, it is just like flipping a light switch.
   And since mid-July Roush's teams have been right back in the hunt.
  However recovering psychologically from the California weekend hasn't been easy.
   At least Talladega Superspeedway has been a good track for Roush men lately. Jamie McMurray won here last fall, and Roush's restrictor plate cars have been some of the fastest in the field.
   What to make of the loss of Kasey Kahne, so abruptly, last week, after a brake issue at Charlotte?
   What to make of the mysterious situation now surrounding the Richard Petty-George Gillett operation?
   And what's going on with Ford's overtures to the Chip Ganassi-Montoya-McMurray Chevy team?
   Things certainly move fast in this business.
   Roush insists Kahne's brake problems at Charlotte were "self-induced by the team, and some of the things it did to satisfy the driver.
    "It was not about the selection of parts. the parts in the car were the parts recommended by RoushFenway, and they performed well for everyone else....except for Kasey -- based on the preference he wanted in how the pedal felt."


David Ragan (R): Jack Roush's current project (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


From mid-July through mid-September Edwards was the hottest driver in the sport, winless but still with the best finishing average.
    Kansas was the high point. Biffle won again, and Roush had seven of the top 12.
    Then came the downfall at California: Biffle's engine broke, dooming his title chances, and Edwards had engine problems too that dropped him 14 laps down. A distributor rotor failure....
   Biffle's engine, Roush said, was probably too lean, in an attempt to get better gas mileage, and burned two pistons. Roush said he takes responsibility for that: "It was drier Sunday than Saturday...and we had unbelievable fuel mileage...which turned out to be unobtainable...."
   Roush says he hopes California "winds up being a mulligan...depending on what other people wind up giving us back, with their own ineptitude or misfortune."
   He says he wasn't really anticipating Martinsville, last weekend's stop, as a great day for his men.
   But here, this Sunday's 500 should be the key to whatever Roush men can take into the off-season.
   And one of the jobs Roush is putting heavy emphasis on is getting David Ragan, his fourth driver, on track. "David needs to win a race. Hopefully he can stand tall."
   Since his latest crew chief swap, Roush has seen better performance from Ragan.
  Roush hasn't been shy this season about swapping crew chiefs and drivers. He showed that in the opening days of the season when he gave Kenseth a new pit boss after just the first race of the year. And he's mixed-and-matched throughout his organization frequently this season.
   "When you're developing crews and developing drivers, and when things aren't going as well as you think they should be, you've got the question 'Is is a driver problem or crew problem?'" Roush explains.
   "We've got that with David Ragan right now. I watched (crew chief) Donnie Wingo; he did a nice job, and Jamie wanted him (last season). But we had to shut one of our five programs down, because of NASCAR's rules, and we lost Jamie's team.
    "This season Robbie Reiser (Roush's top technical boss, and Kenseth's championship crew chief from 2003) and I were watching David and Donnie very closely. And we couldn't see anything wrong that Donnie was doing strategically or hardware-wise.
    "But still they weren't getting the results.
    "So we plugged in Drew Blickensderfer, and in quick order Drew has brought blue sky back to that team, and David is no longer fourth of our four.
   "David ran top-10 at Charlotte....
   "My point is when you look at a driver and crew chief, and they're not doing what you think they should be doing,  it's hard to figure out which one is not optimum. So on the Nationwide side, we've moved people around too."
   "We're excited about Talladega, obviously. Carl could have won Talladega a year ago...."
   And Jamie McMurray did last fall for Roush, on a somewhat bittersweet day for both.
   Maybe this time Talladega will again provide a championship twist.
   For Roush men to get back in the title game Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick would all have to have a bad day over these next few weeks.
   And it can happen here, Roush points out:  "Two years ago remember Carl had his wreck at Talladega – and took out Greg and Matt...
   "...though Carl still would have won the championship that year if not for the ignition problems he had at Charlotte (two weeks earlier, when both ignition boxes inexplicably failed).
   "I still have hopes of overcoming at least one of our problems.....
   "If we can get 150 points back from those three guys, we have a chance to beat the rest of them."





Crew Chiefs

It is hard to keep up with the changes of crew chiefs. I guess Jack will figure out which driver and crew cheif work the best with each other. Of course my favorite crew chief is Drew so I go with which ever driver he is with either on the Sprint or Nationwide. I only say Drew because I know him and his family (mom & step dad) and they are the best. Go get'em Drew I see a championship in your future, boy that would make your mom the queen of crew chiefs. Jack you are doing a good job with all your drivers and crew chiefs.

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