Ever wonder about those engineers atop the pit box next to the crew chiefs working away on their computers during the race? This week’s NASCAR Behind the Scenes focuses on one such engineer, Tom Gray, who works with Jeff Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports Team 24.
“I’m the race engineer for the No. 24 car and my primary duties are looking at the simulation and working on race setups,” Gray said. “In layman’s terms, it’s kind of like finance. We look at graphs and try to boil what is happening on the track down to numbers.
It’s very much number crunching, turning Jeff’s feelings and the reactions of the cars into numbers and graphs. We compare those back and forth in order to optimize the setup. It’s an iterative process to optimize the car’s set up.
Basically, it’s a combination of speed and handling and Jeff’s feel and combining that all together.”
Much of Gray’s work, as with the other race engineers, does revolve around not only watching action on the track but also analyzing it all through technology.
“There are different kinds of programs we use for analysis,” Gray said. “Each team kind of has its own proprietary simulation package. It really does look like a stock graph, like when you think in terms of market trends. That’s how we digest amounts of data quickly.
My wife likes to call it ‘looking at colored, squiggly lines.’ That’s pretty much what we do on a daily basis.”
So, just how did Gray get into the business of race engineering?
“It’s a funny story,” Gray said. “My grandfather owned Mario Andretti’s sprint car. And my dad also drove sprint cars. I drove stock cars. So, we kind of have had a long family legacy I guess in racing. I’ve always been around it from a young age. So, I grew up racing go-karts and progressed to stock cars.
I went to school at Purdue University and graduated from there. I worked in the ASA Series and crew chiefed an ARCA car. And then I got my start through the ARCA Series when we bought old Evernham cars. I met a few people from Evernham Motorsports and then later got a job there. I worked with them until 2008 and then made the move to Hendrick.
I started out as a shop-based engineer at Hendrick, not really traveling. I had had some race engineer experience at Evernham, so it was a quick progression. Once they find out you’ve traveled, it’s a quick progression because it takes a certain personality and a certain type of person to want to do this because of the rigorous schedule. When they find us, they are quick to put us on the road.
And the rest is history.”
As with every race team, Gray has experienced the highs and, unfortunately, the lows that professional auto sports brings.
“My biggest accomplishment, growing up in Indianapolis, was winning the Brickyard,” Gray said. “Winning at Indy was amazing. It’s funny because I have pictures of my grandfather back when he was a chief mechanic at the track. They used to line up in front of the cars and take pictures, which was really neat and a cool tradition. So, to have a similar on the bricks and on pit road was really neat. We were all lined up kissing the bricks. That’s my biggest accomplishment.”
Gray’s biggest challenge is one that he will be facing this week at Kentucky, a track where his driver has not yet won.
“The biggest challenge for me comes with NASCAR rule changes and tires,” Gray said. “That’s very challenging. Every year it seems like you have to figure things out all over again. It’s good and I like the challenge. It keeps things interesting, but it is a challenge.
These are very complicated things in general when you figure all the mechanical moving parts on the car, Jeff’s feel for the car, the tires and then the rule changes with the aero packages. And then you have to figure in how good it is not only in clean air but in traffic.
And not only that, but you also have track conditions, temperatures, sunny, clouds. You have to take a step back every time and reorganize. And the quicker you can do that, the better you will perform.”
While Gray acknowledged that he has one of the best drivers and one that will likely be in the Hall of Fame shortly, he also spoke to the importance of the race team and of the team itself, under the leadership of Rick Hendrick.
“The driver has a lot to do with performance but having a good team is critical,” Gray said. “The product you bring to the track and how to balance that with your driver speaks volumes about how important each team is.
You can have a great driver and an ill-prepared car and you won’t win the race. So, the team is definitely important so we strive to execute on a weekly basis. That’s a huge task for us and a challenge to balance it all out.”
“The one thing I love about Rick Hendrick and working at Hendrick Motorsports is that it is a big family,” Gray continued. “Ethically to me, I thrive in an environment where people do care about the people they are working with and it is that type of an environment.
Mr. H. always makes a point to treat his people very well. I think that’s important. This is a rigorous schedule. We work a lot together and it’s easy to get a bit catty with each other. So, letting people know they are doing a good job and are appreciated is important. So, ethically we are on the same page there.
My dad owned a machine shop and he was very much a blue collar, hard worker. I believe that hard work is the key like my dad. You don’t get anywhere without hard work so I spend a lot of hours working at the shop and at the track and that is what Hendrick Motorsports is all about.”
While Gray admitted to thoroughly enjoying his current role as race engineer, he also might like to try his hand at another job in the future.
“I would say this job is close to my dream job,” Gray said. “But I would like to crew chief someday. But this job is pretty close to being my perfect role.
It’s funny, when you are having a bad day, I remember that I get to race for a living. The fans are great so being at the track is a lot of fun.”
For Gray, the role of race engineer is not only a dream job but has been a dream come true for him personally.
“For me, growing up in Indianapolis, I got to see Jeff win his first Brickyard 400, the inaugural one,” Gray said. “I actually had a hat that I got signed by him.
So, almost twenty years later, I wore that same hat and sat on his pit box,” Gray continued. “That was pretty awesome.
Jeff laughed and told me that I made him feel old. I don’t know, it’s pretty awesome.
To be able to work with guys like the caliber of Jeff Gordon, one of the all-time greats, I feel like is a privilege. I try to make the most of it every day.
So, yes, I’ve been fortunate and this is awesome.”