In this edition of Speedway Media’s first-seasons column, we caught up with former NASCAR Crew Chief and now Vice President of Competition for Stewart-Haas Racing, Greg Zipadelli. He discusses how he became a crew chief in NASCAR, how he connected with Joe Gibbs Racing, his success with Tony Stewart, and more.
SM: You burst onto the NASCAR scene in the early 90s when you were only 21-years-old as a crew chief for your family team in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour with Mike McLaughlin in 1988. The team advanced to the Busch North Series in the early 90s and had success. What drew you to make a career in racing and why did you choose the role of crew chief versus being a driver?
GZ: “I don’t know, I just always remember being three or four years old going to the races because my uncle, he always owned an asphalt modified and ran in New England, my dad built the motors in the early days and the car was kept in our house a little bit so I was just around it,” Zipadelli said.
“I always liked working on them (cars), that seemed to be my comfort zone. I just never had a desire to drive. I never had money to speak of to build my own car or even try that. I just don’t know, I didn’t have a lot to desire (to drive a car) I always enjoyed working on them more.”
SM: You had a lot of success early on in your career, winning a combined eight races in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Why did you have so much success in your career as you started?
GZ: “Well, I had been involved early on when I was working on them,” he said. “I was just young as a crew chief. I think when a lot of people come into the sport young, they have a different mindset. I didn’t have any bad habits or notions of this is what works. It was like, ‘let’s try this. Let’s do that.’
“I was working on the same car when Brett Bodine came to work for us. With Mike (McLaughlin), we ran (NASCAR) Busch North Cars. Mikey was doing really well at that time and him and I hit it off.”
SM: After spending some time in the Modified Tour and Busch North Tour, your first major break came in 1997 as a crew chief for Mike Stefanik in the Nazareth race. Unfortunately, your day ended early due to a crash. But, in the weeks leading up to that event, were you anxious or nervous about working as a crew chief in the Busch Series knowing it was your big break?
GZ: In ’88, ’89, ’90, we ran the Modified and then ’91 we ran with a limited schedule with McLaughlin,” Zipadelli said. “We were kind of dabbling with the Busch North Car, going back and forth. We then went Busch North racing for a few years. McLaughlin was there for a few years and then Stefanik came and took the ride.”
“I had crew chiefed all those years in the Busch North Tour. We did a lot of things together as friends.”
SM: Following the ‘97 season in the K&N East Series, you were on a one-year hiatus before returning to the sport full-time crew as a crew chief for one of the up-and-coming drivers of the sport, Tony Stewart. How did you connect with Joe Gibbs Racing and get paired with Stewart for your first season in Cup?
GZ: “So, in ’92 and ’93, I moved down and worked for Todd Bodine in the Busch Series, but I still owned a house in New York with Mike McLaughlin,” he said. “That’s when I took McLaughlin and said ‘come on back here. We’ll put you full-time’ and so I packed up and moved home.
“Honestly, it felt like I never accomplished something in the Busch North Tour. I wanted to win a championship in that series before I left to crew chief in the Cup Series.
“I went to work for Jeff Burton and I built shocks, changed tires, I was the car chief for that role in that year (1998). We were parked next to the 18 (Bobby Labonte) and I got to meet with Jimmy Makar and they were starting their second team and he asked if I was interested in working for their second team. I met Jimmy at the old Cracker Barrel and we hung out for a while and talked.
“That afternoon, I got a call from Joe Gibbs and he asked if I could meet him at Denny’s in Huntersville, North Carolina and we sat down and just talked. At that time, I could do anything on a racecar. Jimmy was talking to me about doing shocks and car chiefing that team. However, a day later, Joe called me back and asked me if I was interested in the crew chief job. It literally happened that quick. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded with a lot of great drivers in my life. With that being said, it was fun and we had a lot of fun.”
SM: Do you remember your first conversations with Tony Stewart? How did that all become about?
GZ: “I talked to Joe (Gibbs) and I accepted the offer,” Zipadelli said. “Afterward, he gave me Tony’s number and I gave him a call. (Tony) was still in Columbus, Indiana. I called him and Tony had a bunch of people over at his place playing pool and we talked for a quite bit. I don’t know when (we met), but it wasn’t long after that where we went down to Daytona and started working the test session.
“Tony wasn’t very involved in what went on with the team, he would just show up and drive. My personality was just to take ownership of everything and being responsible, it worked good for us.”
SM: Your first Daytona experience was that year and your driver was on the front row in your first gig as a crew chief in the Cup Series. Even though you, unfortunately, finished 28th, 19 laps down, do you have good memories of that experience? Do you remember your thoughts when you first entered the track and experienced all of the excitement that racing at Daytona brings? Did you look forward to it and did you feel ready or were you nervous?
GZ: “Oh gosh, there’s always nerves,” he said. “To roll down to Daytona, we didn’t have any points. Back then, you had 50 cars (show up and qualify) and we had to qualify our way in. Fortunately, we tested and had a really good racecar and qualified on the outside pole. However, we had an issue with the intake manifold and we ended up not running very well in that race.”
SM: At the Martinsville race that season, you qualified on the pole with Stewart and were a part of helping the team gain momentum with a string of top-five finishes, with the exception of Richmond. Was there a particular moment during the ‘99 season when you and the team began to get comfortable with the car or was there still a learning curve as the season progressed?
GZ: “I’ll be honest with you, I’m always a believer that there is a learning curve,” Zipadelli said. “I don’t know, if the learning curve ever ends, you’re always trying to adjust. There was a time during midseason, I don’t know when exactly, but I think it was the Loudon race that we should have won but ran out of gas. At that point, we realized, we can do this but we just have to clean up the loose ends. Winning a Cup race is hard.
“I learned a lot and I still beat myself up over it. Shortly after, we won Richmond, then Phoenix and Homestead. We had a very successful rookie season.”
SM: You got your first Cup Series win at Richmond as Stewart dominated the race leading 333 of the 400 laps. What does that victory mean to you today and have you ever had a chance to go back and re-watch that race?
GZ: “No, I haven’t been able to re-watch that win,” he said. “I haven’t done a good job in my life of going back to enjoy those special moments. It’s kind of been, what’s next and working harder to go to the next race.
“As far as that moment, it was surreal. We ran really well that night. That night, we closed the deal.”
SM: You and the team finished fourth in the points standings in 1999. Did finishing fourth in your first season exceed your expectations especially after earning two more wins at Phoenix and Homestead?
GZ: “Oh, absolutely,” Zipadelli said. “I don’t know if there’s anyone who has ever had that kind of season. If you go back and look, I don’t know if anyone has won three races and finish fourth (in the standings) in a rookie year as we did.”
SM: When you reflect on your career, are there any races that you wish you could go back to and have a do-over, such as a win that got away? Is there one race in particular that stands out?
GZ: “There’s a few that got away from us that we never did win,” he said. “A couple of Daytona 500s where we had some good racecars, good opportunities, but things always seem to get taken away from us at the end of the day. It is what it is at the end of the day.”
SM: Do you collect memorabilia from your career? If so, what do you have in your collection that reminds you of your early years in the sport?
GZ: “I have some articles that were done,” Zipadelli said. “I try to keep a shirt or firesuit every year that I crew chief. Other than that, not a lot. some collectible cars that we used to get all the paint schemes. I’ve got a few hoods in my shop, just the normal stuff.”
SM: Do you have a favorite victory or two from your career? What were your favorite wins and why?
GZ: “Obviously, the first Indy win for sure because that was more of a relief than excitement,” Zippadelli said. “Tony put a lot of pressure on himself to go out and perform and we had a good racecar that day. Without the Loudon win, the Indy win is definitely a highlight.”
SM: What do the Winston Cup championships in ‘02 and ‘05 mean to you and were they the highlights of your career?
GZ: “Yeah, for a kid to grow up in New England and have the opportunity to work yourself through the ranks, I mean at the time, (winning the championship) was pretty special,” he said. “During that period, there were some tough characters you were racing against, some of the greats of the sport. We were fortunate enough to have that success early on.”
SM: Do you miss working as a crew chief?
GZ: “I do. The ups and downs, the adrenaline, making good calls and bad calls. I didn’t think I would miss it as much as I do I honestly, sincerely miss it.”
SM: It’s hard to believe your first start as a crew chief came 33 years ago. If time travel was possible, what would a 54-year-old Greg Zipadelli tell a 21-year-old Greg Zipadelli? Is there anything you would do differently?
GZ: “Man, I don’t know,” the two-time Cup Series champion crew chief said as he reflected on his career. “You always look back and think if I can go back and know what I know today, how much could you do? I don’t know if I would have a whole lot to change. I was an extremely dedicated hard worker, very motivated. I think I would do the same things.
“Would I go back and do it all over again today? Definitely, I would. Honestly, I don’t know if there’s anything I could change. I would have to really think about that. I had a lot of fun crew chiefing for 33 years and having that success. I was fortunate to meet a lot of good people and make really good friends. I don’t think I would script it (my career) that much different.”
Throughout Zipadelli’s Cup Series career, the New Britain, Connecticut native has made 468 starts, earned 34 career victories, 143 top fives, 237 top-10 finishes and won 13 poles. Additionally, he won two Cup Series championships with former NASCAR driver and Hall of Famer Tony Stewart in 2002 and 2005.
Special thanks to Greg Zipadelli for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct the interview.