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Getting a Closer Look Under the Hood in NASCAR

Motor sports: New Winston Cup director learns that politics take place in the garage as well as outside of it.


Change has arrived for the competitors in the Winston Cup garage, and that's a good thing.

For nearly two years, the teams were promised that a restructuring would occur in the competition department. Last October, the official word finally came from NASCAR President Mike Helton that John Darby would replace Gary Nelson as Winston Cup director.

After a decade of being the top car czar, Nelson now is running the NASCAR research and development center in Conover, N.C., about an hour northwest of Charlotte, and Darby is the point man for the teams.

Basically, Darby is in charge of implementing and enforcing the rules in the Winston Cup garage, sort of like the supervisor of officials in the NFL. He says that while his job description is similar to the one he had in the Busch Series, the level of pressure has jumped relative to the size of the playing field.

"With Winston Cup being our diamond, the top of our pyramid, the pressures are expected," Darby says. "But if the responsibilities and the duties are under control -- and I'm not there yet but hope to be very soon -- the extended pressures are just something you have to deal with."

Since 1984, Darby has worked his way up the NASCAR ladder, and he honed his management skills as the Busch Series director the past four years. But he still carries the same air of sensibility that he developed early in his racing career as a technical inspector at Rockford (Ill.) Speedway and while working on different racing teams.

Though just 45, Darby seems wise beyond his years. His style with the crews is almost paternal, strong yet fair. The competitors may not always agree with him, but they at least find his decisions consistent. In a short period of time, he has gained the respect of many competitors in the Busch and Cup garages as an advocate for the teams.

"Working with John in the past and knowing how he structures things, there are no surprises," says Buddy Barnes, research and development manager for the No. 7 team. "He's personable and understands all the angles: the racing side, the teams and the business. You always feel like you've been heard when you go into the NASCAR trailer. He may not give you the answer you were looking for, but at least you know he'll be objective.

"He'll be under a watchful eye, and there will be times that get touchy, but he can handle it."

Last week at Daytona, Darby got a firsthand look at the increased level of lobbying that occurs in the Winston Cup garage. The red trailer could have used a revolving door for the number of top-level manufacturers' representatives who already were politicking for concessions. Darby insists that he will work to achieve parity among the teams. That's one of the main objectives during Daytona testing. He also is concerned about the speed and handling of the cars and asked drivers for their opinions about how the new aerodynamic rules package for restrictor plate tracks is working.

Despite several rules adaptations, especially for the Daytona 500, don't expect Darby to make changes throughout the year.

"I think 2002 is where we'll be looking at an all-time low number of changes," Darby says. "There may be rewording of a rule or restructuring to clear up the language. When I look at changes, I look at how those changes will affect the teams and what they'll have to do to fix their cars.

"Sure, at Daytona and Talladega there will be changes because we switched the aero package, but in general, looking at the 2002 rulebook, the changes are very few."

Most of the recent rules changes have involved safety. Darby has been on both sides of the cat-and-mouse game that develops when competitors try to get around rules, and he expects the crews to push the envelope. But he will not waver and compromise the safety of the drivers and the integrity of the cars' structure.

"If there has ever been an awareness of safety, it's now," Darby says. "It's always been one of our major concerns, but what's happened is it's not just our No. 1 concern; it has spread throughout the entire garage area. When there's time to gain a competitive edge in today's world, the teams will say, 'Let's do what we can to go faster,' but if there's any chance of putting the driver in a precarious situation, then they'll back off a little.

"My philosophies are very basic and common: If the rule says don't stick your hand on the stove, then don't stick your hand on the stove."

Darby says that as he develops new Cup relationships, the teams will learn three basic things: They can always talk to him, they can trust him, and they can have confidence that he will make proper and correct decisions. Darby says he'll "be tickled" if he can establish that type of rapport by the end of the season.

"I'm not looking for a pat on the back from (NASCAR chairman) Bill France or Mike Helton," Darby says. "But if at the end of the year the garage area doesn't feel like the season was too bad, that would be all right with me."

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