Jimmy Makar Turned a ‘Crazy’ Career Move into Unequaled NASCAR Success at Joe Gibbs Racing11/13/2020
It’s hard to imagine a more obscure place to find a NASCAR superstar executive than Morristown, N.J., an affluent bedroom community in north central Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City. Racing country it ain’t.
We’re not talking Moorestown, which is along the New Jersey Turnpike at Exit 4, across the Delaware from Philadelphia. And we’re certainly not talking Mooresville, north of Charlotte near Lake Norman, home to many NASCAR teams and thousands of drivers, crewmen, and industry vendors. That Mo-Town calls itself Race City USA.
Morristown is the home turf of Jimmy Makar, an unheralded but vitally important player at North Carolina-based Joe Gibbs Racing. He was team owner Joe Gibbs’s second or third hire when the organization was being built in 1991. He was crew chief for startup driver Dale Jarrett and his successor, Bobby Labonte, from 1992 until becoming the organization’s Director of Competition in 2001. He’s currently Senior Vice President of Racing Development, responsible for everything JGR fields in NASCAR and ARCA. He also assists in engineering and has a voice in the aerodynamic development of JGR cars. He seldom basks in the spotlight he has done so much to create.
Makar relocated from New Jersey to Charlotte in 1976, bringing along his father’s wrecked Cup Series car for attention from legendary mechanics Banjo Matthews and Robert Gee. The hot rod-obsessed Makar family didn’t race, but loved NASCAR enough to field mid-pack rides for a handful of struggling drivers in 1977 and 1978. Jimmy’s “repair visit” led to a full-time job with Gee, one of racing’s most memorable characters.
Over the next 13 years he also worked with Harry Hyde, Ron Benfield, Buddy Parrott, and Junior Johnson. He was part of the 1989 Cup-winning team of owner Raymond Beadle and driver Rusty Wallace, then became crew chief when Wallace moved to Penske South in 1990.
All the while, Gibbs was coaching the Washington Football Team (back then, it was still called the Redskins) and—quietly, under the radar—building a race team to debut in 1992. He and his family—wife Pat and sons Coy (a Stanford linebacker) and J.D. (a William and Mary defensive back)—wanted to go racing. Joe had been coaching since 1964 and was wearing down. Neither Coy nor J.D.—the latter died in January of 2019—had the chops for pro ball. All three were semi-serious gearheads who felt racing would feed their competitive juices and keep the family close.
Makar knew little of Gibbs, but quickly learned the one thing on which all agree. “He was then and he still is a workaholic,” Makar said. “They said that when he was in-season coaching, he’d spend six nights in his office and go home maybe one night a week. When I went to work for him it was nothing to get a call real, real late at night and he’d be asking, ‘what’s going on? What are you working on?’ He still comes to the race shop every day. If he’s not there, he’s probably out seeing sponsors or taking care of business. He’s completely involved every day.”
In the early 1990s Gibbs began surveying the financial landscape with business associates Don Meredith (no, not that Don Meredith) and Rick Hendrick colleague Jimmy Johnson (no, not that Jimmy Johnson). When they landed a promising sponsorship deal from Interstate Batteries and its all-in CEO Norm Miller, the Gibbs family forged ahead with plans to go racing in 1992.
At the time, they had absolutely nothing except a vague outline. There was no shop. No rolling stock. Not a piece of sheet metal. No nuts or bolts or drills or metal-shaping equipment. No administrative or shop staff. No deal with a manufacturer, although Hendrick had pledged to get Chevrolet aboard. There were times in 1991 when Gibbs was torn between the status of holdout quarterback Mark Rypien and his search for a NASCAR crew chief. Somehow, in each day’s 24 hours, he flawlessly built two championship teams at the same time.
Other than the usual lunchtime gossip, Makar knew little about the Gibbs project. He didn’t know until late in the process that Gibbs had quietly signed Dale Jarrett to be his startup team’s first driver. (It probably helped that Makar is married to Jarrett’s sister, Patti). At the time, Jarrett was doing well in Cup with Wood Brothers Racing, having gotten his first career victory in Michigan in 1991. (His departure for JGR after that season still rankles the Woods to some extent).
When Gibbs asked Jarrett for a crew chief suggestion, his driver-in-waiting didn’t hesitate. “There were times when we’d be at family events talking racing, and we both thought it would be cool to someday work together at the Cup level,” Makar recalled. “Joe had signed Dale earlier that (1991) season, then Dale approached me. He’d told Joe he probably couldn’t get me; almost certainly couldn’t get me. But we talked about it and I figured, ‘well, why not just talk to Joe. What harm will that do?’ ”
On a mid-summer afternoon in 1991 Gibbs and Makar spent two hours talking in a hotel near the Charlotte airport. Makar was impressed by Gibbs’s confidence that his team would be a winner. “He explained what he had in mind, what he and his family wanted to do,” Makar said. “He explained what he had—help from Hendrick on cars and engines—and what he didn’t have—which was just about everything else. But what he talked about most was his philosophy about team-building, whether it was football or racing or anything else.
“He talked more about people and relationships than about parts and pieces.”
“He talked more about people and relationships than about parts and pieces. He said we can all get the same parts and pieces, but the difference in your team and mine is the people working with those parts and pieces. I’d never heard anyone talking about racing in those terms, with the idea that people matter more than equipment. That’s what sold me, the unusual idea that people and their relationships are more important than cars and engines and technology. You know, stuff that everybody can get.”
Not surprisingly, Makar was torn. Friends asked why he’d leave Penske, among the most powerful men in worldwide motorsports. Penske South already had everything in place to be successful for years. (Time has shown that to be spot-on). Gibbs had nothing except two (going on three) Super Bowl rings. Penske was a known quantity. Gibbs was an NFL star, but what did he really know about racing? Still, something about the Gibbs philosophy resonated with Makar.
“People wondered why I’d leave Roger and Rusty for a new deal that had nothing,” Makar said. “One thing was, I had three bosses at Penske South. Roger had the most ownership share and Rusty and Don Miller split the rest. That sometimes made it tough to get anything of importance done. I struggled with that three-way dynamic.
“It was hard—really hard—to leave Roger in the middle of that 1991 season. We won both Pocono races that year and after the second one (in late July), Roger and I sat in the airport and talked about the Gibbs offer for an hour. The crew was on the plane, waiting to go home, but Roger and I had to talk it out. Finally, we settled it and flew back home.”
Makar’s mind was made up—or was it? He had always wanted to work with his brother-in-law and here was the perfect opportunity. But Makar didn’t know that Jarrett would last only 1992, 1993 and 1994 at JGR before going to Robert Yates Racing. But, of course, nobody knew Yates would lose Davey Allison in a 1993 helicopter crash, then lose Ernie Irvan to serious injuries in a 1994 crash in Michigan.
“But it still didn’t make 100 percent sense,” Makar said of his Penske-to-Gibbs decision. “Even when I decided, it still seemed crazy; I still struggled with it. But in the end, it just felt like the right thing to do. After thinking about it for a few days, everyone decided I should leave Penske right away and not finish the year. That turned out best for everyone because I had a ton of work to get the new team going in time for the 1992 Daytona 500.”
Today, 30 years and 358 Cup and Xfinity victories after Makar signed on, Gibbs credits his longest-tenured employee with much of the organization’s success. If there was a second choice for crew chief, Makar never knew. If Jarrett hadn’t been Gibbs’s first choice, where would JGR be today? Makar said Gibbs wanted a second-generation driver with unblemished character, someone who’d grown up around the sport and with immediate name recognition. Jarrett checked every box perfectly.
“Our best chance to recruit quality drivers was because we had Jimmy as a crew chief,” Gibbs said recently. “Jimmy gambled right off the bat. We didn’t have anything. He gambled and came with us and I think it gave us credibility to people like Bobby Labonte and others who were willing to step into our team. We will always be indebted to Jimmy.”
And, certainly, vice versa.
By the Numbers
Very quietly, without much fanfare or showy displays, Jimmy Makar has built one of the most impressive off-track resumes in all of NASCAR. He’s been a rock at Joe Gibbs Racing almost since Day One, either the second or third employee – Gibbs can’t recall precisely – to come aboard in the summer of 1991.
He won a Cup Series championship as a crew chief, four other Cup titles as JGR’s competition director, and two Xfinity Series titles as competition director. Approaching his 31st year with Gibbs, the 64-year-old New Jersey native is hands-on if needed, but is primarily an invaluable corporate troubleshooter these days with the title of Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations.
Cup Series crew chief victories
Grand Slam victories as crew chief at Daytona 500, Talladega 500, Coca-Cola 600, Brickyard 400, and Southern 500:
Grand Slam victories as competition director/Senior VP of Racing Operations at Daytona 500, Talladega 500, Coca-Cola 600, Brickyard 400 and Southern 500
Overall career record as crew chief and competition director/Senior VP of Racing Operations since JGR’s first race at Daytona International Speedway in February of 1992
JGR owner championships with Makar
Rookies of the Year at JGR with Makar
Hall of Fame honorees with Makar at JGR
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