Twenty years ago, Frank Stoddard began preparing himself for a career in Stock Car racing; he focused that preparation on becoming a Winston Cup crew chief when he met driver Jeff Burton more than a decade ago.
It appears that Stoddard has made it-big time.
As the third-year crew chief for Burton and the #99 Exide/Roush Racing Ford, Stoddard is raising eyebrows as one of the sport's brightest and most successful young team leaders.
PartnersStoddard, who turned 32 April 20, and Burton, who is only 10 months older, seem meant for each other. In fact, they have establised a business partnership and friendship not unlike that of Jeff Gordon and his former crew chief, Ray Evernham.
Stoddard, promoted to crew chief by team owner Jack Roush in 1998, led Burton to nine victories in their first 75 races together, including Las Vegas this year, and to consecutive top-five finishes in the championship point standings.
Once again, Burton is a championship contender. "There are eight to 10 teams as good as ours," says Stoddard, "and the difference in the championship this year, as always, will be the one with the fewest failures. If not for a motor failure at Rockingham and a tire failure at Atlanta, we probably would have had seven top fives in the first eight races. I feel good about the driver, the cars, the team, and the pit crew, but we cannot have a bunch of failures."
Qualifying is a problem area in which Stoddard and Burton are working diligently. Last year, Burton's average start was 18.9; for the first eight races this year, his average start has dropped to 19.25. "We have had difficulty giving Jeff the feel he needs in the car for one lap," Stoddard says. "Some people might say that he's not a good qualifier, like Dale Earnhardt, for instance. I think the bottom line is that we haven't given him the car. But I'm a lot more worried about mechanical failures than I am qualifying."
Stoddard, a native of Haverhill, New Hampshire, and Burton, of South Boston, Virginia, have been buddies since 1990, when Stoddard joined Burton's NASCAR Busch Series team, owned by Sam Ard, as a mechanic. That's in spite of Stoddard's rich New England accent and Burton's Southern drawl. "He's a Yankee with this funny accent, and we have to carry an interpreter around with us," jokes Burton affectionately. Obviously, they speak the same language when it comes to cars.
Going Home For "School"The two celebrated their first Busch Series victory together at Martinsville in 1990. Then Burton decided to switch Busch teams. He asked Stoddard to join him as crew chief, but Stoddard felt he wasn't ready for the position. Instead, he returned home to work for the venerable Stub Fadden, a New England institution. Fadden's driving career spanned 39 years, and he still buckles up occasionally at age 66. Fadden, who admired Stoddard's enthusiasm, hustle, and willingness to learn, had given him his first big break into racing when he was just 15. But by 1990, Fadden's small operation was in decline, and this time he was the one needing a break.
"Working out of a single-bay garage, I did everything there was to do on the cars and everything but drive at the track. Stub was 57 years old, but he started winning again," Stoddard says. "It was the best four years of preparing and crafting myself for Winston Cup I could have gotten.
"When I moved to North Carolina, I didn't expect to go back home. I wanted to be a Winston Cup crew chief, but when I realized the caliber of racing and people in Busch South and Winston Cup, I knew I was in over my head and that I needed to go back to 'school.' And school was Busch North, where I could cover every element. Kids today get into NASCAR, get a job as a tire guy and might be a tire specialist for 10 years, learning little else. I didn't want that."
Stoddard and Burton stayed in touch. Every time Burton made a move-to Winston Cup with Fil Martocci in 1993, to the Stavola Brothers in 1994-he offered Stoddard a job. He declined. When Burton called in 1995 after he had signed to drive for Roush Racing in 1996, Stoddard felt it was time, lest his friend stop calling. On Burton's strong recommendation and request, Stoddard was hired as chassis specialist, working for veteran crew chief Buddy Parrott.
Stoddard's life changed drastically in days. He married Heidi Griffith of Littleton, New Hampshire, on Nov. 25, 1995, a Saturday, they moved from New Hampshire to North Carolina on Sunday, and he went to work at Roush Racing near Mooresville, North Carolina, on Tuesday. Three days later, Stoddard was given a week off to honeymoon in the Bahamas. Then Heidi moved to Maine for a short time to complete her studies for a degree in education at the University of New England at Biddleford.
At the end of the '97 season, owner Jack Roush relocated Mark Martin's #6 team from Liberty, North Carolina, to the Mooresville facility. Parrott, who stands more than 30 years deep in Winston Cup experience, was named general manger of the two teams, and Stoddard, who had advanced to car chief, was promoted to Burton's crew chief. Stoddard is convinced he got the job because of Burton.
"Jeff had made me promise when I went to work for Roush to be patient and not to make waves, because he knew what an eager beaver I was," Stoddard explains. "I dedicated myself to running the program exactly the way Buddy Parrott wanted. I took the knowledge of a man who has been in racing a long time and applied it as he said, whether I agreed with everything we did or not."
Focus On RacingAt the track, Stoddard-all 5 feet 811/42 inches of him-is intense and focused on his work. He has little time for anything, or anybody, else, including his wife, who is a public relations director for Bill Davis Racing and driver Ward Burton (Jeff's older brother). "I don't even know she is at the track," says Stoddard, who is brutally honest, "and that annoys and offends her. That's the biggest problem we have-and we're working on it."
The Stoddards have the convenience of a motorhome at most of the tracks this year, and that has helped. At least they're together for the evening meal she prepares.
Racing marriages are often strained because the husband is gone much of the time. "We went from hardly seeing each other the first year we were married to seeing each other every day," says Heidi, "and that poses its own threat. I had to come to grips with the fact that he is at his place of work, and I am too. If he worked at a bank, I wouldn't be camped outside his door. I have come to understand his role at the track and give him his space."
At their Cornelius, North Carolina, home, 20 minutes from the Roush shops, Stoddard is a different person. "He is more relaxed and lots of fun," Heidi says. "Unless he has had a particularly bad day and wants to get something off his chest, we rarely discuss his work or mine."
Prove Your MettleRoush wasn't convinced Stoddard was the man to lead Burton. "Jack thought Jeff would have been better off with a veteran crew chief-Steve Hmiel, Larry McReynolds, Robin Pemberton, or Jimmy Makar," says Stoddard. "In 1998, Jack was right. But Jeff wanted me. The bottom line was, Jeff knew he wasn't going to win a championship that year, and he was looking to bond and build for the future. Jack went along with him. He didn't have to do it, but he did. For that, I thank him."
Says Roush, "Frank was not crew chief material to start with, and he was really junior when we promoted him. His learning curve was straight up. He will be as good as anybody has been at this business. He's going to be around for a long time, hopefully, helping Jeff Burton win a number of championships with Roush."
Stoddard is not awed at being crew chief of a big-buck, high-profile team. "To be a crew chief is to be a crew chief, in my mind," Stoddard says. "Being a crew chief is about being organized, taking care of the people, keeping the head on the driver, and listening to him so that the proper adjustments can be made on the car."
Parrott has been impressed. "The way Frank runs the pits, I see a lot of myself in him," he says. "I like his fire and enthusiasm. He has lived up to Jeff's expectations and mine as young, aggressive, and eager. He and Fennig have bonded real well in the past year and are working well together."
In Burton's opinion, Stoddard is not only one of the best young crew chiefs-he's one of the best, period. "Frank went to racing school by working on everything he could get his hands on. He had to make a big adjustment getting accustomed to having people to help him do things. He delegates authority very well, doesn't have to touch everything on the car for it to be right. It's amazing at age 32 how thorough and organized he is, how together his act is," Burton says.
"Frank is so competitive that when he finishes second (three times in the first nine races this season), he is disappointed. Even when we win, he's disappointed, feeling we could have done this or that better. That's the mentality it takes to win in Winston Cup. People don't really understand how hard it is to be a successful Winston Cup crew chief, how many micro decisions they have to make every week that have a huge impact on a team's performance. Frank is good at that. For a third-year crew chief, I'm impressed."
Of course, Stoddard considers himself indebted to Burton and is extremely loyal to his driver. They are a mutual admiration society of two. "Jeff is the ultimate human being," says Stoddard. "I have him to thank for everything I have accomplished. If he had not advised me three years ago to be patient and wait my turn, I might have gone elsewhere and changed directions. It's so neat for a driver and crew chief to have the relationship we have. I have tons of respect for him. As a driver, I think he's better than the rest. I wouldn't want anybody else driving #99. I might never work with another driver. I won't leave Jeff until he wants somebody else or wants me to make a change. If he moves, I'll go with him. Jack Roush didn't come find me, although he has given me a great opportunity after Jeff opened the door. But I owe as much to Jeff as anybody."
Stoddard is on a mission to repay the debt he feels he owes Burton. Of course, the only way he can do that, he says, is to help his driver win a championship-maybe even a few. From the looks of things, Stoddard could be debt-free fairly soon.