Robbie Loomis feels like a kid again; he feels like he is in a dream. He should. The 35-year-old crew chief hit the Winston Cup jackpot when he was hired by Hendrick Motorsports last December to join Jeff Gordon's #24 DuPont team. He's now with one of the most potent racing teams in any form of motorsports.
Big Shoes To FillHendrick Motorsports has won four of the last five Winston Cup championships, including four consecutive ones and two of the last four Craftsman Truck Series champion-ships. The list of Rick Hendrick drivers reads like a "Who's Who" in NASCAR racing-past and present. Geoffrey Bodine, Ricky Craven, Wally Dallenbach, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Benny Parsons, Tim Richmond, Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader, and Darrell Waltrip all have driven for Hendrick during their careers.
Hendrick has also had its share of all-star crew chiefs. Loomis steps into big shoes formerly held by superstar Ray Evernham-who left to head up Dodge's reentry into Winston Cup for 2001. Legendary mechanics Harry Hyde, Gary Nelson, and Waddell Wilson all have turned wrenches for the Hendrick organization as well.
So what does he have to say about being employed by an organization rich in history and funding for its race teams?
"Wow!" says Loomis. "I began the 2000 season the most excited I've been since I've been around racing-probably since about 1989 when I first went down to Daytona to begin my first season with Richard Petty."
Loomis joins an organization with a vast racing history, but he left a team also steeped in history. He was team manager for John
Andretti's #43 team and Kyle Petty's #44 team in 1999 while serving as Andretti's crew chief. He has been crew chief on the famous #43 STP Pontiac since Richard Petty's final two seasons as a driver in 1991 and 1992 and has three career victories-two with Bobby Hamilton and a win in 1999 with Andretti at Martinsville.
A veteran of more than 200 races in the crew chief seat, Loomis worked for Petty Enterprises for a decade. He helped put Petty Enterprises back in the winner's circle in 1996 with Bobby Hamilton's victory at Phoenix. The pair won again in 1997 at Rockingham. He has also worked with drivers Gary Balough, Wally Dallenbach, and Rick Wilson throughout his 20-year racing career.
A Lifetime Of RacingLoomis can trace his racing roots all the way back to when he a 3-year-old attending races in upstate New York. His family later moved to Florida, where Robbie spent most of his younger years growing up in racing on short tracks such as Orlando Speedworld and New Smyrna Speedway, which are near his hometown of Forest City, near Orlando.
Loomis always figured he would get into racing full-time. He never attended football games or pep rallies in high school; when the bell rang at the end of the day, he was either headed for the track or the shop. His racing career actually began inside the cockpit, and he began driving race cars at about age 12. He graduated to Thunder cars at age 15 and quit driving to turn wrenches at 16.
"I found out that all the guys making money were working on them, not driving them," Loomis says. "That changed, of course, when I got to Winston Cup."
He worked with drivers throughout Florida in the '80s before ascending to NASCAR's Busch series in 1988. He worked with former Cup driver Rick Wilson and an up-and-coming driver named Gary Balough. Unfortunately, Balough's brilliant career was cut short by innuendos and rumors of breaking the law. Although never indicted or arrested, no serious offer came from owners in the big leagues. "Gary taught me how to relate to the driver," Loomis says. "I learned a lot from him."
Robbie loved racing short tracks and didn't much have time to think about racing in the larger arena. "The thing about short-track racing is that you don't have all the big sponsors and stuff," he says. "There's no pressure. You go to the racetrack, you know you're in the race, you go out there, and do the very best you can."
A Petty PastLoomis met Kyle Petty in 1987 and became his Busch Series crew chief the following year. Kyle, now driver and co-owner of the #44 Hot Wheels Pontiac, put in a good word to his father.
By the end of 1988, Loomis was working in King Richard's garage. He quickly became crew chief Dale Inman's righthand man. By 1991, Inman turned over crew chief duties to Loomis and became the spotter for his cousin Richard. Robbie had earned his place as Petty's new crew chief-the last one he had as a driver.
With Dale spotting for the team, Loomis says he could quickly tell if he made bad calls on the racetrack as crew chief. "I could tell by the tone of Dale's voice if I had made the right call or not. I learned a tremendous amount from Dale. My learning curve in Cup racing was shortened quite a bit by being around him."
Petty Enterprises benefited from Loomis' expertise on handling, his level head, and his reliability.
When King Richard sepped out of the car at the end of the 1992 season with 200 wins, Petty Enterprises was at a crossroads. Petty's last win was in 1984, and the team wasn't funded as well as the teams that were winning all the races, like Childress, Yates, and Roger Renske. Loomis would work the next couple of years with various drivers including John Andretti, Wally Dallenbach, and Rick Wilson before that first win would come.
Bobby Hamilton came along in 1996 to give Loomis and Hamilton that much-needed first win and respectability back to Petty Enterprises. The team placed an impressive ninth in the Winston Cup standings that season. They won again in 1997, but that first win was the icing on the cake.
"It was super," Loomis says. "When we won at Phoenix, Kyle grabbed me as we were going to the winner's circle and told me to enjoy it, because it would never feel that way again. He later explained to me that he said that because he knew what a first win feels like. And he was right. I love to win, but nothing feels quite like the first one."
Post-PettyHamilton left the team at the end of the '97 season to go to Morgan-McClure's potent Kodak team. And Kyle came back to Petty Enterprises to form a two-car team with Hot Wheels as a sponsor. John Andretti returned as well after a brief stint with the team in 1995. The Randleman, North Carolina-based team was again at a turning point.
"We had gotten behind in funding and the tools it takes to win," Loomis explains. "It's tough to beat the best in Winston Cup, and you can't do it without all the tools."
Loomis says he saw Petty Enterprises grow from 19 employees to 130 by the time he departed for Hendrick Motorsports, but he certainly wasn't unhappy at Petty.
"I wasn't looking to leave Petty Enterprises," Loomis states, "but the unique opportunity of being able to work with Jeff Gordon, Brian Whitesell, and all the other members of the #24 team had great appeal to me.
"Toward the end of last season, Jeff and Brian called me and asked if I wanted to work for them. We had several meetings before I made up my mind to leave Petty Enterprises."
It was time to try something new. Loomis needed to stretch and reach for a bigger slice of the pie.
"They (the #24 team) do things a different way," Loomis explains. "That's the main reason I took the job. It's given me a whole new perspective on a lot of things; it's just a different approach. It's just like going to the store. Everybody can go to that store, and they might go five different ways. Everybody is going to get to that store, but somebody is going to get there a little quicker than the other guy."