Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs stays on winning track with his car-racing teams

STILL DRIVEN

March 10, 1996|By Sandra McKee

Once a coach, always a coach, even after the coach becomes an owner. That said, meet Joe Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins coach who will be inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame this July.

And meet Joe Gibbs, the NFL Hall of Famer who now owns a growing motor-sports empire: a stock-car team on the Winston Cup circuit, two National Hot Rod Association drag-racing teams and two smaller stock-car teams, whose drivers are his two sons, Coy and J. D.

Though he no longer has the title Coach in front of his name, there is little doubt that the role still belongs to him.

"He's a coach in every respect," says his Winston Cup driver, Bobby Labonte. "When he walks through the shop, he's always got an encouraging word for everybody. When we have pit practices, he's the guy who will stand on the wall with a stopwatch and cheer everybody on. I just can't say enough about him."

In fact, none of his drivers can.

Every one, it seems, is under his spell. And why not? Success just keeps following the 54-year-old Gibbs.

As coach of the Redskins from 1981 to 1992, he won three Super Bowls -- in 1983, 1988 and 1992 -- with three different quarterbacks.

In the auto-racing world, he has in four years done more than most team owners do in a lifetime.

Fielding three drag-racing teams last season, his first in that sport, he compiled nine wins and nine runner-up finishes -- with Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan, Pro Stock driver Jim Yates and Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon each finishing in the top three in their class.

It was the first time in NHRA history that an owner had three teams finish in the top three in three different classes. And Pedregon made Gibbs' year even better by winning the U.S. Nationals, the biggest race on the NHRA schedule.

In four years of Winston Cup racing, Gibbs' teams have five victories and have finished in the Top 10 standings twice. Among those five victories are the 1993 Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of Winston Cup racing, and the 1995 Coca-Cola 600, the world's longest car race on a closed course.

Gibbs' success is continuing this year. At the NHRA's Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., Pedregon made the fastest run in Funny Car history, covering the quarter-mile distance in 4.935 seconds at a speed of 307.06 miles per hour. The win caused Gibbs to jump for joy.

"I'm not used to such fast starts," Gibbs quips, recalling his 0-5 start as the Redskins' new coach in 1981. "I never expected this much success so fast. But all I've done is win a few races. I haven't won a championship yet. It may take me ... years before I win a championship. This sport is extremely hard and that's what I like about it."

For the uninitiated, stock-car racing is done in ordinary cars such as Chevy Monte Carlos, Pontiac Grand Prixes and Ford Thunderbirds. The difference between them and the car you might drive is that they have huge engines and huge carburetors. Racing takes place on an oval-shaped track or a road track (a confined course that looks like a back road). Drag-car racing pits two built-for-speed cars against each other on a straight quarter-mile track. In the top classes, the cars have 6,000-horsepower engines and can cover a quarter-mile in less than 5 seconds at a speed of more than 300 mph. These are cars that need a parachute to stop.

The stock-car season runs from mid-February to mid-November; the drag-racing season from early February to late October. Races take place all over the country.

Racing's calendar is quite a bit longer than football's 16-week regular season. But there is no doubt Joe Gibbs likes his post-football career. Loves it, in fact. He's hooked, been hooked since the 1950s when he was growing up in Southern California.

"I was one of those '50s kids," he says. "You know, fast cars, rolled-up jeans and hamburger joints, that was me.

"I had two dreams growing up: race cars and football. I thought that's what I'd wind up doing, driving race cars or playing football. But I wasn't good enough to play football and I didn't have the money to race. But I had those dreams and I've been able to realize both of them."

As coach and owner.

While others may fail to see any similarities between pro football and motor racing, Gibbs sees them everywhere. He even sees his racing teams as having the same setup as his football teams.

"The crew chief, like a football coach, prepares the game plan," Gibbs says. "The driver, like the quarterback, executes the plan, pulls the trigger and makes it happen."

The owner, he says, brings in the sponsor's money and stays out of the way.

Yet all of his drivers call him Coach.

Gibbs is self-effacing. He says he wants his teams to get the credit for what they do and is happy just being in the picture.

Take this moment in late January, just before the start of the NHRA season. Gibbs' drag teams were testing in Phoenix and he had just returned to the team garages.

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