From his perch high atop the team hauler, NASCAR Sprint Cup crew chief Luke Lambert rotates in place like a lazily spinning LP to keep his eyes fixed on the number 31 Chevrolet SS howling around the high banks of Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“When I lift,” driver Jeff Burton radios during the first practice session before the Ford EcoBoost 400, “I go up the racetrack. Then, when I go back to the throttle, I’m a little bit loose.”
Lambert keys his mic: “OK. I think we should change the ride height.”
Holding a Microsoft Surface tablet covered with notes, Lambert glides down two sets of ladders and hustles into the garage just as the number 31 Chevy arrives. There, calmly but authoritatively, he issues orders to mechanics, compares notes with engineers, and confers with Burton.
At thirty-one—younger than his driver and most of his crew—Lambert is in the vanguard of a new generation of college graduates whose training and computer savvy is revolutionizing a form of racing that has long relied on received wisdom and seat-of-the-pants wrenching. Car owner Richard Childress now employs about three dozen degreed engineers, with more on the way. “The sport has become so technical,” he says, “that you can’t compete without them.”
Childress is credited with hiring NASCAR’s first engineer—Bobby Hutchens—back in 1988. Several other teams followed suit during the 1990s, and engineers became commonplace during the 2000s. They analyzed data, manned shaker rigs and shock dynos, and served as race engineers. But high-profile crew-chief positions were generally reserved for salty veterans who’d been promoted from the shop floor and mastered the mysterious art of “redneck engineering.”
“This isn’t a sport that’s rooted in higher education,” Burton says drily. “And there’s been some resentment against guys who haven’t gone through the school of hard knocks.” Despite the widespread reliance on high-tech tools and computer simulation, only three of the thirteen crew chiefs in last year’s Chase were degreed engineers.
Lambert grew up in North Carolina—NASCAR country—and committed himself early on to pursuing a career as a crew chief, but instead of following the traditional route as a mechanic or a fabricator, he earned a mechanical engineering degree from North Carolina State University. He was hired by Richard Childress Racing immediately after graduating in 2005.
It didn’t take long for him to move up the ranks at RCR. This was a testament, in part, to his technical know-how. But it was also a result of his ability to turn wrenches—a talent that’s helped him “bridge the gap,” as he puts it, between engineers and mechanics—and his appreciation for the nuances of redneck engineering.
“So much has happened during the last five years in terms of simulation tools that have gotten better and engineering that’s become more accurate,” he says. “But we still can’t abandon the basics of racing logic. Sometimes you have to say, ‘All right, let’s get practical.’ And you have to make some off-the-cuff decisions to think your way out of a problem.”
In the middle of a frustrating 2011 season, Lambert was unexpectedly promoted to the top spot on the pit box for Burton’s car, making him Cup’s youngest crew chief. The next year, he moved to the second-tier Nationwide Series to get some seasoning, and he crew-chiefed Elliott Sadler to second place in the championship. This past year, Childress was impressed enough by Lambert’s technical acumen and leadership qualities to bring him back to Cup.
“He’s very special,” says Kent Day, the former RCR technical director who approved the promotion. “As an engineer, he’s smart and driven. But he’s also got really good people skills. He understands how to deal with delicate situations in times of stress, which is what racing is all about.” As Burton says: “Luke is going to be one of those guys who everybody looks up to.”