Working under the watchful eye of a NASCAR tech inspector, crew members scramble to try to
Sixth In A Series
Chuck Carruthers watched as the two busted-up MJ2 Racing cars disappeared into the attic of a team hauler. He sighed with disgust and frustration.
"I've never had a season like this," he said. "It's maddening because I don't know what to try next. Nothing we do seems to make any difference to the cars.
"It's obvious the teams that are doing well and know something we don't."
That's an unusual place to be for Carruthers, crew chief for the two-car MJ2 team competing in the NASCAR Grand National Camping World West Series. The veteran crew chief is traditionally the answer man for most other teams looking for advice on chassis challenges.
But not this time.
The recent change to soft springs and huge sway bars is all new to Carruthers and has put him in the position of asking questions instead of answering them.
"I'm calling everyone I know," he said. And everyone offers advice, but none of it seems to work.
After five races, Jeff Jefferson had a single Top 5 finish - a third at Phoenix - and had fallen to 10th in the standings. Rookie Jim Warn's best finish was Eighth in the season-opener at Roseville, California. He was 15th overall and Third in the rookie standings.
At Iowa Speedway, instead of unloading speedway cars with bodies shaped to take advantage
The team struggled at Iowa Speedway, where drivers from the East and West series met for a combined race on the circuit's fastest oval.
Warn's speedway car was trashed at Phoenix and its replacement wasn't ready in time for the trip to the Midwest. Jefferson tested his speedway car at the Iowa oval, but parked it into the wall before the session was over.
When MJ2 arrived at Iowa, instead of unloading speedway cars with bodies shaped to take advantage of the high-speed aerodynamics, the team uncorked a pair of pug-nosed Monte Carlos more suited for short ovals.
"I don't think it will make a lot of difference," Jefferson said as the car went through tech inspection.
He was right. The bodywork was the least of his problems. His short-track car is simply a bad car. It's something Carruthers refuses to believe.
"Racecars are racecars," he said before the season began. "They are just machines. As long as the basic platform is right, they really are all the same."
He says that as a man who has built dozens upon dozens of cars and has crewed for some of the top amateur and professional drivers in the nation. But it is an opinion not held by everyone in the business.
Fabricators building cars in the assembly line-like operations at places like Roush-Fenway contend each chassis has its own personality, created back when the first pieces of steel were fused during the car's creation. It may be the quality of the weld, the minute differences in the composition of the steel tube, or some other seemingly insignificant difference in the car's DNA.
It is the reason cars such as Rusty Wallace's "Midnight" become legendary while others end up one-race wonders destined to be salvaged for their parts.
The MJ2 cars were picked by Carruthers from Kevin Harvick's former Busch team.
Good car or bad car, it was the one Jefferson had to race that day. Stuck with chronic handling problems, he qualified a disappointing 28th. Warn, with an identical setup under him, started in the 14th spot.
"It doesn't make any sense, does it?" Jefferson said. "Basically the same car and drastically different results.
"When we test in the same car, Jim and I run almost the same times, but in this car, I'm always slower."
It didn't take many laps into the race for Warn's advantage to disappear. On lap 10 he was tagged in the rear by another car and spun coming onto the front straight, stopping sideways right in the racing line, with his teammate's car bearing down on him.
"For a few moments it looked like we were going to have a very short race," said Mike Warn, who is backing the team. "I thought we were going to take out both cars at once."
Fighting an ill-handling car, Jeff Jefferson tries to keep from going a lap down to Colora
But Jefferson managed to squeeze by Warn's racecar and steadily fight his way toward the front.
Warn wasn't nearly as lucky. He was spun a second time and ended up with the rear end crushed against the wall. NASCAR asked the team to call him back into the pits to saw off dangling body parts, but agreed to wait until a caution-or until it became a safety issue-to require the repair.
The damage kinked the fuel filler line and eventually Warn ran out of gas about 20 laps from the end. The team got him refueled, but he dropped so many laps that he ended up back in 31st spot.
Meanwhile, Jefferson fought an ill-handling car that refused to turn. He managed to get it up into the Top 5 briefly, but fell back to 22nd as he passed under the white flag. Then on the final lap, the right-front tire gave out, putting him into the wall in sight of the checker flag. He was credited with 24th, his lowest finish to date.
"This had to be our worst day racing ever," Carruthers said as the cars went into the trailer. "What we lack is about two-tenths of a second. That's the difference between us and the guys running well. It makes the difference between being able to pass a car or getting stuck side by side and not being able to get out of trouble.
"I don't know where it is, but we have to find it."
Three weeks later, as the team unloaded at Colorado National Speedway just outside Denver, Carruthers figured he might have solved the problem.
MJ2 took cars to Colorado for a test session after the Iowa disappointment and tried a different approach to front springs, opting to let the car coil-bind the left front before transferring the weight to the right.
The MJ2 Racing team tried a variety of spring combinations in an attempt to improve how th
"It's a different approach," said the crew chief. "It isn't anything radical, it's just an optional way of doing things.
"In my mind, it shouldn't work," he said. "But when we tested, the change got us 0.27 of a second, and for the first time, when we put on fresh tires, it made the car go faster.
"Testing is one thing," he cautioned, "we'll see how it races."
Back at Colorado for the race, Warn circled the oval fifth fastest during a 90-minute practice session. Jefferson was about 10 spots back and visibly upset over the poor showing.
Then things got worse.
Two of the team members - Warn's spotter and tire chief - had to be rushed to Seattle where their son had been airlifted after a life-threatening motorcycle crash. The mood in the racing pits turned somber.
Jefferson was the first of the two cars to qualify, and his time was disappointing. He kept sliding down the standings as more cars took their two laps.
Then it was Warn's turn. The team pushed the car to the end of the pit road and waited for the engine to fire. And waited. And waited.
Even a push wouldn't get the engine to come to life.
NASCAR agreed to let the team troubleshoot the problem, but only if an inspector was on-site to watch everything. Assuming they could get the engine to run, Warn would begin dead last. So much for a fifth-place run in practice.
The team crawled all over and inside the car, eventually tracing the problem to a broken wire coming from the kill switch on the steering wheel.
The car was recently purchased from Harvick's shop to fill in for the one heavily damaged at Phoenix. It was a late arrival and rushed into service, so the team never got the chance to go over it from one end to the other.
As the cars lined up for the 150-lap race, former series champion Jim Inglebright said, "I've never seen Chuck struggle so much. It is just not like him to have these types of problems."
Inglebright won championships with Carruthers as his crew chief and raced against Jefferson, who won three consecutive Northwest Tour titles.
"It is hard to see a driver as good as Jeff do so poorly," Inglebright said.
Jeff Jefferson uses some body English to try to explain to Chuck Carruthers how hard it is
Jefferson again struggled with a racecar that simply didn't want to turn. Well, it turned once, with the help of rookie Jamie Dick who tucked his nose under Jefferson's rear panel and spun him going into Turn 3.
Jefferson stayed on the lead lap but the car's handling only got worse. He worked his way up to the 10th spot until - with 15 laps to go - the right-front tire gave out again and he had to pit for new rubber.
Warn worked his way up to 11th and for a while it looked like he had a Top 10 finish in sight. But late in the race a carburetor float stuck, causing the engine to stumble on acceleration. He lost ground and was credited with a 13th Place finish.
His car stalled on the cool-down lap and refused to start, so once again he had to be pushed back into the pits.
"It's discouraging," he said as he climbed from the car. "Everyone works so hard but we just aren't getting any breaks."
The only one to have a positive thing to say was Mike Warn.
"Hey, I've got two cars and eight fenders. That's a first for this team," he said. "That means we can concentrate on getting better instead of fixing broken cars."
The expression on the face of Crew Chief Chuck Carruthers reflects the pressure he feels t
Carruthers shouldered all the blame.
"Maybe I'm not as smart as I think I am," he said. "Maybe I've got to make a lot more calls. All I can say is I've never had a season go this badly for this long."
Jefferson figures he knows at least part of the solution.
He looked at his car and complained that he has driven it four times and no matter what they do, it simply won't respond.
"I figure that car has cost me a shot at the championship," he said. "I don't ever want to drive it again. Not ever."
Earning Their Way
MJ2 Racing isn't one of the teams participating in NASCAR's effort to get more women and minorities into auto racing.
The fact that three key members of the two-car team are women isn't the result of any managed effort to get more females involved in motorsports.
"They aren't on the team because they are women," said Chuck Carruthers, crew chief for the two-car team. "They are here because they are good at what they do."
On any given day, Annie Bailey, Julie Madden, and Brenda Mears may be shagging tires, setting up radios, or making the detailed notes Carruthers uses as a record of everything done to the two cars he oversees.
"These are jobs that are simply invaluable to the team," he said.
Getting women involved in what is still considered a male-dominated sport is a way to get spouses involved in the passion that often consumes marriages. It also helps provide additional bodies to fill roles that don't necessarily involve turning wrenches.
"When I first met Ken I just didn't care about racing," said Annie Bailey. "But I got involved because I was part of his crew. Now, I just can't imagine life without it.
"When we aren't racing, I really miss being at the track and working with the teams," she said.
Bailey - whose husband works on Jim Warn's car and is his spotter - is the tire specialist and the highest profile of the three women on the team.
"There's really not much she can't do on a car," Ken Bailey said. "She's got her area of expertise now with the tires, but she can also swap carb jets and do some of the mechanical work."
It hasn't always been easy.
"At first I got a lot of grief from the guys at the tire truck," she said, "but now that they recognize that I know what I'm doing, things have really gotten better."
Carruthers described Brenda Mears as "probably the most organized person I know."
She often works side-by-side with her husband, Gary, who is crew chief for Jeff Jefferson, helping keep the records on what's been done to the car and what Gary says needs to happen before the car hits the track once again.
"Men tend to be a bit casual about some things," Carruthers said, "while folks like Brenda don't let an awful lot get by them."
Annie Bailey is tire specialist for MJ2 Racing. June Boone
Madden is the odd-gal-out in the team, with a husband who isn't interested in auto racing.
"He'll come sit in the stands once in a while," she said, "but he'd rather be out riding his Harley."
Madden says she grew up going to the races with her dad, but lost interest in it for a number of years.
"I finally began going back a number of years ago. After the races I'd go down into the pits and pester the drivers and crew members with questions.
"Finally one of them asked me if I'd like to be part of the team."
She did light mechanical work and was put in charge of tires for a multi-car operation.
Annie Bailey is tire specialist for MJ2 Racing. June Boone
That experience led her to approach Carruthers about joining his crew when Jefferson was campaigning a car in the old NASCAR Northwest Tour.
"I still ask an awful lot of questions," she said. "There's so much about racing I don't know yet. Chuck's pretty good about taking the time to explain things, but you've got to know when to ask.
"I've been working with him just long enough to know when it's not a good time to bother the boss."-Jerry F. Boone