The No. 48 car of Hendrick...
The No. 48 car of Hendrick Motorsports has spent a lot of time at the front of the pack since the team was formed prior to the '02 season.
As crewchief for Nextel Cup driver Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet of Hendrick Motorsports, Chad Knaus has become one of the sport's top generals over the past four seasons. His ability to make shrewd calls along pit road and communicate with his driver didn't happen overnight, though. Knaus has spent his entire life in racing, and as a youngster he was calling shots for his dad's race team in the Midwest. He took the time recently to talk with SCR.
SCR: Of course, you come from a strong racing background, having raced with your father, John. Could you talk about that a little?
KNAUS: My father raced in the Midwest. We raced the Great Northern Series. We raced NASCAR Northern Series, ARTGO, ASA, and we won a bunch of championships at Rockford (Illinois) Speedway. It was good, and it was a lot of fun. We used to race one to two nights a week, typically. It was typical for everybody to rebuild their race cars in the wintertime and wait for April. As soon as April arrived, everybody started racing as much as they could until late September, early October.
SCR: So some of your earliest memories of racing are from when you were 5 or 6 and watching your dad work on his cars?
KNAUS: Yeah, at that age you don't really work on the cars, obviously. But I was out there tinkering around, being more of a nuisance than anything to my father and the people working on the cars. My early pre-teen years were spent hanging around and trying to get involved while my father and the guys worked on the car.
Knaus is known as one of the...
Knaus is known as one of the more intense crewchiefs in NASCAR.
Date of birth: August 5, 1971
Hometown: Rockford, Illinois
Residence: Charlotte, North Carolina
Racing Involvement: Crewchief for No. 48 Nextel Cup Chevrolet; began hanging around father's race shop as a toddler, eventually becoming crewchief for the family team.
SCR: I've read that you carried the title of crewchief at age 14. Looking back, how much did you really know about race cars at that age? Or do you feel you were already pretty savvy?
KNAUS: Yeah, at 14-15 years old I knew an awful lot. I had been in the sport for many years and had worked on cars for many years. I can remember setting the cars up with my father, and I would sit down and read magazines and books about caster and camber, bump, instant centers, and things like that. Obviously, I was pretty wide-eyed and eager at that point in time and tried a bunch of stuff that didn't work. But with the support and guidance of my father and the people around me, we were pretty competitive. I think I did a pretty decent job. We really paid attention to details a lot of people did not. At that age, you don't have a heck of a lot of other stuff going on, other than getting into trouble. Instead of going out and getting into trouble all the time, I worked on a race car.
SCR: The key there, it seems, is you were eager to learn. A young guy today hoping to break into the sport needs to have that hunger, doesn't he?
KNAUS: Oh yeah, if you want to be competitive in the Nextel Cup Series, you've got to be willing to sacrifice and learn and have the ambition and desire to do it. If you don't give everything that you've got and dedicate yourself to it, you're not going to be as successful as the next guy, because the next guy is doing that.
SCR: How much does your background, that foundation you got from your father, help in your day-to-day role with Hendrick Motorsports?
KNAUS: I think it has helped tremendously. One thing I learned from my father was that if something you made for the car wasn't correct, you took it off and started over. If you're putting a body panel on the car and it doesn't look quite right or it's not optimized, then you took it off and did it again until it was optimized. That's the way that we do things here at Hendrick Motorsports to make sure we take the best product to the racetrack every single week. It's not for everybody to have that mentality. Some guys just want to get it done and say `OK, that's close enough' and deal with it. But that's not the way we do things here, and we won't. That's something that I learned back then, since we raced against some pretty heavy competition. We were racing against guys like Mark Martin, and you'd see guys like Mike Eddy, Matt Kenseth, and all the guys we raced against back then. I mean, it was tough. We raced against all of them--Alan Kulwicki, Mark Martin, Dick Trickle, the Sauters, Ted Musgrave, all of those guys.
SCR: Does your father still race?
KNAUS: He was racing a little bit this year, but I think he's finally done. He's 54 years old now, and he doesn't need to be racing anymore.
SCR: Where did he race most recently?
KNAUS: He was racing in Madison, Wisconsin. A lot of us raced at the track up there.
SCR: How supportive was your dad when you moved south to work in racing? You were only, what, 19 or so?
KNAUS: The first time I moved I was 17.
Knaus says he and Johnson...
Knaus says he and Johnson have "a great communication level."
SCR: Really? You were just out of high school?
KNAUS: The week I graduated was the week I left. He was fine with it. It was difficult. We were in the middle of a championship battle. We were in the Midwest trying to win races, but I was fed up with doing the same things. We had been going to the same racetracks for many years, and it was time for me to go out there and try to learn something new. I had somewhat of an opportunity to go [south] and have a place to live, so I packed up and left. It didn't work out the first time, though. I was down here for about six months, and I didn't get a job. I moved to Ohio, and I was an engineer for a company up there for about six months. Then, I moved back to Rockford and stayed until I got an opportunity with Stanley Smith in 1991. I moved down [to Alabama] to work with him.
SCR: It was tough then, but I imagine it's probably tougher now for a young person to get his foot in the door.
KNAUS: You'd be surprised. It's probably easier now.
KNAUS: When I was trying to get into Cup 17 years ago, everybody was related. They hired their brother, or their brother's friend, or the friend's friend of a brother's cousin, or their driver's brother, or their driver's cousin, or whatever it was. That's the way it was. Everybody knew everybody, and it was a lot more difficult to get your foot in the door. Now, if you get a 20-year-old kid who has the drive, determination, education, and intelligence to come in and work hard to make something of himself, it's a lot easier. It's a lot easier if you have a background in engineering or something like that. As far as I'm concerned, it's more important to have a good racing background and a desire to be successful. We have a lot of people here on site who we hired at a very young age. Kenny Briggs, who was my tire specialist last year and is now a fulltime mechanic, was 18 years old when we hired him. He had just moved out here from Redding, California. That was it. He just packed up and moved out here.
SCR: Did he know someone?
KNAUS: He just moved, like I did. We hire people with that type of guts--people who really want to sacrifice and make that change.
SCR: Do you ever get approached by a guy like that and think, Hey, that was me 15 years ago?
Knaus says he and Johnson...
Knaus says he and Johnson have "a great communication level."
SCR: What would you tell a young guy who may be moving across the country if he came to you for advice?
KNAUS: He just needs to do what he wants to do, period. You can do anything in life: work on a Nextel Cup team, work on a Busch team, be the president of a Fortune 500 company. I mean, you can do anything you want. It's just a matter of how bad you really want to do it. There's a big difference between saying you want to do it and really wanting to do it. There's also a big difference between saying you want to do it and doing it. I think the people who really want to do it and make that initial step can be successful at it. Somebody will give them an opportunity. You're not going to come down here on your first opportunity and make a lot of money. But you're going to have an opportunity, and it's a matter of whether you're willing to take that opportunity and sacrifice a little bit to get the reward in the end.
SCR: What was your first job in NASCAR like?
KNAUS: That's when I worked for Stanley Smith in Chelsey, Alabama. There were four guys working fulltime, and we were running 15 Cup races and Busch races, and 18 All-American Challenge Series races. We were racing two or three nights a week, and it was hard. I was sleeping on a guy's couch and making $200 a week. I did that for a year and a half before I got the opportunity to come and work at Hendrick Motorsports. So it hasn't all been roses and gold. It's been a very difficult road. If you want to do it, you can do it, but it's not going to be easy; there's going to be sacrifice.
SCR: You mentioned hooking up with Hendrick Motorsports. You came along, Ray Evernham was there, and you got to be a part of something special while you were there from 1993 to 1997, including two championships. How much did that period shape you and help mold you into who you are today?
KNAUS: I was pretty fortunate. I am from the Midwest, the Chicago area. Ray is from Jersey, and the attitude and demeanor was very similar to what I grew up with. Work and do whatever it takes to get it done. That type of attitude was the same type of attitude that I had in the Midwest when I worked with my father, and it was the same attitude that Ray had; he brought it down to North Carolina with him. It really reassured me that a portion of that is what you need to be successful in Cup racing. Ray was a great leader and mentor to me, and I learned a lot during that period of time. I went from being a body shop assistant when I walked in the door to having a lot to do with the body development, the chassis development, setting up cars, and changing tires. Like I said, I started at the bottom. I was sweeping the floor in the body shop when I started at Hendrick Motorsports. You're not going to walk in the door and be a high-paid crewchief or crewmember, with no experience.
SCR: Besides the obvious, that Rick Hendrick gave them the tools to work with, what made Evernham and Jeff Gordon so vastly successful? That was a pretty productive era.
KNAUS: There were a lot of contributing factors there. Obviously, Jeff is a tremendous driver and a great talent. Ray is a very intelligent man. At that point in time, there was not a crewchief that worked any harder than Ray--I can guarantee that. There was not a team that worked any harder than our team. We worked for endless hours--way more than anybody else. We worked 25-percent harder than everybody else, and Ray tried to be 25-percent smarter than everybody else. That's why we were so much better than everybody else during that period.
Johnson and Knaus have put...
Johnson and Knaus have put Hendrick (center) in Victory Lane for the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway for three consecutive seasons.
SCR: Let's look at your experience with Jimmie Johnson. You came in as a rookie team with a rookie driver in 2002, won three races, and boom--seemingly overnight you have one of the top teams in the business. How did all of that come together so quickly?
KNAUS: A lot of it had to do with the simple fact that Jimmie and I have a great communication level, which everybody discusses and talks about. We have mutual respect for one another and believe in one another. The biggest thing was that Mr. Hendrick, Brian Whitesell, and Robbie Loomis laid out a great platform for us to begin our racing team. When I came in, all I had to do was restructure my road crew and get that stuff squared away. They already had a couple of cars built for me, and we just built our new cars off the template of the No. 24 car. When you've got that kind of stuff sitting there beside you, it's nice. Knowing that Jeff Gordon is going out and winning races in a car that's identical to yours also gives you the confidence to say, `Hey, I know our car is capable of doing it, and we've just got to figure out how to do it.'
SCR: It's never easy, though, is it?
KNAUS: Nothing in this sport is easy.
SCR: Some people say the hardware is essentially the same from the Late Model level to Cup, primarily because of the way NASCAR limits the car. Would you agree with that?
KNAUS: It's a lot different. It depends on what series you're running. What we ran in the Midwest is essentially a Super Late Model--four-link rear suspension, coilover, and double A-arm front suspension. When you get to Cup, you can't run coilovers. You don't run a three-link or a four-link or anything like that in the rear; you run a trailing arm with a Panhard bar. It's a lot different. I don't think Late Model racing teaches you much about Cup car racing, other than what it takes to race competitively week in and week out and prepare a car for a weekly racing deal. It's difficult when you bend the front clip and you have to put a new clip on the car to make it to the racetrack the next week. That's what weekly racing teaches you--how to get that stuff done, get it right, and get back to the racetrack.
Knaus' leadership skills have...
Knaus' leadership skills have helped the No. 48 team become one of the top in the business.
SCR: You had some things to say when Jimmie crashed at Indy and medical attention, or lack thereof, wasn't up to par. What does NASCAR need to do to improve trackside medical services? Is that an area that could use some definite improvement?
KNAUS: It definitely could use some improvement.
SCR: What should they do?
KNAUS: It definitely could use some improvement. That's all I can say about that.
SCR: When this interview comes out, you'll be in the middle of the Chase for the Championship. What do you think of that format?
KNAUS: It is what it is. I still don't really care for it 100 percent, but the fans enjoy it and it adds a little twist to things. That's fine, but I'm not a big advocate of it. I don't like it. Those are the rules, though, and that's the game that we're playing. It's something you have to adapt to, and I think we've adapted relatively well. Hopefully we can bring home the championship this year.
SCR: So you like the old format better and wish they had stuck with it?
KNAUS: Honestly, I do. Everybody knows this, it's not a secret, but I think it should be based on your whole year's racing. That's kind of the way racing has always been, and I wish it could be that way for all the race tracks. We don't have a road course (in the 10 Chase races), and we don't have a lot of contributing tracks with a lot of history having any bearing on the championship. I think that's something we miss a little bit now. But it does reintroduce some excitement, and it gives you guys something to talk about.