April 24, 2010

ARCHIVES                                         

By Brian Danko

TALLADEGA, AL---------Scott Zipadelli has been around racing since he was a youngster. From the time his father and uncle owned modified race teams in Connecticut to now being a Nationwide Crew Chief for driver, Jason Leffler and Braun Racing, the 40 year old has seen and done plenty.

Zipadelli, like his brother, Greg, has been living down south since packing his bags after making an attempt at driving a race car, a failed attempt.

“I’ll never forget it, I was racing at Stafford in a late model and I had a bad night and I remember Mike McLaughlin coming over to me and telling me to forget about driving and move south and get a job working on race cars.” Scott said laughing.

While both Scott and Greg worked as crew members on their Uncle Bill Corazzo’s modifieds, winning the title in 1988 when McLaughlin wheeled the Sherri Cup #12 to the NASCAR Whelen modified tour championship but now it was time to move south and pursue a career in NASCAR.

When I asked Scott, if a race car is just another race car, he thought about it for a minute before answering.

Working on the open wheel modifieds to now working on heavier slower Nationwide cars are as different as night and day but Scott said, “A race car is a race car to some point. But a modified is a whole different animal.”

Just like when drivers Geoffrey Bodine and Ronnie Bouchard moved south and started racing in the then Winston Cup circuit making it easier for drivers from north of the Mason-Dixie line to prove they could compete with their southern chauffeurs, when the first of the ‘modified’ crew members moved south and began making a living, the stream of the modified wrenching talent has continued to move to Charlotte and make a name for themselves.

This year, Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion, crew chief for Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500, joining Tommy Baldwin, Jr. as crew chiefs from the northeast winning the most prestigious NASCAR race. And Scott doesn’t have to look far to see his brother with two Sprint Cup championships with Tony Stewart.

What is it about the guys from the north that seem to make an impact from the time they move south?

“I think the northern guys are self sufficient. They know how to weld, build and maintain race cars. You do what you have to do; they are make it happen kind of people.” Scott said. “It was guys like Ray Evernham who came south with a certain work ethic and got the job done doing what you had to do to get by.”

Scott thought back to the days helping his father and uncle working on the race cars at the shop in Berlin, Ct staying in the shop until 2 or 3 a.m., doing what needed to be done to get the car ready to race.

Scott said that is the biggest difference from now to then.

“Most guys with the Sprint Cup teams didn’t work on race cars. They are big athletic guys trained to do a pit stop and a lot of the guys in the garage area never worked on race cars growing up. I often thought to myself, ‘how did some of these people ever get down here.’”

As crew chief for Jason Leffler and now working in his second season as crew chief for Braun Racing, Scott wants people who aren’t afraid to work and to get the job done, regardless of the time frame but that just isn’t possible in today’s NASCAR.

‘You just can’t make someone work to 3 or 4 a.m. You had to grow up in that type of weekly racing to appreciate what it takes. Today, most of the crew guys and shop guys have families and want to get home to see them and I can’t blame them but it’s different from the time I started.”

While Zipadelli will admit to not knowing a thing about football or other sports, he does know his way around a race car, inside and out and said, “Those are the type of people that I want to be surrounded by, people who know how to get the job done.”

One of the people that Scott relies on is another modified veteran, who has the same work ethic and that is car chief, Rich Lavalett, a crew member for modified car owner, Mario Fiore.

“Rich knows what needs to be done and gets it done.”

Scott mentioned back in his modified days, the rules weren’t as black and white as they are now; remembering the exotic body that the Sherri Cup team mounted on the chassis for a modified race and when they showed up, it was the talk of the pit area.

“The rules in the modifieds back then, well, there really weren’t any. You could pretty much make up what you needed and build it in the race shop. But now, everything is in the rule book, especially on the Cup and Nationwide series. They have taken a lot of the fun and innovation out of the sport.”

Scott said that the modified that he worked on with the exotic body is now his and one day he brought the car to the shop.

“Many of the guys on the team were asking me what kind of car it was. Can you believe that, they didn’t know what a modified was and that is kind of what you’re dealing with, people who didn’t grow in racing.” But added, “That is today’s NASCAR and there is nothing wrong with that.”

While Scott continues to enjoy the Nationwide series, I asked him if he thirsts to become a Sprint Cup crew chief someday.

“Someday I would like to a crew chief on the Sprint Cup series. I’ve had opportunities but it’s got to work out perfectly and until what I think is the perfect opportunity, I am content to stay here, I really do enjoy the Nationwide series.”

“What Greg and Tommy (Baldwin) got doesn’t happen all the time. Everything fell right into place for them and they deserved it. They worked hard for it. Many of the northern guys have had chances and made the most out of it.” Scott said.

While there is pressure to win on all series, the pressure to win in the Cup series is off the charts and while Scott can often be found working at the shop on Sunday’s, if he isn’t, he’s working at his office at his house getting everything ready for the next race.

We talked about the ever evolving question if it is right for Sprint Cup drivers to be allowed to participate in the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series.

“On the business end, it certainly is much easier to sell a sponsor on putting in a Cup driver in their car rather than a newcomer.”

Zipadelli recalled how at Daytona at the start of the year, another Nationwide team was trying to get a sponsor for a up and coming driver and couldn’t locate one but as soon as one Cup driver was seated in the car, the sponsor came on board.

“I understand it from the business side and while it makes it tougher to win, you also work much harder which makes us all better.”

When asked what it takes to put forth a winning effort on the Nationwide series, Scott said a sponsor willing to spend 6 to 7 million dollars but added most teams on the Nationwide series are spending much less to compete.

“We have at Braun Racing, 4 Nationswide teams with about 85 employees and we still don’t have enough people.”

The economy, like everything else has forced teams to do with less just to make ends meet. “It’s rough out there right now but we are doing what we need to do to compete.”

As the team heads into Talladega, Jason Leffler is currently sitting in the 11th spot in points and that isn’t where they want to be but Zipadelli feels that they will right the ship and start getting the top ten finishes that they are used too.

“We started off the year getting into a wreck in Daytona, then we have a green-white-checker finish at Fontana and go from 6th to 14th and then at Las Vegas we finished 12th.

Since then, the team had come to life with a 9th place at Bristol but Leffler was hit with a three race probation by NASCAR following the Nationwide race at Nashville after going back on the track and intentionally wrecking a driver who he felt wrecked him earlier in the race.

At Texas, Leffler finished 12th and moved up three notches in the point standing and is just a few points from cracking the top ten in points.

“I think once we get into a rhythm, we will be all right. We have the talent on this team to do it.”

While buying speed is the easiest thing to do, Scott said that at Braun Racing, “we make most of what we use right at the shop.”

That is something that Scott sees at what is wrong with racing, especially in weekly racing and lower touring divisions.

“You don’t have to have talent to race anymore. You can step right off the baseball field and buy a modified team or whatever and go racing and run up front, if you have the money because a lot of people just buy the speed they need instead of figuring it out and making what you could. Now everybody buys everything.”

But Scott said he wouldn’t have earned his resume any other way than he did. Getting dirty in the shop, learning how cars work and losing many nights of sleep helping getting the car ready to race.

While there is no doubt that one day, Scott will be calling the shots on top of a Sprint Cup war wagon, he is honing his skills so that when the right deal comes along, he can join the other modified crew veterans who have made their mark in NASCAR racing.