At the ripe old age of 37, NASCAR driver Elliot Sadler is having a career season.
Coming into 2012, Sadler had been racing for 17 years and amassed five wins in the Nationwide series and three in the Sprint Cup series.
In just 29 Nationwide races this season, Sadler has four wins, four pole positions and 22 finishes in the top 10. He is the top driver on the Nationwide circuit, just ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon.
What has been the veteran driver’s secret to success? A 30-year-old Granite City native named Luke Lambert.
The 2001 graduate of Mount Airy High School is the crew chief for the #2 car at Richard Childress Racing.
How did a young man get to such a high position with a renowned company before age 30? He’s spent his life preparing for it.
Lambert said he has been a racing fan since he was a young boy. His father, Jim Lambert, liked working on cars and would take him to see NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway in Virginia.
Jim bought Luke a go-cart, and the boy began racing it on local tracks. He dreamed of being involved in NASCAR, either as a driver or as someone high up.
In high school, Lambert tried his hand at football and cross country, but wrestling was his favorite school sport. He learned under Coach Dennis France, a member of the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame.
Lambert was pleased to hear that Coach France was inducted last November.
On his high school career, Lambert wanted to thank a couple of teachers who helped prepare him for his goals in college. He took calculus under Carol Gray and physics with Debra Bretz.
Those classes gave him a strong base to study mechanical engineering at N.C. State University.
Lambert knew he wanted to better understand how a race car works and what helps the car go faster. He studied topics like aerodynamics and wind resistance.
While he was at N.C. State, he took part in the university’s racing program, Wolfpack Motorsports.
“It’s like a student club that competes in a competition put on by the Society of Automotive Engineers,” he described.
Lambert participated as a driver, as a worker on the crew and then for his junior and senior years as the team leader.
By the time he graduated in 2005, Lambert felt fully prepared to move on to the next challenge.
Knowing that RCR is one of the premiere racing companies in NASCAR, he got his foot in the door as a mechanical engineer, working in the shop.
He took part in projects and was involved in chassis work.
After two years, he had impressed his supervisors enough to land a gig as a race engineer.
That meant going on the road with the RCR race teams to each of the tracks.
Every race track is different, he explained. The climates are different in various parts of the country. Then weather conditions can change by the day for practices and even by the minute during the race itself.
To best prepare for the race, the crew chief works with two race engineers to develop a strategy for how to set up the car. He worked hand-in-hand with another race engineer, the crew chief and RCR driver Jeff Burton.
Lambert said he had longed to be a crew chief for years and knew this was a great chance to take a step toward that goal.
He stayed in that position from 2007 until about the middle of 2011.
Burton has had a successful career in NASCAR, winning 21 races, but hasn’t won since 2008. RCR decided to make a change and dropped crew chief Todd Berrier and put Lambert in as interim crew chief at 28 years of age.
In his brief run on the Sprint Cup series, Lambert helped Burton finish second at Talledega. Then the next week, Lambert thought they had the car to beat at Phoenix, but a late tire issue caused Burton to finish fourth.
Problems like that tire happen all the time in NASCAR, ruining the best-laid plans of mice, men and racing teams.
Still, RCR saw enough from that late-season run to give Lambert his own team, albeit on the Nationwide series.
“It was something I had always worked toward,” he said. “I was excited for the opportunity, but it is a really big challenge every week.”
Becoming the leader of a team means that he works more closely with personnel. Rather than analyzing data or sticking his head under the hood, Lambert has to make time to manage his team, too.
He said he tries to help his crew get the most out of their abilities in order to put the best-possible vehicle on the track.
“That’s what ultimately leads to success or failing is getting everyone’s input into one final product,” he said.
“I’ve enjoyed the challenge of every week having to compete against the best in the sport,” he said. “For me, the experience is enjoyable because you’re always against the best. It is a weekly measure of your success or failure. You’re working with your team to find the next best thing to improve the car.”
There are 15 people at the track each week, and like a tug-of-war everyone has to pull their weight on the rope, he said. And it’s his job to make sure they are all pulling in the same direction.
While he is the darling of RCR this season, Lambert knows that fortunes can change.
Berrier helped Kevin Harvick to three top-five finishes, but was shown the door last year.
“It’s no different than being a college football or college basketball coach,” he said. “The job is performance-based.”
He has no plans to let up now.
“I definitely want to stick with this for a while,” he said.
After spending time on both of NASCAR’s top car series, are there changes in how he does his job?
“There are a lot of differences in how the weekend plays out,” he said. Lambert and Sadler have fewer practices with the #2 car, races are shorter and there are fewer pit stops.
Unlike the Sprint series, Nationwide crews are restricted on the number of tires they can use in one race, he noted.
Rather than change tires every time the caution flag comes out, the crew chief has to devise a strategy to get the most out of every set of tires.
Depending on the track and the weather, Lambert will get five to eight practice runs on the track in a given week. Sprint teams get three times that much practice, and those practices aren’t as rushed.
With such limited opportunities to see how the car reacts to the track, the crew has its work cut out for it to prepare the car for the race.
And with only two to four green-flag pit stops per race, a good starting point is essential because the crew doesn’t have many chances to make corrections on the fly, he noted.
What makes his job so challenging is also what makes the job so interesting, he said.
“To me it feels a lot like being in college and having a final exam every Friday afternoon,” he said.
Of all the tracks, he admits to having a soft spot for Bristol.
“I’ve been going there since I was very little with my dad as a spectator,” he said.
The public really gets a sense of a car’s power on a small track, he explained. The intense racing in close quarters is exciting, and people are close enough to see all the action whether they are a fan or part of a race team.
In the spring race at Bristol, Lambert and Sadler took home the checkered flag with many members of the Lambert family in attendance.
That was a wonderful feeling, according to Lambert, and makes Bristol feel all the more special to him.
While he enjoys his work, Lambert’s time has grown more precious as he has started a family, too.
Lambert and wife Jamie now live in Clemmons, have a 10-month-old son Waylon and have another baby due in March.
“We’re still waiting to find out what the next one will be, but we have a couple of names picked out,” he said.
The Nationwide season has just three races left.
Lambert will spend the next month at Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Reach Jeff Linville at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1920.