A Champion of Change – Greg ZipadelliBy Roberta Cowan
Greg Zipadelli doesn’t bounce around much. He never has. His loyalty to teams and drivers doesn’t allow for that. It’s always been that way, from the time he won his first championship with Mike “Magic Shoes” McLaughlin in 1988 all the way today. Zippy as he is known has always been around for the long haul.
Many think that Zipadelli’s major success was with Joe Gibbs Racing and a guy who would play a role in his career all the way through today, Tony Stewart. But the truth is Greg Zipadelli has been winning championships and races since he was 21 years old, having been the crew chief for McLaughlin, Mike Stefanik and of course Tony Stewart, and Joey Logano.
When Zipadelli and Stewart were paired up by Joe Gibbs Racing in 1999 to challenge for Rookie of the Year honors, it was not Zippy’s first foray into what was then Winston Cup. In fact he came to Joe Gibbs Racing from a position of Chassis specialist for Jeff Burton with Jack Roush Racing.
Zipadelli would help build the No.20 Home Depot team literally from the ground up. With a rookie driver, a rookie crew chief and in a lot of ways a rookie team, Zippy and Stewart would pull off a historical feat. They won three times in their rookie year to claim the Rookie of the Year honors. Something no one else had ever done.
The relationship would last until 2008. When Stewart would make the move into ownership with his newly formed Stewart-Haas Racing team, it was a difficult thing for Stewart to leave his friend and crew chief behind after 9 years and 33 wins and two championships. But contractual restrictions would prevent him from taking Greg Zipadelli with him, at least for right then.
The seat would then be filled by another young man who came to Zippy a rookie. Joey Logano had a big reputation in late model stocks, but he had even bigger shoes to fill. Shoes that were so big that there were times you could see him struggle not to trip. Always there with a calm and reassuring manner was Zipadelli. It would be that calm demeanor that would lead Logano to his first career win in his first season with JGR. When Zipadelli left Logano, he did so with 17 top-5’s, 36 top-10’s and one win over the three year period.
In 2011, the call came from old friend Tony Stewart. Negotiations had been completed allowing Zippy to leave JGR and join SHR as the competition director, a position that had been left open after the termination of Bobby Hutchens. But the separation was not as easy as you might think. J.D. Gibbs called the progression difficult. “It’s hard, it’s hard for him in a lot of ways – this has been his home for a long time. And it’s hard for us.”
“Joe Gibbs always says that you win with people, and Tony Stewart is a winner,” Zipadelli said in the Stewart-Haas statement. “We won a lot together at Joe Gibbs Racing, and it was a sad day when (Stewart) left.
“But Tony had an unbelievable opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing, and he’s obviously made the most of it. To become a part of what he’s already built, but to do it in a new role with a new set of responsibilities, was a challenge I wanted.”
Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli were together longer than any other crew chief driver pairing in the garage having been together for 9 years and forming a relationship that those close to them referred to as more like brothers than co workers. Stewart said of the move, “Greg knows all that goes into the job, understands the importance of team work and communication across all levels of the organization and is ultimately someone I have a great deal of trust in.”
But how difficult was the transition from crew chief to competition director? “It’s not really difficult, it’s just different. The difficult part is that you’ve been a crew chief so long you just kind of do what you do. Now you have to look at things differently. I like to explain it as I use to be selfish, just worry about my car and my group. Now you’ve got to worry about everybody’s car you know. Luckily you don’t have the immediate highs and lows like you do calling the race. Now you’re affected by all of them. Instead of just the car you’re working on. In that aspect it’s different,” stated Zipadelli
The job of competition director is a big one. It’s a job that is crucial to the teams themselves. “I think for where the casual fan doesn’t understand is that not every car owner can be at the shop every day and can be down on the floor every day and handling financials all the way down to the people that sweep the floor at the end of the day. The competition director is very crucial in that connection between what is going on down on the floor and what is going on in the upper office. He is managing the crew chiefs, managing the teams, managing the different departments at the race shop. He is that connection between downstairs and upstairs. Especially on a race weekend, if we have any kind of a problem that is the guy, and in our case with Greg Zipadelli, he is the acting role as the car owner from my side. He is very crucial in that role and having the right person in that role if very important to each organization” stated Tony Stewart.
But the challenges of moving from crew chief to competition director according to Zipadelli were a little different for him, “The challenging part is just learning what you can do to help the others, and not be selfish. I think having this limited deal with the Sprint Cup car (short stint as Danica Patrick’s crew chief) kind of helped me put something’s off and allowed me to still do a little bit and then go back and forth from that part of it. It’s been a help to me personally because I enjoy this part of it. The other thing is that it changes so much. What you are working on and the people part of it. So much of our sport today is people. You’re always working on people moving them around and expansion what we need to be working on and those types of things.”
Greg Zipadelli has had both ends of the spectrum with drivers. He has had the ultra skilled highly successful Stewart whose wins and championships in multiple series on multiple surface types made him a given success. He has had a true rookie in the sport with Danica, whose limited stock car experience is a challenge for both her and her team. And he has had the youthful late model success story in Joey Logano. But Zipadelli is honest about what it took to bring them all up in the ranks. “Success wise, obviously Tony was (the easiest to guide into Cup racing), because he had so much racing experience in so many other series and had been so successful. He knew how to win and he knew how to win championships, we just had to figure out what he liked in a race car and give it to him and he could do the rest. I don’t know if it’s fair to compare the three of them. They are all so different in their experience level the success level they have had in different series. They are all drastically different.”
Every ship needs a captain to help ease the strain of change. Change requires a steady hand on the wheel. A leader must have the confidence to calm the jittery. He must have the strength to lead the hesitant. It takes a knowing ear to hear and ease the fear before it becomes a habit, to spot the anger and intervene. It takes a champion to lead a group to greatness through the storms of human nature and the intangible variables of racing. Greg Zipadelli has been down that road as a crew chief. Now he will blaze the path for three instead of one.
Now he will teach and guide an organization instead of a team. In the end, the job is the same the scope is just bigger. “We’re capable of taking bad days and making them into ok days or even great days,” said Zipadelli. With that kind of confidence and belief in his team, his drivers and himself, Greg Zipadelli has already proven he is the man to guide the ship at Stewart-Haas Racing.