Greg Ives once drove 1,500 miles in 24 hours for a job interview that lasted about 30 minutes. Then he drove home. It took another interview, this time following a 32-hour round trip drive from his home in Michigan to Charlotte, North Carolina, to land an entry-level job with a race team.
Worth it? Today he holds one of the premier--and highest profile--jobs in his sport.
Here's another in my series on incredibly successful people who have achieved something we all strive for: making a living by doing what we love.
This time I talked with Greg Ives, the crew chief for the No. 88 car driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and owned by Hendrick Motorsports, the organization which has won the most Nascar championships and leads all modern owners in series wins. (The Hendrick list of drivers includes, along with Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, and, until recently, Jeff Gordon.)
It's a dream job but also an incredibly high profile job. If you know nothing else about Nascar, you have almost surely heard of Dale Jr., Nascar's most popular driver for the past 13 years.
The resulting pressure--both external and that he puts on himself--might seem overwhelming, but Ives doesn't see it that way at all: He thinks of pressure as an opportunity.
From the outside looking in, it appears your job is all about problem solving. What is your approach?
A lot of how I solve problems involves if-then statements. "If this happens, do this, if not, go to that...." It's a little like the way a computer programmer thinks. Of course I'm by no means a programmer, but that is how my mind works and how I try to solve problems.
Say it's a race call: Maybe we can gain nine spots by only changing two tires, but if the tires fall off by a lot (in other words, lose too much grip) then those nine spots may only turn into two spots over the course of a run...that's how I approach problem solving.
Really it's just a "for every action there's some kind of reaction" mentality. Nothing is free. Every decision has a cost, so you look for the best possible outcome.
Racing is so complex, though, you could fall down a never-ending if-then rabbit hole and never emerge.
Usually you can only if-then out one or two times.
It does help to have some history in your head, or some outcome from the past you can refer to. Like, "This year, we took two tires at Las Vegas and were able to maintain second place." But then again, "We took two tires at Loudon and gained nine spots on pit road but lost 11."
So you're right. There are a lot of variables, including the fact that the past sometimes doesn't come close to predicting the future.
When it comes down to it, we just don't have the time to extend the if-then possibilities very far. We have to make the best decision we can and go for it, and then later try to learn from any mistakes we might make.
How much history do you try to keep in your head? Do you go back and review data before every race?
Sure, but I also think it's important to try to actively refresh your mind. You may be in the middle of a race that reminds you of the last race, or one from a month ago...but that doesn't mean this race will turn out anything close to the same way.
But sometimes the schedule helps. Pocono followed the Indy race, and a lot of things from Indy apply to Pocono. Or if we ran well at Texas, we can use some of that at Charlotte. Still, though, if things about the car, the team, the track...if everything isn't the same as the race you're thinking back on, what you did before may not work.
So I try to keep a few key points in mind and then clear some mental space so I can think about what is happening during the race. I use a little history, not to make decisions, but to help me make decisions. History is important but it's only one set of data.
Theoretically you could be at the shop 24/7. How do you portion out your time?
I don't do a very good job of that. At all. [Laughs.]
Sometimes what I do is put appointments into my schedule that force me to leave the shop. For example, I always make a haircut appointment for 6 p.m. on Tuesdays. Every three or four weeks, 6 p.m. on Tuesday is a hard out.
I have a family, a wife and three kids, that I want to enjoy. When I get home, I have less than three hours with my kids each day before they go to bed. I try to make that time as efficient as I can. I'm probably more efficient at that than I am with my time at the shop.
For example, for a long time my wife and I talked about getting a boat. Instead we decided to get a pool. That way when I get home we can walk outside, jump in the pool for an hour or so, go back in and have some ice cream, or do some other things. We try to enjoy as much time together as possible. If we had a boat we'd waste a lot of time driving to the boat dock, putting the boat away afterwards...we try to take full advantage of the time we get.
How do you manage your worktime? What does a day look like for you?
It really helps that most of the time people here are thoughtful enough to manage my time for me. [Smiles.]
We have a morning meeting that starts at 7:15 a.m. that runs until 8. That's a meeting with all of our managers. We talk about the day's workload, things from the racetrack we need to improve upon, and what we need to get done on the racecar for the next track. That's where we create our short-term plans. Plus, we try to forecast as far into the future as possible, of course knowing that might change.
On Tuesdays, we have a number of larger meetings. We have a team meeting at 9:15 where the shop gets together and discusses company- and employee-related stuff like family nights, birthdays, personal milestones, things like that.
Then at 9:30 I attend a pit crew meeting. We go over film from the week before. We talk about what we did well, where we can improve, and exactly how we plan to improve. You can identify ways to improve all you want, but unless you put them in place you haven't done anything. That meeting lasts until 10:15 or 10:30.
At 10:30, I meet with our engineers and Dale to go over post-race information. Ahead of time, Dale usually gives us input on what the car was doing along with some specific questions he has, but at that meeting we go more into much more detail. And we talk about how we should have addressed certain situations from the weekend. We become our own Monday morning quarterbacks.
Then we look at the upcoming race and talk about schedules, plans that we'll use moving forward, setups...so we talk about what happened but then we spend a lot of time focusing on what we will make happen. That meeting lasts until 12.
Then we go to our competition meeting, which is in some ways similar but with a larger group: all the drivers, all the crew chiefs, all the engine managers, the director of competition, key executives...that meeting typically runs until about 2 or 2:30.
Then we meet with our aerodynamics group for about an hour or hour and a half. By then, it's around 4 p.m., and I'll see where my guys are at on the racecar.
That's a major amount of time to spend off the shop floor.
Keep in mind I'm occasionally emailing my guys and responding to questions they have...but I try not to do that because you never know what you might pick up from those discussions. And if I hear something interesting then I'll text the car chief and share that with him.
Do you have to spend much time preparing for each of those meetings?
Every minute of the weekend is my preparation for those meetings. Everything that goes on is like training for the Tuesday meetings.
So it's not like I have to have special notes. I do make my own post-race notes, but most of it is in my head. When you care, you don't forget.
That's why you have to wipe away all the stuff that doesn't matter. That's why I said I try to actively refresh my brain sometimes. And that's why I try to leave at a specific time on Tuesdays. It's not physically tiring but it's mentally demanding. You're not running a marathon...but you are, kind of, at least mentally.
Plus, we don't have that many meetings every day. Monday is more of a freelance day, Wednesdays we have less meetings, so I get to spend more time working on the car and handling other issues.
Is there a part of the day when you feel the most productive?
When I do stay late, say from 6 or 7 p.m. on, that's when I often get the most work done. I get time to think about where we are, what we're doing--that's usually when I get the most done...but then again, that takes away from my family time.
That's a balance you always have to work hard to strike, but it's worth it.
Here's an example: Just last week our 3-year-old started swimming and jumping in and diving to the bottom of the pool to get her little non-floating mermaid. It's neat to be able to see that. I got to be part of that.
That balance is tough, because, like many jobs, this job could consume you.
Absolutely. Plus, I'm kind of made that way.
When I was growing up, I wasn't a loner but I didn't mind spending time alone. I was at work or I was racing. When I could drive, I wasn't going around town dragging Main or going to the local food joints or hanging out. I was at work. When I wasn't at school or playing a school sport, I was at work. Usually during the summer I was working, and when I got done I was working on racecars.
That's the way I lived. A lot of people said, "You have the rest of your life to race," and I would always think, "Yeah, if I want to do it as a hobby, I do have the rest of my life."
I didn't look at it as a hobby. I enjoyed racing but I also wanted to make it a career. I knew I needed something to fall back on, so I worked for my parents as a mechanic and I went to college to get an education, but my main focus was to find a way to be involved in racing.
How does that affect how you evaluate people you're interviewing for a job? If they're not as dedicated.... Some people are talented but don't have the same drive.
Everyone is different. I don't try to put people in some kind of box. Some people work better by taking a different path than the one I took. If everyone in this company was just like me, there would be no one that was not me...and that would be a disaster.
The way people do things does matter, but results are what matter the most.
But yes, this is a demanding profession. Some people can do the job but don't want to accept the demands that come with the job.
Speaking of demands, let's talk about pressure. You're in a high profile position with tons of people watching. How do you deal with that?
I came from a small town. Compared to a larger town, a higher percentage of the people there knew me, knew what I hoped to do, voiced their opinions about what I was doing.... Being from a small town doesn't mean I didn't deal with certain types of pressures, it just wasn't quite as large a group of people paying some degree of attention to what I do.
So what I try to do is make sure that I represent the people who really know and care about me, and make them proud.
And while your question implies that pressure is a negative, I see pressure as an opportunity. Pressure really is an opportunity to not only do something you love but to show other people that you can do it.
I think of pressure as an opportunity to continue to push myself. Every day when you get out of bed you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, " I get to walk out the door, put my best foot forward, and work hard to reach my goals."
Still, you're Dale Jr.'s crew chief. That brings a level of scrutiny that is different from what at least some other crew chiefs face.
I don't think about being Dale Jr.'s crew chief as pressure. I don't think about doing the job that I choose to do as pressure. I chose to do this. Nobody forced me to be Dale Jr.'s crew chief. I raised my hand and said yes, I want to be Dale Jr.'s crew chief.
I chose my path. I chose to step forward and ask for the job. I said, "I want to be a crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports," and Mr. Hendrick decided where to place me.
That's not pressure. That's opportunity. Sure, I do have pressure to perform...but I wanted the pressure because I want the job. I love the job.
What's the hardest part about your job?
This sport puts huge demands on people, so we have to stay focused on helping them feel it's worthwhile and fulfilling to do what it takes for us to succeed.
Take the six or seven pit crew members that jump off a wall in front of a 70 mph car to try to do pit stops in 11.5 seconds. They have to believe in what they're doing and what we're trying to achieve.
The same is true for the race team, for all the people in the shop, for everyone in this organization. This is a tough profession. And every week, only one car wins.
When you're winning, keeping people motivated and pulling together is fairly easy. When you're not running well, it can be harder. Fortunately, this is an organization where people do the things it takes for us to succeed because they want to do those things, not because we tell them to.
Cars are made of parts but all the people that have their hands in making those parts and putting them together and getting the cars to the racetrack...those people are the most important part of what we do.
Making all that work, making people feel good about being a part of building a faster race car, taking care of the people that are a part of our success--that's the hardest part of my job, but it's also the best part.
Aside from winning, how do you define success?
Winning is great, but how you get there matters, too.
One time after a race, an elevator wasn't working and I saw an older gentleman pulling his bag. I said, "Hey, can I carry your bag?" He said, "Oh, no, I can get it...."
This was after a race where we had run badly. He and I talked about it later and he said, "I appreciate you offering to help me, especially after such a tough day."
I said, "My parents gave me morals for a reason. I'm not going to change who I am because we ran badly or because we ran well."
As long as I'm who I am, and stay true to what I believe in, I feel successful.
Others in this series: