In 1991, Joe Gibbs was the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the Washington Redskins; in 1996 he would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He wasn't just famous. He was widely respected for his work ethic, integrity, and faith.
Which meant Joe's name alone could open doors.
So when his oldest son J.D. (who, sadly, passed away earlier this year) said, "Dad, rather than do something in coaching and football, I'd rather do something in motor sports," Joe, a long-time motorsports fan, decided to start a race team.
The long-term goal was to build a business that he, J.D., and younger son Coy could run together -- and someday pass on to the next generation.
Short-term, that meant finding a sponsor.
Joe's reputation could open doors. It was a powerful tool. But as you'll see, his initial pitch to sponsors was not.
This is the story of one of the most remarkable professional -- and personal -- relationships in professional sports. Joe Gibbs is the founder of Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). Norm Miller was CEO and is now Chairman of the Board of Interstate Batteries.
Interstate Batteries has been an ongoing partner of Joe Gibbs Racing since 1992, and today announced a new contract extension that will take their partnership to the 30-year mark. In that time JGR has grown from 17 to over 500 employees and has won four NASCAR Cup Series championships. Interstate has grown from 120,000 dealers to over 200,000 dealers around the world and is the leading replacement battery company in the U.S.
All of which makes the word "successful" an understatement.
What's more, Joe and Norm have also been fast friends for the past 27 years -- and as this interview (lightly edited for clarity and length) makes clear, they intend to extend that relationship for the rest of their lives.
Take me back to the beginning.
Joe: I had always had a love of motorsports. I said to J.D., "We'll take a shot. But we have nothing... we'll just put a dream on a piece of paper." And so we did that.
People had told me about Norm, they said, "We think you would hit it off with Norm Miller..." I walked onto the racetrack and saw Interstate Batteries on a car and thought, "Geez, I probably lost the opportunity for that..."
But I decided -- even though it never works out -- to cold call Norm. So I called Norm, the first conversation went 40 minutes, talking about all kinds of stuff, and Norm said, "Come on down here (to Texas) and let's see what you're talking about."
I still remember that first meeting. Tommy (Norm's brother) is running the show, and he said, "Who is your driver?"
I said, "We don't have one."
"Where's your race shop?"
I said, "We don't have one. This is a dream on a piece of paper."
When I left there, I said, "There's no way."
What was your pitch?
Joe: The pitch was Rick Hendrick (Hendrick Motorsports) had agreed to help us with motors. GM had said, "We'd like to have you in our camp," so we were going to get a manufacturer.
In this sport, everybody wants to get a sponsor and then they'll go racing. But nobody gets to do that. You have to race well... and then you get a sponsor.
So what we were pitching to Norm was really a long shot.
Two days later I called him back. I still remember where I was: Downstairs in my house in VA, in my basement. I called Norm and said, "Look, I know this is too big, you're already in racing..."
I'm not a very good salesman. (Laughs.)
I say, "Maybe you could be an associate sponsor on our car."
You're already backing off.
Joe: I'm already backing off and backpedaling. (Laughs.) And Norm says, "No, we're thinking about doing the whole thing."
I still remember the feeling: I kind of panicked. This was going to be a big deal. Then I got scared. (Laughs.)
And that started off our relationship.
Then Norm and I had to get a driver. I still remember talking to Dale Jarrett at the Charlotte race track, talking about driving our race car, and he turned to Norm and said, "Norm, what do you want to get out of this?"
Norm said, "I want to win souls for Christ!"
And I thought, "Oh my gosh, he just scared off our driver!"
It was really fun putting all that together. You look back at it and it was kind of a miracle. (Laughs.)
Norm, why did you say "yes" to a guy who came to you with nothing but a hope and a dream?
Norm: We had been exposed to (racing). Our family and distributors were fired up about it.
Joe always says I have to be the dumbest guy in the world to take a deal with a guy with no driver and no shop and no team. (Laughs.)
But the thing is, we knew that he won. We had done surveys with our dealers that they watched a lot of NASCAR and a lot of NFL (football.) So with Joe, we get NFL, and who knows, he may win at this. (Laughs.)
So we took a flyer.
Football success obviously opened doors for you. People would take your calls. But at the same time they might have thought, "Okay, but what does he know about racing? He's just going to dip his toe... and then he'll go away." You could get in the door, but then you had to be credible.
Joe: With racing, you do have to be credible.
We kicked off the first year and we didn't win a race. So everyone is nervous, I was nervous... now we're starting our second year and it's the Daytona 500.
Quick story: J.D. was a good athlete and we put him on changing tires. Todd Meredith was J.D.'s buddy, and he's a good athlete.
In those days you either changed left-side or right-side tires, and J.D. was going to change left-side tires on the Cup car.
The very first race is Daytona. We start the race and all of a sudden we're running up front. And then it dawned on me that it could come down to the last pit stop -- and it's the first time J.D. has ever been at a race changing tires. I was looking for a place to throw up, I was so uptight. (Laughs.)
So we come in for that pit stop, J.D. goes over the wall with Todd, they (change one tire), and about halfway through changing (the second tire) the jack drops and the car is gone.
J.D. stood up and Todd said, "Did you get all those tight?" (There are five lug nuts per wheel.)
J.D. said, "I got three of them tight."
Todd said, "Can we make it on three?"
J.D. looked up at Jimmy Makar, our crew chief, whose nickname was Mad Dog. He was a fiery guy. J.D. looked at him, looked back at Todd, (decides he's not going to say anything to Makar), and said, "We're getting ready to find out." (Laughs.)
Evidently you could make it on three, since you won the race. (A race that is also famous for the way Dale Jarrett's father Ned, a TV analyst, called the final lap.)
Joe: When we won the boys are rolling in the infield, we're wandering around not knowing where (Victory Lane) is, totally lost...
I didn't know you were supposed to go to the Media Center. I picked up the trophy and said the boys and Pat (Joe's wife), "Okay, let's go."
We went out the back, got in the car, pulled out of the track, saw a Steak 'n Shake, the boys say they're starving... so we pull in. All kinds of fans recognized us, recognized the trophy, and we wound up spending 30 minutes in the parking lot, taking photos with fans.
The reason I tell that story is that race verified to me, "We belong in racing. I don't know how good we will be... but this is the place for us."
God blessed us with that victory. It's one of the greatest things that has happened to me in sports.
Norm, when the team was struggling, were you saying, "Joe, what did you get me into?"
Norm: We didn't have unrealistic expectations.
Joe: It did make me nervous. You go through the whole year and I did say, "Maybe this thing is too big for us."
Norm: In the first race, Dale gets t-boned. The car is totally wrecked. We're out. We go back to the transporter and the TV followed us. They even interviewed me.
I told Joe, "You know, if we don't win... let's wreck. Look at the publicity we got." (Laughs.)
Clearly the partnership has worked out well for Interstate.
Norm: In 1990 we probably had 120,000 dealers: Service stations, garages, car dealers, etc. that sold our batteries. But we didn't have a national reputation. This gave us that national reputation. It opened us up as a bona fide national company and brand.
The thing I feel hasn't really been expressed much is that Joe won the Super Bowl two weeks before we're at Daytona. (Redskins) win the Super Bowl and the media followed him down from the Super Bowl. They thought, "We get to go to Florida in December?" (Laughs.)
The reputation, and the size of the impact of NASCAR, on our company... a bunch goes back to Joe Gibbs Racing.
You only think about buying a car battery when you need a car battery. You're in the brand awareness business. So when I saw Interstate on the car, and it's Joe's team...
Norm: That was exactly why we did it.
We felt that really helped us secure a lot of national accounts. And the name recognition among consumers was critical, too.
Joe: That first year Norm said, "Ask someone selling batteries, that understands batteries, what is the best battery, we'll be mentioned right at the top. But if you ask the average person on the street what battery they will buy... we'll be listed third."
He wanted to change that. His game plan was to have the car for the racing season, and then during the football season, we're going to cut a commercial that ties racing and football together, which we did, and run it during football season.
In about three years they went to being one of the most recognized companies in the world. It worked.
And it still works. How many partnerships last 27 years?
How have you navigated the friendship/business partner thing? I have friends I wouldn't want to go into business with, and others that I have a great business relationship but not necessarily a friendship. How did you pull that off?
Joe: One thing is our wives really get along great. That's a huge plus. (Laughs.)
Norm is just fun. And he's not afraid to try anything. (Riding) a jet ski in the ocean and getting hurt... he's done a little bit of everything. (Laughs.) We enjoy the activities, the sports, boats, jet skis... so we vacation quite a bit.
But you have to watch Norm on vacation. He will definitely work you over. The very first vacation he says, "Hey, I have a boat." I'm picturing a yacht.
But the boat wasn't that big. The very first night, the bed Pat and I had was as big as a coffee table... and (the room was so small) I had to climb over the top of her to get in the bed.
So on the second day I asked to see the rest of the boat, and they open this door to this huge bedroom... and it was Norm's bedroom. (Laughs.)
Norm: He didn't realize I got there a day early.
How much input does a sponsor have on race team operations, driver choices...?
Joe: At the racetrack, when they're doing hospitality, they control all of that. They organize that: Invite customers, employees... people have a great morning.
The good thing about racing is that Kyle (Busch) will come in and speak to the group, answer questions, sign autographs for everybody. I'll come in and do the same thing. It's an event.
Norm: Often we'll get the other drivers (from JGR), too. They'll get to see Denny (Hamlin), Erik (Jones), that's a big deal.
Joe: In the NFL, if you try to go get an autograph from the quarterback you'll get arrested. In this sport you have a chance to get Kyle Busch to sign something. If you go to that hospitality, you definitely will.
You get a picture, you get something signed, you get to ask questions... it's an event. It's something you remember.
But: Has Norm ever tried to tell you what to do?
Joe: In the old days, they actually had one guy who was the bad guy. Norm was always good to me, everything was great... but we didn't run very well at times, so there was always one guy they would sic on me. (Laughs.)
He would just get after me. Norm and Tommy would stay in the background and still be buddies.
Norm, you were the good cop.
Norm: Yep. I was the good cop. (Laughs.)
Joe: We were negotiating the second contract and I said to Norm, "We need this money. We need more money."
Norm: "A substantial increase."
Joe: Yes. We needed a big increase because we're trying to win a championship.
And Norm said, "I thought that was what we were doing the first go-round." (Laughs.)
Sometimes people struggle with business and family, and blending those things. Both of you have pulled that off with great success. Tips for someone who wants to involve family, or have a family business?
Joe: For me, that's part of my motivation. Our goal here on earth is like David with Solomon: God said you have to prepare your kids for the future. Norm has done that with his family, and certainly I feel that way...
The sad thing was losing J.D. He spent 27 years (helping to) build this. We want to make sure we honor him by keeping the race team strong and successful.
When his brother got sick, Coy moved over here and is a big part of what's going on, and has taken over for J.D. and the aspect of running a race team...
And I have grandkids coming, so that's a huge deal for me. I just have to make it long enough for them to be here. (Laughs.)
Norm: When push comes to shove, you treat people the way you want to be treated. If you treat people the way you want to be treated yourself, you'll look after their interests. If you look after their interests, they appreciate it, they'll do better... and they'll do more business with you. (Laughs.)
Treat people the way you want to be treated and you're more apt to have them supporting what you do.
Joe: A lot of people say "it's business, it's business"... I say it's relationships, relationships. Certainly from a business standpoint, in racing we have partners. We have some of the biggest and best in the world. Our goal is to keep them happy so they stay with us.
Norm: That's my goal too in our relationship: To keep me happy. (Laughs.)
Speaking of similarities. Norm, you were a salesperson and became CEO. Joe, you were a coach who then decided to start and run a company. Was the transition from one role to another difficult?
Joe: It certainly wasn't something I planned. But coaching is teamwork, it's on the job training, this worked, this didn't work... over time you learn that if you get the right people together, they'll make you look good as their coach.
The same thing happens in business.
I was scared to death to come to racing because the only thing I had ever done was football. But I eventually found that it's just like football. You need a great quarterback. You need a great driver. You need a great coach. You need a great crew chief.
I think Norm and I both figured that out somewhere: It comes down to your people.
Norm: Plus, it's incremental. You learn as you go. When you make a mistake you try not to do that again.
And again, it comes back to people and a clear understanding of what we're trying to accomplish, what tools do we have, how will we do it, what's the time frame...
The issue is not losing sight of your objective. With Interstate, we need to do everything we can to help the distributors. It's common sense. But when you really try to do that, they see it. And you create a team.
Speaking of team, you've extended the partnership between Joe Gibbs Racing and Interstate Batteries.
Joe: And it will take us through the 30-year mark.
In racing years, that's like 200.
Joe: With racing, business, competition... who would have thought a partnership could go that long?
What I get a thrill out of is that our company was started with 17 people, and look where we are today. Interstate was third in after-market battery sales, and today it's number one.
What gets lost sometimes is that people ultimately do business with people.
Joe: That's right. Take Kyle (Busch).
Kyle loves Norm. He'll shove me to one side but he loves Norm. (Laughs.)
If there's any way he can win when (Interstate is on the car), he wants to win it for Norm.
It's the same thing for me. People inside Interstate, everyone I get the chance to meet... the relationship aspect weaves in and out.
Norm: But it's also a good (business) deal. We tell our distributors we're trying to do the best we possibly can for them, and we have to deliver on that.
We've been greatly blessed in this whole racing endeavor -- and relationship -- because it's been worth it.
Joe: For a partner, it all has to add up. TV impressions, events, show car programs, social... it has to add up. Is the racing a valuable investment? Do we get a return?
That's why, for the last few years, B2B has become much bigger. Social and digital has become much bigger.
Content has been a much bigger thing. And in this sport, there's a lot going on.
I love the fact you can measure it.
That makes it easier for you: If you can show numbers and measurable outcomes, then you have a story to tell. As opposed to just, "Please." Al thought that is how you did when you first walked in to see Norm.
Norm: We had already made the decision we were going to have to go farther.
Joe, you were right place, right time. And right guy.
Norm: It was a God deal.
Joe: I think God organized it.
Norm: Which is always nice.