The trucks are on the road and headed west
Hey everybody. The Gray Motorsports drivers, Shane Gray and Dave Connolly, were nice enough to invite me to take over their territory here on the NHRA blog for a little while, and that gives me a great opportunity to bring you up to speed, as they say. There has been a lot going on at the Gray Motorsports facility in the past few months, as I'm sure you've all heard by now. As you probably expect, it's been pretty exciting, to say the least.
You might be wondering, who the heck is this guy sharing some info about Gray Motorsports? That's a fair question, and a good place for us to start. Here is a little background about myself.
I came on board with Gray Motorsports at the beginning of the 2013 season with the mindset of contributing to building a championship operation, However, my relationship with the Grays started well before then. I was developing a piece of equipment used to quantify engine performance, called an inertia engine dyno. Johnny Gray recognized the accomplishments made during the development period and the usefulness the product had with his engine program. Johnny was persistent about getting one under his roof, and we worked together to make that happen. Since then my relationship with the Gray family has grown, and today I am the General Manager for Gray Motorsports.
I came from the NASCAR world of the racing industry. I worked for three years for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing as a Design Engineer before accepting a full time position at Gray Motorsports. I was designing chassis components for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cars of Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya. My tenure there included wins at Indianapolis (Brickyard 400), Charlotte, and Watkins Glen. It was a pretty big transition for me to change from turning left most of the time to going straight and only making one left turn at the end of the pass. Even though this is quite a different world than I am used to, I've really come to enjoy drag racing through working with Gray Motorsports. I really enjoy the competitiveness of the Pro Stock class. Quite honestly, how could someone not be excited about the close competition we experience on the track?
My daily duties at our shop in Denver, N.C., start with overseeing many of the day-to-day business operations, and that includes everything from administrative duties to making sure the guys have the tools and equipment necessary to do their jobs and to do them well. There is always plenty to do around here, especially over the last few months.
Last season was relatively simple for the Gray Motorsports group. We were small and operated as a very competitive single-car team. Victor Cagnazzi was equally impressive with his single car operation. Common sense told us that we could function more efficiently and even more competitively as a combined unit. So, this led to the merger that has been a hot topic in the off-season. Yes, the merger has brought on many challenges, with the biggest being the rapid growth of our small program. That's a challenge that I consider to be very positive. It was a great feeling to add the former Cagnazzi employees to the Gray Motorsports roster. Our talent pool grew exponentially, and this growth adds to our excitement for the 2014 season. It's great working with Shane, his brother Jonathan, and their dad Johnny. Really, the entire Gray family has been so welcoming and shown such a sense of commitment to drag racing. This is completely evident with the recent growth of Gray Motorsports.
It is also a tremendous opportunity for all of us at Gray Motorsports to work with Victor Cagnazzi, especially when you consider the past success he has had in NHRA's Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the experience that he brings to our team. He has already added great sponsorship partners to Gray Motorsports and we are excited to share our future success with all of them.
The Gray Motorsports Dyno Room
Now let me tell you about our workforce! This is where I get really excited… We have great people here at Gray Motorsports, starting with two crew chiefs in the building now. I was fortunate to spend last season working with Justin Elkes, and let me tell you that was exciting – it gave us a glimpse of the future success that we will all have together. Now we get to welcome Tommy Utt to the group as our co-crew chief, and with Tommy's vast experience in the Pro Stock series, our Gray Motorsports cars should be getting down the track even faster.
Near the end of last season, we restructured the engine shop and brought about Paul Hoskins and Dan Cordier to work with Mike Smith, and our future began to look very bright. And when we announced the merger with Cagnazzi Racing, we added Stevie Johns and Kevin Wideman to the engine program, exponentially increasing the potential for the program. Since these four have been added, our dyno cells have been very active, with Mike at the controls. Mike has been with Gray Motorsports for several years now, and he is a very versatile guy. He can do anything we ask him to do…Yesterday our air compressors failed…again – the lines froze due to the moisture and cold temperatures (again) we have had here in NC – and it seems like just about every day Mike goes out there and has to fix something with them due to the extreme cold weather we have had. That's just one example of how he takes on responsibility. He's a good asset to the team, just like everyone we have here at Gray Motorsports.
Jep, also known at JT, is another guy who has been with Gray Motorsports for a long time. JT is a reliable member of the team who will do what it takes to get things done. Not only is he our transmission and clutch guy, he will drive Shane's truck and trailer down the highway this year. Dan Duncan is new to our team, and he'll be responsible for the back half on Shane's car and driving Dave's truck and trailer. Without JT and Dan safely moving our equipment up and down the highway, we wouldn't be going anywhere. Johnny Utt is also new to our program and he will be filling a variety of roles with both cars. He brings plenty of experience to our program and has a great mentor to learn from with his father as a co-crew chief.
Speaking of Dave, adding him to our driver line-up is really exciting because of his past success and his reputation as a driver. It’s going to be awesome to watch how well he and Shane work together. I think they'll be a dominating team.
Of course, when we talk about the team, we can't forget to mention Angela. She is up front in the office answering the phones and making sure the bills are paid, and doing anything else that is asked of her. With the talent pool we've built at Gray Motorsports, we're optimistic for profound results in the 2014 season. The chemistry that the team has built in such a short time is evidence that we have a great group of guys working together, and it's only going to get better. We're on our way and so is our equipment! Hello NHRA Winternationals in Pomona …. Here comes Gray Motorsports!
One of the Gray Motorsports Camaros. Feels good to be back in the driver's seat.
Working on some of the small details with Tommy Utt inside the trailer at the Gray Motorsports shop. Been by my side most of my career.
Finally get to work with this guy, Jep Trammell.
Signing a calendar for a fan. Thanks for the support!
Well, this is something new. I haven’t really done a blog like this before, but here I am, and we’ll see how it goes. There is a lot happening right now, and this seems like a good place to sort of keep track of it and let you all in on what’s happening.
You should already know the big news: I’ll be driving a Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro next season, and it’s a dream come true for me because I get to get back in the seat. Don’t get me wrong, I love crew chiefing, and I learned a lot. I’ve always been a hands-on driver, and I’m glad I got to work with the folks that I have for the past few years. It’s been great, but most everybody likes to put on the helmet, and I feel pretty fortunate I get to get back in the car.
I also get to drive the COPO Camaro in Stock Eliminator this year again, and that’s something I’m looking forward to. I came from sportsman roots, my background is in bracket racing, so that’s something I really enjoy. It’s going to be interesting this year. If you have a chance and are a National Dragster reader, check out the story Kevin McKenna wrote about our COPO Camaro program on their website: http://www.nationaldragster.net/daily-features/the-sports-report/item/2349-the-copo-connection.html.
As a Pro Stock driver, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great people – starting at the top with Grumpy Jenkins on down to Terry Adams and of course Tommy Utt and so many great folks in between. Tommy has been with me since day one aside from a few brief times in my career. He’s always been there for me, and I’ve gotten to work hand in hand with him – I’m glad I paid attention to the mechanical side of things because that eventually opened up the door to being a crew chief on Erica’s car.
The Utts are like family to me, and now that we’ve joined up with Gray Motorsports, the family is just getting bigger. I feel like I already had one of the best teams out there, and now we get to add Justin Elkes and the rest of the Gray Motorsports guys. It’s really been fun because everybody has a different way of doing things, there are lots of different personalities, but we all have strong traits that are really jelling together. We’re in the shop every day working, cracking jokes, having a blast, and being productive all at the same time. The previous success of the guys in this group that we have put together speaks for itself; we’ve surrounded ourselves with a lot of talent, everyone is getting along great, and now we just have to go out there and perform.
So far, so good – we just spent four days down in Bradenton testing, and we really couldn’t have asked for a better test session. It wasn’t perfect – nothing is – but it didn’t spin anybody into the ground. We dove in, fixed any problems, and there wasn’t any whining or finger pointing. The chemistry is great. My new teammate, Shane Gray, is very easy going and easy to work with. We’re both open to criticism, and that’s a good thing because we can learn from each other. We already are.
It was interesting because right off the bat, we knew it was only testing and it was only December of 2013, but we were up there .00-ing it on the Tree by the second and third day. We’re already driving each other. We are each other’s motivator. I wouldn’t consider it a rivalry, but it’s definitely a motivator, and I haven’t had that since 2007 when I was racing with Jeg. It’s exciting.
I’ve always said that I enjoy working on the car, but being in the crew chief role was 10 times harder than driving. Since I was 14 or 16 I’ve been behind the wheel, and driving comes second nature, but to get thrown into the role of crew chief is tough. There is so much more you have to deal with to get these cars up and down the track effectively. With folks like Tommy and Justin, the odds are in your favor – but you never have it figured out; it’s an ongoing science project, but that’s what makes it fun.
I will still have a voice when it comes to making calls on the car – once it’s something you do, it’s not something you can turn off. I’ll probably want to be involved more than I’m going to be able to, but I’ve had a great working relationship with Tommy, and that’s rolled over easily with Justin. Most of the time we all agree, and I don’t think I’ll be totally cut out of the decision-making. It’ll be like a lot of the other teams out there whose drivers are involved in tuning the car as well. That’s something that’s good about our team. If something happens and Justin or Tommy can’t be there, we still have two people who can get these cars down the track. There is a lot of depth to our team for a lot of reasons, and that’s just one of them.
We all work together in the shop, and lately we’ve been doing anything and everything. We get together and each of us will tackle certain tasks. It’s great because we’re all well rounded enough that if the responsibility of the day is to get parts shipped out, then that’s what we do. If it’s mounting tires, we do that. Cleaning up inventory, going through old parts, shipping and receiving, working on suspension or scaling the cars – we all just get in there and do it.
There has been a lot involved in getting our two shops to merge. We had to get equipment here, go through trailer inventory and see what we have to run two cars and what parts need to be serviced. It’s been pretty crazy, but with testing out of the way we have been able to focus on small details, making log books, and things like that. It’s almost time to take some time off for the holidays, and I play to spend it with my family up in Ohio, then I’ll come back to North Carolina to spend time with my girlfriend Lindsey’s family.
The next thing you know, it’s going to be January and we’ll be getting prepared to go testing again. Drag racing sure isn’t a hobby anymore. It’s a full time job. But we get to play with race cars every day. In my case I get to drive a Pro Stock car, and I also get to drive that COPO Camaro, so I’ve got no complaints at all. We’ve got plenty of good stuff coming up. I know it’s about to get real busy, but I’ll try to post another blog soon. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @dconnolly_ps. While you’re at it, you could also go on over and like Facebook.com/DaveConnollyRacing and follow @graymotorsports on Instagram. I think that about covers it! Merry Christmas, everyone.
I sure hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. We've been busy here at the Gray Motorsports shop in Denver, N.C., getting ready for 2014 and what we're thinking is going to be our best year yet as an NHRA Pro Stock team. Dave Connolly, Tommy Utt, and all the guys are here working with us every day, and this place has a buzz to it that we haven't felt in quite awhile. It's a pretty neat deal, and there is a lot of excitement over here. We sure can't wait for the season to start, but in the meantime we're just focused on doing what needs to be done to prepare for it.
The one thing I don't ever want to lose sight of, though, no matter how much we've got going on, is family. Amber had an idea to do something a little bit different this year for a mini family vacation, so we took our three boys down to Disney World and spent a few days. I'm going to tell you, it was great – but oh boy, you thought a weekend at the drag strip tired you out? We were exhausted at the end of the first day, and we still had more to go. It was a great time, though, really great. This is just one of those deals where your kids are growing up, and it's happening so fast. You just don't know how many more times you'll get them all to yourself like that.
We had been to Disney one time before as a family, and I think my mom and dad were there with us that time. This time it was just Amber and me, Bryce, Tanner and Taylor. We got there and were looking at a map and wouldn't you know it, we saw that there was a Chevrolet Showroom right inside the park. I tell you what, that was high on my list of places to visit while we were there. We're pretty big Chevy fans in this family, and I don't think that's too hard to figure out! It was pretty cool, there was a Camaro in there and a Corvette, and then they had quite a few of the eco-friendly cars on display. We didn't expect to be able to look at cars that day. It was a nice surprise, and Chevrolet did a great job of putting that together. You all should check it out when you're down there.
We had actually been in Florida for a while because we went down there to Bradenton to test our own Chevrolet Camaros, and Dave and I got the chance to get settled in a little bit and to see how well everyone was working together. It was a good feeling for me getting back in the car because we'd made some changes – not to the car, really, but more having to do with driving technique, and I was excited to try it out. As always, we are a work in progress. You can't ever be satisfied with what you've got, and I think those changes really did help.
We made probably 12 or so runs, and this is already showing signs of being a great team. Our two crew chiefs are working so well together – Justin Elkes will be coming back of course, and Tommy Utt has joined us, as you all know. They'll be co-crew chiefs together on both cars, and Tommy is fitting right in. This whole deal has jelled together perfect.
We're going back down to Bradenton to run a little bit in the middle of January, and when we go out West before the Winternationals, we'll be picking up a new Jerry Haas Camaro that we'll test in Vegas. There is a lot of excitement heading into the new year. So much to look forward to. I've been working closely with Victor Cagnazzi and our Team Manager Kevin Finney here at the shop, and we've been organizing, planning, and making sure everything runs smoothly as this all comes together.
Next week is Christmas already, and it's a lot of fun for us to just enjoy the holidays with family. My mom and dad will be here, so will Amber's family. Shoot, the whole gang will be here. I really like to just sit back and watch everybody have a good time together. As for what's on my wish list? I'm good. I have my family, everybody is healthy, and Gray Motorsports is alive and well with a great future. I couldn't ask for a whole lot more.
You all enjoy your holidays, spend some time with your families, and then meet me back here before too long. Talk at you later.
In the staging lanes with Dad and Mom
This year has been a different kind of year for me because I get to work on the Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. Last year I didn't really do anything on the car; I just came here to hang out and watch my dad. But this year I'm part of the team. To be honest, it wasn't really my idea. My dad and my grandpa presented it to me, and I thought it was a really good idea. I said, 'Let's do it. It'll be fun.'
It was about mid-season when they brought me on, and I do the rear end of the car with Jason Laimonis. I help out any way I can, but it's fun working with Jason. We have a thing called the Back-Half Mafia that we stick to. That's our deal. But whatever they want me to do, that's fine with me.
I think a lot of people already know this, but before I was out here so much with my dad and the team, I was training at Club MX in South Carolina. I had an accident – I just came up short on a jump and it kicked my feet off. I crashed, and I shattered my kidney. I actually lost my right kidney, and I was out for eight months. After that, we made the decision not to go back to racing Motocross. That was a hard decision for me, but I've been playing with sprint cars and some asphalt circle track stuff, and really, I've just been trying to find something to do that I enjoy as much as I enjoyed Motocross. Racing is in my blood. It's what I'm drawn to, and I really don't like anything else like I like racing. It's where I'm comfortable.
Here lately I've been testing late model stock cars for SGR (Sharp-Gallaher Racing) and just trying to figure out something of a career path, just seeing what I want to do, and where I want to take it. I've been having fun, and who knows what will come of it.
As for drag racing, it's good to be out here with my dad and grandpa. I don't really know too much about drag racing, to be honest. I was always so involved with Motocross that I wasn't at the races as much as my brothers were. But I know the basics and maybe a little bit more, and it's fun. I like coming out here and supporting my dad and doing what I can to do help, but I'm not sure if I would ever race a Pro Stock car. I'm really drawn to the circle track cars, and I'm not sure if it's because you're in the car a lot longer or if it's more about the fact that so many things can happen. You've got people next to you all the time, people hitting you. It really gets my adrenaline going. I feed off of it. I like contact.
The Gray Motorsports Camaro about to make a run in Dallas. We qualified No. 3.
I will say that I miss Motocross a lot. I miss it every day. But I know that what happened is for the best, and I keep trying to build on that fact and stay positive about it. I miss it, and I miss all my buddies, but I still keep in contact with them. That keeps me going.
It's good to be part of this team out here. I get excited with the Gray Motorsports car does well. I like to see my dad and the do good, and we're starting to succeed more and more each weekend. It's getting good, and yeah, I do get excited when we go up there. I may not seem like it, but I do. It's just a good feeling to see all of the hard work pay off.
My grandpa, Johnny Gray, is saying that he isn't going to race full time after this year. He says he's going to spend more time watching us kids do our thing, and I'm excited that my grandpa is going to be with us more. A lot of people think it adds pressure to have somebody like him who has so much experience in all kinds of racing out there watching you, but I feed off of pressure. It's good. And I want him to come out and spend time with us. He already spends time with us, but it will be good to have him there even more. I can already tell that I'm going to enjoy it.
For now, we get to finish off this year. It's been great so far, and I think that with both my dad's team and my grandpa's, it's only going to get better before the year is over.