Each week, I ask someone in the racing industry about their career path and journey to where they are today. In this edition of the series, I speak with Joe Gibbs Racing president Dave Alpern. This was recorded as a podcast, but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
How did this begin for you? How did this whole thing start?
I grew up outside of D.C. in Northern Virginia. J.D. Gibbs and I have been best friends since seventh grade; we went to intermediate school and high school together. We went off to different colleges, and J.D. was kind of on the five-and-a-half year plan, and I got done a little bit early. I was on the four-and-a-half year plan.
So his dad was starting this race team when we were getting out of college, and I got out first. They needed cheap labor, so I was an unpaid intern, believe it or not.
I actually started college as an electrical engineering major until I realized I was really bad at math and science, which are two key components to being an engineer. My dad was an engineer, but I hadn’t bothered to take a personality profile which would have said, “You’re gonna be a horrible engineer.” So that lasted a year. I got my degree in communications to be a broadcast journalist. My dream when I was in high school and college was to be a SportsCenter anchor. Obviously, I failed at that as well.
So I finished college right as Coach was starting a NASCAR team, and he asked if I would help for six months. I said, “Man, that’ll look great on my resume. It’ll be great experience.” I just had this hunch. Everything Coach does turns to gold, so I’m gonna hitch my wagon to him for my first gig.
I literally moved to Charlotte, and then me and J.D. and another guy, Todd Meredith, we were all three recent college graduates. We lived in an apartment together and we went to work at this startup race team. We had 15 employees and we had no idea what we were doing. And when I say that, I’m talking about (doing everything from) putting stickers on cars to booking hotel rooms.
I speak to college students a lot and I tell them: Forget cell phones. This is pre-email! You weren’t emailing people.
They didn’t even have anywhere to put me. So they literally emptied out a broom closet and had to run an extension cord in there for a lamp because there were no plugs in the broom closet, and I had like a little elementary school desk — that’s all they had room for — and a chair and a lamp and a phone. But who was I gonna call? I had nobody to call. Maybe a hotel on occasion. And that’s kind of how it started; that’s about as unglamorous as you can think.
Not only did you not have any experience, but did you have any idea about NASCAR?
I had an uncle who I grew up with, my uncle Jimmy, he passed away many years ago. But he used to take me to Dover and Richmond. We would go to those races when I was growing up, and I was a No. 88 Darrell Waltrip fan when I was little; he was in the Gatorade car, and I had T-shirts and stuff from that. But I wasn’t what you would call a big fan, I was just aware of NASCAR. We would spend more time wandering around the grandstands and the area around the track than we did watching the race.
I had some familiarity with it, but I was by no means a NASCAR fan, nor did I one day say, “Hey, I want to work in NASCAR.” For me, it was more about the who than the what. In other words, I was teaming up with the Gibbs family. They could have been selling coat hangers and it wouldn’t have mattered to me. I believe in what they’re about and I wanted to be with them. The fact that it ended up being in NASCAR is kind of a bonus. That’s a lot more fun than coat hangers. But I’m glad that that’s the business they were in, but I had no aspirations to do that at all.
If that’s the case, it sounds like everything had to be self-taught and learning by experience. How did it evolve from starting out and not knowing anything to getting to where you are at this point?
I have no idea. (Laughs) We have a sign in our lobby that talks about how we want everything that happens in our company to be evident that there’s direct intervention of God, and I would say our whole history is that way.
I’ll never forget sitting at our first championship in 2000 when Bobby Labonte won and we’re sitting at the table and it’s J.D. and his wife and Todd and his wife and me and some others, and we kind of literally looked around and go, “This is a miracle. We just beat the best teams in the world and won a championship. Are you kidding me? If people only knew we had no idea what we were doing!” Now, I’m speaking for me; fortunately, we had a lot of people who did know what they were doing back in those days, with (Jimmy) Makar and Coach.
But honestly, when we were small, you kind of had to do everything. Now, as we get bigger, we have 600 people. We brought in Chris Helein, as an example, many years ago to run all of our communications and our PR and he came with Joe from the Redskins. But for 15 years prior to him, we didn’t have anyone in that department.
I was in licensing — Joe called me “the T-shirt guy.” For many years I was the T-shirt guy, and that was what we did. Now we’ve got J.J. (Damato) who’s an expert and who came from the NHL and NASCAR. But I literally have done every job in the front office, so for me now, it enables me to relate to those people, to remember what it was like when we didn’t have a department.
Most of my counterparts (presidents of other race teams) do not come from a marketing background. Some of them were attorneys, some of them come from the competition side. Most of them are smarter than me in a lot of areas, but I view the world in NASCAR from a sponsor (perspective) and a fan’s eyes because that’s how I (came up).
I mentioned there was Todd Meredith and there was myself and there was J.D. Todd was our chief operating officer, and probably 95 percent of his job was internally focused inside the company — operations, people. For me, for 20 years, 95 percent of my job was externally focused. So in other words, I was sponsors, media, the community, my counterparts, tracks. And then J.D. kind of hovered between the two of us.
So for me, in the last three or four years as I’ve expanded my role (as J.D. Gibbs fell ill), what’s been the biggest change has been focusing inside the building and going to competition meetings and worrying (about performance). That’s probably the hardest part, because I’m wired to where when I come to the racetrack, my tendency is I’m immediately wanting to go talk to other people or sponsors. I went to dinner with Marcus (Smith) the other night. I’m thinking of the people in the ecosystem of racing, because that’s how I was brought up.
But that’s a long way of saying having done almost every job in the front office on the business side, I think it has equipped me to relate to every single person because I know what it’s like — whether it’s booking hotel rooms or running the show cars or doing the social media.
There could be jobs where the employees think, “The boss is not in touch with what we are doing.” And the employees are resentful like, “This guy, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He hasn’t been in this role.” But since you’ve been in all those roles, you’re coming from it like, “I’m asking you to do something that I’ve actually done.”
They do say on the competition side, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Laughs) I’m sure they do. I just kind of sit there and go, “Let’s make sure we go fast.” OK, thanks. “Keep pushing the accelerator. Keep going fast.”
Over the years I’ve learned — and this comes from Coach — everything we do is predicated on one thing, and that’s winning and going fast. So when we make decisions, literally, I can tell you over the years, particularly in the early days, the question was always, “Is this gonna make us go faster?” So if it was a financial decision or a capital purchase, you would ask the question: “Does this make us go fast?” And if it doesn’t, we probably weren’t going to do it.
We didn’t have a sign out front of our building for over 10 years because it was going to be too expensive and it didn’t make us go fast. So we said, “Let’s just use the money on something else.” We’re in the competition business, so at its core, you can be great at everything, but if you’re not leading laps and winning races, you’re not going to be around.
So Joe’s philosophy from the beginning was to pick the best people and go fast, and everything else kind of just takes care of itself. As important as social media and marketing and everything is, ultimately, all these people want to win. They want to run up front, and if you’re not doing that, you’re not gonna get the best drivers, you’re not gonna get the best people, you’re not gonna get the best sponsors. We feel like we’re in this business to do well and to lead laps. That’s what we focus on, and that comes from Joe on down — and he’s the single most competitive human that I’ve ever met, and so we do everything we do to win.
You mentioned that your role has expanded to the competition side, and I assume that coincided with J.D. having to step aside. How difficult has that been for you to not only take on those extra responsibilities, but you’re seeing your best friend go through this and you’re trying to pick up the slack and do him proud at the same time?
It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced in my life. My whole career, I was in a really good position because when you work for a small family business, there’s some comfort in that. If you work for a big public company, there’s a lot of politics and there’s climbing the corporate ladder and worrying (about the next step). For many years, I kind of had the comfort of knowing, “Hey, I work for a family business. I’m as high up the rung as I’m ever gonna get,” and there was comfort in that. I was very happy and comfortable with my role, sort of just really being there as almost like a chief of staff for J.D. and for Coach.
Candidly, I had many years where I thought, “Gosh, is there something else for me someday? I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’m very comfortable in this role, I feel like I’ve done everything there is to do.” And I had no idea that God was preparing me for something that I never in a million years would have fathomed.
So when J.D. got sick, I began to do a lot of helping take up some of the slack for him when he was having treatment. It was very unnatural for me at the beginning, partly because this is supposed to be my best friend’s role — not my role — and I’m not a Gibbs.
If I was honest with you, I would say that I’m still not totally comfortable (with the title). I remember when I got named president. So many people were congratulating me and stuff. It meant a lot to me that people were congratulating me, but they didn’t realize, deep down I would much rather still be the T-shirt guy or be the whatever, because I want my best friend to have this role and I miss going to the racetrack with him.
So yeah, this whole thing has been very difficult and I have confidence, as I see from his family, that as hard as things are, I do believe everything happens for a reason. I believe that everything filters through the Lord’s hands and so I have to trust as much as I don’t like this, God’s been faithful to this company. I said at the beginning, our company is literally a miracle the way that we’ve year after year, you see how things have happened that would not have happened apart from the intervention of the Lord. And so as much as I wish this wasn’t how things were supposed to go, it has, and we’re just trying to do our best amidst it.
Joe has been incredible. J.D.’s wife and his kids, I mean, they’re literally an amazing family. They are so strong. Like I said, J.D. is the toughest guy I know, and he’s fighting it and he’s battling it. But it’s still going to the racetrack, especially here, we normally stay up in (Interstate Batteries chairman) Norm (Miller’s) condo, and J.D. always stayed there with me. I miss having him at the racetrack. So it has been a tough journey. I feel very grateful to have been in a position to be able to help the family out.
The last thing I’ll say is, you asked about thinking about J.D. Honestly, when I make every decision that I make, I think, “Alright, how would J.D. approach this? What would J.D. do?” And I hope I’m treating things not really the way I want to do it, because it’s not my company. I may have a fancy title, but ultimately I’m just a steward of somebody else’s company and I’m trying to do a good job. I’m trying to do what J.D. would do in a decision.
I always joked J.D.’s “excited” and “depressed” are about an inch apart. He was the most steady guy, and so he didn’t get emotional. And this (job) is one big crisis. There’s like 10 crises a day and you gotta just stay measured. I try to think about that, channel my J.D. “Alright, Dave, don’t get too excited. You gotta be smart here, you gotta be calm.”
J.D. would make the decision that’s best for the people. He wouldn’t get emotional, he’d never make decisions based on emotion, he would do the right thing. I think we’ve made the best out of the situation and I’m watching J.D. fight, so that’s all he can do is fight and keep trying to win and do things the right way.
Does that sort of take it to another level for you as far as your determination and your passion to help the company succeed? Because you’ve been put in this role where you’re, it’s not only the company, it’s your friends.
I go to work every day working for a family that I love. Yes, that’s a huge part of it. I’m not sure if I’d still be doing it if it was just a nameless, faceless (business). This isn’t a job to me; my whole family has been raised (in NASCAR).
I have twin boys who are 21 — they’re at Chapel Hill — and I have a senior in high school, and I have a picture over my desk and it’s 22 straight years, from the same spot on the porch of a house that we rent in Daytona. Every year in my sons’ lives, and it’s them growing up, sitting on my lap in the same spot. Of course they’re not on my lap anymore, but it’s one of my prized possessions. They told me it doesn’t matter where we work or what we do in our whole life, we’re taking off and we’re going down for that picture. And if the guy sells the house, we told him, “You better tell the new people there’s gonna be a family coming on the porch taking a picture.”
That’s just an example of these traditions that I have in my family that we do. My family came with me to the California race, and J.D.’s boys came and Melissa, his wife, and we all went to Disneyland the day before Fontana. It’s who you’re doing it with is the thing, and it’s not just now the Gibbs, it’s the people that work for us that have become friends, and you love their families.
J.D. used to say that all the time — what he thought about most when he woke up and when he went to bed was the families that are depending on us to make good decisions. Now it’s 600 of them. So you talk about 600, that’s not just 600 people, that’s thousands of people, because it’s spouses, parents, kids, neighbors, aunts, uncles.
When you make a decision, sometimes people might criticize a decision and what I want to tell them is, “We care. We love that you’re passionate about it. But just think about us, because we’ve got to make good decisions. The last thing we want to do is do something that’s not smart for all those people.” So I love working with a family that I know cares. I can see it; I’m in the meetings when Joe is laboring over, “How do I make the right decision?”
I can tell you that every Monday for 26 years, we have a little group that gets together and prays for the whole company every week. Joe Gibbs leads it, and he’s praying for people by name at the company. If you’ve got something going on with your family or whatever. And I think to myself, “Where else am I gonna go where people care like that?” I would hate to be at a company where you’re just some number, you’re nameless, faceless.
But we really have a family. Again, it’s a 600-family family, which is a lot different than it was in the early days, but as best we can, that culture has stayed there where Joe really cares about the people. Again, we want to win, we want to take care of our people, and it is a special place. It’s a stressful place a lot — it’s a stressful business — but it’s a great, special place to be a part of, and I’m grateful that I’m a part of it.