In something out of central casting for a network sit com – NASCAR's version of Beauty and the Beast – Danica Patrick's crew chief, Tony Gibson, is a decidedly blue collar Southerner who prefers hog-hunting, gun-shooting and admiring camouflage when he's not trying to help a refined, fashion-conscious, occasional swimsuit model win stock car races.
"It's an odd marriage," acknowledged Gibson, the accomplished 48-year-old veteran of NASCAR garages. "My wife said, 'You're an old-school, red-neck, been-around kind-of racer. And now you get this fancy girl.' But in the end, Danica wants to win. And so do I."
"What we do for fun is different," Patrick, 30 and in her first full-time season on NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup circuit, added. "But our personalities are very similar. We both are very serious [about racing] but we like to have a lot of fun."
Other than a shared love of fast cars and a desire for the winner's circle, each admits there isn't much in common.
Patrick hails from Illinois, is an international celebrity comfortable on a red carpet and, away from the track, proudly lives the life of an upscale girly-girl. Gibson, meanwhile, is your stereotypical NASCAR crew chief, a bushy-mustache-wearing-racing-lifer whose been tinkering with engines since he was a little kid in Florida working on his dad's short-track team.
Let's take interior decorating. Patrick prefers her home and motorcoach to feature a mix of grays, blacks and metalics, with a multitude of textures ranging from stones to mirrors.
"A more modern style," Danica said.
"For me," Gibson said, "it's all deer heads on the wall and camo everywhere. I'm all about the camo."
You have any deer heads hanging in your house, Danica?
"No, but I do have a picture of my dog," she offered with a laugh.
At the end of the day, Patrick likes to unwind with some fine wine, preferably, she said, a proper Cabernet from California or France.
"I drink Coca-Cola," Gibson said.
On off days, Patrick tries to seek out a nice spa, where manis, pedis and pampering await. Afterwards, there may be a shopping spree. Camouflage is never in season.
"I'm like most girls, I think," Danica said. "It's relaxing to go and do girly things and get your mind off of everything else. It's an opportunity to spoil yourself."
Gibson prefers to hunt. Last week, before the Daytona 500, he snuck off into rural Florida for a couple of days to track wild hogs.
"Gator hunts, hog hunts, that's what I like to do," Gibson said.
In the spirit of bridging the divide, Danica agreed to go hunting for the first time in July, when the Sprint Cup returns to Daytona.
"We're going gator hunting in Florida," Gibson said. "She's excited about it … or at least she acts excited about it."
"Well," said Danica, "I agreed to go hunting with him, I don't know about gator hunting though. He's trying to slip that in there. I said we had to eat what we kill but I feel like for the first time, gator hunting might be like jumping into the deep end."
Her argument is that hogs or deer aren't looking to eat the hunter. A gator though …
"That seems like it'd add a whole other dimension, doesn't it?"
Gibson says there is nothing to worry about. Patrick has shot some guns before – there will also be some crossbows – and besides, he'll keep an eye on the situation.
"We'll get her familiar with things before she heads out there," Gibson said. "We'll make sure she's ready."
This improv routine was probably inevitable, of course, once Patrick committed to moving to NASCAR full-time. The open-wheel circuit of IndyCar, where she used to drive, plays to a different culture than NASCAR, whose roots date back to old Southerner bootleggers racing on dirt roads.
Last year Danica ran 10 races in the Cup Series with veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli. For the full 36-race season, however, she needed a full-time team and all-important crew chief willing to work with a rookie, something that many shy away from because the learning curve, no matter who you are, is so dramatic.
Gibson was the car chief when the late Alan Kulwicki won the Cup championship in 1992 and was in the same role for two of Jeff Gordon's championships, in '98 and 2001. He has worked in various capacities with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip and others. He was talking with Zipadelli last spring when the idea was broached – the flashy, female rookie paired with the grizzled, experienced old hand.
"Zip was just talking about how much desire she had and how much talent she had," Gibson said. "And he said, 'Man you'd be great with her.' "
Gibson was the crew chief for Ryan Newman at the time, but jumped at the opportunity. Nearly his entire team came with him, offering Danica a strong supporting cast.
So far it's working. Patrick qualified first for last week's Daytona 500, ran up front, mostly in the top five all day, and finished eighth.
Patrick said she appreciates Gibson's obvious ability, experience and perhaps most of all, how he seems to trust she's in this for real, not just to star in commercials.
"He just has a lot of heart," Patrick said. "And he puts it into his work."[Related: Join a 2013 NASCAR fantasy league today]
Gibson sees a rookie who isn't happy just to be here but is focused on maximizing her ability. Especially as the NASCAR season begins hitting mid-sized ovals that are more complicated to drive, starting this weekend in Phoenix.
Danica has, he says, an innate sense of what the car is doing. Her read on how, for example, the shocks on the right-front tire are performing match up precisely with the high tech computers. It's a sign of great potential.
"Yeah, she's real pretty and she's done all this modeling and she's done all these commercials but a lot of people don't see the other side," he explained. "She's putting everything into this. I can take the brake and throttle charts of Tony Stewart and put it on top of her charts and she wants that."
It isn't easy being Patrick's crew chief. Danica creates a circus wherever she goes: tons of media, throngs of fans hanging around the hauler, cameras constantly whizzing. Gibson thought working with Gordon at the height of his popularity or Earnhardt was intense, but it doesn't compare.
"It's the craziest I've ever been involved with," he said. "It's a frenzy. Sometimes you feel like an animal in a zoo, waiting for them to throw peanuts at you. You get used to it though. Most of the time you're in a zone [and] you don't think about it until you trip over someone."
That, Danica says, is what this is about. Do the work. Make the racing a priority. Double-down on teaching and data analysis and everything else. Yet make sure to have a good time while doing it.
"Neither one of us takes anything too seriously," she said.
Including, of course, their existences on opposite sides of cultural and generational gaps. Whereas it was Danica who came to NASCAR, Gibson says he shouldn't be expected to budge.
So get used to the ammo and the camo.
"That's our goal," he said. "I hope she never asks me to drink wine. We're about getting her to swing over to our side. [Danica's boyfriend, drive Ricky] Stenhouse is a cool kind of cowboy guy too, he's into big belt buckles, so maybe he can kinda help."
It's one race at a time in the NASCAR education of Danica Patrick.
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