Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon and Vice President of Competition Chad Knaus understand the value of apprenticeship. Whether it is a skill or a trade, apprenticeship is a valuable part of any business model as new employees are brought into companies, receive the proper mentoring, and eventually become “Journeymen.”
National Apprenticeship Week began on Monday, November 13, and Hendrick Motorsports sponsor NAPA, through the NAPA Network, announced a “Behind the Wheel” campaign. This effort between NAPA and the TechForce Foundation has a collective goal of hiring one million new automotive and aviation technicians in the next five years.
From November 13-30, applicants can apply for The NAPA Success for Tech Scholarships. Five scholarships will be awarded with a tool kit and financial contribution to begin a career as a technician.
Behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports from the final race of the 1992 season to filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for eight races in 2016, Gordon was one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history.
He won 93 races in 805 starts and four NASCAR Cup Series championships. The first ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer had a career for FOX Sports from 2016 through the end of the 2021 season, when he was named Vice Chairman at Hendrick Motorsports.
He oversees one of the largest and most successful operations in NASCAR and with regular turnover through retirements, reassignments or changes in career, teams are always looking to bring in new talent to enter the team as apprentices.
I had a chance to recently talk to both Gordon and Knaus about the role of an apprenticeship program and its value in racing, the automotive industry and aviation.
“From my perspective, it’s about the quality of the people you have,” Gordon told me. “As a driver who relied on these people to build this race car, prepare the race car, set it up and maximize the speed, you tend to lean on them a lot, depend on them and trust in them.
“It’s also very true for the everyday driver going down the road. A lot of times, we take that for granted, the technicians and the quality of their training and their abilities and skillset is critical.
“There is a big demand for it, as well, in the automotive and aviation industry in general.”
Knaus along with his longtime driver Jimmie Johnson and Donnie Allison will enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January. The 52-year-old from Rockford, Illinois was Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief for all but two of the team’s 83 wins and seven NASCAR Cup Series championships with the No. 48 Chevrolet.
He also served as crew chief for William Byron, and together they won a NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona in 2020 to give him 84 wins as a crew chief.
In his current role, Knaus oversees all of Hendrick Motorsports racing operations.
“We do have turnover annually,” Knaus explained to me. “The biggest reason we are fortunate, we are able to move people through and up at Hendrick Motorsports. That is one of the things we are most proud of. We bring technicians in, interns in, apprentices in at a very young age. Then, we show them what we call the “The Hendrick Way.’ We like to grow and promote from within.
“If you look at some of our most elite engine builders. They worked at race teams as engine tuners. We have one engine tuner right now that came to us from Rick Hendrick Chevrolet in Duluth, Georgia. He was a tech there and learned his way and came to use through that dealership.
“Now, he is one of the best engine tuners we’ve got, and he is tuning engines on the 24 car that battled for the championship at Phoenix.
“A lot of our car chiefs have come in and up through the mechanical ranks as road crew and shop crew. That’s a good thing. We like to have that. We are very fortunate we vet these guys and girls out on the frontside of the process. We don’t have a lot of involuntary turnover. “Most of it is very methodical and placed, as we go through.”
Knaus has mentored some of the best new crew chiefs, engineers, and mechanics in NASCAR. Mentorship is very important in the apprenticeship model and has served Knaus quite well from his early days in racing.
“That is the tale of my career,” Knaus said. “I’ve been very fortunate to learn from a lot of guys in the Midwest early on in my racing career. My father being one of them.
“Mark Martin has been part of my life for a long time. He helped me as a young man. Then getting here at Hendrick Motorsports at a young age, I started here when I was 21 working with Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham and Rick Hendrick. They gave me so many opportunities to be successful. I did a lot throughout my career and still do to try to get if off the rails, but these guys continue to mentor me and keep me between the lines. I think that is really important.”
Knaus reflected on how his apprenticeship began in NASCAR. It was far from the fame and success he would experience later but taught him valuable lessons.
“When I started here, I was a body shop assistant,” Knaus said. “I was sweeping the floor of the body shop and that is about all they would allow me to do.
“I was fortunate enough to get exposed to fabrication. I was fortunate enough to get exposed to wind tunneling. I was fortunate enough to get exposed to setting race cars up and changing tires and getting opportunities to be successful because of guys that I was surrounded by at Hendrick Motorsports. I was really fortunate for that.
“I’m still getting that today.
“We do the same thing with the guys and the gals that come into our company now. We really want to create a path for people to continue to grow and evolve and get themselves to where they want to be.”
At 52, Gordon has been racing since he was a 4-year-old in Vallejo, California. When he was an early teenager, his family moved to Pittsboro, Indiana so he could compete in the United States Auto Club (USAC) Midget, Sprint, and Silver Crown Series.
He had to be old enough to have a driver’s license to race at that level in California, but he could race in Indiana before he was old enough to drive a passenger car.
Gordon quickly climbed the ranks of racing to become a NASCAR star at 20 years of age. Today, at 52, he sees many others in racing who have climbed the ranks.
“It’s unbelievable how many people that I come across that I knew when I was younger racing that continue to work their way up through the different ranks of racing all the way to NASCAR,” Gordon said. “You see the people that have the passion and the desire to want to learn and grow like Chad did. Getting all the way to crew chief is like the elite level, but so many of them have the passion for racing and want to do more of it and get up to different levels.
“The same thing happens at the dealerships. My dealership at Hendrick Automotive Group is technicians get in the entry level, but thanks to NAPA and their training, they continue to grow that skillset and can evolve within the dealership in that industry as well.”
Not so long ago, individuals interested in a racing career could start out by sweeping the floors at the race shop and learn as they go.
Back then, race teams and automotive dealerships had “mechanics.” Today, they are “technicians.”
That is why it is important to have NAPA involved because the automotive aftermarket parts company has the ability to properly train the technicians of the future or shed light on the potential careers through its marketing efforts.
“Their marketing capabilities are huge,” Gordon said of NAPA. “We are very fortunate to have them as a partner, not just with motorsports, but with the Hendrick Automotive Group because of their reach, their ability to connect the customer directly to the dealership and the technician capabilities and education to the workforce.
“The growing need for these jobs and the career path is there and how you can advance. It’s also a great opportunity for someone looking to find that path in their live and get into the workforce in that way and enjoy working on cars. The education doesn’t need to be a four-year college education, you can go to a tech school and boom, you are into the workforce.
“The need on the business side is large and luckily there is a great path thanks to NAPA, not just from their training, but NAPA and their ability to market and reach people and make them aware of what is available. That is why this program is so important to be so supportive and recognize National Apprenticeship Week.”
Some of the same processes used at an automotive dealership are also part of racing.
“If you take yourself to a dealership or a service station because you have an indicator light on your dash with a warning, the first thing somebody is going to do is plug a computer into it to see and try and diagnose what is going on,” Knaus explained. “It’s the exact thing that happens with a race car today.
“Our guys and gals, when a race car comes in the first thing, they do is download all the date from the ECU (Electronic Control Unit) to do a quick diagnostic check of it, every single run of the race track. You can see how important it is in motorsports but also the automotive world in general.”
Automotive knowledge has naturally evolved from an emphasis on “mechanical” to “electronic.”
“That is where the training becomes so important,” Gordon explained. “You have to stay up to speed in the modern-day automotive world.
“We all know how technically advanced cars on the road have gotten, but so have race cars. A lot of it goes hand in hand as you look at the future with electrification and hybrids and all of those systems, it gets more and more technical.
“This education process has to evolve with it, and it has and will continue to do that.
“I grew up with cars that were fairly simple to work on like the quarter midget and the go-karts and even the Sprints and the Midgets. One of my proudest moments was racing in Australia. We loaded everything up in a container and shipped it over there. It was me and another guy that worked on the car. I was doing the shocks and the sway bars. I knew just enough to be dangerous, but we won a couple of races over there doing that.
“Once I got in the stock car, I realized very quickly I was going to need a guy like Chad Knaus and Ray Evernham and Alan Gustafson to rely on and I needed to stick to what the car felt like and what it needed. I probably knew even more than I led on to, but it was mainly what area of the car I needed help with. It allowed me to trust these guys to fix this and help me out.
“These days, when I talk to the drivers, it’s complicated. They are shifting at Martinsville (a short track). There is no saving the equipment or the tires anymore. It’s running qualifying laps every single lap. It’s diagnostics of readouts with the digital dash. There is a lot going on that these guys need to know in the car, but what they are prepping for every single race.
“These guys today have to have a lot more knowledge than I ever did in these cars.”
Gordon has risen from behind the wheel of a race car to running one of NASCAR’s most successful and historic racing operations. Knaus learned by sweeping the floors of the race shop to overseeing all competitive aspects of Hendrick Motorsports.
When did they go from being an “Apprentice” to a “Journeyman?”
“That’s a good one, actually,” Knaus said of the question. “I’m still an apprentice if really want to be honest because I’m learning from Mr. Hendrick and Mr. Gordon day-in and day out about how to be a better leader and better person at HMS.
“It is interesting now as I see these guys that once worked on the 48 team winning championships in the middle 2000s and now, they are in leadership roles in the engine department or the assembly department of Hendrick Motorsports building race cars where they are potentially crew chiefs here at HMS or at other organizations.
“It’s pretty amazing. It’s fun for me to have been in a position to have touched and been a part of so many other people’s lives.”
Gordon is as adept in the boardroom as he was in a race car. He was team owner Rick Hendrick’s choice to take the lead role in operating the race team when he gave him the position in 2021.
“We’re the journeymen,” Gordon said of himself and Knaus. “It goes back to if you have the desire and the work ethic and you have an area that you excelled at and want to continue to advance at and take it to the next level, you figure out what your next step, what your next move is and what experience from your past you can bring to that next level.
“I give Chad a ton of credit doing what he is doing now, which is similar to crew chiefing, where you are managing a group of people, but the people got much larger, and the department got broader. In some ways, you are really trying to connect the dots.
“As a driver, all the work I did with sponsors over the years and the business meetings I did over the years and in the boardrooms and in front of the cameras and being on a championship team. Leading those teams as a crew chief or as a driver has really helped prepare us to work with the people we work with now and make sure we are there supporting what they need to take their teams to the next level.”
And NAPA is supporting aspiring automotive and aviation technicians who want a career.
As America’s largest network of parts and care – and the sponsor of NAPA Racing – NAPA’s partnership with TechForce and its The NAPA Success for Techs Scholarship opportunity are just a few of the ways the NAPA Network is making it easier to learn more about the technician trade and take steps toward a career in the field.
NAPA’s efforts also include the existing NAPA Auto Care Apprenticeship Program, giving aspiring technicians a path to in-demand positions in the automotive industry alongside mentors to complete their ASE certifications over the course of 18 to 24 months.
Most recently, through its continued partnership with Women in Auto Care, 20 toolkits valued at $9,000 each were awarded to female students across the U.S. who are interested in a career in the auto care industry.
NAPA also has a strategic alliance with Universal Technical Institute (UTI), supporting the future of those seeking careers in the transportation and aftermarket auto repair industries.