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Fast and Furious

Drag Racing Fills Downing's Need for Speed

by Amy Cyphers
Reprinted from Spring 2002 GoodNUz

Rob Downing has always loved speed. As the son of a drag racer, Downing grew up amid the roaring engines and screeching tires of stock cars at tracks across Nebraska. While at Kearney High School, he graduated to the driver’s seat of the family racer.

He continued to man the wheel on breaks from college at NU, where he studied the science behind racing in mechanical engineering. Downing focused on building engines while earning his bachelor’s degree in 1992 and master’s degree in 1994.
Although driving souped-up racers at 200 miles an hour is a “pure adrenaline rush,” Downing explains, he is more excited by the goings-on under the hood.

“I was always headed to the races as a kid, and my whole career and interests stemmed from that,” he explains. “Driving (race cars) is neat, but for me, the real attraction is the competition to make better equipment than the other guy.”
Downing gets plenty of opportunity to do that as the crew chief for one of the country’s best pro drag racers—driver-owner Mark Pawuk, a top-10 regular on the National Hot Rod Association circuit. In NHRA racing, two race cars go head-to-head for a quarter mile on a straight track. The formula for winning is simple: Your car and your driver’s reflexes must be faster than the other guy’s.

Downing joined the Akron, Ohio-based Pawuk Racing as a crew member doing computer design work early in 1998, with the promise of working his way up to crew chief in a few years. Hard work and circumstances conspired, however, and Downing won the title of crew chief by the end of the year.

“In hindsight,” he admits, “it was probably sooner than it should have been.” But Downing used that rookie year to learn on the job.

Being a crew chief is no day at the races—especially on race day. Downing is under as much pressure as Pawuk to see that the team performs at top speed at NHRA’s 24 races each year. The three-day events include qualifying rounds for the 330 to 40 entrants on Friday and Saturday. The top 16 dragsters face off in the Sunday finals for the prize money. The winner gets $25,000; the runner-up nets $10,000; and the rest of the qualifiers pocket $4,000.

It’s up to the crew chief, Downing explains, to fine tune the engine and chassis and make the decisions early on to ensure a trip to the finals. “You’ve got to make a better run than the other guy,” he says.
The Sunday finals, however, are in the hands of the driver, whose reaction time must be faster than his rivals’. So a win is a joint performance of the driver and the chief.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship (between the driver and the crew chief). One can’t live without the other,” he says. “You need the chief to qualify and you need the driver in racing.”

The position of crew chief is not for those with a one-track mind—the job entails much more than just keeping the car in competitive shape. Managing the logistics for nine months of races and car shows requires him to be equal parts travel agent and cruise director. Overseeing Pawuk’s eight-man operation at the team’s home base and a racing squad of four on the road makes him part chaperone. Occasionally hauling the car to events around the States makes him part chauffeur. It’s a complex formula Downing thrives on.

“It’s not like any job I’ve ever had…and I don’t know that I could have a ‘regular’ job anymore,” he says. “I look forward to coming in (to work). There’s no set schedule, and I could be doing anything on a different day. It’s a free-for-all.”

A free-for-all that requires much more than the usual 9 to 5. Downing spends long hours in the machine shop, designing what he hopes will be the uber-engine and champion chassis to give Pawuk an edge at the track. Despie extensive testing and trial runs, there’s no way to tell if his equipment is a winner until race day. And then the difference between failure and success is determined by milliseconds.

Downing admits it’s sometimes difficult to watch countless hours of work culminate in 7 seconds of screeching tires and exhaust.

“It’s very frustrating. It drives you crazy and it keeps you going at the same time,” he explains. “It’s something inside you—like an illness. It’s so frustrating, but when you win a race, it’s the greatest thing ever.”

Downing has learned to manage the volatility of pro racing. “There’s always stress and there’s always pressure. But it’s getting easier and easier to deal with. I’ve learned it’s not the end of the world when you don’t do so well,” he says. “Besides, I think you make better decisions when you’re not wound up, so I try to keep off the roller coaster of emotions. The best people out there are laid-back and they know how to perform.

“If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’re a top 10 team,” he says. But he’s not content to merely run among the best—he wants to lead the pack, even if it means rejecting more lucrative posts.

“There are crew chiefs who make a lot more money than I do, but they are jumping teams from year to year and not doing as well in the racing. I’ve had offers, but nothing worth thinking about,” he says. “The best teams are those with continuity … I want to win a championship and you can’t do that if you’re moving around. A championship is the goal and the joy of it all.”

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