Rainbow Warriors Rule Again

The “Rainbow Warriors” are not just a group of guys who go out and help Jeff Gordon win races and championships.

It’s an idea, a team concept at Hendrick Motorsports, if you will. It’s all about being the best there is in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, something that is instilled in each team member from Day 1.

Simply nothing less than perfection will do from the No. 24 Chevy team. That’s what Gordon’s fans have come to expect, and that’s what the team members have come to expect from themselves.

So it comes as no surprise that, even though several members of the DuPont team abandoned Hendrick Motorsports following the 1999 season to join Dale Jarrett’s No. 88 team, the “Rainbow Warriors” are once again widely regarded as the best Winston Cup pit crew out there.

Some major changes in personnel have been made since then, but the ideals remain the same. That’s what has kept the DuPont over-the-wall crew – which consists of jackman Chris Anderson, front-tire carrier Craig Currione, rear-tire carrier Steve Letarte, catch can man Jason Burdett, front-tire changer Todd Gantt, rear-tire changer Shane Church, gas man Jeff Craven and driver serviceman Tony Gibson – on the top of the heap.

In turn, that has helped keep Gordon in victory lane on a consistent basis and on top of the Winston Cup points standings.

Barry Muse, Mike Trower, Darren Jolly, Jeff Knight and Rick Coulson all helped the DuPont team win Winston Cup championships. After Jarrett won a championship in 1999, however – which, coincidently was shortly after crew chief Ray Evernham had left the DuPont team to head up Dodge’s return to the sport – those team members jumped ship to join Jarrett and have performed admirably.

But the new “Rainbow Warriors,” under the direction of pit crew coach Greg Miller, have picked up right where they left off.

“We believe we must be doing something right,” said Miller, who came from Ohio, where he managed fitness clubs and took over for the original DuPont team pit crew coach, Andy Papathanasiou. “And it has more to do with our system than it does with each individual person.

“The guys on the 88 team now, they certainly had their heyday here, but the guys we went out and got and put together for this team were hand picked. We were looking at positions, at size and basically the athlete we wanted in that position. Then we kinda built the team around that. We’ve maintained athletic focus. We work out four days a week, and we practice a lot. We handle it just like any other professional sport. Those are the kinds of things that have made these guys as good as they are.”

Papathanasiou, who was brought in as the original pit crew coach in the mid-1990s, is now the director of personnel at Hendrick Motorsports.

Gordon said there was a time when the officials at Hendrick Motorsports might have gone outside the organization to hand pick its pit crew members. That no longer is the case under Miller and Papathanasiou.

“We’ve got two guys in Andy and Greg that certainly bring a lot to the table,” Gordon said. “They can take a mediocre group and make them into a great pit crew. When we lost our pit crew from a couple of years ago, we approached it with a totally different setup. Instead of going outside and getting guys who were specialists, this time we found guys on the inside that worked at Hendrick Motorsports that weren’t necessarily coming in on Sunday just to pit the car.

“They trained those guys and worked with them, and now you’ve seen them come together. There was a process where it took them some time to really get the fast pit stops consistently. But recently it seems like the momentum of some of these wins we’ve had and good runs have extended over to the pit crew and we’ve been knocking out 14-second stops. That’s all I’ve ever asked for, consistency, and we’re certainly getting that.”

Evernham, who is working to help bring the same success and consistency to his Dodge teams, agrees that the pit crew’s success is just a product of Rick Hendrick’s organization.

“It’s just the system,” said Evernham, who now owns Winston Cup teams driven by Bill Elliott and Casey Atwood. “We put a strong system in place. We were the first people to bring in a pit crew coach (Papathanasiou), and he’s done a great job. Now they’ve brought in someone else (Miller) who obviously is doing a fantastic job, as well.

“It’s not by accident. Those guys are very good at what they do, and they’ve stuck by their system. They’ve got to have the talent, but they’ve also got to have the drive. You have to identify the talent and put those things together, and that team has been able to do that.”

The transition, admittedly, was a bit rough at first for Miller and the team, and the DuPont team’s performance slipped a bit in 2000 as Gordon finished ninth in the Winston Cup standings.

The pressure to live up to their predecessors might have existed at the beginning for some team members new to the organization and some not so new, but it wore off quickly.

“We might have felt that at first, but gradually that got less and less,” said Gantt, who had previously worked for Larry Hedrick Motorsports and “a few Busch Series teams” prior to that. “They (the original Rainbow Warriors) were good and they did what they were supposed to do when they were here.

“Our deal is that we work on the DuPont car, and all we want to do is see our car run up front. I don’t think we’ve lost anything or that they were any better than us. We’ve really worked hard over the past couple of years to make sure we don’t lose any time on pit road. That’s our main objective during every pit stop.”

Anderson, a school teacher during the week and a member of Gordon’s crew on the weekends, was a member of the original “Rainbow Warriors” and has progressed from catch can man to gas man to his present position as the team’s jackman. He agrees with Gantt’s assessment that the two sets of “Rainbow Warriors” are on equal terms.

“We had a very good team there, one of the best and we won championships,” Anderson said. “But this team still competes at the same level that the original team did. Some of these guys work at the shop, whereas most of the members of the original team didn’t, but that’s about the only difference.

“We’ve jelled together and we’ve become once again one of the best teams out there. But it’s all a team thing, and that includes (crew chief) Robbie (Loomis) and Jeff (Gordon). We do it together or don’t get it done at all.”

Gantt said the success the team has enjoyed is the product of the crew’s hard work and dedication, as well as its “blood, sweat and tears.” The team comes into the Hendrick Motorsports facility an hour early four days a week to work on strength and conditioning. Then they get to work on the cars.

“Two days a week we lift weights basically, just to work on strength,” Gantt said. “The other two days we’ll work on cardio stuff like the treadmill, bike or stair climber. We’ll change our routine every three months or so, but the main goal is for all of us to stay in shape, and there’s no question that we’re all in shape.”

“There’s no doubt that our guys work as hard or harder than anybody out there,” said Loomis. “You see it at the shop every day and you see it at the race track every week. These guys are dedicated, and they want to be the best.

“When they make a mistake, they get down on themselves because they know they can do better. But they don’t dwell on it, and they make sure they come back the next time and do it so much better. I know Jeff really appreciates their efforts, and I certainly applaud their talents and their efforts as well. If we’re celebrating a championship at the end of the year, it’s all because these guys really want it. And they’ll certainly deserve it.”

After a somewhat down year by the DuPont team’s standards a year ago, Gordon can once again be seen running up in front or near the front of the pack almost every week in the Winston Cup Series.

That’s in no small part due to the efforts of the Rainbow Warriors, who have consistently clicked off between 14- and 15-second pit stops to get their driver out front and put him in position to win races.

“I’ve been doing this for quite a while, so the pride we take in that is when we’re able to do that all day long,” Anderson said. “One stop is not going to do it. One late stop might when you the race like that, but you have to do it all day long to get to that place first. If you’re putting down 14-second stops all day, then you can go home and say you did something.”

“That’s the whole thing,” Gantt said. “We’re not really worried about the time on the stop, just the position. There are some tracks where you have a 15 or 15.5-second stop, and that’ll be good enough. At other tracks it takes a 14-second stop. You just basically go by no mistakes and see if you can improve your position.”

The “Rainbow Warriors” have certainly made very few mistakes this season, and that could lead to the pot of gold at the end. Gordon leads Ricky Rudd by 222 points with 10 races left.

“Winning a championship, that’s what it’s all about,” Miller said. “That’s what we’ve got in our sights. It’s certainly not in our hands yet, but that’s our motivation right now. We strive to be the best in the pits, and we also strive to be the best as a team. Right now, we’re accomplishing that.

“We’ve still got a few races to go and there’s a lot of racing left. Our focus is maintaining the top-notch quality pit stops we have right now, and that’s what’s driving us. We need to maintain that level and bring that championship home.”

That should leave no doubt that the “Rainbow Warriors” are as strong as they ever were.

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