Steve Kuykendall: Hands on as a crew chief for Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

Crew chiefs have a difficult job in racing: making the calls that can win or lose a race for their driver.

For Steve Kuykendall, his job description extends far beyond the typical labels of a crew chief “grand poobah” as a friend calls it. Kuykendall is a hands-on team leader; he will climb on the pit wall to make adjustments to the car, swing a hammer to make repairs, do anything that is needed to keep his car in running shape.

Steve has an extensive racing background. Once a racer himself, he set the goal by the age of 30 to be in the Cup Series; once that did not happen, he changed his course. His love of the sport led him to the mechanical side of racing. He enrolled in the Nashville Auto Diesel College, a program that has paved the way for fellow NASCAR stars including Waddell Wilson (champion crew chief and engine builder for teams such as Cale Yarborough).

Kuykendall’s background is extensive and diverse, having worked as a crew chief or engineering cars in at least 30 different series including NASCAR Sportsman, Hooters Cup, ALMS (Sports Toyota Champion 1999), USAC Midgets, Sprints, Silver Crown, 24 Hours of Daytona (three times), Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Trans-Am (four top-10s), Daytona Prototype in Grand Am, and of course in most of NASCAR's top series.

Kuykendall made connections through his first job working for an optometrist who ran a Sportsmen car. Interesting fact: the doctor's library of books related to cars and auto mechanics.

Being married to his wife Sherry and a loving father of three sons, Steven, Nicholas and Joey, throws in additional challenges to the glitz and glamor of traveling the NASCAR circuit. 

“She accepted it. She has been supportive behind me. As the kids grew up I would take them to the track,” Kuykendall said. 

Kuykendall thought his sons would follow in his footsteps, but they opted for the Army. He joked that apparently the boys learned about hard work from their dad, but "they decided it was too tough and went to the Army."

Though he has never been with a Hendrick team or a Roush team, Kuykendall did recently work with Chad McCumbee. Through his date engineering programs he has worked with Derrike Cope and Joe Nemechek.
Steve and Jennifer Jo Cobb
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

Nowadays he is content with his current job, spearheading the team for Jennifer Jo Cobb. So content, Kuykendall says, “This maybe the last job I ever had.” He says that the team is always making strides, though that may not be evident with their finishes. “For the finances and experience we have, we are making strides.”

Cobb’s story itself is a never-give-up attitude. Driving as an owner/driver and on a small budget, she makes it work. Her fans and supporters as some of the most loyal you will find in NASCAR.

Kuykendall describes Jennifer as “a very smart individual, she is very bright. Her knowledge of people, what they are about, it is kind of crazy. The race car driver: she knows everything about the car, she can describe everything in the car. Sometimes that works to her different, sometimes it is to her detriment. She has the will and the drive; we just do not have the finances right now.”

Trying to make the car work on the finances given is a “huge struggle,” but Kuykendall has learned to make it work. “It lets me know where my limits are,” Steve said. 

According to the plan in Kuykendall’s mind, this is a learning year for the bigger and better things to come for 2012. This year he has been working on refining setups and just hopes that finances fall in place for next year. This year alone, the team has run without a backup car all season and employed many other cost-cutting measures. As Jen herself told me, they use used tires for the races to cut down on costs. (When we talked, Steve was frustrated that he spent extra money on a set of tires that was not needed.) The JJC Racing team travels to all races by van and unlike other teams, just got their own shop to work out of. 

“I feel like if I can keep this together, keep it going, there is a really good possibility that with what we are going we will pull in a really nice sponsor and be able to compete more next year,” Kuykendall said.

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Yes, that is Steve himself making adjustments
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
Through it all, Kuykendall is a hands-on manager to the team. You may find him on the wall at a race to make adjustments to his car, beating and banging with a hammer if there is damage. Delegating is not his strong suite. 

“I won’t be that guy sitting at a desk telling people what to do” he said. “At some point I may need a crew chief to sit at a desk and tell people what to do cause I do not think I will ever be that guy.” This statement shows his passion to be hands on. Throughout all his years of racing, he has adapted to being a virtual race team in itself and is able to take care of almost anything needed for the car.

The newest and most exciting thing for him as of late: JJC Racing has purchased a new car. Through the help of Robert Richardson’s team, Cobb was able to purchase one of their Dodges that has previously been run. There has been some adjustments for Cobb and the team, switching manufactures and learning the feel of the new car. Kuykendall says, “I feel like I am on top of it now. Able to give her (Jen) what she needs to drive the car. I feel really good about it.”

JJC new car
Jen's new car on grid at NHMS
Courtesy of Steve Kuykendall
Jen and her Tweetpeas (Twitter followers) started a campaign to help her fund her new car. For more information, read: Cobb launches Ten for Jen. Steve says only a few weeks in, the fundraising is going really well. “It amazes me that as tough as economic times are, people will still step up to help us.”

Cobb and her team were a hot topic previously this year after her refusing to start and park. Fans and many fellow drivers alike cheered her on. (For an account of what happened, read: Cobb stands up and moves on.) Steve says that the response from fans was “pretty amazing.” With the whole debacle, Jennifer held her head high and just walked away. Steve recounted it by saying, “It was powerful. She just walked and we as a team followed her.” He clarified the misconception that this is not a statement against all start and park teams, but it is just not for Jen herself.

Looking forward, Cobb heads to Nashville this weekend and will be running in both the Truck and Nationwide races. The importance of Jen running the Truck race is to get that ever-valuable seat time and give Steve that time to prepare setups as well.

Cobb is set for a full season and looking ahead; the mile and a half tracks are her strong suit. Kuykendall looks forward to her being able to run Chicago, Texas and Kansas, all strong tracks for the team. She will do all of this with Kuykendall making the calls. As he said, “I feel really proud to be here everyday and I will do everything possible to help her further her career.”

NASCAR By the Numbers and In the Rearview Mirror (looking back at NASCAR's history) are Amanda's two weekly columns with Skirts and Scuffs, but as an Associate Editor her duties are limitless. Amanda also strives to provide exclusive interviews for the readers of Skirts and Scuffs. To read her past columns and interviews click here.. Feel free to contact Amanda viaTwitter. 

Steve Kuykendall: Hands on as a crew chief for Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Steve Kuykendall: Hands on as a crew chief for Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Reviewed by Unknown on Friday, July 22, 2011 Rating: 5