“It was just like ‘Grease!’” Gibbs recalls. “Everyone back then had a hot rod with a name on it. Mine was ‘My Blue Heaven,’ like the Fats Domino song.”
In Charlotte on Friday, Gibbs, whose childhood revolved around football and cars, will be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The honor comes 24 years after he was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“One thing I’ve learned in life: You always want to be in team sports because then it’s not so obvious if you’re a horrible athlete! ” Gibbs, now 79, says with a laugh. “And I was a horrible athlete!”
What earned Gibbs a place in two halls of fame had nothing to do with throwing touchdown passes or rounding superspeedways at 200 mph. It’s his gift for coaxing performances out of others: spotting potential, developing talent, motivating athletes and building teams.
As coach of the Washington Redskins, he won three Super Bowl championships with three different quarterbacks over a 10-year span. Since he launched Joe Gibbs Racing on a shoestring budget in 1991, Gibbs has won five NASCAR Cup championships with three different drivers.
On Friday, he will join an elite group of seven Pro Football Hall honorees who are also enshrined in another sport’s Hall of Fame. The others: Jim Thorpe (who’s in the track and Olympics halls), Cal Hubbard (baseball), Bronko Nagurski (wrestling), Jim Brown (lacrosse), Lamar Hunt (tennis) and Bob Hayes (track and Olympics).
Gibbs sums up his achievements in one word: people.
“I’ve only been in really three things: football, NASCAR and one small family business,” Gibbs says. “In all three, the same thing leads you to success: That’s the people. The people.”
Dale Jarrett, a 2014 Hall of Fame inductee, already had a job with an established team when Gibbs approached him in 1991 about joining his upstart operation. Two meetings with Gibbs convinced him to make the leap.
“Joe wanted to be successful, but he cared most about people and relationships,” Jarrett says. “He’ll change your life for the better if you are willing to talk, listen and follow his advice.”
Gibbs’s sons, J.D. and Coy, spurred the family’s foray into NASCAR while he was still coaching the Redskins. They tagged along at training camp each August, but their year-round passion was anything with a motor: go-karts, jet skis and motorbikes. As they neared college graduation, they asked their father whether they could start a family business in NASCAR.
With the elder J.D. taking the lead, Joe Gibbs Racing launched in 1991 in Charlotte, where nearly all NASCAR teams were based. The team had 17 employees and one sponsor in Dallas-based Interstate Batteries — meager stuff compared with the multicar powerhouse of Hendrick Motorsports and established champions such as Richard Childress Racing and Petty Enterprises.
“We had nothing. No race shop, no cars — just a dream on a piece of paper,” Gibbs says.
After a winless first year in racing in 1992, Gibbs questioned whether he truly belonged in NASCAR.
The validation came in the 1993 season opener: the Daytona 500.
The team was such a lean operation that J.D. and a friend were part of the pit crew for Jarrett’s No. 18 Chevrolet, making their tire-changing debut in the season’s biggest race. On the first pit stop, Jarrett stomped the gas before J.D. finished tightening the fourth lug nut.
“Did you get all those tight, J.D.?” his friend asked over the radio.
“I got three of ‘em!” J.D. said.
“Can we make it on three?”
“We’re getting ready to find out!”
Recalls Gibbs: “I was looking for a place to throw up, I was so wound up!”
The tire stayed on. And on the final lap, Jarrett held off a furious charge by the late Dale Earnhardt, the master of Daytona’s aerodynamic draft, for the victory.
The Gibbs team didn’t even know how to find Victory Circle for the champagne-drenched celebration. When they finally found it, they didn’t know how long they were expected to stay. Gibbs ended up grabbing the trophy, packing the family in the car and heading north outside the track. They stopped at the nearby Steak 'n Shake to celebrate, and NASCAR fans in the parking lot went nuts. They spent the next 30 minutes taking pictures.
Nearly three decades have passed. Joe Gibbs Racing now has roughly 500 employees and five Cup championships. Two drivers who have titles for Gibbs’s team, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, are joining him as inductees to 2020 Hall of Fame class, along with engine-builder Waddell Wilson and Buddy Baker, the driver and commentator who died in 2015.
In February, Joe Gibbs Racing will return to Daytona as NASCAR’s defending Cup champion and defending Daytona 500 winner. Denny Hamlin led a three-car Gibbs Racing sweep of the 2019 race — a finish that Gibbs views as providential.
J.D. had died the previous month at age 49 after a four-year battle with a degenerative neurological disease. J.D. wore No. 11 as a high school and college quarterback. Hamlin was driving the No. 11 Toyota. And NASCAR honored J.D. with a moment of silence on the 11th lap.
“For us to win the race and finish 1-2-3 to start our year off and then finish the year with the championship, our whole team felt like J.D. was with us the whole time,” Gibbs says.
The team’s winning tradition continues, too. Should a Gibbs car win next month’s Daytona 500, he says, coach and crews will celebrate at Steak 'n Shake.