BY JEFF FALK
Bobby Gerhart is the ‘driving force’ behind the success of Lebanon-based Bobby Gerhart Racing. But there are countless people behind the scenes who allow that success to happen.
And the head of that so-called ‘support group’ is Billy Gerhart.
Billy Gerhart and his older brother Bobby share a unique and special bond. Not only are they siblings, their shared lineage makes them brothers in racing.
“It’s always been a family deal,” said Billy Gerhart. “All of us grew up around racing. We’ve been around it all of our lives. It’s always been a family type of arrangement. When it gets in your blood like that, racing becomes more than a sport.
“For Bobby and I, I think it’s because racing has been in our blood our whole lives,” Gerhart continued. “My father (Bobby, Sr.) was a champion. But that was a different time and a different set of circumstances. The passion for the sport was in us at an early age. Someday Bobby and I will walk away from the sport and it will be a tough thing to do. For serious racers it’s a way of life.”
As his crew chief, team manager and confidante, Billy Gerhart has been at Bobby Gerhart’s side for the entirety of Bobby’s 30-year racing career. He’s been there for the good, the bad, the accidents, the injuries, the triumphs, the disappointments.
‘Bobby G.’ will hit the track running Friday at 5:15 p.m. at Pocono International Speedway, as the 2.5-mile Tricky Triangle hosts the second of ARCA’s two annual visits to Long Pond, a 125-mile sprint known as the Mod Space 125.
“This year I started a new job, and I missed a couple of races,” said Gerhart, who’s a manager at a communications business by trade. “For the most part, all of the big races I go to. We’ve had a lot of lean years, but a whole lot of success over the last 14 years.
“We’ve literally had hundreds of people come through the race team over the years,” Gerhart added. “This sport, this life, isn’t for everyone. When you go to victory lane, there’s nothing like that. But when you don’t, there can be a lot of frustration. There’s a lot of dedication and hard work that goes into it. For those who stick with it, they’re real racers at heart. My hat’s off to those people who do it as a volunteer.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice too. The travel for our team is not glamorous. We seldom fly.”
So what exactly does the crew chief of a racing team do? Think of Billy Gerhart as an administrator, a delegator, a ‘jack’ of all trades.
“You manage,” said Gerhart. “What I do today as opposed to years ago, there’s a huge difference. You’ve got to help prepare the race car. Make sure the car is ready to go. You’ve got to manage costs. Take care of sponsor commitments. You’ve got to make sure you have enough people for the crew.
“It’s like being the manager of the team,” Gerhart continued. “We design graphics on the car so they show up well on TV. Over the years that’s something we’ve tweaked. Our cars are black for a reason. The logo shows up really well. There’s a lot of things that go into it. And when half of the team is volunteers it becomes even harder. You can’t do this with three or four people. Honestly, you need about a dozen people to pull it off properly. And there’s a lot of things going on back at the shop.”
“The most important part of my job is planning. You’ve got to plan the event, plan the program. Whether you have a checklist in your mind or put it down on paper When we go to Daytona we’re better prepared than any other event in the whole year. We start planning for that race in the summer of the previous year.”
Good managers are flexible, they’re in touch with the needs of those they oversee and they lead, not control. Good managers are self-made, not born.
“A crew chief is really a manager,” said Gerhart. “You’ve got to manage the program with the car and you’ve got to manage people. You’ve got to listen and take advice. Sometimes fresh ideas are good things. You’ve got to be a coach and a cheerleader. I think some of the guys on our team look up to Bobby and I. But we’re not easy to work for at the race track because we take racing very seriously.
“We’re both like that,” Gerhart added. “We both give off an impression of being unapproachable. It’s just an intensity we have. Sometimes he’s hard to work with, just like sometimes I’m hard to work with. But as brothers, we’ve always stuck together.”
The Gerharts are a team in every sense of the term. But when push comes to shove, make no mistakes about who is ultimately in charge. It’s the guy who’s name is on the car.
“We agree to disagree,” said Gerhart. “We’ve certainly had issues. Saturday at Pocono, he wanted to pit on lap seven. I talked him out of it and I was wrong. But there’s no right answers. It’s a tough situation because we gave up a top-ten finish. But you can’t dwell on it. You move on. There’s been times I’ve talked him into situations that have paid off. He complains a little bit after the race, but the next day pretty much all is forgotten.
“When it comes to strategy he pretty much tells me to handle things,” added Gerhart. “You’re either the guy driving the car or the crew chief, but you can’t do both. If you play it too conservative, you’re not going to win. What you’ve got to do is surround yourself with good people.”
With 30 years of racing under their belts, the 50-something Gerharts have put down more miles on the track than they have in front of them. But that’s not to say that they’re getting ready to park it any time soon.
“Ideally, when Bobby decides to retire, that’s a decision that’s up to him,” Gerhart said. “In 2007 when he got hurt at Pocono and he had a broken back, he was 48 and I went to see him in the hospital and I told him, ‘Maybe it’s time to let it go.’ I remember he said, ‘I think I’m going to retire on my time.’ When he wants to go, it’s entirely up to him. He said he would like to retire in victory lane at Daytona.
“But as a team, I think we’d like to continue racing,” continued Gerhart. “But there’s going to have to be some funding for that to happen. The team still has a spark. It still has a passion.”
“When I look back on it, there were some tough times. Bobby didn’t win his first major event until he was 40. There were a lot of reasons why we weren’t successful, and those still exist today. We decided, with our budget, we were best suited to run well in restrictor-plate races. If we didn’t win again, I’d be OK with that. We had a whole lot of lean years in the beginning. But I don’t think this team is done yet.”
Editor’s Note: This piece on the Gerharts originally appeared on Lebanon Sports Buzz in August of 2012. It was reprinted with permission.