Looking back at his 40 years in racing, Jack Roush has few regrets
Jack Roush is a man of science, gears, algorithms and verifiable outcomes. Emotions are such complicated things and very rarely fit well into a simulation model; they cannot be tested and analyzed and applied to his all-encompassing passion of winning races and championships as a NASCAR car owner for the last 24 years.
But there the now-69-year-old was in August 2010, lying in a bed in the Mayo Clinic, running mental simulations on his battered self. For the second time in less than a decade he had been the victim of a plane crash, and he wondered how nearly 40 years spent doggedly pursuing his sporting goals -- winning more than 32 championships and 400 races in sports cars, drag racing and NASCAR -- had at times shortchanged his personal ones. He questioned if it was all worth it.
"I didn't take enough time to enjoy the roses as I've gone through. Smell the roses," Roush conceded in an interview with SI.com. "Three years ago I took my first vacation to Europe. That was interesting. It's where civilization is behind everything we do, politically, legally and a lot of our moral standards as Americans come from western civilization. And I didn't spend enough time involving myself in that and for that reason I'm probably not as good a parent as I could have [been] if I'd made an effort."
When that self-diagnostic program concluded, he'd reached what passed for epiphany.
"It gave me an opportunity as I was in the hospital for a couple weeks on two different occasions the last 15 years, to really take stock of my life, think about what I had left and what I had just gone through," he said, "and both times I decided I was happy with and proud and certainly pleased with the opportunity to have my three children around me, happy with the success I've had and happy with the challenges and efforts I had going on to maintain viability and relevance in our economy.
"I came back and said, 'You know, if I had it to do all over, I'd do the same things again.' The fact I still had my health and still had the opportunity ... I thought about, should I decide to retire, or stop doing the things I do that keep me active, as active and challenged as I am every day. It's part of my life and I'll keep going as long as I can."
Things are going very well for Roush right now. With two weeks remaining in the season, Roush Fenway Racing fields the points leaders in both the Sprint Cup (Carl Edwards) and Nationwide (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) series. Edwards leads hard-charging Tony Stewart by three points, while Stenhouse has a 17-point cushion over Elliott Sadler entering activity at Phoenix this weekend. Roush won consecutive Sprint Cup titles with Matt Kenseth (2003) and Kurt Busch (2004) and stocked five of the 10 cars in the 2005 Chase for the Championship field -- prompting a car-cap by the sanctioning body -- but saw performance wane somewhat during the rise of Jimmie Johnson, a failing now blamed on a faulty path undertaken by the team's engineering department and some flawed algorithms.
"The path we've been on has gone from this being a very subjective, non-engineering-based form of racing to unimpeachable data and algorithms that project reasonably well what will happen," Roush said.
Roush Fenway Racing, by design, is chocked with company men, who are discovered young and advance to their highest level of "finding a place for people in their point in life and their motivation," Roush said. And that includes drivers. Current Cup drivers Greg Biffle, Edwards, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan all benefited from Roush's developmental system and have spent their entire full-time careers at NASCAR's highest level with Roush, a combined 33 years. Biffle (trucks and Nationwide), Edwards (Nationwide) and Kenseth (Cup) have all won titles for the organization.
Robbie Reiser, Kenseth's title-winning crew chief, though seemingly coerced to the position in 2007, is the team's general manager. The company chemistry is a concoction of familiarity, wry wit and sarcasm. Out of bounds is sometimes hard to find. Jabs are well-informed and therefore inclined to find their target.
"We've got some very strong personalities," said team president Steve Newmark, "some very, very sharp minds, some dry humor. You have to able to take it as well as dish it out."
After winning the final race of the season last year at Homestead-Miami, his second consecutive victory after going winless in 70 straight, Edwards said, "A 70-race winless streak -- no offense Jack -- but it's like a sharp stick in the eye. It's bad. It's really bad."
Roush simply laughed along. After crash-landing his small private jet at an Oshkosh, Wisc., air exhibition in July 2010 -- a scene from which he walked away -- Roush sustained a fractured back and broken jaw and lost his left eye. On occasions since, he's been known to announce his arrival at functions as "one-eyed Jack." Roush sustained a head injury, broken ribs and shattered left leg when his small experimental plane crashed in a lake near Troy, Ala., in April 2002. Trapped underwater, he was saved by an ex-Marine that lived nearby.
"We give each other a hard time," Edwards added, "[but] when Jack got in his accident -- the fact that we can joke around about it says a lot about Jack -- but when he was in his accident I think all of us, I know myself, Bob, all the people I've talked to said, 'What are we going to do with this company here? What if something is really wrong with Jack and he can't come back and lead us? What are we going to do?'
"The fact that [he] came back to the race track two weeks later, something like that, and never missed a beat, he never talks about himself, he never complains about anything. He's the guy you want to go to war with and we're just proud to have you, Jack."
But even after that display, Edwards and Roush would engage in a candid renegotiation process before the driver signed a multi-year contract in August 2011.
"We have to earn our stripes each time we are up for renewal," Roush said. "It's just business, and it's understood."
Now, Roush says, Edwards is ready to finally win a Sprint Cup championship. After winning nine races and finishing second in points in 2008, he was widely considered a threat to Johnson's historic run of an eventual five straight, but he went winless and slumped to 11th in points the next season
"I don't want to inflame by having something in print that would show my lack of approval and lack of support and lack of recognition for what Carl has done and the manner in which he's done it," Roush said, "[but] I would say Carl thought he was ready to race with Jimmie Johnson for a championship before he was. And it just takes a while in this business, to get all the experience and maturity and have the judgment that it takes to really go against somebody like Jimmie. It looks like Jimmie is not going to be the one to beat this year, but Tony Stewart is high equal in terms of personal presence and Tony Stewart is not going to beat himself."
Team employees attest that Roush's activity and intensity levels have, if anything, increased since his latest gaze into the reaper's maw. And he firmly asserts that his goals remain the same as when he began his racing career as a Ford engineer. And while the spunky and opinionated man with the iconic Panama hat hasn't lost his edge, he admits he has missed opportunities and made missteps in the journey.
"The window has closed on a lot of things," he said. "I never played golf. I don't have an offshore fishing boat ... I wish I'd taken more trips with my kids when they were growing up, to go to Europe or do some other things I didn't do with them. But if I could go back and relive my 69 years, 50 years as an adult, I would do some things a little differently, but my first job [still] would have been Ford Motor Company, my pro race team would have been the Fastbacks racing organization; I would have started my partnership with Wayne Gapp, gone into business when the opportunity presented itself in Detroit, started NASCAR racing in the 1980s when the stars lined up for that -- there wouldn't have been a major shift."
And as for his accidents, Roush said, there is some consolation even in them.
"In both the cases when I had my airplane wrecks, I wasn't doing something that was irresponsible, something that I should have seen that I was taking chances," he said. "I was just in the situations where things lined up on me and I had a bad result. Horrible result. Certainly bad for the hardware and risk and anxiety for the family I certainly wish hadn't occurred."
For Roush, there is always comfort in the algorithms.