Scott Miller is the secret to Michael Waltrip Racing's success
The single-season stat line was staggering. In 2012 Michael Waltrip Racing collected three victories and placed two teams in the Chase; their group of engineers, designers and mechanics propelled the cars to organization-high average running and finishing positions. That's where the successes of Michael Waltrip Racing originated -- case closed -- giving no attention to that man behind the curtain.
That's what Scott Miller, MWR's forward-thinking Director of Competition, would like you to do. Miller is the man behind the curtain, or more aptly, the missing ingredient that helped turn a fledgling racing organization into a powerhouse of consistency in less than six months, leading to a second place finish (with Clint Bowyer) in the Sprint Cup Series last year. This type of organization-wide improvement is a statistical oddity, and in the last two occurrences, Miller was the common denominator.
A laid-back Californian, Miller is a people person and as such, distributes credit to every worker who touched the organization's three cars -- Clint Bowyer's No. 15, Martin Truex Jr.'s No. 56 and the No. 55 shared by Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and company namesake Michael Waltrip -- suggesting that improvement was on the horizon regardless of his intervention.
"I walked into this place at a time that ultimately made me look good and made me look like the one who turned it around, but there were already several key people here that were getting the process of an engineering culture -- a winning culture -- started," said Miller, just days before the MWR machines took to Daytona International Speedway for the first official test of the new year. "They had a great design department, a great engineering department and a lot of good work already being done."
Though improvement was inevitable, the numbers didn't suggest that a radical uptick in production was coming anytime soon. Prior to Miller's hiring in September 2011, MWR was in the middle of a dreadful season with Truex and David Reutimann, the team's original hire when it made its full-time leap from Nationwide to Cup in 2007.
In 2011 Truex's NAPA-sponsored machine averaged a running position of 16.0 (that ranked 14th among series regulars) and a finishing position of 17.7 (ranked 17th). Reutimann, who would be relieved of his duties following the season, was about five positions worse, averaging a running spot of 21.3 (ranked 27th) and finish of 22.3 (ranked 28th).
The company expanded to three full-time teams in 2012 with the addition of Bowyer; the Martin-Vickers-Waltrip trio filled the spot left by Reutimann. Miller, perhaps the strongest addition, was brought in to manage the madness. That new lineup proved to be lightning in a bottle for MWR.
Bowyer ranked fourth in the series for average finish (10.9) and ninth in average running position (11.8), which secured a Chase spot. After a wild finish to the 2012 season, Bowyer snuck in to finish second in the standings, 39 points behind champion Brad Keselowski. The No. 55 team combined for a 15.4 average finish, a 6.9-position improvement over Reutimann's 2011 effort.
Truex, the other Chase-making MWR driver, was the most interesting case; his average running position and finish increased by four and 6.8 positions, respectively, despite him producing at virtually the same rate he did in 2011. His PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a weighted driver metric courtesy of MotorsportsAnalytics.com) was almost identical -- 1.639 in 2011 vs. 1.611 in 2012 -- to his previous year's offering, meaning the position strides should be attributed to the team's more power-packed arsenal of Toyota Camrys.
The organization-wide improvement was a first for MWR, but it was the second time that Miller was a linchpin in such a dramatic change.
Improving A Traditional Power
During the final race weekend of 2008, NASCAR announced a sanction-wide testing restriction, banning teams from independent research and development practice at tracks on which they compete.
At that time Miller was Jeff Burton's crew chief at Richard Childress Racing. For an organization that prided itself on its ability to turn testing laps into race day success, the news was shocking. That restriction would end up having major ramifications for traditional power.
"RCR historically set themselves up to run their cars at racetracks through physical testing at the racetrack," said Miller. "That recipe worked very well until the testing ban took effect. We were set up to take advantage of tests with test teams and personnel to go run the cars. Because we could test wherever we wanted, we sort of neglected the virtual testing programs coming into the sport."
The 2009 season was a down year for RCR. Of the four teams at the time, Bowyer had the highest average finish of 16.2. All four teams, including Burton, Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears, were shut out of the Chase.
In the fall of 2009, Miller was promoted to the Director of Competition position and immediately went to work selling owner Richard Childress on the virtues of simulation technology.
"I guess my biggest job was identifying that others had [already] invested in that technology and were ahead of us from the standpoint of being able to run simulations at the shop and develop their racecars without being at the track," said Miller. "When we couldn't run our cars at the racetrack, we were kind of lost because we had no other tools to fall back on."
The investment paid immediate dividends. In 2010 RCR consolidated from four teams to three, all of which made the Chase. On top of that, Bowyer (+1.8/+0.5), Burton (+6.2/+2.9) and Harvick (+6.4/+11.2) all increasing their average running spots and average finishes, respectively. The PEERs of Bowyer and Burton dipped that year from their 2011 totals, indicating, like MWR in 2012, that a heightened level of machine performance transpired.
It was 2011 when Waltrip and co-owner Rob Kauffman came knocking on Miller's door. RCR was on the path to the Chase with Harvick's No. 29 entry, the eventual third-place finishers that season. Miller could have stayed with the organization, facing more communication hurdles and, as he puts it, "ridden off into the sunset" when the time was right; however, the challenge of helping mold MWR into a championship contender piqued his interest.
One Team, Three Cars
At RCR Miller was a new-school thinker in old-school surroundings. In his new gig, he's keen on building a juggernaut with a band of workers more closely resembling him. The simulation technology that he politicked for at RCR was already entrenched at MWR.
"I didn't bring anybody with me. We didn't really fire anybody. We just reevaluated the way we did everything and how all of the departments interacted with each other," insisted Miller, who says that MWR already had the engineering culture -- he estimates about 40 engineers are currently on the organization's payroll - that he attempted to instill at RCR.
"My contribution wasn't from the technical side of things. At that, [MWR] was always pretty good. It was more about the process. Intertwining [departments] a little better and shifting some people's responsibilities -- I felt some people were trying to do too much and some might not have had as much as they could handle on their plate -- and shifting them around so that it was possible for them to do a good job."
Shifting of focus was also on the docket. Whereas an organization like Hendrick Motorsports might have four separate cultures and leadership styles for all four teams -- Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, delegates so well that he might not spend much time in the office; while Kenny Francis, Kasey Kahne's crew chief, prefers to be hands-on with the cars he's building -- Miller says MWR can't keep up unless it has an "all for one, one for all" approach to racing.
"I truly believe that in the sport today, with the budgets the way they are, we have to have that mentality. Hendrick does it differently, but they have such a huge machine and so many talented people, I think they can do it differently than someone who has to work within a much tighter budget with less people and less available resources. It has to be all for one, one for all or you can never compete with something like what they've got."
It was that approach, with a more cohesive organization, that led to Bowyer and the startup No. 15 bunch beating Hendrick's Johnson by one point in the season's final standings. With Miller, the team won't stop with just a runner-up finish.
"Michael [Waltrip] and Rob [Kauffman] have such a strong desire to make a mark in the sport and do whatever it takes to get there, to be one of the elite teams in this sport," said Miller. "Their unwavering support to want to do that was the first thing that led me to consider making this move."
For Miller, after spearheading outrageous position improvement in years past, only one more position in the standings stands in his way.