Gifford taking over where Wallace, Pena left off
By Travis Barrett, Special to NASCARHomeTracks.com
May 4, 2012 – 8:24am
These days you can hardly recognized Ryan Gifford, either on the track or out of his car.
Not only did Gifford shed nearly 20 pounds over the offseason and commit himself to becoming a better all-around race car driver, but the third-year veteran of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East is off to an impressive start to 2012. He finished third in the season opener at Bristol Motor Speedway in March – the highest-finishing series regular in the race – and nearly won last week at Richmond International Raceway.
“It’s really been good for me this year,” said Gifford, a native of Winchester, Tenn., and driver of the Rev Racing No. 2 Universal Technical Institute Toyota. “I have a really good group of guys behind me, they all believe in me. They know I’m capable of winning races in this series and they’re encouraging me to go out there and do it.”
Gifford isn’t alone in having undergone a dramatic off-season transformation.
Rev Racing changed its name from Revolution Racing, overhauled its lineup of K&N Pro Series drivers and took its organizational structure in an entirely new direction.
The results? Three drivers, including rookies Kyle Larson and Bryan Ortiz, sitting in the Top-8 in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East standings and two more drivers — Trey Gibson and Mackena Bell — are running successfully in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model division at Hickory Motor Speedway.
Rev Racing owner Max Siegel, who formed the team as part of NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program four years ago, said the road has been a long one, though the organization has finally found its footing.
“Being a new organization and a new model (was difficult),” Siegel said. “Getting both the startup costs as well as the startup effort, that was really a big challenge. We’ve had the pleasure of having some really good professionals in our organization, but getting the right chemistry and the right teamwork together was key.
“I don’t want to harp on it, but it was about right-sizing the business model. It’s no secret it’s expensive to field a race team, so those are things that have been a challenge for us.”
Rev Racing has fielded a multi-car team in the K&N Pro Series since the start of the 2010 season, and last year it found plenty of on-track success. Between them, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Sergio Pena won exactly half of the races on the schedule – six out of 12 – but both left for new teams in 2012. Siegel said that while the on-track performance was starting to get noticed, the behind-the-scenes workings at Rev Racing needed attention.
To help treat some of the in-house ailments, the organization looked at where it was spending its money and focusing its overall effort.
“Darrell was Rookie of the Year (in 2010), and we won several races last year as a team – we won 50 percent of the races, which was unprecedented,” Siegel said. “It validated both the (academy-style) training model that we had and the entire program.
“We know the work that went into driver development at this level. The model works… That being said, we’re always looking to improve as an organization. We’re doing more data-driven analysis, we’ve created an exciting partnership with St. Vincent Sports Performance – which works on everything from sports psychology to medical treatment, and a lot of simulation work.”
Gifford has noticed the difference and thinks it’s translated directly to the races. In his third year at Rev Racing, he said the team made more leaps over this past off-season than at any other point in his time there.
“They’ve completely restructured and downsized their program,” Gifford said. “I think we’re focused on the competition part of it more than anything now. That’s done a lot for our on-track performance, and it’s helped us with our relationship with Toyota.
“It’s really awesome.”
What’s as impressive is how quickly the team has come up to speed. Larson, a California driver with an open-wheel background, had never competed in a stock car before this season. And Ortiz is making the transition from a Late Model to the heavier, more powerful K&N Pro Series car.
And all four crew chiefs – Dennis Connor (Gifford), Mark Lindley (Ortiz) Randy Goss (Larson), and Mark Green (Jorge Arteaga) – are new to the series.
Gifford has has plenty to do with Rev Racing not missing a beat, despite the off-season loss of Wallace and Pena, and filling the other three seats on the team with untested rookies. He’s learned how to race at the front of the field in this series, and he’s learned to hold onto the positives each week while not dwelling on the negatives.
After a promising rookie season in 2010, when he won his first career pole and posted four Top-5 finishes in 10 races, he slipped in 2011. He managed just two Top-10s in 12 starts.
“I’ve tried to take a different approach this year,” Gifford said. “I wanted to go into it and keep a good attitude, get in shape and take a look at myself as a driver and what I could do better. It can be a hard thing to do, but the thing that’s different about this year – look at what happened at Richmond. Instead of getting down, I look at it as we had a car capable of winning, and that’s awesome.”
“This year, he’s just on a whole different level,” Siegel said of Gifford. “He’s focused. He’s totally engaged and has stepped up his leadership. He’s always been a quiet leader, but he’s stepped that up a lot.
“I’m really proud of the space he’s in right now. I think he’s matured in that he isn’t satisfied. He has a hunger to win, and he really wants to grow.”
And as Gifford steps up his own game, the rest of Rev Racing has, too. Gibson won his first Whelen All-American Series race at Hickory last Saturday night, and he’s posted three Top-3 finishes in six starts this season for Rev Racing.
With every race win, every podium finish, every successful championship finish, Siegel knows his job gets just a little easier.
“The better we have performed as an organization, we’ve been able to attract better talent not just on the track but in the shop,” Siegel said. “We’ve been able to get crew chiefs that have won a lot of races in other sports, or get the right people on the management side, like with (Rev Racing general manager) Derik Crotts.
“It’s literally taken the last three years to get that kind of credibility.”
Now Rev Racing has the credibility, and Gifford hopes to be the guy that delivers the organization its first K&N Pro Series East title.
“I think we’ve got a great shot at it,” Gifford said. “It’s a series where you’ve really got to race smarter rather than harder. Sometimes you can beat yourself, getting involved in stuff you really don’t have to. The main thing is that, in a series like this, everybody’s so anxious and wanting to prove themselves at that level, it can cause more trouble than its worth.
And without Rev Racing and NASCAR’s D4D program, Gifford said he’d never have had this shot at taking his career to the next level. In fact, he said he’d probably be back home working in his family’s construction business.
“It’s so hard to fund the funding to go do this today,” Gifford said. “For somebody like Max and NASCAR to stick their necks out and give me and my teammates a chance is top-notch in my book. There wouldn’t be an opportunity for me without it. I’m blessed to be where I am.”