Blake Harris knew how they felt. Jesse Sanders and Lee Leslie and David Bryant and Austin Konetski and Robert (Cheddar) Smith, all car chiefs, all ejected from various tracks this season for issues during Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series inspection.
The disputes varied. The swift reaction from NASCAR officials did not.
Harris knew because he was the first in the Cup Series to get the boot.
The car chief for the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota of defending series champion Martin Truex Jr., Harris was tossed out at Atlanta Motor Speedway when his team’s car failed to pass inspection after three trips through NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station (OSS).
The camera-based inspection system debuted this year and multiple failures for either pre-qualifying or pre-race inspection can result in the ejection of a team member of NASCAR’s choosing. Thus far it has been the car chiefs that have felt the sting.
“At the time it doesn’t ever seem (fair),” Harris said. “It was so new at Atlanta – that was our first downforce race with everything. I think there are things on our part and on NASCAR’s part that you learn through those situations.
“It’s not just ‘You’re out of here, you’re gone.’ We explained to them the process that we go through … they need to understand too what we’re dealing with. We can make adjustments on our part, they can make adjustments on their part.”
Harris, 31, is a former Late Model racer from the tiny town of Maypearl, Tex. He has worked in NASCAR for 13 years and been car chief for six seasons.
His backstory isn’t that much different from others – a former racer who didn’t have the funding to keep going. But Harris was chasing an education in addition to checkered flags and that’s part of the reason he wound up in North Carolina and not behind the wheel of a race car.
Fabrication and other classes led to work with a team and pretty soon work took precedence and the education was eventually put aside.
“I learned so much on the job with what we do,” Harris said. “I feel like with my job it’s pretty much all on-the-job training.”
What exactly does a car chief do these days? It varies a bit from team to team but for the most part, it’s the hands-on work that used to fall onto the crew chief’s shoulders.
“Pretty much the crew chief and engineers have come up with what setup needs to be in the car so it’s my job to make sure all the right parts get in the car and on the car,” Harris said. “All the mechanics and I do all the work on the car at the track, some in the shop; we’ll go through and make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be. I’ll scale the car and make sure everything is set right, exactly to the money of what they want.
“Another big part of it is just dealing with the car in NASCAR. If we unload and there is something (officials) don’t like, I make sure the guys in the shop know that we changed (it) so that we don’t have the same problem the next week.
“If there is something we need to fix immediately – making sure we can get it fixed so that when we go back through tech the next time that we have it right.
“You’re always trying to stay within the boundaries of getting everything you can, it’s just trying to make sure I do my part, kind of babysitting that car through and knowing where we can’t push too much and keep everybody happy on the NASCAR side.”
This year’s at-track inspection process has tightened up gaps in the system that might have existed for no other reason than measurements that were once being recorded by people are now done with cameras and computers. What might have been “gray” in the past is now black and white – or more specifically, red and blue and green and yellow.
The differences in color indicate where cars are in or out of tolerance after they’ve been scanned and by how much.
“I have to admit it’s a little bit easier for us, too, because we can see it,” Harris said.
“We can’t go back and think we fixed it where a template was … we actually see the number they give us and we can go fix it and that correlates on the scan. I feel better about the repeatability. That thing has been really good. I feel like every time we’ve gone through it’s really, really close.”
Harris is married to FOX Sports reporter Kaitlyn Vincie and the couple have a young daughter, Kadence.
He’s also an accomplished musician, one whose career path could have gone in an entirely different direction. Sessions instead of set-ups perhaps.
“When I graduated high school, I had a couple of music scholarships that I didn’t end up using,” he said. “I enjoy (playing) the piano most; I could have had a full (college) ride playing the saxophone.
“The piano is a little bit more challenging because I don’t do it enough. When I sit down and play I can actually pay attention to that and put everything else out of my mind. That’s what I enjoy about it the most.”