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WAID’S WORLD: No Longer Part Of NASCAR Still Weighs On Pemberton

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In December of 2014 Robin Pemberton was told he would be terminated as NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition.

There was a caveat. His release would not occur until the end of the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season. He would hold his position for nearly another year.

Pemberton was obviously taken aback by the news. But he was not deterred by his lame duck status. He vowed to spend the 2015 season working harder than ever.

After all, he had been working hard for years – for his entire professional life in NASCAR.

It started in 1979 with Petty Enterprises where he rose to the rank of crew chief. From there Pemberton elevated himself to prominence with such teams as Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing.

Pemberton served as Rusty Wallace’s crew chief for 230 races, which, at the time, was the longest driver-crew chief association in NASCAR.

His record as a crew chief shows 26 victories and 39 pole positions.

But by 2001 Pemberton’s mindset changed. Years of work and travel began to dull his enthusiasm.

“The kids (sons Briggs and Bray) were growing up and I got into the mode of wanting to spend more time with them before they went off to college,” Pemberton said. “So I tried a couple of different things.

“I went back to Petty for a year (as general manager) and then the Ford guys called and they needed a local presence in NASCAR and racing down south. So I went to work for them as field manager.”

Pemberton’s deal with Ford was for three years. But while on the job – and even before – he thought about working in a management role with the sanctioning body.

“The funny thing is I always had a good relationship with NASCAR in the past,” Pemberton said. “I didn’t bend the rules too bad. Bill France Jr. and I always talked ever since my early days when I was one of a bunch of kids coming up. There was just some reason we would talk.”

France told Pemberton that if an opportunity to change jobs arose to let NASCAR know about it.

Pemberton did. “I ran something up the flagpole a couple of times and was told nothing was ready for me.”

Well into his first year with Ford, Pemberton got a phone call which led to routine conversations with NASCAR.

But they did not affect his work. With Pemberton on board, Ford won the Cup championship and the manufacturers title with Matt Kenseth in 2003. Kurt Busch followed with his title in 2004.

Then NASCAR came calling. Pemberton was flown to Daytona Beach (alone) and then joined France and other executives for a meeting and a dinner.

“Afterward Bill put his arm around me and said, ‘I really want you to do this. I promise you won’t regret it.’

“I told everyone I appreciated everything and I was asked if anyone had told me what they actually wanted me to do.

“I said no but figured it would come up at some point. I was told I would be VP of competition, only the third they ever had.”

NASCAR helped Pemberton opt out of his deal with Ford and he went to work for the sanctioning boy in August of 2004.

The transition wasn’t new but nonetheless it was dramatic. Instead of being just one of the guys in the garage area, Pemberton became their overseer. He was in charge and he would enforce the rules.

It changed the dynamic of the garage area.

“I will say the relationships changed a little bit,” Pemberton said. “None of them got worse.

“But the hardest part was I just couldn’t go out and hang out with the guys. I just couldn’t go out and hang with my brother (Ryan, also a crew chief). I had to get into it before I got comfortable.

“My brother and I went from talking every day to not talking for months. And we’re close. It was awkward.”

Awkward, perhaps, but Pemberton never shirked his duties. For example, in February of 2007 he played a major role in one of the most prominent competition scandals in NASCAR history.

Prior to the start of a 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona he suspended six crew chiefs for various infractions. He also threw out the director of competition for Michael Waltrip‘s new team for using an illegal fuel additive during qualifying.

He also penalized the team 100 driver and owner points, one of the most severe point penalties in NASCAR’s top level of racing.

Despite the notoriety, Pemberton felt his main responsibility was to make the teams more comfortable with NASCAR and its rules via communication and economics.

“The thing that happened that was a surprise to some was educating my buddies in the garage on how NASCAR did things,” Pemberton said. “The biggest surprise was that in my day when the rules came down it took two years or so to develop them.

“Today they come out a lot quicker. They have to sometimes. I had to explain that to some of the guys who had no idea it took meeting after meeting to make things work.

“As teams got better with more and smarter people they really pushed the curve on the idea of acceptable lead time, which I supported to make things more economically feasible.

“It’s tough now. Teams are smaller and budgets are smaller. Look at pit stops now. They are slower so it looks like things are going through another curve. The thinking about doing things will have to go back to where it was 15 years ago.”

Pemberton enjoyed a good relationship with NASCAR officials, including those in New York and Daytona. There was never any animosity.

“But by 2014, the Gen 6 car had been introduced and for a couple of years I killed it.

“I went to all tests, above and beyond the races. I went to track tests, wind tunnel tests to Detroit to meet with executives.

“When the car was introduced I was going in a day early and doing media stuff, showing the difference between the car and production cars. I had to educate people because we had experienced some bad things with the Car of Tomorrow – and that’s a whole other story.

“I had two years of simply killing it. It was taking a bit of toll on me.”

Even so, Pemberton had no idea his position was being scrutinized. Late in 2014 at a meeting he was told that competition in NASCAR was going to be re-arranged.

He was given notice that he had only one more season left on the job.

“I don’t think I would have made it much longer anyway,” Pemberton said. “I was tired. I could not get a break. I was exhausted.

“When there are different people at the top things always change. I was used to doing things a certain way over 30 years and all of that was going to change.

“I worked as hard that last year as I ever did.”

When the 2015 season ended, Pemberton struck out on his own. He worked with son Bray, a sports agent, and in time developed a consulting business in which he works with young drivers.

He works extensively with motorcycles. He has clients throughout the country.

But his heart in still with NASCAR.

“Since I went to my first race when I was eight years old, working in racing and in NASCAR was all I ever wanted to do,” Pemberton said. “Even though I had a year to prepare, I always thought I would be told that maybe NASCAR had a different slot for me. But that did not happen.

“When I did leave, I was devastated. I was more than depressed. I was so very depressed even though I knew it was coming.

“I haven’t missed but maybe three races on TV in two years and the ones I missed I listened to on the radio because I was riding a motorcycle.

“It was rough, really rough.”

Pemberton admits that if NASCAR called and asked him to rejoin the fold he would say yes without hesitation.

“I would even get paid less to work less,’ he said. “But I just don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”



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Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.