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MTU alum Ives making most of downtime from NASCAR

FILE - In this May 27, 2017, file photo, Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, talks with crew chief Greg Ives during practice for a NASCAR Cup series auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. Before Dale Eanrhardt Jr. calls it a career and starts calling races for NBC, he'd like to salvage a few positive memories from this season.And he'd like fans to quit ripping his embattled crew chief. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

DAVIDSON, N.C. — Greg Ives hasn’t stepped foot on Michigan Tech’s campus since receiving his bachelor’s degree in December 2003.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, Ives, a Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series crew chief for Alex Bowman, suddenly found the time to think back on his days in Houghton. He went through boxes of old textbooks and notebooks, deciding what items to keep.

“I even had some bank statements from different banks up there,” Ives said. “I could look back and see what I used to spend my money on. It was cool — a time warp.”

Without family in the Copper Country, Ives said there hasn’t been a reason for him to return to Houghton. But he still tries to visit.

“Every time I try to plan for the Winter Carnival, we’re either getting geared up for our race season or are in our race season,” he said. “When your season goes from February to the end of November, with a lot of travel, there’s not much time to take a vacation and relax.”

Parker Ives, 5, and his father Greg wait for a box stock race to start at Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, N.C. (Courtesy Photo/Jessica Ives)

The No. 88 team had been on a roll this year going into Atlanta, before the NASCAR season was suspended. Ives and Bowman turned a 24th-place finish in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17 to a 13th place the next week in Las Vegas. Bowman won the week after that, on March 1 in California. They took a 14th-place finish at Phoenix and prepared for Atlanta.

Ives and his team flew to Atlanta for the March 15 race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Shortly after arriving, the NBA suspended its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Postponements and cancellations cascaded through the entire sports world. NASCAR called off the race at Atlanta.

“We kind of turned around and flew back. We were thinking this was going to last a week or two,” Ives said. “You kind of had to go into a mode of what to do next. I kind of approached it as not knowing how long this is going to last. Let’s get ready for the next race as far as the engineers and mechanics and that sort of thing.

“As it gone on longer, it was clear that one, we didn’t know how long it was going to last; Two, when we were going to go racing, where we were going to go racing? We didn’t continue preparing week to week. We’ve more just turned our focus on getting our tools better and getting a list of things we can do regardless of race schedule. Getting our tools better, get better documentation of how our cars ran successfully at California and Vegas, and easily repeat it.”

If the pandemic hadn’t happened, Ives and his No. 88 team would be 12 races into the NASCAR season, and recently returned from a Saturday night race at Martinsville.

Quarantine has brought many unseen challenges to people and businesses. In the world of NASCAR, where the schedule is tightly wrapped in weekly testing, preparation, travel and racing, the quiet time at home has been a welcome change.

Ives, his wife Jessica (an Escanaba native) and their three children picked up a mini goldendoodle named Packer on Sunday, reflecting the family’s love of the Green Bay Packers despite living in the middle of Carolina Panthers territory.

The Ives’ youngest child, 5-year-old Parker, got into box stock racing in March. Equipped with a 10-horsepower engine, Parker cruises at speeds upwards of 40 mph around the dirt track at Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, North Carolina. He also races on asphalt at the GoPro Motorplex in Mooresville.

“I wanted him to try it to see if it’s something he wanted to do,” Ives said. “He loves racing, unfortunately as much as I do. I had golf clubs for him and he hit golf balls too. He loves racing. He enjoys it. If he’s not racing on the track, he’s racing on my iPhone, or my iPad, or my racing sim. He’s doing it as much he can.”

Auto racing is the science of engineering coupled with the art and skill of driving. Ives, who studied mechanical engineering at Tech, said he’s been overseeing both elements of his Hendrick Motorsports team while working from home.

Whether it’s about getting cars ready for the sport’s return to racing, or sitting in on livestreams of Bowman competing on NASCAR’s iRacing Series, Ives said he’s looking at the bigger picture with his team.

“The way I kind of approached it a little bit was to see who kind of stepped up and take on the role we had given them already, without me giving that guidance on a daily basis,” Ives said. “You saw certain employees step up and see them take on that role and you understood that they really could do it or not. It just took that nudge or something like this to happen for them to step up.

“When you build a team, you never know if it’s going to go exactly as you had planned when you’re there,” Ives added. “The mark of a great team is when you’re not able to be there or you’re on your own, that’s when true teams are better or being at their best. If a head coach leaves and they go out there and win, they shouldn’t say we should fire the coach because they won without him. They should say we should keep that coach because he built an environment where the team could win when he wasn’t there. That’s how I approached it. It was good to see that.”

The most popular quarantine activity for NASCAR drivers has been the iRacing series. Instead of an in-car camera showing drivers suited up and buckled inside the cars, fans have seen in-house webcams showing their favorite drivers in a corner of their rooms at home.

Ives, who grew up racing at Norway Speedway, said iRacing has been a valuable tool to help Bowman and other drivers stay in a competitive mindset. It’s also allowed the sport’s recent legends like Jeff Gordon and Ives’ former driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. to return to racing without the rigors and grind of the travel and racing in a real car. But iRacing also has its limitations for Ives and other crew chiefs.

The simulator software, for instance, doesn’t allow Ives and his team to strip the car setup and tune the settings in a way that Bowman would feel like he’s driving his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet. The racetracks in iRacing are laser-scanned replicas of real tracks, complete with bumps and all, but Ives isn’t able to study throttle tracing and tire wear. And Bowman’s track lines, the specific route he takes around a particular track, are hidden within iRacing’s proprietary software. So if Bowman wins on iRacing, it isn’t because of a mechanical adjustment made in the garage during the week. There’s little chance Ives could document enough technical data that could help Bowman repeat that success week in and week out.

Ives emphasized that the iRacing software also cannot come close to simulating the fear factor. Crashing on iRacing isn’t expensive, whereas damaging a real car could be a six- or seven-figure mistake.

“I think it’s a tool that allows you to keep your skills up, but there’s nothing that’s really going to replace the real thing, the thrill of the real thing,” Ives said. “The one thing iRacing cannot replace is the fear factor. You have the ability to go as fast as you want to and if you find the limit and you spin out and crash, there’s no consequences for that.”

The iRacing events can allow drivers to experiment with different driving styles, but Ives said he isn’t trying to change Bowman.

“The more I try to get Alex Bowman to drive like a different driver, the less talent and instinct Alex is going to have to rely on,” Ives said. “You either have it or you don’t.”

But Ives is also there to back up his drivers. As Chase Elliott’s crew chief in 2014, Ives said Elliott sometimes second-guessed himself.

“You got here for a reason. I’m not going to try changing you as a driver,” Ives said he told Elliott. “I’m going to change the car to get it where we need it to. Crew chiefs and driver combinations try to get the car perfect. If it isn’t, then you have to adapt.”

Less than three months after graduating Michigan Tech and leaving Houghton, Ives drove the 1,500 miles to Florida, sleeping in his car along the way, for a chance to interview at Daytona International Speedway with Brian Whitesell, now the Hendrick Motorsports team manager for Elliott and William Byron. Ives was hired as a shop mechanic with the No. 24 team of four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

Ives became a lead engineer for Jimmie Johnson when he won five straight NASCAR championships from 2006 to 2010. His first season as a crew chief was for Regan Smith at JR Motorsports in 2013. He won the Nationwide Series with Elliott in 2014. Ives was named Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief in 2015.

When NASCAR returns to racing May 17 at Darlington, Ives said he’s confident about his team’s outlook the rest of the season.

“Obviously from my side of things as a crew chief, you’re used to working all the time, you’re used to having a goal in mind and car numbers,” he said. “I’m supposed to be getting ready for this type of track and getting cars better. When they shut everything down, they couldn’t even test. You had to think of different scenarios. We are able to do that. I think we have some things kick-started to be able to make ourselves better when we do get back. It’s a lot of overall things that I’ve been trying to focus on.”

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