Ultimately, the qualities that create a dynasty can help destroy it. Ask L.A. Lakers fans, who watched players revolt against Pat Riley after the coach won four championships. Gaudy rings and end-of-season parades simply were no longer worth the emotional strain the team’s leader heaped upon his charges.
SPEED’s timing in airing pre-race vignettes was never more perfect than Sunday, when Chad Knaus admitted that a lot of people have no interest in working for the No. 48 team because they want no part of the demands. For all the saccharin-laced narratives about Hendrick Motorsports being a family, the truth is that Knaus runs NASCAR’s version of Hell’s Kitchen. On Sunday Gordon Ramsay’s ruthless ways had nothing on Knaus, who replaced his over-the-wall crew with Jeff Gordon’s after the No. 24′s tangle with Jeff Burton.
Although Jimmie Johnson shows up for races looking like he’s going to star in a Grizzly Adams remake, Knaus dresses down crewmen for having one whisker out of place. The lesson is attention to detail: If you put everything you have into mastering a Gillette, imagine what you’ll do with that air gun screwing on lug nuts.
That works for awhile. But even in the military there are stages of indoctrination. Initially the drill sergeant micromanages every second of the day, but in time enlistees are given the opportunity to handle their duties more independently.
Knaus, like Riley, has won four championships with his team. But like Riley, no matter how many trophies get hoisted, basic training never ends. Just about anybody in this scenario will eventually crack, and when they do the damage to the boss/employee relationship is irreparable. The underlings will either (a) start to make mistakes because their nerves are so frayed from wanting to please their master, or (b) tune out their boss because they’ve heard the spiel too many times for it to motivate.
We’re getting to this point with Knaus. Remember, this isn’t basketball or baseball. In those sports the players make a heck of a lot more than the coach, so they’re willing to put up with a lot more. But Sunday, regular joes who helped make Knaus a multimillionaire were humiliated on national television–by Knaus. According to the ESPN broadcast one of the discarded crewmen packed up and left. He came back later, but the damage had been done.
All of this is happening at a time when manufacturers are opening up the pursestrings again. There’s money out there, and Knaus could get his own team financed much the same way Dodge underwrote another legendary Hendrick crew chief, Ray Evernham. Evernham was smart enough to leave before it got ugly, a lesson Knaus should heed.
Obviously, it’s too late to start a team now. Knaus needs to take a year-long respite in the TV booth while he forms his own organization. With a little distance, maybe he could find the role of mentor instead of maniac, much the way Rick Hendrick calmly guides his company.
Who cares if Knaus signed a new contract earlier this year? Those get discarded in NASCAR more quickly than flat-spotted Goodyears. If he stays atop the pit box too long and these implosions continue, those who would readily bankroll him might have second thoughts.
If Knaus wins title No. 5, he should consider himself lucky that his mentally exhausted crew held on just long enough to get them to the end. If he falls short, he should see it as a sign of things to come.
Either way, Knaus won’t leave. But he should.