Chad Knaus is the most talented and driven pit crew chief in the history of NASCAR. No kidding, and I know a little bit about racing. He’s the first crew chief in NASCAR history to win four consecutive NASCAR championships with his current driver, Jimmie Johnson. He’s worked with Daryl Waltrip and Jeff Gordon, and was actually a part of the original Rainbow Warrior crew. He’s been involved in racing with his dad, John Knaus, since before he was legally able to drive. Simply put, he knows cars, power and speed.
What was your first car?
My first car that I ever owned was a 1972 Rally Sport Z28 Camaro, and that was a long, longtime ago. It was cool. I bought it beat up and junked, and worked on it and tried to get it going, but it all did not work out quite the way I wanted it to. After that, I had a Chevrolet Blazer, then a handful of other cars. I had a couple other Camaros, including a Camaro SS and just some things like that.
I was curious, with that inauspicious beginning, how he got to where he is and, with success and a life immersed in cars, what his tastes are now.
What do you drive now?
Currently, my daily drive is a Chevrolet Tahoe. I drive it every single day, but one of my favorite cars is a 2007 Corvette Z06.1 have a BMW M5, which I love. It is a very cool car. I have a 2003 C4S Porsche Carrera; I have a Silverado pickup truck; and I have four motorcycles, so I have all kinds of stuff.
A good variety.
Yes. I also have a 1966 Chevy Nova. I bought it last year. My father actually built it when I was about 14 years young. Then he sold it, and the guy that bought it from my father approached me last year and asked me if I wanted to buy it back.
Tell me about your classic Camaro that you just treated yourself to.
It is a second-generation Z28, which is what my first car was, and I always wanted to get another one. It’s a great car to drive and it is currently a great project that I love a lot.
How did you acquire it?
I actually got it from Mr. Hendrick. He started the Hendrick Performance Group. It is on-site, here, so we have a lot of very skilled race car mechanics and fabricators that are working on these cars. Rick located the car and the guys here at HMS have done some engine and electronic work to it. So it has turned out to be an awesome ride.
How much money do you think Mr. Hendrick made off of you on the Camaro? (LAUGHS)
He may not have made a lot of money off of me for the Camaro, but in other areas, he makes plenty of money off of me! (LAUGHS)
What kinds of work do you suppose has been done to the Camaro up to this point since Mr. Hendrick acquired it?
It has a different engine in it than it did when it was factory, so it is putting out additional horsepower over what it did with the original 350. There is not a whole lot that has been done to it from a performance standpoint, from the original stock equipment. We want to make sure to keep it as stock as possible with the appearance, but we are going through it to make sure that it is running right, and that the engine is up to par and that all of the running gear is correct. We are also going through it to fine tune it, which will make a huge difference with a car like this.
What is your favorite color combination with cars?
I think it is hard to argue with black. When black is clean, it is nice. Blue and silvers are also nice; silver on black is nice. My BMW is silver; my Porsche is blue. I am not a big red fan. I do not like a lot of red.
How fast have you driven in a street car?
Probably, on a street, 145 to 150 miles an hour. I have had my Z06 up to 150 miles an hour when I was driving to Rockingham one day. I have been faster on two wheels. I have gone 174 on my GSXR.
Have you had any bad accidents dating back to the get-go?
I have had some accidents, that is for sure. I had an allblack 1997 Camaro SS that was really nice, and I was driving home here from work at Hendrick Motorsports one day. A Volvo stopped in front of me as I was coming along a bend a little too fast. I had to go down into a ditch to avoid him, and called the tow truck and all of that cool stuff.
This seems like a very silly question, but to be fair to all, I have to ask it. Can you drive a stick?
What age did you learn how to drive?
Young – probably 12 to 13 years old. My grandfather used to take me out to drive through the hills and the apples orchards in Wisconsin where I grew up, so it was hilly and wavy roads…we used to go out there and drive around a little bit. It was a lot of fun.
Do you prefer cars or trucks?
It depends on the day; it depends on what I am doing. If I am going out to dinner or something like that, I would probably rather drive a car. But just driving to work every day, I choose to drive my Tahoe. I like them both, I really do. I think that a truck definitely serves a purpose – to haul my motorcycles and trailers around – so it all really depends on the situation.
When your career took off, did you find that you were ever influenced by someone else’s car?
Interesting that he differentiates the two automatically. To Chad, there’s work cars, cars that fly and must be kept running with unbelievable efficiency, and there are those other cars – the ones you take out on a Saturday night.
I can remember when I started here at Hendrick, one of my biggest motivators was when we won the championship with the 24 car and Ray Evernham was the crew chief at the time. Mr. Hendrick gave him a bright red Acura NSX, which is a beautiful car. So that was one of my motivating factors in my life – to be that successful, so that I could get those perks.
If the Z06 is not your ultimate dream car, then what would it be?
I have always wanted an Aston Martin DB9 because I think they look really cool. Obviously, when you start to get into exotics like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, they are second to none. They are pretty awesome pieces of equipment. So I have not gotten my dream car yet…once I figure out what it is, I will. I am a car guy. I love cars, so there are not a lot that I do not enjoy. I do think that if you are going to go into exotics, then it would have to be the Lamborghini Gallardo.
Hmmm…Chad in a James Bond-type vehicle. I don’t know. It doesn’t quite seem to fit, but…I’m betting that this question can only be answered one way, and perhaps lead to some interesting, maybe even humorous, stories.
Do you get pulled over a bunch?
I used to a lot, oh my, a lot. One time I got nine tickets in one year. That was really bad, but now I am usually good for one speeding ticket a year. So, nine is my record.
What is the craziest thing that you have ever done in a car?
On what level? ‘CHUCKLES. I do not know. Ummm. Not that I think it is a good thing, but when I was young, I would run from the cops and stuff like that.
Wow, not what I was looking for, but that deserved a follow- up or two, for sure.
Run from the cops?
What were you doing?
We used to get together as kids and we would all kind of park and hang out, just like kids do. As the night progresses, we would start drag racing and doing things like that on the back streets. Cops would find our new spot about every two weeks, so we would have to split and get away.
Have you ever hit an animal while driving?
I had a buzzard fly into my Tahoe as I was driving down the road to the airport. There was some type of road-kill on the road and I see this big bird coming in with approximately a six-foot wingspan. I could see it flying down towards me, then I saw the piece of road-kill on the road, then figured out that it was trying to get to it. The buzzard flies right into the door of my Tahoe and scared the *&%*%* out of me. My girlfriend at the time was in the passenger’s seat screaming. It was bizarre.
What kind of damage did it do?
Thankfully, it did not do any damage; it made a heck of a noise.
Do you have any favorite road trips?
We were actually racing, so we had to drive from Birmingham, Alabama, to Phoenix, Arizona, which was an incredibly excruciating drive, as you can imagine. And I was young; I was 18. It was three people, nonstop driving all the way across the United States. It was pretty intense, and I remember we were going down the road and it was my turn to drive. You know those little road aspirin pills, like No Doze type pills. The guy that I was riding with said, ‘Here, take a couple of these and they will help keep you up through the night.’ I told him I would take some in a little bit and I remember looking at the bottle and, as I was driving, I read the bottle wrong. Being young and not really understanding the dosage, it said to take so many milligrams per 10 pounds of body weight, so I ended up taking, like, 10 of them. I was wired for two days straight. I was a wreck. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck, but I drove all the way across Texas by myself – from one end to the other.
What kind of music do you listen to when you are driving?
Oh my. I have every type of music that you can think of. It really depends. Like, if I am driving the Corvette, you obviously want to have something that is a little more upbeat, like a hard rock and roll, to a heavy metal, to a rap. If I am driving my BMW, I listen to Ray Charles, Michael Buble. If you looked at my iPod, you would be shocked, as I listen to everything…Hall and Oates, James Brown, Journey.
Variety keeps it interesting.
That is what they say.
If you could describe the perfect woman as a certain type of car, what type of car would she be?
I think you would have to go back to the early years, because I think you would want something that is delicate, curvy, smooth lines and fast all at the same time. You are going to have to look at late-’50s Corvettes or ’50s and ’60s Jaguars, ’50s Ferraris. It would be easy to say a new Ferrari or a Lamborghini Gallardo, but I think I would personally have something a bit more elegant.
Even though you mentioned elegant and curvy, you did make reference to all cars that have horsepower and tend to be fast. So, does she have to be fast and a multi-tasker?
Yes, to a degree. Nothing wrong with a little cross- training! I like fast cars, yes I do, but I also like beautiful cars, so I think that you have to be able to dress it up and take it for a night on the town!
You obviously won your fourth straight championship last season <2009), so where do you see yourself in, let’s say, five years?
You know, I think in five years my crew chief years will probably be winding down pretty dramatically.
Why do you say that?
It is very taxing to live this lifestyle as a crew chief; it is like living in dog years. You sacrifice so much in life in order to fully commit to work. You sacrifice friends, family, relationships. It is something that, if you are going to try and operate at the full level of being a crew chief, you just do not have time for a lot of other things in life. I do not want to go the rest of my life and not have a family and close friends and enjoy weekends off. I want to do things that other people do, like watch races on Sundays, as that might be kinda fun! I think that, once we get to the five- to six-year area, when I get up into my 40s, I think that I am going to be ready to slow down a little bit.
When I met Chad, I realized that I was in awe. He is, simply put, a living NASCAR legend. When you race, your car is your universe. It’s what separates you from the pack. The crew chief Is In charge of making your universe run at optimum efficiency, under hellish circumstances. Chad Knaus has done this better than anyone else on the planet. He is a very, very intense, in-your-face pit crew chief. Always go, go, go, and also a witty and clever guy – a workaholic for certain – but a genuine good ol’ guy.