Strong work ethic carries Ives

ESCANABA – Whether he was working at Teal’s Tree Farms in Bark River, or for one of the premier teams in NASCAR – Hendrick Motorsports, one thing has remained constant for Bark River native Greg Ives.

His commitment to a strong work ethic.

Hard work continues to pay dividends in Ives’ career, as it was announced Wednesday that he would be taking over as the new crew chief for NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., in 2015.

“Whenever you come from a small town and you want to be successful, you know in order to set yourself apart and to have success, you’re going to have to work hard,” Ives said. “I think that’s one thing my family and my dad and my mom have instilled in me. Whatever we did, we made sure we worked hard at it. Nothing was handed to us.”

With Earnhardt’s current crew chief, Steve Letarte, set to be moving to an analyst role with NBC Sports next year, Ives will take control of the No. 88 Chevrolet team.

In 2013, Ives began his career as a crew chief, teaming up with Reagan Smith, in JR Motorsports. He and Smith went on to win two races that year, to give JR Motorsports its first multi-win season since 2009.

This season, Ives has been the crew chief for Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series. Elliott and Ives have collected three wins so far this year, and currently sit atop the Nationwide Series points standings.

With a year and a half of a solid resume, team owner Rick Hendrick was impressed enough to offer Ives the job to team up with Earnhardt.

“There was talk of me about it, and at the time, I was paired up with Chase Elliott,” Ives said about potentially replacing Letarte. “Over the course of the next five months, they talked, they watched how I worked with Chase to assemble a team and bring JR Motorsports even more success. I think it was kind of more like, not like a on-the-job interview, but that’s kind of the way that it worked out.

“Last Wednesday, Mr. Hendrick gave me a call and we talked on the phone for awhile about what the potential plan was going to be, as far as moving to the No. 88 car as the crew chief. I ended up accepting that offer.”

For Ives, landing a crew chief position for one of NASCAR’s top teams, and one of its top drivers on the circuit, it’s a culmination of everything he has built in his career, to this point. The dream of a career in racing has remained the same, but it became a reality when early on, he decided to pursue a different role within the sport of racing.

Initially, Ives had ambitions of being a driver, but after seeing how difficult it could be to break through, he discovered another way to have an advantage on the track.

“The times that I drove, people would ask me ‘Why didn’t you try to be a driver?'” Ives said. “I was a realist, I saw that people could drive better than I could and they beat me and they won races and I didn’t, but the one way that I could be different, is I could be smarter than they were. I may not be able to pursue a career as a driver because I was OK, but I wasn’t great. What’s the next thing? I can pursue myself as a guy who understands the race car, who’s been a part of it, and who’s able to change his avenue or goal to meet another thing he wants to accomplish.

“I feel like I still accomplished my dream of working and being a part of racing, I’m just doing it a little bit different than a race car driver.”

After graduating from Michigan Tech University in December of 2003, Ives had three interviews with Hendrick Motorsports in a four-month span. While he waited to hear back, he spent time working at his father’s shop and working around the area for UPS. Eventually in 2004, he got the call and took a position within Hendrick’s as a post-race mechanic, where he was in charge of pulling motors out, taking out suspensions, and washing and cleaning the cars.

“Not that I didn’t feel like I was good enough, I just felt like it was going to be harder to get the opportunity if I didn’t do something out of the ordinary, something different,” Ives said. “My background of having raced cars and then getting my engineering degree, kind of set me apart from a lot of individuals, a lot of resumes. That eventually got me into Hendrick Motorsports.”

In 2005, Ives joined Jeff Gordon’s team as a setup engineer, and in 2006-2012, he was a team engineer for Jimmie Johnson, where Johnson managed to win five straight championships.

Once Ives had success with the No. 48 team, he began to have the urge to take the next step in his career.

“In the middle of 2012 I expressed interest in trying to pursue my career further in the engineering side. Whether it be crew chief, or director of engineering, or something like that,” Ives said. “The idea that they came up with was to go over to JR Motorsports, and try to connect Hendrick Motorsports back together again with JR Motorsports, and kind of get my feet wet as a crew chief and then they can kind of evaluate and see how I’m doing. If I’m not benefitting the company and making them better in my role as a crew chief, then they try to find something else. But over the last two years, we’ve been able to have some success at JR Motorsports, not obviously because of myself. But a lot of the people that have surrounded us over there and made us better and then the connection back to Hendrick Motorsports.”

While working at JR Motorsports, Ives was able to develop a connection with Earnhardt. However, the communication between the two wasn’t jumpstarted by something on the track, or even about racing at all.

“It didn’t really start with racing or us at the race track, or as a driver-engineer thing. It was more or less out of fun,” Ives said about his friendship with Earnhardt. “We were playing Fantasy Football and he was going up against me and there was a little smack talk going on. We started conversing from there.

“He knew my personality at the track was very determined, very focused, and kind of the quiet guy who sits in the corner and tries to make the car go fast. When we were able to experience that, he saw the lighter side of me, and saw that I was outgoing and able to have fun at each other’s expense without feeling like we were feeling intimidated.”

For a small-town person about to become the crew chief for someone with the last name Earnhardt, Ives does not seem be phased by the spotlight that’s about to be on him, every weekend.

“As far as taking on the job for the most popular driver, people ask me if I’m nervous or what not,” Ives said. “But my nerves have nothing to do with who’s driving the car. My nerves come from whether I have a job for Reagan Smith, Chase Elliot, Jimmie Johnson, all those guys I worked for. And for me, it’s trying to give 100-percent my best that day. To be able to provide the best race car possible so they can show their talents and win races. No matter if it’s a rookie driver at 18, or Dale Jr. the most popular driver, my goals are the same to go out there and win races and be competitive.”

(Bryce DeRouin is a sports writer for the Escanaba Daily Press)