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Orleans Racing’s Steve Hibbard brings experience to a young team

Steve Hibbard’s experience played an integral role in the success of the Orleans Racing team in 2003. Hibbard built and supplied all of the shocks that helped lead Brendan Gaughan and his team to a fourth place finish in one of the tightest CTS championship battles in its eight year history. Since he still lives in Vermont and meets with the team on race weekends, what he and Orleans Racing have been able to accomplish is even more impressive.

Hibbard’s association with Orleans Racing began because of his previous relationship with fellow Vermont native, Shane Wilson, crew chief for the No. 62 Orleans Dodge. The two had known each other for several years, so when Wilson and Gaughan were preparing for their first Winston West Series run at Laguna Seca, Wilson turned to Hibbard for help.

“[Shane Wilson] knew that I had done a lot of road racing at Watkins Glen and Lime Rock in the Busch North Series,” said Hibbard, “and he asked me to come out and give them a hand to do that one race, and I did. Then he asked me to come out and help them with their truck program at Bakersfield and Mesa Marin, which I did, and we finished third.”

When they decided to enter the Craftsman Truck Series full-time, Wilson invited Hibbard to become the team’s shock specialist. He accepted the job.

Hibbard caught the racing bug at the age of 13. He began by helping a neighbor, who raced locally, by doing odd jobs such as sweeping and cleaning. Later, he began working in the NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series (which changed to the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series in 1998) and stayed there for approximately four to five years.

With no interest in getting behind the wheel himself, Hibbard opted to work behind the scenes. After spending several years as a crew chief in the Busch North Series and working with such NASCAR notables as Steve Park and Ricky Craven, Hibbard moved to Mooresville, North Carolina. While there, he worked for several Busch Series teams, including a short stint at Roush Racing as the crew chief for Jeff Burton.

After just a couple of years in North Carolina, Hibbard made the decision to pack up and move back home to Vermont. Leaving the crew chief work behind, he began doing shock absorber work for several drivers in series such as the Busch North and the DIRT Series, before signing on to work for Wilson and Orleans Racing.

Along with working on Gaughan’s Craftsman Truck Series team, Hibbard also led the shock program for 2003 Winston West Champion and Rookie of the Year, Scott Lynch.

With Hibbard in Vermont and the Orleans Racing organization headquartered in Las Vegas, Nevada, you might think it would make his job difficult. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. Hibbard does some of the work from home which he then sends to the team, but a lot of his work can be done at the track on race weekend.

“I’ve got a system that works pretty good,” said Hibbard. “Usually on race day my work is done, so while the guys are getting the truck through inspection, finishing off their checklists and stuff, I’m usually preparing stuff for the next race.”

Before heading to a race, Hibbard will generally prepare four sets of shocks. Once at the racetrack, it’s not uncommon for him to tear them apart and rebuild them several times in the course of a weekend.

“[I’m] trying to find some little magical edge,” said Hibbard. “Maybe we could pick up a 10th of a second and that would be the difference between first and fifth; or the difference between fifth and 10th.”

With his years of experience in stock cars, moving from cars to trucks hasn’t been as easy as he thought. The difference in the aerodynamic downforce has made it harder to make the transition, but he says the team has come a long way in that department.

“I would say that our shock program this year developed quite a bit from the first year,” said Hibbard, “because all the notes that I had were from the Busch cars and to my surprise, the trucks required different shock absorber tuning then the cars. The stuff that we do with the cars didn’t carry over as much as I had hoped.”

The statistics prove that this team has indeed come a long way since their rookie season. In 2002, Gaughan and Orleans Racing recorded just two wins and finished the season 11th in the final point standings. In 2003, Gaughan earned three poles, six victories, 18 top 10s and 14 top fives, and was leading the championship race heading into the final race of the season.

Although an engine change forced Gaughan to start the season finale from the back of the field, he wasn’t there for long. He moved through the field and was leading all of his championship competitors, when an accident on lap 33 took Gaughan out of contention for the championship and relegated him to a fourth place finish in the final standings. While the team may have been stunned by the season’s strange turn of events, Hibbard says it wasn’t devastating.

“It was pretty stunning,” said Hibbard. “I’m not sure that disappointment is the right word because we still had a great season. It’s the kind of year you dream of, so I wasn’t disappointed. I was more surprised about what happened.”

Along with his work for Orleans Racing in 2003, Hibbard has also found a little time to help out an old friend in the Busch North Series, assisting two-time Busch North Champion Brad Leighton in five races last season. Leighton earned one victory in 2003, with a win at Loudon on the same weekend that the Winston Cup guys were there.

While he may be the shock specialist, Hibbard plays more of a role with the team. On race weekends, he consults on the complete chassis set up, from springs to sway bar, and during the races he can be found consulting with the crew chief on changes that need to be made during pit stops. While he loves being a part of the race team, Hibbard has no interest in returning to the role of crew chief.

When Hibbard returns to Orleans Racing next season, he will have his work cut out for him. The 2004 CTS season will see aerodynamics changes for the trucks and the rumor is that Goodyear is bringing out a new, softer tire with more grip.

“I think between the tire and the aerodynamic,” said Hibbard, “I think all the shock guys are going to be pulling their hair out.”

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