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