NWSMT • September 13, 2013
By Travis Barrett, Special to NASCAR Home Tracks
The typical path from the northeast to North Carolina runs like this: Teenager starts racing stock cars at a local track, decides he wants racing to be a full-time vocation, takes a job at whatever race shop will hire him, and - if he's good enough - he'll stick around and climb the ladder and maybe work as a crew chief or a car chief or something in one of NASCAR's national series.
Meet Gary Putnam, who headed from Connecticut to North Carolina as a young man 18 years ago, and traveled that same road. Only backwards.
"I keep telling everybody, these are the easiest cars to drive," said Putnam, now in just his second full season on the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour. "Just from all the experience I have, I've learned the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things. I've absorbed quite a bit of it."
Putnam didn't move south to try and drive race cars for a living. He took a job prior to the 1996 season as a tire guy for a Cup team, eventually landing his first crew chief job in that series with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2002. He's since served as crew chief for Travis Kvapil before Cal Wells shut down the No. 32 team, and for Joe Nemechek's NASCAR Nationwide Series team.
In 2006, he went to Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and became the car chief on the No. 1 car for Martin Truex Jr. - working alongside fellow New England natives Kevin "Bono" Manion and Mike Greci. He's been there ever since, through the merger with Ganassi Racing, and he worked as the car chief for Jamie McMurray until getting off the road full-time and becoming the shop foreman for the team for the last two seasons.
Getting off the road gave Putnam a chance to scratch an old itch - giving life as a driver a try for the very first time at the ripe old age of 40.
"It's been a lifelong dream of mine to drive a Modified," said Putnam, now 43, who got his first racing job working on the crew for Connecticut fixture Charlie Pasteryak. "Growing up around it, I've always been a big fan of it. Back in my second year at DEI - Bono and I really good friends - and we decided to buy a Modified together. Even before we bought it, we always went to Loudon a day early to hang around the Whelen Modified Tour garage and meet up with some of our old friends.
"Decided to go buy one and race it at those two races."
Manion and Putnam put J.J. Yeley and, most notably, Ryan Newman in their car for the races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and during the annual February World Series at New Smyrna Speedway in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. They eventually bought a second car - "just to have enough cars around" - as they expanded their efforts to include the Tour races at Bristol Motor Speedway.
That second car came from decorated championship-winning car owner Bob Garbarino in Connecticut, and the plan was to simply store it in Putnam's own shop.
"It ended up at my house, and I ended up working on it quite a bit, and then eventually it was, 'I think I'm going to drive this,'" Putnam said. "I went to Caraway (to test) and turned the track, and the idea was really, 'Let's go see if I can do this.' As a kid, the only experience I had was in go-karts, but it evolved from there. I was still on the road at the time (as a car chief at Ganassi), so I ran it at New Smyrna a couple of nights and then had to pick and choose. Whatever weekend I could race, I did.
"I wasn't scared by it at all. I had quite a thrill driving it. Progressively, I've gotten better."
The statistics bear that out. After making only a handful of starts in 2010 and 2011 - his first competitive laps in a race car since go-karting as a child - Putnam joined the Whelen Southern Modified Tour full-time in 2012. This season, through 10 races, Putnam sits eighth in the standings with only one finish outside the top 10.
Finding that kind of consistency, which featured his first career top-five finish in July at Caraway, has been a big step for Putnam.
"What I've found now, with three or four years under my belt, is that it's easy to get close - within half a second of the fast cars - but it's a lot harder to get that last half a second," Putnam said. "This year, I've really concentrated on having to finish races and keeping yourself out of trouble. Last year, I was more of a bull in a china shop, and if there was a chance to stick my nose in a place, I did.
"Consistency has a lot to do with preparation. That alone takes quite a bit of the time. Even coming through a race unscathed, you pretty much have a full week in the shop ahead of you."
But that's where Putnam has been able to accelerate his learning curve. Preparing race cars has always been his forte, and now he's putting that knowledge and experience to good use.
Not only has he made a living out of building and preparing Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series vehicles, he's always had the good fortune of working with some pretty talented drivers.
"Being around top-notch drivers for so long, you get an understanding of what they feel and what you can do on the race car to fix their feel," Putnam said. "It's not just handling - but brakes, steering, being able to drive the car - I think that helped me adapt a little bit better and quicker to actually make it comfortable to drive when I finally got in it."
Doing so much of the work on the Modified himself and then having the reward of being the one to chauffeur the car around places like Caraway, Bristol, Thompson Speedway, South Boston Speedway and others has kept his Tour efforts from feeling vastly different from his day job.
In a sport where drivers tend to have the rewards of their on-track performances and crew chiefs have the reward of feeling a job well-done when their driver posts a good finish, Putnam is an ever-increasing anomaly. He gets to enjoy the best of both worlds.
When Putnam runs well, it's doubly satisfying.
"Every time I get in it, I find success," Putnam said. "To get in it, to be able to start it and get it to roll around the race track is a success. That alone is a pretty big feat, and being able to finish races, too. You always want to do better. So far this year, I've met every kind of goal that I've put forth for myself.
"I felt that I had a good enough handle on the mechanics of the car and the car itself, that I should be able to finish in the Top 10 in every race - even with the lack of experience I have. I've pretty much been able to do that. This past Caraway race was the best I've qualified ever, and that's been my biggest hurdle. It's all about being able to find that edge and knowing how far I can push it."
It may be the road less traveled, but so far for Putnam, it was a road worth taking.
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