Gray Motorsports crew chief Dave Connolly had an opportunity to test his mettle in the 2017 season of NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series as both coach and crew chief for young Tanner Gray. Third-generation driver Gray made his debut last year in the ultra-competitive Pro Stock class, and his immediately evident capabilities behind the wheel were complemented neatly by Connolly’s effective efforts.
No stranger to Pro Stock, Connolly himself owns 26 hard-fought trophies as a driver and finished No. 3 in the standings on four separate occasions. He also took a turn behind the wheel of Bob Vandergriff’s Top Fuel dragster before that operation was shuttered early in 2016, and in the nitro class he reached the final round three times.
“It’s crazy, but it’s almost more gratifying to stand behind the car,” says Connolly. “I think it’s because there is just so much more work involved in the crew chief role. It’s more mentally challenging for me. Driving doesn’t necessarily come more natural, but I was born and raised behind the steering wheel. I worked hard at being a good driver, but there are so many more elements that go into crew chiefing. I miss driving, absolutely, but to win as a crew chief is very rewarding.”
There were plenty of rewarding moments for Connolly as he worked alongside Gray in his first season of Pro Stock, and the satisfaction continued through the first part of 2018 as the duo continued as top contenders.
Gray got his bearings as a driver early in his first year with the big dogs, and four races in, he scored his first NHRA Wally trophy in the Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. Overall for 2017, the now 19-year-old won five events in seven final rounds, ultimately finishing No. 4 in the nation and walking away with Rookie of the Year honors as the Auto Club Road the Future Award winner.
Despite the collective success of the Gray Motorsports team, Connolly felt that at the conclusion of the season, they had unfinished business.
“I’ve been racing some time and haven’t got a championship yet, so obviously, that weighs on you,” he admits. “I thought we had a good shot at it last year, and Tanner did a great job behind the wheel. We won the first race of the Countdown, and then we just hit a slump. Unfortunately, in all of motorsports, everything comes and goes in circles. We hit our stride a little too soon, I think.”
That stride included seven consecutive victories for the Gray Motorsports camp: four for teammate Drew Skillman and three for Gray between Chicago and Charlotte, the first race of the Countdown to the Championship.
“Tanner came back and was runner-up in Pomona to end the year. We just stumbled at the wrong time, for sure,” Connolly says. “This year, I’m taking everything that happened and learning from it. I’ll put Tanner up against anybody on the starting line, and if I do my job, we definitely have a shot. If it works out or doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of effort.”
Connolly’s role of crew chief was born from necessity in 2009, when he was tapped as driver for four races with IDG under the Cagnazzi Racing umbrella.
“I’d always been hands-on with my car, and I learned a lot from [former crew chief] Tommy Utt over the years,” says Connolly. “Rather than hire a crew chief, I said I would just crew chief my own car.”
Success in the role came quickly as Connolly won the NHRA race at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading in just his second race as driver/crew chief. The successful stint earned an invitation to crew chief for Erica Enders in 2010.
“There was a huge, huge learning curve [in becoming a crew chief],” Connolly admits. “You learn to appreciate things from a different perspective. It didn’t happen often, but I might have butted heads with Tommy Utt a few times over the years. Now I can understand what it was like from his point of view.”
As for his relationship with Gray, there is almost a familial element. Connolly joined the team as a driver in 2014, when Cagnazzi Racing and Gray Motorsports joined forces.
“It’s kind of funny to think about how long I’ve known Tanner,” Connolly says. “A little while ago, a picture of us popped up from 2014, and he looked like a baby. That was only four years ago and look where we are now. He’s gone from hanging around the pits when I was driving to me watching him develop as a driver. It’s pretty special.”