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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Tim Coffeen's racing passion

by Gordon Kirby
You may have seen him changing the right front tire on Newman/Haas's cars, the tall guy who gives the all-clear wave for his driver to leave the pits. Tim Coffeen is his name and he's been with Newman/Haas for twenty-two years, save a six-month hiatus in 1995, and is the one of team's longest-serving crewman. Tim has a wealth of dedication and ability and in recent years he's become Newman/Haas's chief mechanic yet he gets little or no television time, probably because he's such a self-effacing character. So this week I'm going to embarrass Tim a little by writing about his background and great passion for the sport.

Coffeen was born in Chicago but grew up in Indianapolis. Tim has worked in racing for more than forty years and during the eighties he raced midget and sprint cars for a while, showing quite a bit of speed and talent. But he knew he didn't have the resources or skill to make it to the top and when Michael Andretti joined Newman/Haas in 1989 Tim called the team. He asked for and was given a job working on Michael's car.

Back in the sixties Coffeen was utterly besotted with racing. He was a huge fan of Indy car racing and sated his desire by racing anything with wheels from bicycles to soap-box derby cars.

"I went to school in Indianapolis at Sixteenth and Meridien and would hitch-hike out to the Speedway for tire-testing," Tim recalls. "I'd sit in grandstand E on the outside and it was pretty thrilling to watch Jim Clark, Parnelli Jones, Jim McElreath, Chuck Hulse and Bobby Marshman. It just got in my blood when I was really young.

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"I grew up three blocks from the State Fairgrounds and the Hoosier 100 was every September. There was a nice little tree in turn three I used to sit in and watch them. I remember in '64 when Mario was a rookie he was the only guy who hit me with clods of clay all day long. I was reminiscing with Mario about that one day here at the shop and one of the guys looked at me and said, 'You are really old!' And Mario looked at him and said, ''Yeah, but Timmy rode with me every lap and still does.'."

Coffeen started working part-time on Indy cars when he was in high school.

"In 1968 when they were filming 'Winning' I had just got done with my sophomore year in high school. I went out every day in May to the Speedway and snuck in the garage and hung around and pestered people. Goodyear had leased a '67 Gerhardt with a four-cam Ford engine for the movie and they needed an extra on Newman's pitcrew. Dick Offlinger taught me how to squirt gasoline into the injectors and start the engine. I worked for Offlinger in the summer of '69 and helped Rick Muther's team that year too."

In 1974 Joe Flynn, another veteran Indy car crewman, helped Coffeen get a job at Eldon Rasmussen's shop. Rasmussen raced Indy cars but spent most of his days as a master fabricator building sprint and Indy cars. While working at Rasmussen's shop Coffeen helped out on Larry McCoy's Surefine Special Indy car and also worked on Jan Opperman's sprint cars.

"I drove over to Pennsylvania in my Volkswagen bus in '74 and Jan let me hang around on his cars and help him. When he got hurt I started helping Bubby Jones in the Outlaws before it was the World of Outlaws. I went coast-to-coast from Hamburg, New York and Flemington, New Jersey to Ascot in California and Manzanita in Arizona. And when they qualified for Indianapolis the two of them both took me there to help them."

Coffeen's career in Indy car racing grew slowly but steadily.

"I worked for Goodyear busting tires for two years in '78 and '79," he recalls. "Then I worked for Gary Stanton who bought the car Mears won the Speedway with in '79 and a couple of motors from McLaren. Ronnie Shuman drove that car in 1980 and missed the show.

"Then Gary Bettenhausen called me. He had just run third in the last Offy that was a factor at the Speedway. He called and asked me to go to Milwaukee with him."

While Coffeen was at Milwaukee with Bettenhausen he was invited to go to work for Patrick Racing by engine builder Rick Wetzel, known as 'Champ'. Wetzel later worked for Rick Hendrick's NASCAR team in Charlotte before passing away after a battle with cancer.

"Rick Wetzel came up to me at Milwaukee and asked if I'd be interested in going to work at Patrick," Coffeen relates. "They needed somebody to work on Johncock's car. 'Champ' talked to George Bignotti and George called me the next week and I went over and talked to him. He said he needed a number two mechanic to work on Johncock's car. 'John-John' (Anderson) had just quit and George said he needed somebody to drive the truck. He said if you want the job you're going to work on the car until it's ready to go and then you're going to climb into the truck and drive it to the track."

During this time Coffeen started racing midgets and sprint cars. He bought his own car in 1980 and raced for ten years on the short tracks across Indiana and Ohio. He often qualified well, won some preliminary races and on one occasion made the trophy dash for the four fastest qualifiers.

"But you've got to race all the time to do it properly," Coffeen observes. "It's just like you don't come and change tires every fourth race. You do it all the time if you want to be the best at it."

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After working for Patrick Racing for a few years Coffeen joined Lee Brayton's family team which was running an Indy car for the late Scott Brayton. Tim then joined the Machinists' Union team and worked there for six years on Kevin Cogan's and Josele Garza's cars. But in 1988 he made what turned out to be a major decision in his life.

"I heard Michael (Andretti) was going to Newman/Haas in '89 and I thought he was arguably the fastest guy in '88," Coffeen relates. "Michael had a Cosworth engine in '88 and he won the pole at Milwaukee. I remember standing out on the wall watching him qualify and he was hitting the rev-limiter because he went so deep in turn one. I watched him the rest of the year with that Cosworth and I think he won the Marlboro Challenge. That was the only Cosworth victory that year.

"To me, Michael looked like he was the fastest guy out there and when they said they were going to two cars at Newman/Haas (crewmen) Alex Greaves and Joe Flynn called me. They said call the shop and tell them you want to come work here."

Coffeen moved back to Chicago, where he was born, and started working at Newman/Haas on January 1st, 1989.

"I had bought into an airplane and was having fun flying around and racing. But I wanted to win an Indy car race and I thought if I came here I had an inkling I'd be on Michael's car. Mario had all his own guys but I thought there would be a place for me on Michael's car. I wanted to win races. I was tired of hanging around. Cogan ran third at Long Beach and Josele had a great run at Michigan and finished second. But to me being a bride's maid is no fun.

"So I came here and started working for Michael and I feel that coming here was like I almost came to fruition as a human being because you have to put a lot into working for a team like this. There's a lot of discipline here and a structured way of doing things that some people can never adjust to. But it became a way of life for me and I think I grew up as a person. You had to commit yourself to doing it right and working a lot of hours."

Coffeen freely admits he feels more at home in Indianapolis than Chicago.

"I've never grown accustomed to living in Chicago. I was born here but I moved to Indianapols when I was four years old and my heart doesn't beat as fast as people in Chicago. There's money to be made in Chicago and everybody's chasing after it. But when I go to Indianapolis my heart rate slows down twenty beats a day."

Tim settled into life with Newman/Haas in Chicago and focused on winning the CART championship with Michael. Andretti and Coffeen achieved their goal in their third year of working together.

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"When I initially came here I was going to work here for one year but I found myself year after year with Michael. The goal as I grew and looked at how great CART was at the time I thought that winning the championship was the ultimate thing.

"I remember when Michael won the championship in 1991 they asked him on ESPN if he would trade the championship for an Indy win and he said, 'No'. And I feel the same way. We were third in the points the first year with a lot of painful losses that we should have won. Then we won five races in '90 and were second in the points. Then in '91 we just got on a roll and won the championship and it was great experience."

Coffeen worked on Nigel Mansell's cars for two years after Michael left Newman/Haas in 1993 to try F1 with McLaren. Mansell won the CART championship in '93 but then returned briefly to F1 at the end of '94. And of course, Mario Andretti retired at the end of 1994 after spending the last twelve years of his career with Newman/Haas.

"Anyone who's driven or had a passion for anything knows you've got to prove yourself every damn day," Coffeen remarked. "Mario never showed up at the track thinking anybody owed him anything. He knew he had to go out and earn it every day."

Amid the changed circumstances Coffeen left Newman/Haas and spent the first six months of 1995 working for Forsythe Racing before coming back to rejoin Michael at Newman/Haas for the long haul. After Michael left Newman/Haas to finish his driving career with what became Andretti-Green Racing, Coffeen worked on Cristiano da Matta's championship-winning cars. Later, during Newman/Haas's title-winning years with Sebastien Bourdais, he worked on Bruno Junqueira's cars, ultimately becoming the team's chief mechanic. Coffeen says working for Newman/Haas has been a tremendous pleasure.

"When I quit the Machnists' Union to come here at the end of '88 I wrote Andy Kenopensky a letter and told him I was leaving. The first race I saw him at he was none too happy. But he stopped me at Long Beach in April of '89 and he said, 'You know Tim, I've done business with all these car owners in this paddock and that guy that you went to work for is the one guy in this paddock that you don't need to have a signature on a piece of paper. His handshake and his word is good enough for me.'

"And that's the way Carl is. He told me years ago, 'If you have a problem, my door is always open.' To me, the pleasure has been all mine. I said at the team Christmas Party a few years ago that this place is a family and that's what it is to me. Working here has been the best part of my life and it's because of Carl and Berni Haas and Paul Newman. The pleasure has been all mine and I've just been lucky to work here. It's been a lot of hard work and heartache at times but the satisfying moments have been tremendous."

Thanks to many passionate, dedicated crewmen around the world like Tim Coffeen motor racing comes to life every weekend. I take my hat off to each and every one of them.

*For news on GM's apparent return to IndyCar in 2012 with a twin turbo Chevrolet V6 please read my blog posted today at Motor Sport's website.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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