By DAVID GREEN
It didn’t happen in Morenci. That’s not where a love for auto racing began for Jamie (Chittenden) DiPietro.
“I was never a NASCAR fan when I lived in Morenci,” she said. “I never even went to MIS for a race.”
It wasn’t at ITT Technical Institute, either. Jamie headed to Ft. Wayne, Ind., after graduation from Morenci Area High School to study electrical engineering at ITT. But not to watch an auto race.
“I went to my first race in 1985 in Daytona and was hooked,” Jamie recalls.
But this was just the beginning.
She made it to a race or two every year into the early 1990s when she was working as a CAD designer in Indiana, but she was only up to her knees in NASCAR at that time. She was soon to go waist deep.
Jamie’s future husband worked in the racing business in North Carolina—the nerve center of NASCAR—and she moved there to be closer to him. About 95 percent of the racing teams are based around Charlotte, she said.
“I tried to keep working as an engineer, but there just weren’t that many electrical engineering companies in the Charlotte area,” she said. “It’s mostly tobacco and clothing manufacturing—and racing.”
Jamie found work with an architectural firm, but she started working weekends at the track with the Buckshot Jones racing team.
“I worked for Buckshot for five years,” she said. “I spent the first three years managing his merchandising program.”
Over the next two years she served as an intermediary between the Buckshot Racing Team and its owner, Buckshot’s father Billy, who was involved in several other companies. This plunged her a little deeper into NASCAR.
She was now going to the track every weekend with the Busch Racing team and working directly with crew chief Gary Cogswell and NASCAR’s Busch Series director, John Darby.
Eventually, Buckshot’s team folded due to lack of sponsorship, but now Jamie had contacts.
She handed a résumé to Darby, who was about to earn a promotion to director of the Winston Cup Series. Of course the résumé mentioned her engineering background.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
“John thought that with my engineering background, I would be a good fit for the newly created position in the safety department as a field inspector,” she said.
Driver safety has been a concern of NASCAR officials for more than 50 years, Scott Bowman of the public relations department said, but as more and more safety efforts were put into place, the need for a full-time team of field inspectors became apparent.
For the 2002 season, Jamie was hired to serve as one of six full-time inspectors working the National Series—Winston Cup, Busch and Trucks. This year, the team grew to eight.
A year ago, she was promoted to the role of primary field inspector for the Winston Cup Series. Before the season ended, she became head of the safety team for all NASCAR events.
“Whenever we race in conjunction events with any other NASCAR series,” she said, “I’m the lead inspector for the entire weekend.”
The bulk of Jamie’s work takes place inside the garage where she looks over each vehicle before it’s allowed to race. Currently, she’s the only woman inside a NASCAR garage with the authority to make a Winston Cup Series team change its car before gaining access to the track.
First comes a visual inspection of safety systems.
“We look at the driver cockpit for areas of concern,” she explained. “We look at the tethers for the hood and rear deck lids. We make sure anything a driver can potentially hit with a part of his body in a crash is padded.
“Anything that can be contrived as a safety mechanism goes through our department.”
That includes IDRs, the incident data recorders that made their debut in auto racing last season. Information from the IDRs is helping NASCAR build a database to study how the chassis, seats, helmets, the new head and neck restraint system, etc., respond in crashes.
“The company that created the IDRs has trained us in how to read and disseminate data from the boxes,” Jamie said. “The information will be used to make recommendations and rule changes to make cars safer.”
Once an inspection is complete, Jamie’s staff begins collecting data.
“We write down every piece of safety equipment in a car, and we take a series of measurements in the driver’s compartment area.”
These measurements would be compared with those taken later if a car were involved in an accident.
Jamie’s department is also involved in the training of emergency personnel at each track. Medics, EMTs, fire staff, wrecker drivers, clean-up crew—training is scheduled at every track for these workers.
“We show them how every piece of safety equipment in a car works and the quickest and easiest way to disconnect it to get a driver out,” she said.
Jamie told a reporter from the Daytona Beach News-Journal that she doesn’t consider herself a ground breaker as the rare woman in the garage, although she likes the idea of serving in that role.
She’s just doing her job, she says, and maybe that will open the door for other women to follow.
She’s certainly become a familiar face wherever the Winston Cup circuit travels. As chief inspector, she’s on the job at every stop on the 38-race schedule.
It’s an enormous change from her days in Morenci and at ITT when she never gave a second thought to auto racing.
You might say that Jamie DiPietro is now about neck deep in NASCAR.- April 2, 2003