When NASCAR driver Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500, the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing”, last month, he celebrated the momentous victory with a joyous belly slide in the grass with his No. 3 Richard Childress crew members.
Included among the dozen or so crew members that, for a moment, made kids out of grown men, was a born-and-raised Alaskan who has made it to the big time.
Meet Seth Chavka, one of the rare Alaskans who have made a career in the southern-dominated sport of NASCAR. Chavka has 113 race starts in just over three years as a lead engineer in the Monster Energy Cup series, the top level of stock car racing in America.
But the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 was the biggest day of his career.
“It’s huge,” Chavka said in a recent interview. “It’s the Super Bowl, it has so much history behind it. You go down to Daytona and you know how long they’ve been racing down there.”
Chavka grew up on the Kenai Peninsula and graduated from Soldotna High School in 2003. The 33-year-old now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, near the hub of NASCAR with his wife, Christina, and can claim two wins on his career resume in the Cup series, both considered crown jewel events — the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, last May, and Daytona this year.
Unlike most professional sports leagues, stock car racing’s biggest event is the first race of the year. The Daytona 500, the crown jewel of NASCAR, is a 500-mile test of man and machine that sees 40 or so of the world’s best stock car drivers duke it out at nearly 200 mph on the high banks of sunny Florida’s Daytona International Speedway. The event is a welcome relief for race fans that have endured three months of racing-less winter, and it sends the lucky winner to the annals of NASCAR legend and lore.
An office that is always moving
As the lead race engineer on the No. 3 Chevrolet that 27-year-old Austin Dillon pilots each week, Chavka’s duties are paramount to the success of the team. In the week leading up to a race weekend, Chavka puts together a race plan that he supplies to the team’s crew chief, essentially the overseer of the entire operation. Chavka runs simulations by looking back on past race strategies, driver notes and car setups. He then preps the car for the weekend.
Monday is spent assessing the previous race and preparing for the next, while Tuesday is an off day at home. Come Wednesday, it’s back to the shop in North Carolina, owned by team owner Richard Childress, a NASCAR Hall of Famer. Once the car is prepped, it leaves Wednesday night. Chavka and the rest of the crew leaves Thursday, and their race weekend begins Friday morning.
Chavka operates with the rest of the engineering crew out of a small space in the team hauler, which makes its way across the country each week for the races. The No. 3 team hauler has a small office area where the race engineers spend hours poring over data to maximize their success in a race, and Chavka makes the hours count.
“I always tell people the weirdest part of my job is I travel nine months of the year … and my office is always moving,” Chavka said.
During the actual race, usually held Sunday afternoon, Chavka sits atop a pit box with the crew chief and two other engineers, each staying attentive to computer screens that track car performance and lap times, which are used to help create theoretical outcomes of the race.
Chavka also spends countless hours throughout the year in the wind tunnel and at tracks testing new cars. In a hypercompetitive sport like NASCAR, hundredths of a second can spell the difference between winning and finishing 10th. Chavka makes sure the cars are finely tuned to the best aerodynamic settings.
One area Chavka has a lot of influence in is the shocks and springs that make up the suspension of the car.
Mechanix Illustrated, not ‘Moby Dick’
The oldest of four siblings, Seth grew up in Alaska with a bright future in cars and engines that his parents, Chuck and Jane Chavka, foresaw.
“He read every technical magazine from Mechanix Illustrated to Popular Science, cover to cover, and have it down,” Chuck said. “In school, he was supposed to read ‘Moby Dick,’ and for him it was like, ‘Who wants to read about a whale?’
“But he could recite almost verbatim stuff from a mechanical magazine.”
Chuck and Jane Chavka are both longtime school teachers. Chuck is in his 43rd year of teaching while Jane is retired. After 25 years in Alaska, both made the decision to move the family to Hickory, North Carolina, in 2003 to help Seth’s career really take off. Seth attended North Carolina State University, while his sister also attended a North Carolina college.
The Chavkas lived in Kasilof until Seth was in sixth grade, when they decided to move closer to town and school. Prior to Seth being born, his mother moved to Alaska in 1978, where she met Chuck two years later. Both lived in several small communities farther north before settling on the peninsula in 1983, where Chuck took up teaching at Tustumena, Mountain View and the old Kenai elementary schools. Chuck also spent a year teaching photography at Kenai Central High School in 1984.
In high school, both Chavkas described Seth as a mechanical mastermind, with cars always on the mind.
“He spent a lot of time tinkering in his friend’s grandfather’s garage,” Jane said.
“I’ve stepped on many a LEGO in the middle of the night,” Chuck added with a chuckle.
Finding the Formula SAE for success
In the summer between junior and senior years at SoHi, the family stumbled on the opportunity to get Seth an inside look at the world of motorsports engineering. Chavka was already involved in robotics competitions in high school, but was needing another outlet to expand his horizons.
It came in the form of Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers), a collegiate design competition, as a brochure from NC State pinged his interest in attending college down south. Chavka ended up spending several weeks on campus and fell in love with the place.
“He went down there and didn’t want to come home,” Jane said. “He was totally enthralled with everything.”
Formula SAE, the benchmark for auto engineering in the nation, provided Chavka some hands-on experience in the real world.
“I knew I wanted to do something where I could learn engineering and apply it at the same time,” Seth said. “I pretty much owe everything to that.”
From there, Chavka dove headfirst into the world of motorsports engineering. It was also ther e that he met and got to work with Justin Alexander, the current crew chief of the No. 3 Chevy. Chavka and Alexander’s friendship blossomed into the working relationship it is today.
The opportunity eventually led to Chavka’s hiring at a race shop company named JRI Shocks, where he initially worked as an intern while he finished up his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at NC State.
Breaking into NASCAR
Chavka got his big break into the world of NASCAR in 2011 with a Camping World Truck series team. The NASCAR Truck series is essentially the third-tier level of racing in the sport, and features Chevy Silverados, Ford F-150s and Toyota Tundras as race vehicles.
Chavka worked for half a season with a truck team owned by NASCAR star Kevin Harvick, then was moved to the second-tier Nationwide Series (now Xfinity Series) to work on a Harvick-owned team with driver Elliott Sadler. Chavka’s new team came close to winning the series championship, but ultimately finished second in points.
The 2012 season brought changes as Chavka was moved to a different team car, the No. 33 ride, which had a various lineup of drivers piloting the car.
Midway through that season, however, Chavka was moved back to the car driven by Sadler, where he got his first career win as an engineer at Chicagoland Speedway in July. Chavka picked up his second win just two weeks later in Iowa, and the team again finished second in the championship standings.
After spending 2013 with the No. 2 Nationwide team, Chavka earned a general engineering position at the Richard Childress Racing Cup shop, providing “whatever support they needed.”
“It was incredible,” he said. “They were a really cool group of guys.”
Winning big, on fumes
Chavka reached the big time, the Monster Energy Cup Series, in 2015, working on Dillon’s car. Now in his fourth year with the No. 3 Cup team, Chavka is nearing the pinnacle of his career.
The first major success came last Memorial Day weekend, when the No. 3 crew picked up its first career win at the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the year in NASCAR.
“It was a big win on our home track,” Chavka said.
The race was Alexander’s first, and as close buddies, Chavka said he had everything as prepared as possible. After three hours of racing, the finish came down to fuel mileage.
“We weren’t the fastest car, but we were a tenth or two better (per lap) on fuel mileage than the leaders,” he recalled. “The caution came out at just the right time where we thought we could stretch it.”
While the fastest cars of the day took off on a restart following a caution flag period with 67 laps to go, Chavka and the No. 3 crew began crunching the numbers. If Dillon could begin saving fuel under green flag racing, it was possible the car could make it to the finish without having to stop for gas. By lifting off the throttle earlier entering the banked corners and being very conservative on the gas pedal, Dillon could save a small amount of fuel each lap, and therefore stretch his final run.
“At that point, you start making a list of pros and cons,” Chavka said. “How much more fuel do we have to save? In this case, we had to back up our corner about 200 to 300 feet for like 50 laps.
“You’ve gotta start saving fuel to go the distance after 10 laps or so on the restart.”
The leaders began peeling onto pit road for fuel with just over 30 laps to go, leaving fellow Chevy driver Jimmie Johnson in the lead and Dillon lurking behind in second. From what they knew, the No. 3 team believed Johnson did not have enough gas to make it to the finish.
Still, Dillon trailed as the two drivers crossed the line with two laps to go. It was at that point that Dillon was told to flip the switch and go after the No. 48 car of Johnson.
“We had a little reserve (fuel) tank in the car, and we were catching the 48 with five laps to go,” Chavka said. “The plan was with two to go, flip the switch and use that box.”
Almost as soon as Dillon flipped the switch, Johnson’s car ran dry, handing the lead to Dillon. The No. 3 team immediately instructed Dillon to conserve fuel yet again, and it lasted just far enough for the No. 3 car to take the checkered flag in first place.
“The crazy thing is our car ran out of fuel pressure off turn 4,” Chavka said.
As a home track to most teams, Chavka said the victory celebration lasted long into the night.
“It was awesome,” Chavka recalled. “I think we left at around 3 a.m. I think we watched the sun come up at Austin’s house.”
Reaching top of racing at Daytona
As big as getting that first career win was, the Daytona 500 victory was even bigger. The weeklong schedule of events started with the exhibition race, The Clash, on Feb. 11, which features the previous year’s pole winning cars — each team that qualified first at least once during the year.
Chavka said Alexander fell ill during the first weekend, and since The Clash race lineup was set by random draw, Chavka would be the one to draw the team’s starting position, and luckily, he drew the first place spot. In an interesting twist, Dillon’s Clash car was the same race car that won the pole for the 2014 Daytona 500 as a rookie.
In a shorter qualifying race on the Thursday before the Daytona 500, Dillon was involved in a crash, although he nearly made it through unscathed. Since the repair job couldn’t fix the alignment issue on the front end of the car, the No. 3 team decided they would run The Clash car that finished fifth a few days earlier.
In the big race itself Sunday, Dillon ran conservatively and stayed out of trouble while several multicar wrecks eliminated many of the day’s fastest drivers.
In the closing stages of the 500, Chavka worked with team engineers to devise a plan that would keep Dillon near the front after a round of scheduled green-flag pit stops, but the plan fell through when the pack of cars pitted a lap later than expected, leaving the No. 3 out of the all-important draft.
“There was a miscommunication with the spotter, because we wanted to pit with the Fords,” Chavka said. “The (Team) Penske cars acted like they were going to pit, but only five came down pit road.
“At this point, we’re thinking this is a bad position we’re in, we’ve lost the draft, but we kind of had to make it work.”
The game changed, however, when the caution flag waved for a spinning car. The yellow flag period would reset the field for a late restart. Prior to that, Dillon had been languishing in 13th place, over 30 seconds behind the race leader.
Now, the chance at victory was renewed.
“It was a game changer for us,” Chavka said.
Dillon took the restart in 10th place with seven laps to go and dodged another big crash, leaving him in fourth. From there, the race would be decided with a two-lap dash to the finish.
Back home in Hickory, Chuck and Jane were watching in amazement as their son’s team inched closer to winning the biggest race of all.
“It got down to the last few laps and who was sitting there pretty was that 3 car,” Chuck recalled. “That’s when you realize, these guys have a chance.”
Dillon positioned himself on the outside lane when the white flag flew, signaling the final lap. Dillon received a push from behind from the No. 43 car of Darrell Wallace, Jr., which gave him a shot of momentum at the race leader, Aric Almirola in the No. 10 car.
Push came to shove, and Almirola was sent spinning off the front bumper of Dillon.
“All I remember is the screen we were watching, which is the in-car (camera) of the 10,” Seth said. “He crashed and the screen went black. On the big TV, I saw us coming off (turn) 4,I started to think this is all happening.”
Jane said the family celebration was ramping up big time.
“We were just totally excited and pretty pumped up about the whole thing,” Jane recalled.
In the moments after winning, the entire No. 3 crew celebrated with their driver by taking a front-first slide in the tri-oval grass near the finish line. Chavka got to experience that, plus the emotions of victory lane, where he was doused in confetti and beer before getting his picture taken with the big trophy.
Once the craziness began settling down, Chavka checked in on his phone to see dozens of congratulatory text messages, including those from his family. He found a quiet spot to make a phone call.
“He was pretty shocked and surprised and thrilled,” Jane said. “He was still taking it all in. The 600 was the same way.
“He’s worked really hard and it’s been sheer hard work and total dedication to what he does.”
Looking to the future, Chavka said he does not have any concrete plans on where he could go in NASCAR, but reaching the position of crew chief on a Cup team is one goal.
“Again it goes back to working with a really good group of people,” he said. “I’ve had awesome opportunities so far.”
Chavka hasn’t made it back to Alaska since visiting in 2009, and said his life is firmly rooted in North Carolina, but hasn’t ruled out an overdue return visit to see old classmates.
“I hope to someday get back to Alaska, but I didn’t expect 10 years ago what I was setting off to,” Chavka said. “You work so hard to be with a group and organization, and that kind of is a cherry on top.
“It’s really satisfying to go out knowing you can go out and win a race.”