SPORTS FEATURE: Driver's seat – Unlikely opportunity leads to Williams' NASCAR Cup Series debut as interim crew chief for Haley's No. 31 in Atlanta
The Courier Herald – March 26, 2022
A problematic situation for a prominent racing team led to a huge opportunity for a Laurens County native who made his debut helming a NASCAR Cup Series crew this past weekend in Atlanta.
Caleb Williams, a 2014 West Laurens graduate, served as the interim crew chief on the team of Justin Haley (No. 31) in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The 25-year-old Williams, son of Teresa Carroll-Drew, of Dublin, and Glenn Williams Jr., of East Dublin, is expected to remain in the temporary role through the next three Cup Series events as he fills in during a several-week suspension of the team's regular crew chief.
The circumstances of the vacancy were less than ideal for North Carolina-based Kaulig Motorsports and its Cup Series crew, which literally had a wheel fall off during the Daytona 500 last month.
The mishap, found to trace back to improper tire installation, led to a four-race ban for crew chief Trent Owens and two pit crewmen. Williams, who only this year began working as an engineer with the organization, was elevated from a position as part of a lower-circuit team to serve over the monthlong span as interim crew chief.
An unlikely candidate, he was selected for promotion because of his expertise with NASCAR's recently-implemented Next Gen chassis, which was originally the reason for his hire last November.
One of the features of this design, NASCAR's seventh-generation car rolled out this season, is centerlock hubs, known as "mono lugs," on which one central bolt replaces the traditional five that hold tires and rims onto their mounts.
The upsides of the change: Lighter weight, and that the process of getting tires off and on is much quicker, saving valuable seconds in the time-critical pitstops that take place multiple times per race.
But the main downside is that a single fastening carries no failsafe, as with the old fixtures, where having several bolts adequately tightened (another detail that consumes key time) can compensate for any issue getting one or two of the others on correctly.
An error, as the 31 team was among several in the car's first series of races to learn the hard way, can lead to drastic problems like the complete loss of a wheel.
The failure at Daytona led to an unscheduled caution, and after review, the suspension of Owens, along with two technicians, one who carried out the faulty wheel install and another operating the jack.
Enter Williams, who graduated Georgia Southern University with a mechanical engineering degree in 2020, and was only beginning his second full year working at the upper levels of stock car racing when this auspicious door opened.
He got into the technical side of the sport part-time, while working post-college jobs in the automotive and aerospace industries as well as in roles with Eagle Motorsports, a Society of Automotive Engineers chapter at Southern that builds and races specific types of cars, while still in school.
In 2020, Williams entered the industry full-time as a race engineer with Niece Motorsports, whose teams compete in the Camping World truck series.
But his familiarity with the concepts underlying NASCAR's Next Gen design, not two years later, led to an unexpected call, and opportunity, from Kaulig Racing, which owns cars running in both NASCAR's Cup (the 31 of Haley) and XFinity series (the 77 (XFinity) of Landon Cassill, who also races for Spire Motorsports at the Cup level part-time).
Hired in November, Williams was initially assigned for the new season to the team's main garage in North Carolina, where he oversaw setup of both its cup cars during the week, and on weekends traveled to serve as a tire technician for the Cassill car at XFinity races.
When it came to the Next Gen design, he was one of the most knowledgeable folks remaining in-house after the lost-tire penalty shelved Owens and the two crew members for four races, starting with last week's in Atlanta.
"I was most familiar with the car already, so they just decided to move me into that role," Williams said.
He was no stranger to the big-race atmosphere. After all, NASCAR's lower circuit events generally take place at the same tracks as the Cup Series races on Saturdays, though with fewer in attendance or in the TV audience than the big-ticket Sunday events.
But the experience associated with not only working a Sunday race for the first time, but also being the man in charge of the 31 team, was one he described as "surreal."
The majority of race-weekend responsibilities, beyond communication, logistics and other tasks unique to a crew chief, were ones he's handled many times before.
The biggest difference? The weight and pressure of the sport's highest level, and the added attention from hundreds of thousands in attendance, and many more watching or following through TV and media, was a major source of butterflies.
"It's like that's the majors," Williams said. "I can't compare anything in the past. It's hard to prepare for something like that... It's the biggest stage. Even though my role at the track was still more of a race engineer role, on paper it still was crew chief, so on paper, you're still responsible for everything. So had we had a wheel fall off or a safety violation occurred, it would've been on my shoulders."
The weekend started with a weather delay, preventing the team from even starting its work in the garage until Saturday morning.
Things didn't feel all that different, Williams said, until five minutes after getting to the track, he was approached by FOX NASCAR reporter Bob Pockrass, who had caught wind of his story, for a short interview.
Another highlight of the weekend came during the race on Sunday, when Haley's car moved toward the front of the pack, and briefly into the lead, when Mike Joy and the FOX Sports TV crew credited Williams and the rest of the shorthanded team for the day's strong performance. Despite a crash on the way across the line, Haley drove the 31 to its best finish all year, 11th overall.
Williams will be back leading the crew this weekend at Circuit of the Americas, in Austin, Texas, for the EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix, and is expected to serve the same interim role in the following two races. And it looks like he's joined Kaulig Racing's Cup Series team for the foreseeable future, as well.
When Owens resumes the crew chief role after his suspension, plans are for Williams to remain as the crew's primary race engineer.
"That seems to be the plan going forward," he said.
Because life so often tends to bring things full-circle, it was no surprise that Williams' crew-chiefing debut would come back in his home state.
"It kind of worked out just as a storybook kind of weekend, that being a home track, growing up going to races there," he said. "I had several family and friends in town for the weekend, and they were able to come and hang out with me. I told my mom that I hardly ate any food this weekend just because of the nerves. It's just the unknown. I knew I had done that role before, it's more of a race engineer role with the engineerign background, and you kind of know what to expect. But it's hard to prepare (for being there). It's the real deal."