Bracing for Bristol: How Josh Wise taught drivers to ‘think about the dirt’

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Josh Wise is hoping the fruits of some unexpected labor will bear this weekend on Bristol’s dirt.

A NASCAR Cup Series driver from 2011-16, Wise now operates as a performance advisor to a coterie of Chevrolet drivers with varying experience levels. His weekly routine consists of analyzing data and evaluating driving decisions from the previous week’s race before moving ahead to the upcoming track.

For his younger clientele, like Sam Mayer, Raphaël Lessard and Sheldon Creed, he works to optimize burgeoning cognitive development, such as hand-eye coordination. For Kurt Busch, 42, he works to stave off physical decline. Drivers like Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, Alex Bowman and Ross Chastain utilize Wise to improve fitness and sharpen skills that have already formed.

But none of them have ever experienced Bristol on dirt, a curveball thrown at Wise by NASCAR.

“It’s tough because it’s one race,” Wise told NBC Sports. “We want to make sure we’re preparing for it, but also we’ve got a lot of other races to prepare for this year.”

When investing time and money into his performance program, Wise evaluates the cost benefit. As a response to the Cup Series road course schedule expanding from three races to seven, he hired former Formula One and NASCAR driver Scott Speed to assist him in the fine-tuning; however, with just one Cup Series dirt race, Wise realized the most cost-effective path: The 2005 USAC National Sprint Car Series champion and winner of the treacherous Belleville Midget Nationals strapped on his helmet and climbed behind the wheel of a dirt open-wheel car for the first time in 10 years.

Josh Wise and the Chevrolet drivers he works with at Millbridge Speedway. (Photo: Josh Wise)

“One thing I always try to do is that I want to know what they’re feeling,” said Wise, who brought the majority of his clients with him to Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, N.C. to take turns wheeling a micro sprint around the 1/6-mile dirt oval.

Seat time of any sort is a form of improvement prioritized by Wise.

“The biggest part of my philosophy is that there’s no training that we can do that’s better than driving a race car,” said Wise, who placed a few drivers in Ron Fellows’ Nevada-based road racing school three weeks ago.

“I love just diversification, an exposure to different types of cars … just trying to keep them in cars as much as possible and give them the feedback and tools and environment to be at their optimum.”

While drivers outside of Wise’s care have figured out different ways of acquainting themselves with the dirt atop Bristol’s half-mile track — seven Cup regulars were entered for Saturday’s Truck Series race — he believes there’s foundational growth to be had on any type of car at any type of dirt track.

“The thing that we’ve tried to do is get them exposure to dirt if they haven’t had it,” Wise said. “I’m not a believer that race cars create bad habits. I think we create our own habits.”

At Millbridge, there wasn’t concern over times on the stopwatch; repetitions on the dirt and an understanding of its finicky nature were paramount in Wise’s mentoring.

“We don’t really tell guys how to drive,” Wise said. “What I worked on, really with everything, and with this as well, is I want to help them understand how to think about the dirt and what to focus on.

“I brought up reading the dirt and that can be really important, right? As the lines transition, the track dries out, you’re going to change lanes a lot. You’re going to change your technique a lot and you’re going to change where you’re looking at how your hands are moving.

“They are great race car drivers and they can manage the technical aspects of that, but the kind of underbelly of that with how they’re thinking about applying those things is where we spend a little more time.”

Wise also kept a finger on the pulse of his drivers’ vibes. Skepticism has crept up among some of NASCAR’s top drivers, both publicly and privately, regarding their own efforts in the dirt race. Combatting that skepticism is a priority for Wise if it’s at all legitimate.

“I think a lot of great race car drivers have a tendency to be self-deprecating,” Wise said. “It’s an interesting trait that so many great drivers have, that they really downplay their abilities and their processes underlying those abilities. For the most part, that just helps them manage expectations.

“I know my guys well enough that unless I sense a genuine lack of confidence, then let’s figure out what we need to prepare or develop to help add some confidence in those areas. I think that (lack of) confidence is just when you don’t know what’s going to happen or you don’t know what to expect. If you go into a situation where you feel unprepared, you usually feel unconfident.”

The element of the unknown is big for this particular event. Prior to this year, Bristol hadn’t had a dirt race in nearly two decades; furthermore, 250 circuits on a half-mile track makes for a long, arduous event in which the final lap’s track surface is sure to look markedly different than it did before the first lap.

Wise realizes there could be situations pop up today for which he never planned his drivers; however, he believes they’ve been drilled well enough to embrace such changes to the dirt and adapt accordingly.

“How you account for that is you just don’t expect too much out of what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to evolve,” Wise said. “And that just goes back to having the processes in place.

“There’s just so many unknowns with this that, but it’s really similar to so many other races in that the guys can adapt to that and understand the fundamentals and manage this race. The best (at this) is probably going to surface towards the front at the end.”